Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3332
Critic Christina Murphy has called Beattie a neorealist who uses an equivocal voice. Unlike the univocal narrator, the equivocal narrator does not offer the reader a particular perspective or interpretation; the equivocal narrator simply offers accumulated detail. Therefore, readers must approach Beattie’s works actively—they must be acutely aware of Beattie’s fine distinctions of character and circumstance.
Critics do not challenge Beattie’s characters’ credibility; an occasional critic, however, challenges her interest in her milieu. If many of Beattie’s characters closely resemble a select segment of her generation’s college graduates, some certainly do not. “Dwarf House,” one of the short stories in Distortions, provides one example. Unlike his self-pitying mother, his confused brother, and several other miserable characters outside the Dwarf House, James accepts his physical limitations and his options realistically. Although he must stand on a chair to meet people of normal height eye to eye, he has found work, friendship, and love. James can be happy.
Even before she gave readers a small clue to her complex irony and seeming detachment by using as her copyright “Irony and Pity, Inc.,” Beattie revealed an extraordinary understanding of human personality and the dynamics of human relationships. Engaging readers by forcing them to verify behavior and events with their own experiences before they can understand her fiction seems to be Beattie’s technique. The reader need not be as nonjudgmental as Beattie seems to be.
Most of Beattie’s characters are engaged in some kind of struggle for happiness. Often they are self-alienated. A great number of characters in Distortions seem to think and function inappropriately; they are doomed to struggle and fail. None of the lovers in “Four Stories About Lovers” seems happy; few are faithful. “The Lifeguard” is the story of the drowning of four children whose boat is set afire by one who has brought along gasoline.
It is only those characters like the dwarf James and his bride in “Dwarf House” who may love and marry in anything near ecstasy. There is some gift in a capacity for love. Sam, in “Snakes’ Shoes” in the same collection, can help the child of estranged parents by using the magic of imagination and love to transform antagonists into friends. Like Sam and James, Noel in “Vermont” empathically consoles the narrator when her husband leaves her. “You’re better off,” he reassures her, and she is certainly better off when Noel is ready to love her. A young Georgetown student, Sam, in “A Platonic Relationship,” can give Ellen, a music teacher, a fulfilling, if not a permanent or conventional, relationship.
In the collection titled Secrets and Surprises, the struggles continue. For the main character in “Shifting,” for example, happiness is synonymous with independent movement and eventual sexual freedom. In The Burning House, several key characters learn to recognize their own pain, a certain requisite to alleviation of suffering. In those instances they are far more aware of the reality of their own experience than are all the characters in Falling in Place, who probably terrify more than one reader (and critic) by their disengagement.
In more recent writing, such as Where You’ll Find Me, a short-story collection, and Picturing Will, a novel, Beattie retains her equivocal narrative stance, but her important characters show courage in finding and losing love; they act as foils distinguishing responsible nurturing from wanton irresponsibility in their behavior.
First published: 1975 (collected in Distortions, 1976)
Type of work: Short story
A dwarf and his new bride seem to have found the happiness that eludes the “normal” members of his family.
“Dwarf House,” which first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, was included in the first collection of Beattie’s short stories, Distortions, the following year. Because in this story James and his bride, both little people, are the only characters to have found happiness, Beattie seems to pose a question about the essentials for contentment. In contrast to James and his bride-to-be, MacDonald, the so-called normal brother, returns from a visit to the “dwarf house” (inhabited by one of his brothers, several other dwarves, and a giant) to report to his self-pitying mother not only that James refuses to return to the home of his previous misery but also that James is working, he is in love, and he plans to be married. When MacDonald telephones his own wife from his office with the usual “late-night meeting” excuse, after which he takes his secretary for a drink, he discovers that more things are askew. His secretary manages to smile only with the help of drugs, and she has recently had an abortion.
When the family assembles for James’s wedding, the minister releases a bird from its cage to symbolize “the new freedom of marriage and the ascension of the spirit.” This is marvelously apt, for the bride’s true radiance challenges all the “normal” characters—MacDonald, his wife, MacDonald and James’s mother—to a painful awareness, but only if they can perceive it.
