Only Disconnect

Picturing Will

by Ann Beattie
Random House, 230 pp., $18.95

Ann Beattie’s reputation as the cool portraitist of an affluent, disaffected group of baby boomers is by now so well established that barely anyone challenges it, except Ann Beattie. A decade ago Joyce Maynard asked her whether she “agreed that her writing chronicled, perhaps for the first time, a particular countercultural world.” Beattie replied, “I’ve gotten very hostile to that response to my work.”* Yet the stories and novels she has steadily produced since then have continued to invite such readings. In her characteristically deadpan prose crowded with up-to-date details, she has kept up with her familiar cast of laid-back characters who came of age in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Just that talent for disjointed documentary has obscured Beattie’s aspiration to do more than mirror the malaise of a generation of Americans distinguished by their inability to connect—with themselves, with each other, with work, even with pleasure. With characters so convincingly lacking in spirit, it has been natural to assume that her real subject is the spirit of the time: she has been our expert at taking the weak pulse of the anticlimactic Seventies and the soulless Eighties.

Picturing Will, Beattie’s fourth novel, set mostly in 1989, looks at once like a new installment of her generational chronicle. In their late thirties and early forties, all of the four main adult characters are veterans of post-1960s diffidence. At a muddled moment in her life, Jody literally stumbled into marriage to Wayne, good-looking, rootless, and restless (the heel of her shoe snapped, he paused to help, etc.). After an unplanned baby was born, Wayne disappeared, leaving Jody to fend for herself and the child. She rose to the challenge, tending the baby and supporting herself as a wedding photographer in Charlottesville while taking other pictures on her own.

As the novel opens Jody is once again at an indecisive point in her life: she is vacillating about committing herself to Mel, who manages a New York art gallery and is devoted to her, to her artistic talent, and to her son, Will, now five years old. Though Mel has a guiding purpose, plotting to win Jody as a wife and to get his boss to stage her debut as a serious photographer, he too has been at loose ends. He dropped out of business school and started a novel, which he never finished. (Mel’s literary ambition now takes the form of journal entries about the dilemmas of child rearing, which are inserted in italics throughout the book.)

Meanwhile, Wayne, the quintessential drifter, has ended up in Florida working for a lawn and landscaping service, and is already feeling hemmed in by his fourth wife, Corky, a straightforward, lower-middle-class woman eager to have a baby. At the center stands Will, both at the mercy of the grown-ups and an innocently clear-eyed judge of them. Though children are comparatively rare in Beattie’s world of untethered adults, when they appear they often play a version of this role: ten-year-old John Joel in Falling in Place (1980) is the most vulnerable victim of his parents’ confusion.

The stage seems set for another pointillist report on baby-boom drift, but the end of the Eighties here inspires something new: the drama centers on professional-class anxieties about balancing kids and careers. Jody and Mel no longer lead undirected lives with tenuous commitments. They have discovered the pressures of ambition, and have to confront the limits of their solicitude toward a child. The novel raises questions that Beattie’s previous characters might have thought hopelessly conventional: Will they get married? Will Jody make it in her artistic career? Will Mel take over as Will’s father? The answer to all, clear from the outset, is even more old-fashioned: yes.

Beattie also ventures into unfamiliar, blue-collar territory, where domestic life has a more familiar dead-end shape. Wayne loses his job, Corky loses Wayne, and they don’t have a child. But here, too, the story has more to do with the pull of commitment than with the drift away from it.

Not surprisingly a different light ends up falling on children. Will is the victim less of adults’ disillusionment and confusion than of their illusions about the clarity of their course. Despite their plans for success and stability, neither Jody nor Mel really knows how to make a secure place for Will in their lives. For all her solicitude toward the boy, neither does Corky. Though Wayne’s evasion of responsibility is the most overt betrayal of Will, his deep fear of the child’s fragility may be the most honest response of them all:

He did not ever again want to look in a rearview mirror to check the expression on his child’s face as he drove along… You could pull over and check a million times, if you let yourself. The motion of the car would put the child to sleep. The child, asleep, might be dead.

But it isn’t just a fear of capricious accident that lurks in this novel, as it has in Beattie’s previous fiction. The rudimentary action in Picturing Will revolves around the shocking intrusion of malignity into Will’s life. While Jody is in New York preparing for her debut as a photographer, Mel drives Will to Florida to visit Wayne and Corky, an innocent trip that turns sinister when Mel’s unsavory boss, Haveabud (his real name is Haverford: that’s Jody’s idea of a joke), invites himself along. Nobody blinks when he brings a young boy, Spencer, in whom he clearly has an unhealthy interest. (Since Haveabud is key to Mel and Jody’s plans, they can’t afford to scrutinize him too closely.) When the four stop at a motel Will is a bewildered witness to a disturbing sexual encounter between Haveabud and Spencer, while Mel sleeps soundly in the next room: “Haveabud was on his knees, and this time he was licking Spencer’s nipples,” and the graphic scene continues. It seems not just that adults can’t protect Will, but that they are all unwittingly complicit in his corruption.

