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The Visions of Ann Beattie

Distortions

by Ann Beattie
Vintage, 283 pp., $19.00 (paper)

Perfect Recall

by Ann Beattie
Scribner, 347 pp., $12.00 (paper)
orourke_1-071411.jpg
Dominique Nabokov
Ann Beattie, New York City, 2010

Ann Beattie published her first story in The New Yorker, “A Platonic Relationship”—about a woman who has left her husband in search of “a better world” only to discover that she is afraid of sleeping alone—on April 8, 1974, at the age of twenty-six. The story was praised on its acceptance by the magazine’s fiction editor, Roger Angell, for its extraordinary “sparsity.” In it, Ellen has separated from her husband after taking night classes at the university. She finds a roommate, Sam, a passive type to whom she grows more and more attached—if only platonically—until Sam abruptly informs Ellen that he is leaving to “see the country.” Ellen subsequently gets back together with her husband, but this development is described so tersely you could almost miss it; their reunion seems to make little emotional difference to her.

At the story’s close, while driving to the grocery store with her husband, she seems to imagine herself riding off on a motorcycle with Sam. The ending feels almost arbitrary and anti- climactic—and yet somehow the story’s refusal to find a tidy conclusion was a source of its peculiar power. It is up to us to infer that Ellen craves independence but doesn’t know how to live without a man.

Over the next two years alone, Beattie published eight stories in the magazine—a remarkable accomplishment for a fiction writer so young, since The New Yorker, then as now, was perhaps the most sought-after home for short fiction. Beattie’s pieces didn’t resemble most other New Yorker stories. They avoided dramatic confrontations and extended examination of their characters’ inner lives. They had almost no imagery and rarely used elegant metaphors; they were not propelled by event, but by omission and jump cuts. Little “happened” in a traditional sense. In “Fancy Flights,” a man separates from his wife and smokes a lot of hash while house-sitting. In “Snakes’ Shoes,” four characters have a conversation on a rock about snakes. But in their understated way the stories captured fleeting moments of loss. When Beattie first met John Updike, he told her, “You figured out how to write an entirely different kind of story.”

By the time Beattie published her first books, Distortions (a short story collection) and Chilly Scenes of Winter (a novel), in 1976, she had earned a reputation as a virtuosic chronicler of the zeitgeist—an unparalleled portraitist of disaffected upper-middle-class youth coming of age in the 1970s. She was heralded for her new, terse, emotionally cool style. Her deft ironies powerfully captured the skeptical mood of her peers, leading critics to talk of a “Beattie Generation.” By 1980, Beattie was one of the few working writers—Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion also come to mind—recognizable to strangers on the street.

Today, even though she has continued to write and publish steadily—since 1976, she has written sixteen books, including eight story collections, seven novels (the best-known may be Picturing Will, 1990), and one novella—Beattie’s cultural reach has vastly diminished. While she continues to be studied in MFA programs, the author who once epitomized early-career success is no longer a household name. Certainly, no one speaks of a Beattie Generation anymore. Critics have busied themselves asking why, but the question pigeonholes Beattie’s work by holding it accountable for being sociologically “representative.” Beattie herself always objected to the critical focus on her as the voice of a generation, telling Joyce Maynard in The New York Times in 1980 that reading a writer through this lens was “pretty reductive.”

The publication of The New Yorker Stories—which comprises the forty-eight stories she published in the magazine between 1974 and 2006 and contains much of her best work—invites us to look again at Beattie’s career and reminds us of the ways she expanded the scope of the American short story.1 Beattie was, by temperament, always more of a short story writer than a novelist. She has said that she writes in an improvisatory manner, drawing on the songs and objects around her as “found art” and exploring their associative qualities. (As you might imagine, this technique wears thin in a work of any length.) The New Yorker Stories shows that the conventional view of Beattie’s career has obscured her more notable achievements, overemphasizing her role as a spokesperson of a generation and underplaying the steady evolution of her complex, idiosyncratic style.

Reading the earliest pieces in The New Yorker Stories—those published in her books Distortions and Secrets and Surprises (1978)—it is not difficult to see why readers and critics saw the young Beattie as a literary ambassador of the baby boomers. They were the people she wrote about, in a way that seemed clued-in (tossed-off references to Jules and Jim, Mick Jagger, Fritz Perls, “blues,” “reds,” and the plot of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays are vital to the texture of her work) and strangely mature for an author so young. She was immersed in her generation, yet also had a critical distance from what she saw as its precious nostalgia for the 1960s. Many of her characters, like Sam and Charles in Chilly Scenes of Winter, already seem to feel, in their late twenties, that the best years of their lives have passed. After receiving a Christmas letter from a couple explaining that they recently broke up, Sam implores Charles, “Isn’t anybody happy? Or even sane?” When Charles’s upbeat, effective younger sister accuses the two friends of being depressed, Sam retorts, “You’d be depressed too, if you felt the way I do.” Beattie’s position toward her generation’s nostalgia was lightly satirical yet also sympathetic, and it resonated.2

From the start, Beattie masterfully depicted the fraying relationships that were becoming increasingly common in the post-Woodstock generation: seeking sexual liberation and drawn to the rhetoric of second-wave feminism, her characters divorce, separate, and take up with new partners, aimlessly looking for “a better world” and never finding it. “Are you happy?… Because if you’re happy I’ll leave you alone,” a man says to his older brother, who is about to get married, in “Dwarf House.” To the degree that Beattie’s stories had a plot, it often concerned people breaking up and finding new partners. In “Vermont,” a woman whose husband has left her takes up with a neighbor, Noel, whose wife has left him; she doesn’t love him but he doesn’t care. “Next, Noel will ask me to marry him. He is trying to trap me. Worse, he is not trying to trap me but only wants me to move in so we can save money.”