First published: 1975 (collected in Distortions, 1976)
Type of work: Short story
A woman whose husband has just left her ponders whether she loves a male friend enough to move in with him.
In “Vermont,” characters in a typical Beattie milieu are revealed in intimate relationships. Noel, whose wife, Susan, has finally had to tell him that she has been having an affair, comforts the narrator when her own husband, David, announces his imminent departure. Although Beattie seldom describes her characters physically, Noel, the more generous and understanding lover, appears to be physically awkward and unattractive compared with David, who, early in the story, pities Noel for his “poor miserable pajamas.”
Noel tells the narrator that she “will be better off” without David, and he does his best to take David’s place as a friend and a father to her young daughter. When he eventually suggests that she and her daughter move in with him, she considers and finally protests that she cannot say that she loves him. He answers, “Nobody has ever loved me and nobody ever will. What have I got to lose?” If the narrator really does not love him, however, she has much to lose. When she later reveals that she has been considering his comment carefully, possibly because she does not find him unlovable (and cannot accept the bleak outlook he has for himself), he comments, “Well, I’ve told you about every woman I ever slept with. Which one do you suspect might love me?” They are speaking by telephone, and the narrator whispers to herself, “Me!”
David appears again at the story’s end to visit his former wife and his daughter and to reveal the extent of his confusion in his current relationship; he is not happy with his new girlfriend.
First published: 1978 (collected in Secrets and Surprises, 1978)
Type of work: Short story
A teenage boy teaches a woman married to a controlling husband how to shift.
“Shifting,” in the collection Secrets and Surprises, is about the focal character’s need for emotional change as well as her means of finding it: being taught to drive a standard transmission Volvo by a teenager who likes and perhaps understands her.
Natalie is in a bind: She has a rigid, controlling husband who does not even laugh at her jokes. Although both she and her husband have agreed to sell the old Volvo left to them by Natalie’s uncle, she puts prospective buyers off and secretly learns to drive the car. Sharing her husband’s car has been too restrictive.
Michael is a local teenager who delivers the evening newspaper to the old lady next door and is puzzled that Natalie’s husband has not taken the trouble to teach his wife to “shift.” Telling her, “You can decide what it’s worth when you’ve learned,” he charges her four dollars after her fourth and final lesson. She has allowed him, not herself, to assess a value for her lessons. Natalie finds the money she gave him neatly folded on the floor mat when she returns to the car two hours after entering Michael’s house for a drink: Shifting need not apply exclusively to driving.
“Learning to Fall”
First published: 1979 (collected in The Burning House, 1982)
Type of work: Short story
Ruth, a single parent, and a friend of hers contemplating a new relationship are both learning that grace is an aspect of courage.
Characters in two of the short stories in The Burning House represent definitive types that appear in Beattie’s novels. Ruth in “Learning to Fall,” the collection’s first story, is a loving, nurturing, single parent and friend. She is “learning to fall”—literally, in a dance class, but figuratively as well—to accept the inevitable. Her husband left her while she was pregnant, and her lover admires her but does not want any of the responsibility of Ruth, whose son, Andrew, was damaged in the process of being born.
The narrator of the story, a friend of Ruth, has a sometime lover, Ray, who visits with Andrew and the narrator, showing great gentleness to the two; they regularly take the excursion to New York so that Ruth can entertain her lover in Westport. In a restaurant with Andrew and the narrator, Ray patiently tries to help Andrew locate his gloves. When all three leave the restaurant to return to the street, the narrator sees herself with Ray and Andrew and imagines the possibility of the inevitable relationship. Perhaps she is falling. She decides that at least she can be like her friend Ruth and “aim for grace.”
