Ann Beattie Essay - Beattie, Ann (Vol. 8)

Beattie, Ann (Vol. 8)

Beattie, Ann 1947–

American novelist and short story writer, Beattie is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her stories and her novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, are concerned primarily with the fortunes of the Woodstock generation in the spiritless seventies.

If the non sequitur were an art form, then Ann Beattie, author of [Chilly Scenes of Winter, a] novel and [Distortions, a] collection of short stories, would be its matron saint. "Matron" seems apt, whatever Beattie's age, and no matter that both books are firsts, since her style effectively girdles any youthful awkwardness, bulging hyperboles, and the passion that might redeem both.

Her taste for the non sequitur, with its lack of logical causation, lends itself to the creation of characters whose behavior is not conventionally or even recognizably motivated….

The characters in both the novel and stories are fleshed out (or, rather, painted by number) in a collection of disjointed details, so that, although they are sometimes intriguingly eccentric, they lack an emotional core. Childhood histories, kinship patterns, recipes, and tastes in pop music do not necessarily add up to anyone we care about or remember.

Chapters and stories seem equally fragmented. We get glimpses of odd, painful, or potentially humorous patterns. But instead of mining her own offbeat sensibility, the author scurries off to a safer ground of more facts.

Beattie's most successful stories are those that deal with the directly bizarre: … these stories have an emotional resonance and a sense of direction and completion that the other, more episodic stories lack.

Beattie has an instinct for the grotesque that verges on the edge of real wit and pain. She is obviously a first-rate craftswoman with an eye for idiosyncratic detail. I only hope that in her future work she will not keep her instincts and characters so much under glass. (p. 37)

Susan Horowitz, in Saturday Review (© 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 7, 1976.

As gratified readers of "The New Yorker" know, Ann Beattie is the best new writer to come down that particular pike since Donald Barthelme….

She combines a remarkable array of technical skills with material of wide popular appeal. Her characters inhabit our drab contemporary worlds and brood like us about their lovers, families, politicians and lives. They range from barely mobile children to the barely mobile elderly; bright and limited, educated and not, male and female, stoned and straight, exuberant and dogged, they compose a wide-screen panorama of Life in These United States.

Traditionally the novel has relied on action spun out and woven into a plot, complete with beginning and end. Little in our own lives corresponds to this orderliness, and our own sensibilities are seldom so goal-oriented, except in supermarkets. Beattie understands and dramatizes our formlessness. She is especially the artist of situations, not plots, and her novel ["Chilly Scenes of Winter"] is an excellent example of this predilection…. (p. 14)

Beattie renews for us the commonplaces of the lonesome lover and the life of quiet desperation…. The novel's major theme … is not waiting for an answer or Laura or love, but waiting itself, wistful anticipation, life unfulfilled and yearning. Immersing us in specificity, Beattie makes us feel these generalities on our pulse.

But "Chilly Scenes" is also the funniest novel of unhappy yearning that one could imagine. Funnier. It is continually, inventively and perceptively humorous, both in what it reports and in the quietly elegant shape of its reporting…. (pp. 14, 18)

[There are] moments, with their texture of sadness and comedy, [that] evoke our own lives directly, with none of the fashionable evasions of symbolism; they imply that life signifies, perhaps, but only in the sense that "there's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will." (p. 18)

J. D. O'Hara, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 15, 1976.

After a slow start Anne Beattie's novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, warms up to give us a serious portrait of the generation just entering its thirties, the group left aimless and despondent by the fizzling out of the flaming causes of the '60s…. Beattie's novel allows us to see them in depth and with sympathy.

Beattie deftly allows Charles [the protagonist] and his companions to grow into the full humanity they share with the rest of us, and even leads Charles to a surprisingly happy ending. He deserves it, we feel, just as we deserve more novels by Annie Beattie.

By contrast, Distortions, Beattie's collection of stories, is disappointing. The word "scenes" would perhaps be more apt here than in the title of her novel, since that is all we are given—a series of static scenes, humorless still-lifes of people who do not have any meaningful connections to humanity and who do not move, feel or grow.

The stylistic excellence of her writing is undeniable, but Beattie is unable to make us feel any empathy for most of the characters in Distortions—perhaps because they are too self-absorbed to feel any for each other. Unattached to the past, looking forward to no future, they live only in the present (in which tense most of the stories are written), captured like creatures in amber and clearly going nowhere. The distortions Beattie presents as characters … have no meaningful relationships with other people, and no resemblance to any people most of us have known. There is, therefore, no reason for us to want to establish a relationship with them.