Beattie brought a dry wit to her descriptions of her characters’ romantic tribulations. “Plant dead, wife gone, Michael still has his dog and his grandmother”—this is how Beattie introduces the directionless main character of “Fancy Flights,” one of her finest stories. Having separated from his wife, who thinks he does too many drugs, Michael is

living in a house that belongs to some friends named Prudence and Richard. They have gone to Manila. Michael doesn’t have to pay any rent—just the heat and electricity bills. Since he never turns a light on, the bill will be small. And on nights when he smokes hash he turns the heat down to fifty-five. He does this gradually….

As the story progresses, Michael ends up finding his way back to his wife, Elsa, but Beattie makes it clear that their relationship might sour again. Michael, who is supposed to be looking after his daughter and her friend, has gone to the bathroom to get stoned when his wife comes home:

When he hears Elsa come in, he leaves the bathroom and goes into the hall and puts his arms around her…. Mick Jagger sings to him: “All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke…”
“Elsa,” he says, “what are your dreams?”
“That your dealer will die,” she says.

It is the surface pleasures of the language and the tart charge of her dialogue that sets the story apart.

Beattie’s strongest work—the short stories “Vermont,” “Fancy Flights,” “Weekend,” “Colorado,” “A Vintage Thunderbird,” for example—subtly captures the broader social upheaval of the 1970s. Her early characters have rejected the traditional bourgeois values of having a family and owning a home, yet they have also rejected the revolutionary idealism of the 1960s counterculture, and it is not clear what is left for them. They believe in neither conventional models nor radical dreams. In “Colorado” (published in 1976), Robert and Penelope are friends who have no sense of vision for their lives; Robert has dropped out of Yale art school, in New Haven, and Penelope is a former model who’s just left her boyfriend and is searching for a better place to live. Robert pines after Penelope, but his adoration is so passive that the reader is never sure what he wants, or whether he has any hope of being loved in return. “Although he couldn’t understand what went on in her head, he was full of factual information about her,” Beattie observes drily. Penelope occupies herself with waiting for something to happen:

“I know it’s going to be great in Colorado,” Penelope says. “This is the first time in years I’ve been sure something is going to work out. It’s the first time I’ve been sure that doing something was worth it.”
“But why Colorado?” he says.
“We can go skiing. Or we could just ride the lift all day, look down on all that beautiful snow.”
He does not want to pin her down or diminish her enthusiasm.

Penelope wants to flee the East Coast establishment, and yet doesn’t know what she’s looking for: a hero? a husband? or good old American freedom? For Beattie’s characters (unlike, say, Fitzgerald’s or even Hemingway’s) the dream is never really in focus; it’s fogged over by marijuana clouds. When Robert and Penelope finally get to Colorado, there’s no frontier, no beautiful snow, no “lift” (real or metaphorical)—just their friends Bea and Matthew, who are on the verge of breaking up and squabbling over who gets to keep the dog. (In these stories, the most optimistic relationships young people have are with their dogs; it is onto the dogs that all hopeful emotion is displaced.) At the story’s end, Robert, high on pot, asks Matthew, “What state is this?” “Are you kidding?” Matthew asks in response. “Colorado.” In her endings, Beattie mines double entendres for all they are worth. We hear the metaphysical secondary meaning of “state,” and we hear, too, that there’s nothing larger than geography here. Colorado isn’t a new home, or a stand-in for happiness, or any other state of being; it’s just Colorado.

But Beattie’s real accomplishment was not just to capture a generational mood but also to find a fresh way of shaping stories. Most of her stories are what we call an “ensemble piece” in film or theater—typically, no single character is more important than the others. Her main characters, often women, seem almost numbed or distracted by their immediate situation (preparing for a big dinner party, in “The Burning House,” or energetically pretending her older writer-partner isn’t sleeping with his former students, in “Weekend”), an attitude that allows Beattie to focus on what goes on between people rather than inside them, even when she is writing in the first person. She is less interested in exploring interior psychology than in dramatizing the unpredictability of group interactions; the stories move in unorthodox ways, flitting back and forth, sustaining a flashback for three pages of a six-page story.

  1. 1

    The book was conceived not by the editors of The New Yorker, as the title might suggest, but by Beattie herself. As she explained to The Paris Review, she saw a copy of Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx in the bookstores and learned from it that she’d published thirty-five stories in the magazine over one ten-year period. It occurred to her that collecting them might be a good idea. See “The Art of Fiction No. 209,” The Paris Review, Spring 2011. 

  2. 2

    See Jay McInerney, “Hello to All That,” The New York Times, June 4, 2010. In this review of Beattie’s novella Walks With Men, McInerney recalled that when he arrived in New York in 1980, Beattie was one of the two most influential writers at work. (Raymond Carver was the other.) “Just as an earlier generation used to read Hemingway in part to learn what to drink and where to travel, we read Beattie in part to learn what to listen to and read and what to wear,” he observed. 

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