In “The Burning House,” the title story of the collection in which “Learning to Fall” appears, there is a character who may be called a second definitive type. Frank behaves in a way that suggests to the narrator, his wife, that her frustrating marriage is deteriorating. Frank has made the important decisions: He has even “chosen the house,” and the house is burning. In the final scene, with the couple in bed, Frank delivers to his wife what some critics have recognized as the ultimate insult—his conception of the difference between the sexes:Men think they’re Spiderman and Buck Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you don’t feel? That we’re going to the stars. . . . I’m looking down on all this from space. . . . I’m already gone.
Falling in Place
First published: 1980
Type of work: Novel
A frustrated teacher of summer school gets to know an unhappy family in which the father and mother are separated and the young son wounds his sister with a gun.
In Greek myth, Icarus’s exuberantly beating wings hurl him toward the sun, where they melt, and he plunges to his death in the sea. The Icarian figure adorning the cover of Falling in Place suggests the downside of youthful aspiration; the major characters in Falling in Place do not take control of their lives. Instead, they seem to fall numbly into place through indirection.
Of all the major characters in the novel, only Cynthia Forrest seems fully aware of how disappointing she finds her own life. From her standpoint, she is wasting a very good mind trying to teach summer-school students about literature. Perhaps ironically, her students dub her “Lost-in-the-Forrest”; from their standpoint, the name is apt. Cynthia does not usually concern herself with students as individuals, and she is using an anthology of excerpts, so the literature may seem unreal and the students’ personal experience irrelevant. The students’ welfare does not seem to be a concern for Cynthia. She becomes involved with one student, Mary, only when Mary’s father, John Knapp, expresses concern about Mary’s summer-school work and makes a date to talk to her teacher.
The conference between parent and teacher is not without some sexual overtones, and it takes place in a restaurant. If Mary’s welfare is really at issue here, it is lost in the dynamics of multiple protocols: the protocol of the business lunch, the protocol of the relationship between parent and teacher, and the unstated protocol between a young, attractive woman and an ostensibly successful man.
The summer-school class has disturbed Cynthia. One of her common nightmares, dreamed often after teaching, is that she is falling. Cynthia (realistically) believes that she is not reaching her students. She does not seem to realize that she has failed to help them link literature to their lives. The best Cynthia can do is to keep herself minimally functional. Her own love life is disappointing until the very end of the novel, when her whimsical, immature lover, Spangle, returns from Madrid, where he had rescued his wayward brother, and New York, where he failed to rekindle an old flame.
Most of the characters in Falling in Place are dying in their tracks. At the instigation of a friend who has proved himself monstrous in many respects, John Knapp’s ten-year-old son, John Joel, shoots his sister Mary. He had not known the gun was loaded.
John Knapp has been living with his mother in Rye, New York, where he is close to work and to his mistress, Nina. The family remains in Connecticut to be visited on weekends. The youngest of the Knapp children was brought to his paternal grandmother’s house to cheer her when the family first learned that she may have cancer. Louise, who is John’s wife and the children’s mother, did not attempt to keep her child. She even relinquishes John Joel after the shooting, and she accepts her divorce from John with philosophical stoicism.
The one time the readers see Louise in close contact with one of her children is when she takes John Joel berry-picking and picnicking. On that occasion, Louise and John Joel speak of intimate things. Included in the heavy baggage that John Joel needs to unload is the revelation that his friend Parker has found his mother’s diaphragm and put a pinhole in it. Parker is hardly a good friend for John Joel, but there are no others available; Mary does not have a choice of friends either. Except for one unsatisfactory friend each, the Knapp children are alienated from other kids. The shooting, although it is technically an accident, is the climax of a great deal of mutual hostility.
John Knapp is having an affair with Nina, who not very much older than his daughter. She is stronger than he is in many ways, but she is dissatisfied with her job, as well as her home—a small, womblike apartment, where John feels safe and she feels cramped. Nina cannot understand how John can be materially rich and yet so dissatisfied. Nina believes that money will make her happy.
