Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3364
Ann Beattie has been called the spokesperson for a new lost generation, a sort of Ernest Hemingway for those who came of age during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many of her themes and much about her style support the assertion that she, like Hemingway, voices a pervasive and universal feeling of despair and alienation, a lament for lost values and lost chances for constructive action. Yet to limit one’s understanding of Beattie’s work to this narrow interpretation is a mistake.
Beattie shares much with writers such as Jane Austen, who ironically portrayed the manners and social customs of her era, and with psychological realists such as Henry James, who delved into the meanings behind the subtle nuances of character and conflict. Her primary themes are loneliness and friendship, family life, love and death, materialism, art, and, for want of a better term, the contemporary scene. Her short fiction tends to be spare and straightforward. Her vocabulary and her sentence structure are quite accessible, or minimalist, to use a more literary label. Even when the stories contain symbols, their use is most often direct and self-reflexive.
Her combination of subject matter and style leads to a rather flat rendering of the world, and Beattie is sometimes criticized for that flatness. Because her narrators usually maintain a significant distance from the stories and their characters, critics and readers sometimes assume that Beattie is advocating such remove and reserve as the most feasible posture in contemporary life. Even her most ironic characters and narrative voices, however, experience a profound longing for a different world. Despite the ennui that dominates the texture of their lives, Beattie’s characters hold on to the hope of renewal and redemption, often with great fierceness, even though the fierceness frequently suggests that these people are clutching at hope so hard that they are white-knuckling their way through life. If members of the generation about which she writes are indeed lost, they have not accepted their condition, even though they recognize it. They are still searching for the way out, for a place in which to find themselves or to be found.
“Dwarf House,” the first story in Distortions, establishes an interest in the grotesque, the bizarre, and the slightly askew that surfaces several times in this first of Beattie’s collections. The main characters of the story are James and MacDonald, brothers who struggle to find understanding and respect for each other and to deal with their possessive and intrusive mother. Because James, the older of the two, is a dwarf, Beattie immediately plays upon the collection’s title and places the story beyond the plane of realism.
The irony of the story develops as the reader realizes that MacDonald’s supposedly normal life is as distorted as the life of his sibling. When MacDonald goes to visit James in the dwarf house where he lives, along with several other dwarfs and one giant, he finds himself repulsed by the foreign environment. Yet, when he gets home, he cannot face his own “normal” world without his martinis. He is as alienated and isolated at home and at work as he would be if he were a dwarf. Beattie uses the ludicrous, the exaggerated scenario of James’s life, complete with his wedding to a fellow dwarf, conducted by a hippie minister and culminating in the releasing of a caged parrot as a symbol of hope and the new freedom of married life, to bring into focus the less obvious distortions of regular American life.
MacDonald is typical of many Beattie characters. He is relatively young—in his late twenties—and well educated. He works, but his work provides little challenge or stimulation. He has enough money to live as he wants, but he struggles to define what it is he does want. His wife is his equal—young, well educated, hip—but they have less than nothing to talk about.
MacDonald wants to make his brother’s life more normal—that is, get him out of the dwarf house, the one place where James has ever been happy, and back into their mother’s home, where James and MacDonald will both be miserable. MacDonald is motivated not by malice toward James but by an overdeveloped sense of guilt and responsibility toward his mother, a trait he shares with many of Beattie’s young male characters. By the story’s end, the reader cannot say who is better off: James, whose life is distorted but productive and satisfying to him, or MacDonald, who has everything a man could want but still lacks an understanding of what it is he should do with what he has.
In “The Lifeguard,” the final story in Distortions, Beattie portrays the offbeat and grotesque elements that permeate the collection in a sharply realistic setting, where their humor and irony disappear. The impact of these elements is, then, all the more forceful for the reader’s sense of sudden dislocation. Without warning, the book becomes too real for comfort, and at the same time it continues to use shades of the unreal to make its point.
“The Lifeguard” tells the story of the Warner family and their summer vacation. The mother, Toby, finds herself fantasizing about the young college student who is the lifeguard on the beach. Yet when her children Penelope and Andrew die in a boat deliberately set afire by their playmate Duncan Collins, the inappropriateness and incapacity of the lifeguard and of her infatuation are too vividly brought home to Toby. The monstrousness of Duncan Collins’s action is but another kind of distortion; there are no simple lives in a distorted world.
“A Vintage Thunderbird”
If Distortions emphasizes the outward manifestations of the disordered contemporary world, Secrets and Surprises, the second collection, turns inward, as its title suggests. “A Vintage Thunderbird” features a woman who comes to New York to have an abortion against the wishes of her husband. The friends to whom she turns, Karen and Nick, have their own problems in love. By mirroring the sense of loss that follows the abortion with the sense of loss felt by Karen and Nick when she sells the vintage car of the title, Beattie addresses the connection between spiritual and emotional needs and material needs.
