One thing that this collection of short stories by Ann Beattie makes it possible to do is imagine your way into the head of a New Yorker fiction editor at the moment of discovery. Roger Angell turned down more than a dozen stories sent to the magazine over 22 months by a very young Beattie, who was then in the process of dropping out of a graduate English program. But he wrote encouraging rejections ("I hope you will let us see more of your work, and that you will address your future submissions directly to me") and finally accepted "A Platonic Relationship" ("What I like most about the story is its sparsity. Almost everything except the essential has been done away with, leaving one with the vision of a Giacometti"). The story was published on April 8, 1974, when Beattie was 26 years old. Reading it all these years later, you may have to work a little to pick up the electrical currents pulsing beneath its dry, self-contained surface — Beattie’s style wasn’t called "minimalist" for nothing — but if you do, you will see some of what Angell must have seen.
The story’s protagonist, Ellen, has left her "lawyer husband and almost-paid-for house" to become a teacher. But she doesn’t fit in with the other teachers; her students laugh at her; and her husband refuses to go along with her urge to fight with him and instead helps her find a new place to live, "an older house . . . with splintery floors that had to be covered with rugs." In short, separation from her husband does not make life self-evidently better for Ellen, and in some ways it makes things worse. Into this life comes a male college-student roommate named Sam — the relationship is platonic, she tells her husband — and though at first Sam is so passive he’s almost creepy, soon she realizes that his calmness keeps everyone around him calm, including her. She comes to rely on him. Then, one day, Sam tells Ellen he’s not happy.
Remember, it’s 1974. Ellen is acting on the imperative to self-actualize that is fast becoming the norm for women her age. Instead of happiness, however, she finds a different kind of misery, then an even freer spirit than herself, then the experience of having him do to her what she must have done to her husband. Beattie was simultaneously reporting on and satirizing her generation. She understood its elaborate alienation and self-pity; she heard, beneath the jaded, post-1960s self-mockery, the hope that nontraditional lifestyle choices were still viable, and the fear that they weren’t. She knew how to work these complicated sentiments into light, easy dialogue. And she was able to deflate the pretensions of her peers with a wit so laconic it was practically unnoticeable. Angell must have been beside himself.
Beattie’s next story, "Fancy Flights," was published in The New Yorker six months later, and it featured Michael, an amiable stoner indifferent to material possessions whose self-absorption and childishness take on the dimensions of an American tall tale. How self-absorbed is Michael? "You walk out on your wife and daughter, then call because you’re lonesome," his wife points out. Actually, he says, it’s because his dog ran away: "I really love that dog." What about their daughter? his wife asks. "I don’t know. I’d like to care," he replies. How childish is Michael? He brags to his daughter that he lives off his grandmother, who sends him money: "Daddy doesn’t want to work."
And on Beattie goes, publishing one wry story after another in the welcoming pages of The New Yorker (three stories in 1974, five in 1975, four in 1976, and so on); she becomes so intimately associated with the magazine that people begin to talk of a New Yorker school of short fiction, with her as its exemplar. Characters and situations we have come to think of as Beattiesque keep arriving on stage. The lonely wife or fiancée makes her first appearance, flailing and hapless, in "Wolf Dreams" (Nov. 11, 1974); its protagonist is a young woman who means to lose weight so she can marry her boyfriend, whom she doesn’t seem to love, but instead loses herself in fantasy while scooping up cheddar cheese dip with potato chips. The characteristic Beattie family, an eclectic half-divorced, half-gotten-back-together mix of friends and exes, makes its debut in "Snakes’ Shoes" (March 3, 1975).
One of Beattie’s great strengths is the party scene, whose supply of hilariously random remarks and anthropologically interesting actions she exploits to paint Bruegel-like group portraits of an apparently grotesque age. The stories in which she sustains a party scene for the duration are, I think, my favorites. In "The Lawn Party" (July 5, 1976), a man has lost his right arm in a car accident that occurred because his wife’s sister, with whom he was having an affair, drove their car off the road. She was killed — she may have meant to kill them both — and his wife has left him. Unrepentant, bitter, boorish, funny, he has installed himself in his childhood bedroom in Connecticut and refuses to come downstairs for a flag-waving Fourth of July party. Instead, he hosts a counterparty in which refugees from the celebration on the lawn come up and entertain him. One of these is his brother’s wife, a Frenchwoman. In what is unaccountably one of the sexiest back-room scenes I’ve ever read, she unstraps her sandals upon request and lets him kiss her "beautiful round feet."