The best story in the collection, "Hale Hardy and the Amazing Animal Woman," may be taken as a metaphor for the bleak message of all the rest. Young Hale Hardy is obsessed with visiting the Grand Canyon—but not alone. He must have a female companion. Significantly, any female will do. The cruelty he exhibits (and does not feel) in tricking his Amazing Animal Woman into accompanying him is felt by us, for she is not the animal he perceives her to be, but a very human woman indeed. And once Hardy reaches his goal and stares into it, the abyss of the canyon is a precise mirror-image of the vast emptiness inside him—and inside too many of the other people in Beattie's stories.

Kristin Hunter, "Where Have All the Passions Gone?" in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 3, 1976, p. F5.

Ann Beattie's first novel, "Chilly Scenes of Winter" … thaws quite beautifully; our first impression, of a pale blank prose wherein events ramify with the random precision of snow-ferns on a winter window, yields, in the second half, to a keen warmth of identification with the hero, Charles, and an ardent admiration of the author's cool powers. Miss Beattie, as readers of her short stories know, works at an unforced pace. Her details—which include the lyrics of the songs her characters overhear on the radio and the recipes of the rather junky food they eat—calmly accrue; her dialogue trails down the pages with an uncanny fidelity to the low-level heartbreaks behind the banal; her resolutely unmetaphorical style builds around us a maze of familiar truths that nevertheless has something airy, eerie, and in the end lovely about it. Her America is like the America one pieces together from the National Enquirers that her characters read—a land of pathetic monstrosities, of pain clothed in clichés, of extraterrestrial trivia. Things happen "out there," and their vibes haunt the dreary "here" we all inhabit….

[All characters] … are exquisitely modulated studies in vacancy, and grow on the reader like moss. At first, Miss Beattie's unblinking sentences, simple declarative in form and present in tense, remind one of Richard Estes' neorealist street scenes, which render with a Flemish fineness the crassest dreck of our commercial avenues, omitting no detail save pedestrians. After some pages, her tableaux seem more like Segal's plaster-bandage sculptures, their literal lifelikeness magically muffled in utter whiteness. But then color steals into the cheeks of her personae, a timid Wyeth sort of color at first, the first flush of our caring, and this color deepens, so that her portraits at last appear as alive, as likely to make us laugh and cry, as any being composed in these thin-blooded times. (p. 164)

If the moral limbo of this book has an angel in it, it is Joplin; the characters' tenebrous values point backward to her, to the time of violent feeling and communal ecstasy. The novel's literary patron saint, though, is all fifties: J. D. Salinger….

Miss Beattie seems to feel sorry for this whole decade. Her range of empathy is broad and even lusty…. And she succeeds in showing love from the male point of view, not in its well-publicized sexual dimension but in the pastel spectrum of nostalgia, daydream, and sentimental longing. The accretion of plain lived moments, Miss Beattie has discovered, like Virginia Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute before her, is sentiment's very method; grain by grain the hours and days of fictional lives invest themselves with weight. (p. 166)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 29, 1976.

It's been a popular notion that those white, middle-class males who came of age in the late 1960s would have a hard time finding a witty, sympathetic fictional prototype for the same reason they've produced so few good stand-up comics: they took themselves and their generation far too seriously and they preferred "vibes" to words. (How do you make literary pungence from the worship of Jerry Garcia and Hermann Hesse?) And, as anguished as they were by the Vietnam draft, their mantle of Suffered Irony was turned around by the Women's Movement. So how do you convey these young men's romantic confusion and cuckoldry without an implicit "Aha! He deserved it!" (p. 45)

I was waiting for [someone] to write what it was really like to graduate from college and find only clerk and salesmen jobs available; for these young men to love women too busy with other missions to love them back; and to wistfully replay 10-year-old Dylan cuts the way generations of disillusioned ex-frat boys before had reveled in old football victories.

Then I read Chilly Scenes of Winter and found that a 28-year-old woman, Ann Beattie, had assumed the task of locating this turn-of-the-decade hero and had performed it with sublime wit and humanity. (pp. 45-6)

Beattie's wit keeps … obvious symbols from being mere "things-were-so-much-better-then" clichés. And her ability to put compassion and intelligence in the most offhand, shrugging dialogue keeps [Charles, her protagonist,] from becoming just one more New Lost Generation melancholic.

Rather, through Charles's dignified vulnerability, his equal measures of earnestness and cynicism, and his tender friendship with Sam, Beattie has written a very sophisticated valentine to those young men who happened upon adulthood at a time when Love was all over postage stamps and placards and rock stations but was just about to be withdrawn by the culture, the economy, and the women they had innocently come to take for granted.