By the novel’s end, John Knapp has left his family to be with Nina, John Joel has joined his baby brother at their grandmother’s house, Louise is helping Mary recover, and Cynthia is greeted by the returned Spangle. No problems have been resolved, and it is not likely that anybody will be very happy. On the very last page of the novel, however, there is an upbeat answer to what seems to be a trivial question. Greeted by her old boyfriend, Spangle, and hearing about his brother’s lost keys and money, Cynthia asks what was wished for when everything was thrown into the fountain. Spangle’s answer is, “The usual, I guess.”
First published: 1989
Type of work: Novel
A photographer whose husband has left her raises her son, Will; the reader learns that her second husband, Mel, is the most nurturing “parent” in the novel.
Will’s mother, Jody, is a professional photographer; the novel’s title is eventually seen to be both apt and ironic. Human growth certainly requires love and devotion more than it does the commercial virtues of glitz and promotion. In the opening chapter of the section, titled “Mother,” the reader is told, “Only a baby—someone who truly needed her care—could have made [Jody] rise to the occasion” when Wayne leaves her. Jody does become a famous and gifted photographer who shows extraordinary insight, a sense of drama, and an unusual capacity for composition. She is a successful wedding photographer as well. It is significant, however, that the picture of Will that she carries with her is actually rubbed out and almost indecipherable; the real picture is an internal one. It is with intuitive accuracy that Jody chooses the right community for her early success, the suitable parent (not the biological one) for her son, and the agent who (though a child molester) successfully promotes her artistic career. In this novel, one good apple, Mel, the adoptive father, decontaminates the bunch.
If petty, vain, irresponsible men are unfit fathers, then Wayne has done both his wife and son the greatest service by abandoning them. Originally having met Jody by accident, Wayne is incapable of growth: “Wayne read books—not to expand his horizons . . . but to reinforce the limits of what he believed.” Wayne finds purpose neither in work nor in close, trusting relationships.
The final portion of the novel describes Wayne’s life: his relationship with his third wife, his attitude toward his male coworkers and bar chums, and his affairs with other women. He is “lucky” with other women, but he otherwise feels sorry for himself. His resentment of Jody’s refusal to have an abortion and his consequent resentment of Will is made clear in his relationship with Will when he visits with him in Florida. Corky, Wayne’s third wife, and Zeke, his work associate, are far more supportive and nurturing of Will than is Wayne.
Wayne’s affairs are given sexually explicit treatment—unusual in Beattie’s works. The details emphasize Wayne’s vanity and selfishness, no less his immaturity. When one of his lovers allows Wayne to use her estate for a poo1 party, he entertains Will and all of his own friends. His ultimate act of bravado is to urinate in the pool.
When Wayne’s luck with women turns, he is erroneously charged with drug dealing, a charge appropriate only to his former girlfriend. As Will is being prepared for an early return flight to New York to pose with his mother in a picture for Vogue, he looks out a bathroom window to see his father being taken into custody by two policemen. This, a strange experience involving Haveabud, the man who becomes his mother’s agent, and his disappointment in not being able to see his dear friend, Wag, are heavy childhood agonies.
Mel is an intellectually as well as an emotionally sustaining force in the novel. In what Christina Murphy calls “inner narratives” in Picturing Will—italicized whole chapters are found finally to be journal entries of Mel—he beautifully describes the parent’s plight. One often-quoted passage is worth repeating:Do everything right, all the time, and the child will prosper. It’s as simple as that, except for fate, luck, heredity, chance, the astrological sign under which the child was horn, his order of birth, his first encounter with evil, the girl who jilts him in spite of his excellent qualities, the war that is being fought when he is a young man, the drugs he may try once or too many times, the friends he makes . . . and animals with rabies.
Mel is a true lover and a devoted father. It is he who drives Will to Florida to visit his natural father, Wayne, and who willingly works for Haveabud because he will promote Jody’s artwork in New York. In the last section of the novel, “Child,” the reader sees that Mel’s faith that he and Will can “stand firm” and make it is justified. The now happily married Will is coaxing his own son to continue the cycle as he urges, “Come on, baby. Throw me the ball.”
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