(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

This collection of stories established Ann Beattie as one of the foremost voices of her generation and earned for her a reputation as a literary stylist. Her spare style suggests a sense of emptiness or absence that is also the subject of these stories, which deal with disintegrating relationships set within the context of the social changes and shifts in identity that came out of the 1960’s. All her characters are white, middle-class people from the East Coast who are past their youth. They are rudderless, drifting in and out of relationships, marriages, families, and jobs with an alienation that holds little promise.

Many of her characters are having tremendous difficulty in giving up their youthful, counterculture selves for a more adult identity. In the story “Winter: 1978,” for example, two successful baby boomers are overwhelmed when death and loss enter their lives for the first time. The story “Jacklighting” also features a group of friends who are beginning to lose their youth without gaining much in the way of wisdom or maturity. In many of Beattie’s stories, in fact, the principle of generation is subverted, with children assuming adult identities while their parents attempt to prolong their childhoods. In “Greenwich Time,” a too-adult child reads existential psychiatrist R. D. Laing and eats French food while his disoriented father looks for mothering from the child’s housekeeper. The title story concerns a weekend houseparty in which the all-male guests are portrayed as lost boys. The charmingly boyish husband in “The Cinderella Waltz” abandons his wife and his homosexual lover, and will eventually abandon his daughter. Abandonment is a strong theme in many of these stories. A story like “Playback” is typical in its portrayal of loneliness and loss. Often, high hopes for romance end in disillusionment, or, as in “Learning to Fall” and “Desire,” a woman continues to live with a man she no longer loves. Sometimes, as in “Sunshine and Shadow,” it is the man who can neither love nor leave. This theme of an emotional paralysis that freezes action and feeling is revisited in several other stories, such as “Waiting,” in which a detached approach to sadness and loss blunts the pain but drains life of any vitality. This “minimal self” has sometimes been linked to the contemporary personality disorder known as narcissism, in which a cool, poised, detached persona cannot cope with love or intimacy.

The Burning House Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Amy hosts a group of her husband’s friends who are visiting for the weekend. She is the only woman in the house, but Frank’s homosexual half brother, Freddy Fox, is her confidante and likes to help her in the kitchen. Freddy is already high on marijuana, however, and begins to flick ashes into the sauce that Amy is making. In the next room, her husband Frank, who does the books for Tucker’s art gallery in Soho, listens to jazz and rock music and to Tucker’s gossipy stories about artists and performers. Tucker seems to have picked up most of his stories in gay bars in Greenwich Village; Freddy suggests to Amy that there is a homosexual motive in Tucker’s choice of artists to show in his gallery. Much to his annoyance, Freddy himself becomes a topic of conversation; he has failed to finish college and now drifts from one anonymous sexual relationship to another. After dinner, Amy catches Freddy up on a secret that they share, namely that she knows that Frank is having an affair with a woman named Natalie. When Amy’s young son Mark, who is on an overnight visit with a neighboring child, wants to come home, Amy senses that her child’s anxiety is a reaction to Frank’s affair, which has made him cold and unavailable.

While Amy washes the dinner dishes, J. D., who was once Frank’s college adviser, appears at the kitchen window wearing a goat mask, frightening Amy into dropping a glass and cutting herself. J. D., who has lost his way, found the mask in a Goodwill bin. His late arrival for dinner adds to the offbeat and disorderly atmosphere. Having abandoned teaching in despair after his wife and son...

(The entire section is 663 words.)