In Distortions, a collection of 19 of Beattie's short stories …, we meet the supporting players in Charles's America. Like ensemble actors in a blackout revue, different characters often wear the same names from story to story. And, diverse as they are, they all echo the same bewilderment at having a complaint without a clear reason or target.

Beattie understands that members of the Baby Boom/Youth Culture Generation have had the dubious privilege of being able to carry their childhoods on their backs. As young adults, her characters are still playing Cowboys and Indians and yearning for a simpler, sterner era without so many oppressive choices. (pp. 46-7)

Ann Beattie knows that while automation and conformity were the banes of a previous age, freedom and self-expression—the next age's remedies—have proved to be no less paralyzing. Satirically, sadly, and truthfully, she writes of familiar fights against the damning arbitrariness of our charmed post-industrial lives. (p. 47)

Sheila Weller, "A Valentine to the Guys Who Grew Up In the '60s," in Ms. (© 1976 Ms. Magazine Corp.), December, 1976, pp. 45-7.

[Ann Beattie's] subject matter is a certain shiftlessness and lack of self-apprehension besetting people in their twenties and thirties…. She conveys the drabness of these lives by her tone and by an almost hallucinatory particularity of detail. We are taken on that round of grocery shopping, walking the dog, getting the worthless car fixed, which Auden had in mind when he said that "in headaches and in worry, / Vaguely life leaks away." But Beattie's writing is not tedious; there is, instead, something graceful and painstaking about her fidelity to the ordinary. (pp. 62-3)

[In "Imagined Scenes," from Distortions, we] guess at the "real facts" of the woman's life because we care about her, her sadness has been made significant. It follows that the author has cared about her in the making. But then it is more astonishing to perceive that the woman cares so little, so indistinctly, for herself. She is not suspicious, she has no imagination; the mark of Beattie's respect for this creation is not to have slipped her some healthy suspicion, as it were, under the counter. In this forbearance the writer resembles some impossible ideal of a loving parent who succeeds in not interfering in her children's lives. To love one's characters—Tolstoy is the presiding genius here—is to allow them to be who they are.

A risk of a particular kind attends this achievement and Beattie is not immune to it. The style of much "serious fiction" in recent years has tended to be cool, to attend scrupulously to the surface of events, with a language pruned and polished in respect of its own surface. Now Beattie's writing has something in common with this style: her sentences are often plain, flat, their grammar exposed like the lighting fixtures in avant-garde furniture boutiques, and the effect is at first wearying. Only later does the sympathetic center of her work betray itself. We may feel misled by the outward reserve, but, again, her willingness to distort when necessary, her passion for the particular, is ultimately an index of her concern for the integrity of things and people in themselves.

Many of the people in [Distortions and Chilly Scenes of Winter] verge on the grotesque…. Here, too, Beattie risks a convergence with her slicker contemporaries, whose fascination with the grotesque is full of smugness about what is "normal." (Beattie herself invokes the photographs of Diane Arbus in several places, but I for one have never quite decided what Arbus's relation to her subjects really was.) There is a dog in Chilly Scenes of Winter who is a good example of Beattie's success with the grotesque. The dog is purchased to replace an entirely admirable dog who has died of old age, much mourned. But the new dog is ugly—part dachshund, part cocker spaniel—as well as hapless and insomniac. And yet, the people around him feel the dog must be fed and must not be compared to his predecessor; at night, his audible perambulations must be endured. Because, "terrible genetic mistake" that he is, the dog, named "Dog," is real and undeniable. He is part of that world of fact that Beattie honors almost compulsively, whatever its unwelcomeness or distortion.

The central figure of the novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, is a young man named Charles, whose quality of self-ignorance is Beattie's fullest, most intelligent image. He does not know that he is smart, and apparently does not wish to know it, because he has chosen to work in a government office where his abilities are irrelevant. He does not know that he is kind: his many services to others are unmarked by signs of sympathy, generosity, concern, or liking; he is made dizzy by his sister's assertion that he is good. His knowledge that he is unhappy is merely circumstantial. Approaching thirty, he has come to terms with none of the absurd relationships that comprise his life…. Charles's only workable relationship is with his friend Sam, his constant companion, who is present on nearly every page. It is significant that Sam as portrayed by Beattie is dull, shapeless, unrealized. His friendship with Charles is at once blank and affectionate. Its very existence is capable of surprising them, when they must notice it…. (pp. 63-4)

Charles and Sam know nothing, in fact, about the causes of their loneliness except the details of the pleasureless routine it imposes upon them. Charles is forever gazing hungrily into a cupboard bare of anything except Tuna Stretcher and a jar of pickles, forever wondering at the existential courage of people who do all their shopping on one day for the week ahead…. Charles's eye for detail reflects the paradox of Beattie's own: a passive accuracy of observation masks an active, unsettling distrust of what one sees.