Beattie’s title begs for a metaphorical reading and calls attention to her unifying, highly uncharacteristic theme: her novel aims to explore the complicated ways of the will—that faculty so largely underdeveloped in most of her novels and stories, with their shapeless structures and aimless characters. The new novel is a departure from the almost documentary style of the past, but it falls short of a more fully imagined psychological drama. Much as Beattie’s disjointed manner has reflected her theme of missed connections and listlessness before, here, too, the approach seems to match the subject. From a writer whose prose has been so spontaneous and whose composition so casual, Picturing Will seems curiously schematic and—well, willed.

The issue of artistic control is raised by Jody early on, as she contemplates her photographic career, and it is relevant to the novel as well. Jody has so far made her way by trusting her instincts and by specializing in quick intimacy with her subjects, much as Beattie has done. In her “serious” work, Jody is more self-conscious about posing her material, although she still strives for spontaneity, which she acknowledges is elusive:

You could know the routine, use the right exposure, compose perfectly, but still—the photographs that really worked transcended what you expected, however certain the result may have seemed at the time.

Even her most promising shots can turn lifeless: “The best of them were synergistic, or they didn’t work at all except as well-composed arty photographs.”

It’s precisely such synergy that is missing from Picturing Will, well composed though it is. Beattie’s jumpy sociological realist style here is considerably refined. The cultural landscape is less cultured than before, the litany of brand names and popular songs less intrusive. The disjointed manner—flat, short sentences; inconclusive dialogue; abrupt openings and jagged ends; rapid cross-cutting between characters and objects, foreground and background, interior and exterior—has been smoothed out. The characters, whom John Updike once aptly described as “not so much round or flat…as on or off,” are no longer flickering collections of features. Instead a conventional narrator sketches in their pasts and even their futures. (The last section jumps ahead two decades, when Jody is a famous artist and Will is grown and a parent himself, having apparently survived his childhood.)

But the portraits end up studiously posed. The counterpoint between Jody and Mel’s situation and Corky and Wayne’s is more representative than real: the parents, Jody and Wayne, are remote from their child for selfish reasons and uninterested in having more children. Childless Mel and Corky are tirelessly attentive out of selflessness and insecurity. Oddly enough, it is Jody and Mel, characters more recognizable from Beattie’s other work, who never quite come into focus. Both seem blurred by fantasy. Jody is at first romanticized as a single mother: “When Will was a baby she had held him in her arms and taken him for walks. If he couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t sleep”—an ordinary parental routine treated as a feat of empathy. At the end she becomes another fantasy, an egocentric celebrity:

The house is often filled with adoring acolytes or journalists who stay an extra hour or an extra day, during which time everything goes off the record and they hear Jody’s version of how she became so successful.

The path in between, which might be interesting or at least more complicated, is elided.

Mel—endlessly thoughtful, gentle, patient (as Jody becomes the busy star, he steps in as the model parent)—is equally umeal. His journal entries are the only clue to the man beneath the accommodating surface, and it’s impossible to know whether to take his lamely lyrical ruminations straight. His wisdom on bedtime:

We are all vulnerable to darkness and to silence. Yet something has to be imagined. Something has to be said. In the dark room, every night, our last whispered words are always—and only—“Good night.”

Amid the pieties, Will’s trauma in the motel room as he watches Haveabud and Spencer looks like a moment that fulfills Jody’s dictum and “transcends what you expected.” But in fact the sudden entrance of evil is as staged as some of Jody’s famous pictures, which sound more melodramatic than synergistic. The photograph that gets pride of place at her first show is of a woman standing on a dark road, stunned after a car accident on the way home from a Halloween party, a full moon and a costumed ghost behind her. Young Will perched on the bed, stunned as the fondling beside him becomes more urgent, seems, like that ghost, a prop placed amid sensationally ominous forces.

Wayne and Corky promise to introduce some hard-won realism: in blue-collar lives, the ways of the will are presumably not so susceptible to glamorizing. And Beattie does focus more carefully here, occasionally rendering moments of life and poignancy—capturing, for example, the deep pessimism that lies behind Corky’s earnest efforts to “[make] everything all right in her mind”:

She always said yes reflexively when Wayne said the sunset was beautiful. There was no reason for him to know that she was avoiding looking at it, or that evening, so exhilarating for most people, made her sad because the enormousness of the sky made it clear that she was only a speck, a mortal speck, and that everything might end before she had what she wanted.

And Wayne is a potentially interesting variation on Beattie’s more refined disaffected characters: his sense of failed promise has bred class resentment, not just private resignation. But a tone of condescension tends to undermine his complexity. Wayne’s sense of entrapment is quickly reduced to sexual terms. “I could have fucked your mother if I’d wanted to,” he thinks when the son of a rich client challenges his right to swim in her pool while she’s away:

See? Wayne thought. You get those big-buck guys, they leave you sitting in the sun like you were a piece of tumbleweed on the desert. You think rich people have good family lives? Her husband’s always in New York, and she wants to fuck the guy, who’s planting bushes on the hillside, and her own son didn’t know she was in another city when he stopped by. You think that was his wife in the car? A wife with white boots who calls him honey?