What you learn when you read the works of the young Ann Beattie is that she loved men. She was an appreciator, a connoisseur, of men, in all their indefensible glory. Her male characters are often awful and usually irresponsible and almost always funny and touching. Those who become husbands are sure to leave. They will be replaced by gay men who become friends (friendship, in Beattie’s world, is a more solid relationship than marriage) or by younger straight men who will become lovers and afford their partners a brief respite from loneliness, the way a moment in a poem can divert you from a grim reality. One gives his older lover a jar full of lightning bugs. Sometimes Beattie’s men are obsessed with gorgeous, flighty women, as in one of her best stories, "Colorado" (March 15, 1976), about a woman who drags her puppyish boyfriend from Connecticut to Colorado for no good reason, as if to destroy him. Beattie may love these men even more than the other, irresponsible kind; she loves their forbearance, their masochism, their obsessions.Beattie eventually loses some of the gleefulness that animated her skewering; the works of the mature writer feel, on the whole, less fresh. Partly this is an effect of her success, which by the 1980s had spawned many imitators, some of them published in The New Yorker. But partly it is because the stories stop seeming funny and start seeming grim. As Beattie’s protagonists acquire children and suburban homes, the stakes rise. It is a given that couples will fall out of love and separate — that happens in the back story. The question is how they’ll accommodate to the aftermath, what kind of provisional families they’ll cobble together. The best of the suburban stories end with a flash of nutty optimism, a fleeting possibility of grace, all the more precious for having been exposed in advance as unsustainable. But the unsustainability is what you can’t stop thinking about. Now there are children to be considered; their pain is so real it must actually be spoken, and the uttering of feelings weakens the disciplined reticence that made Beattie’s best writing so evocative. "I think that’s nonsense," a girl flatly tells her father in "Afloat" (Sept. 21, 1981), except that she uses a stronger word than "nonsense." He has been trying to give his side of the family history, in which he divorced her mother. "Today she’s angry and alone," the girl’s stepmother observes, "and I float between them knowing exactly how each one feels."
Besides, Reagan had been elected, and as we know now with the unfair wisdom of hindsight, his presidency presaged a social counterrevolution whose followers would reveal themselves to be decidedly uncharmed by Beattie’s kind of people, these dithering, flighty survivors of the 1970s. They had been marginalized, and they didn’t know it yet. The marginalized are usually ideal subjects for short stories, since the story is itself a marginalized genre, but it’s not clear to me that Beattie grasped how marginalized her characters had become, or was able to achieve critical distance from their plight. We sense that their lives have turned sour, and that they spin their wheels, but the prose in which their thoughts are couched seems slack and tired rather than precise in its anatomy of paralysis. "Lately, things didn’t seem funny enough to play off of," a character thinks in "That Last Odd Day in L.A." (April 15, 2001). "Everything just seemed weird and sad."
In the past decade Beattie’s short fiction has either begun to come back to life, or her New Yorker editors are being more discerning in their selections. "The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation" (April 12, 2004), a story about a woman dealing with her mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s, has enough wit and charge to it to make up for decades of enervation. The mother mistakes a Sony Walkman for a Greek fisherman’s cap. She thinks that her 40-something son is still 10, and that her late husband had a secret second family. Beattie coolly milks the mother’s confusion for comic potential — is that her hospital roommate or a Thanksgiving turkey? — and for the insight that the passage of time and degeneration of the brain make unwitting poets of us all: "Maybe you couldn’t understand how we’d all aged, so you invented us again as young people," the narrator tells her mother. "You said the other wife looked like you. Well, maybe she was you." And maybe, if we’re lucky, being old in our time will continue to seem as new and absurd to the older Beattie as being young in the ’70s seemed to the younger one.
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