[There is] one aspect of Ann Beattie's writing that seems to me regrettable. Charles's mother's baths, his own baths, his sister's showers; Sam's car, Pete's car; dogs and cats; medical references, doctors, disease—all these constitute what used to be called "motifs" or images. Details drifting from person to person, thing to thing, they bend too steadily and purposefully toward significance, betraying an obtrusive self-consciousness about craft which is rather rare in Beattie's work. This seems to me directly at odds with the vitality of her talent, her capacity to conjure the independence and actuality of things.

Given her particular subject matter, it hardly seems necessary to underline Beattie's pertinence to the present cultural-political pass. In Chilly Scenes of Winter, in the story "Fancy Flights" [from Distortions], and elsewhere, our attention is called to a contemporary pathos whose effects few have yet begun to gauge: the sadness over the passing of the 60's. It is by no means necessary to feel this nostalgia in order to ponder its importance. Let me say at once that Beattie herself does not seem sad. Some reviewers have referred to the image in "Fancy Flights" of an exhippie locked in his bathroom, smoking dope and talking to his daughter's bunny rabbit….

But the reviewers have failed to remark that this is one of Beattie's only unsympathetic portraits, the only one of her protagonists she doesn't like.

Charles's lament for the passing of the 60's, which is more to the point, occurs in abrupt, anxious seizures of lostness and bewilderment. "Elvis Presley is forty," he says. "Jim Morrison's widow is dead." The tone is that same tone in which he laments the waning quality of Hydrox cookies: "What happened to them? They used to be so good. Sugar. No doubt they're leaving out sugar." It is witty of Beattie to confine the sociological import of her novel to such trivial remarks. She conveys adroitly the sensibility of After-the-Fall, without making fictive claims for the heights from which we fell. The Golden Age mythology and its attendant rhetoric will inevitably attach, for a while, to talk about the 60's. This represents, of course, a historical distortion, matched in its badness of fit only by the myth that the New Left was the Antichrist. Beattie's presentation of Charles's nostalgia for the 60's suggests that such longing has the limits of an elegy to lost innocence, and the advantages, too. It distorts, but it also provides, however disingenuously, the idea that things can be better than they are, because they have been better before now. As usual, the prospects for hope seem to depend upon some degree of mystification. (p. 64)

John Romano, "Ann Beattie & the 60's" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1977 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, February, 1977, pp. 62-4.

[An] attentiveness to ordinary human encounters distinguishes Ann Beattie's Chilly Scenes of Winter, a fine first novel which records the reluctant passage into adulthood of a twenty-seven-year-old survivor of the Woodstock generation. The novel incorporates characters and situations Beattie had treated earlier in her New Yorker stories, nineteen of which have been gathered under the title Distortions and released as a companion to the novel. But the novel is a more interesting and significant performance, richer in psychological nuance and in documentary power. Though there are many isolated passages in Distortions that exhibit Beattie's descriptive care and her talent for truthful dialogue, only one of the stories, "Snake's Shoes," has the sustained authority of the novel. One reason for the novel's superiority is that it is less tendentious than the stories, less confined by neo-absurdist attitudes toward contemporary experience. The novel is thus less somber than the stories and registers on every page a lively, generous alertness to the antic or comic in human relations. The characters in Chilly Scenes are respected more consistently than their counterparts in the stories, and although their vivid idiosyncrasies are always comically before us, what is odd or distinctive in their behavior belongs to their personalities, is rooted in Beattie's powers of observation and dramatic representation. Too often in the stories, in contrast, one feels the pressure of a surrealist program, the influence of Barthelme and Pynchon, behind the author's choice of details or in the often schematic resolution of her plots.

Chilly Scenes is written in the present tense and relies heavily on dialogue and on a purified declarative prose not unlike good Hemingway, but much funnier. This disciplined young novelist takes care to differentiate even her minor characters, and one of her most memorable cameo players declares herself only as a voice through the telephone—a nervous, guilty mother trying to trace her wayfaring daughter in two brief conversations that momentarily distract the protagonist during this final winter of his prolonged adolescence. The hero himself is wonderfully alive: a gentle bewildered man, extravagantly loyal to old friends and to the songs of the 'sixties, drifting through a final nostalgia for the mythologies of adversary selfhood he absorbed in college and toward an embarrassed recognition of his hunger for such ordinary adventures as marriage and fatherhood. The unillusioned tenderness that informs Beattie's portrait of her central character is a rare act of intelligence and mimetic art. (pp. 585-86)

David Thorburn, in The Yale Review (© 1977 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1977.