Beattie, Ann 1947–
American novelist and short story writer, Beattie is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her fiction is concerned primarily with the fortunes of the Woodstock generation in the spiritless seventies. (See also CLC, Vol. 8.)
In this new book of stories, Secrets and Surprises, Beattie imagines a very real world of people trapped in relationships that don't work. Resignation is everybody's modus operandi, a spiritual routine that gets them from one day to the next….
Secrets and Surprises represents a great leap forward for Beattie. This new collection recognizes that the more interesting distortions are those which blend inconspicuously into our lives so as to be almost invisible. But nonetheless powerful. (p. E1)
Her novel [Chilly Scenes of Winter] can be read as a story about people and what they do when they find themselves outside of a relationship, but living in the pull of its force. These new stories complement that vision. They represent the other side of things: what happens when people are attached, involved with each other. What happens, of course, is love.
But love, in Ann Beattie's new stories, comes in a wealth of shapes and sizes. And the varieties of love are not all wonderful. Some versions are horrible. And sometimes the horror is civilized, even sophisticated.
Her characters are most often intelligent, educated, white, middle-class Americans in their late twenties. They have survived the social turbulence of the '60s only to find themselves confused by the emotional turbulence of the '70s. "Normal" family life seems a hair's breadth away in Beattie's stories: couples (if they have been married at all) are...
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The characters who populate [Secrets and Surprises] came of age during the 1960's. They are, on the whole, a nice-looking bunch of people who have never suffered from any of the basic wants. Most of them, for reasons often unexplained, share a mistrust of passion and conversation. If a man and woman get together, it is because of a shared car or animal, or because each has a famous parent, or maybe simply because one of them has run out of other people to live with; and, even when they live together, they speak in cool little ironies or deadpan non sequiturs. They live in student apartments in Boston or New Haven, or young-married or young-career quarters in Philadelphia or Manhattan, or sometimes a group of them share a house in Vermont; but they exist mainly in a stateless realm of indecision and—all too often—rather smug despair….
Frequently, in these stories, things are substitutes for the chancier commitment to people; things people buy or live with or give one another are asked to bear the responsibility of objective correlatives, but too often they become a mere catalogue of trends. The reader is left holding an armful of objects and wondering what emotional responses they were meant to connect him with.
Perhaps the best level on which to enjoy these stories is as a narrative form of social history. Miss Beattie has a cooly accurate eye for the moeurs of her generation…. But a sharp eye...
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The people in Ann Beattie's second book of stories, Secrets and Surprises … have gone beyond anger into numbness. As were the protagonists of her first collection, Distortions, they are generally in their mid-'30s; some of them are parents; all of them share disquietingly sophomoric tastes and desires. They listen to Bob Dylan or Keith Jarrett, display vaguely artistic interests and get stoned a lot. They are by and large unlikable, albeit not uninteresting, and even, on occasion, touching. The predominant mood, dire enervation, is oddly contagious.
Beattie has been polishing her style of mannered naturalism for some time now, and it is beginning to show signs of wear. One can discern in her work traces of the repressed poignancy of J. D. Salinger, to whom she has been compared. But Beattie's method—her painstakingly accurate rendition of the commonplace, her reliance upon the artifacts of popular culture (Perry Mason, Newsweek, Notorious)—reminds me not so much of other writers as of the sculptor Duane Hanson, who uses wax to capture grubby likenesses—waitresses, construction workers and museum guards. While seldom grubby, her characters are fixed by a similar eye for homely detail, and the deliberate flatness of her prose imparts an almost tactile quality to the narrative.
Most of these stories feature couples in various stages of mutual unrelatedness…. In one piece ("A Reasonable...
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Secrets and surprises might seem like unexpected specialties for Ann Beattie. In the pages of The New Yorker and of her two previous books—Distortions … and Chilly Scenes of Winter …—she anatomizes the everyday lives of characters who are headed nowhere in particular and are unfamiliar with the usual literary kind of secrets and surprises—the kind associated with epiphanies. But as Beattie has hinted all along and emphasizes in [Secrets and Surprises], hidden knowledge and unexpected discoveries are also staples of ordinary, undramatic life. They don't just belong to rare moments, and they don't necessarily irradiate life with significance. Her characters are lonely and can't help having secrets; they are used to being taken aback by the unexpected because they foresee little and control less. Their lives don't really change after they acknowledge their secrets to themselves or partially reveal them to others. Instead, another disorderly day dawns. In the appropriately uninflected prose and loosely structured stories of Secrets and Surprises Beattie makes the days and characters come to life—almost paradoxically—more powerfully and poignantly than she has before. (p. 34)
Beattie's central theme is one that calls for variations; for the relationships she describes are distinguished by seeming—at least to those involved in them—not to follow any standard pattern. Commitments are unclear, expectations unformulated and communications faulty. Beattie imagines variations in all their minute particularity in her stories; and this collection of them conveys an often dispiriting sense of the common underlying muddle. (p. 35)
There is a lot of disquieting, empty space in these stories—in the characters' heads and hearts and in the holes between characters.
But Beattie sees more than blankness. The secret she shares with us in acutely captured moments and carefully recorded details is of the unobtrusive but crucial presence of generous impulses and good intentions in lives that are lonely and undirected, in friendships that are full of ignorance and confusion. And at a time when hopelessness and bleak isolation are assumed in much fiction—and are never very far from her own—that is a surprise. (p. 36)
Ann Hulbert, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 20, 1979.
Beginning to read [Secrets and Surprises] is like going out alone into the night in the country: it's very dark, and the flashlight doesn't seem to illuminate much. Single objects—a car, a dog—loom up with uncanny significance. Familiar things look strange, one-dimensional. There are barely audible rustlings in the undergrowth which could mean anything, or nothing. It is very quiet.
But gradually one becomes accustomed to the faint light and realizes that there is more going on in these spare tales than first meets the eye. Although the men and women Ann Beattie writes about are well endowed with cars and dogs—and histories, and homes, and "relationships"—their most compelling feature is the profound anomie that darkens their lives…. Action is the result of chance; will is discomfiting; passion is terrifying.
The unrelieved passivity of these characters might seem repellent, but Beattie is skillful at provoking our interest in them. Personality glints off their most trivial actions, and a stubborn refusal to give in (to whom? to what?) lies behind their lethargy. A tightly controlled, monochromatic prose gives these portraits the revealing clarity of photographs. (pp. 132-33)
E. S. Duvall, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1979.