Wayne responds to his sense of victimization by sleeping around. His conquests are tediously chronicled (the explicit sex scenes follow the pulp formula: “Their bodies locked together, fast,” then lots of panting and pushing). He successfully conceals them, until one affair implicates him in drug dealing. The police link him to boxes of cocaine in a girlfriend’s abandoned rental car, about which in fact he knows nothing. The cops come for Wayne, while Will, just out of his bath, watches forlornly from the window: it is another trauma of betrayal, and another scene that struggles to meet Jody’s aesthetic test of revelatory surprise and fails.

But Picturing Will, with its unsettling view of the part the will plays in family life, does suggest a new perspective in Beattie’s fiction. Domestic life seems daunting. Once left largely to nature, having a baby now increasingly entails a deliberate effort. (Part of Corky’s strategy to get Wayne in the mood is the perfect emblem of the demystification and choice involved: she leaves out a pamphlet called “What is Amniocentesis?”) At the same time, raising a child, which once seemed to involve choice and control, is much less predictable, more dependent on fate. That is the gist of Mel’s diary of stepfatherhood. (“Do everything right, all the time, and the child will prosper. It’s as simple as that, except for fate, luck, heredity, chance….”)

In fact, the fate of the family—in particular, uncertainty about having children—has been an underlying preoccupation of Beattie’s fiction, easily overlooked given her reputation as the ironic social chronicler of rudderless times. In retrospect the leitmotif of childless women, parentless children, miscarriages that runs through her work—hovering in the background or coming to the surface in brief moments of pathos—may come closer to revealing the heart of her characters’ diffidence than all the cultural clutter.

Everybody’s so pathetic. What is it? Is it just the end of the Sixties?” asks a character in Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976). The question echoes clearly in Beattie’s first two collections of stories, Distortions (1976) and Secrets and Surprises (1979), and lingers in her second novel, Falling in Place. But the truth is, Beattie has never suggested that the answer is yes, it is just the end of the Sixties. Her fiction has caught a mood of disillusioned lethargy but has never directly linked it to the end of the decade, however easy it has been—for characters and readers alike—to assume that postadolescent drift has reflected post-Vietnam drift. At their best, her stories document the enervating hold that nostalgia for the old days has on characters who were not activists, or even rebels, only muddled kids whose experience on the fringe made their own personal crises more confused and prolonged.

In the ever briefer stories of disenchantment collected in The Burning House and Where You’ll Find Me (1986), it is increasingly hard to remember what the characters’ disaffection is supposed to be about. And unexpectedly, Love Always (1985), a sendup of the clever, unhappy staff at a clever, supposedly funny magazine devoted to personal fulfillment, can be read as making just that point. Beattie’s satire implicitly questions her generation’s privileged sense of its distinctive malaise by serving up parodies of itself.

The source of the characters’ drift, it was becoming clear, was perhaps more personal than social, more natural than cultural. Beattie’s subplot in Love Always, about a TV soap opera called “Passionate Intensity,” starring the niece of a writer at the magazine, points to an important theme. The show is a reproductive melodrama about infertility, corrective surgery, miscarriages, affairs, abortions, orphans, and its lurid entanglements serve as a counterpoint to the sophistication of the childless, heartless “family” at the magazine. More clearly than her previous fiction, Love Always suggests a private source of her characters’ disorientation about the present and future—deep ambivalence about having children.

Most of the time, doubts about parenthood are only implicit. In fact, skirting questions about family has until now been a specialty of Beattie’s characters, suspended as they are in a limbo between youth and maturity, trapped by self-involvement, skittish about lasting entanglements. Those who want a child—like Corky and Mel in Picturing Will—seem pitiful in their earnest exertions. Those who don’t want children often seem disoriented, not quite sure what they might be missing. Childless Lucy Spenser in Love Always is anxious, but doesn’t dare question her predicament too deeply:

Some days Lucy felt as embarrassed not to have a baby in this town as she had felt in high school when everybody else had a little ladybug pin on the collar of her blouse. It was as though the rest of the world paid attention to detail, lived by it, and she was the outsider, not bonded to anyone by any discernible symbol.

Loneliness and liberation have never been far apart in Beattie’s fiction. In the story “Summer People,” in Where You’ll Find Me, the link is explicit between the characters’ unanchored lives, her diffident fictional style, and their confusion about children. Tom and his wife, Jo, have agreed they won’t have a baby, but he has reason to think she may have changed her mind, and for a moment changes his:

He wondered if Jo was pregnant…. For a second, he wanted them all to be transformed into characters in one of those [eighteenth-century] novels she had read all summer. That way, the uncertainty would end. Henry Fielding would simply step in and predict the future. The author could tell him what it would be like, what would happen, if he had to try, another time, to love somebody.

That is the kind of authorial control that Beattie, until Picturing Will, has rejected, leaving her characters to float without direction or attachment. Her new novel aims at greater certainty. But as the characters try to break out of their barren worlds, their efforts come to seem acts more of duty than of discovery.

  1. *

    Interview with Joyce Maynard in The New York Times Book Review, May 11, 1980.