Very few of the people in Beattie’s fiction suffer for want of material goods; almost all suffer from lack of spiritual and emotional fulfillment. The interesting aspect of this dichotomy is that the characters do not, as a rule, actively pursue material well-being. Their money is often inherited, as are their houses and many of their other possessions. The main character in “Shifting,” for example, inherits an old Volvo from an uncle to whom she was never very close. The money earned by these characters is almost always earned halfheartedly, without conspicuous ambition or enthusiasm. These are not yuppies, who have substituted acquisition for all human emotion; they are people who, by accident of birth or circumstance, have not had to acquire material wealth; for whatever reason, wealth comes to them.
What does not come is peace, satisfaction, and contentment. When a material object does provide emotional pleasure, as the Thunderbird does for Karen and Nick, Beattie’s characters tend to confuse the emotion with the symbol and to conclude, erroneously, that ridding themselves of the object will also rid them of the gnawing doubts that seem to accompany contentment and satisfaction. It is sometimes as frightening, Beattie seems to suggest, to be attached to things as to people.
“The Cinderella Waltz”
In The Burning House, Beattie’s third collection, she turns to the darker, more richly textured veins of her standard subject matter to produce stories that are less humorous but more humane, less ironic but wiser than those in the earlier collections. Infidelity, divorce, love gone bad—all standard Beattie themes—are connected to parenthood and its attendant responsibilities, to homosexuality, to death, and to birth defects. The affairs and the abortions that were entered into, if not concluded, with a “me-generation” bravado suddenly collide with more traditional values and goals.
Many of Beattie’s characters, both married and single, have lovers. In fact, having a lover or having had one at some time during a marriage is almost standard. In “The Cinderella Waltz,” Beattie adds a further complication to the de rigueur extra-marital affair by making the husband’s lover a male. Yet, in much the same way that she makes the unusual work in a story such as “Dwarf House,” Beattie manages to make this story more about the pain and suffering of the people involved than about the nontraditional quality of the love relationship.
The wife in “The Cinderella Waltz,” left to understand what has happened to her marriage and to help her young daughter to reach her own understanding, finds herself drawn into a quiet, resigned acceptance of her husband’s relationship with his lover. She laments the loss of innocence in the world, for her child and for them all, but she chooses to go forward with the two men as part of her life and the child’s. She rejects—really never even considers—the negative, destructive responses that many women would have.
“The Cinderella Waltz” ends with images of enormous fragility—glass elevators and glass slippers. Yet they are images that her characters embrace and cling to, recognizing that fragile hope is better than none. The cautious nature of such optimism is often mistaken for pessimism in Beattie’s work, but her intention is clearly as affirmative as it is tentative.
Another story from The Burning House, “Winter: 1978,” offers a glimpse of most of Beattie’s concerns and techniques. An unusually long story for Beattie, “Winter: 1978” features a selfish mother who is hosting a wake for her younger son, who has drowned in a midwinter boating accident. His death is mystifying, for there were life preservers floating easily within his reach, a fact that suggests the ultimate despair and surrender often present in Beattie’s characters. An older son blames the mother for placing too much guilt and responsibility on the dead son, but he himself has done nothing to assume some of that burden. The older son’s former wife, their child, his current girlfriend, and his best friend are all present at the wake. The best friend’s girlfriend is alone back in California, having her uterus cauterized. His former wife seems inordinately grief-stricken until it is revealed that the dead man was her lover. During the course of the wake, which lasts several days, she becomes the lover of her former husband’s best friend.
This extremely baroque and convoluted situation contains much that is ironically humorous, but it also reflects deep pain on the part of all the characters, not only the pain of having lost a loved one but also the pain of reexamining their own lives and measuring them against the idea of death. That sort of existential questioning, rarely overt but frequently suggested, contributes to the idea of a lost generation brought to life on the pages of Beattie’s fiction.
Yet Beattie rarely leaves her characters in perpetual existential angst, as is the case in a Hemingway story such as “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” an embodiment of the existential despair and the longing for some minute, self-created order and refuge typical of the original literary lost generation. Instead, Beattie often opts for a neo-Romantic, minimalist version of hope and redemption, of continued searching as opposed to acquiescence.
“Winter: 1978” concludes with the absentee father, the surviving son, taking his own child upstairs for a bedtime story. The little boy, like the daughter in “The Cinderella Waltz,” is far too wise to take comfort from the imaginary world of the story; he has been exposed to far too much of the confused adult world of his parents. On this occasion, however, he pretends to believe, and he encourages his father’s tale about the evolution of deer. According to the story, deer have such sad eyes because they were once dinosaurs and cannot escape the sadness that comes with having once been something else.
This story serves as a metaphor for the melancholy cast of characters in this and Beattie’s other collections of short fiction. Almost all of her characters have a Keatsian longing to connect with a better, more sublime existence that seems to be part of their generational collective consciousness. Far too aware and too ironic to follow the feeling and thereby to transcend reality, they linger in their unsatisfactory lesser world and struggle to accommodate their longing to their reality.
More than her other collections, Where You’ll Find Me displays Beattie’s awareness of her own reputation as a writer. In particular, in a story called “Snow,” she appears to write a definition of the kind of story her work has come to define. Less than three pages long, the story takes a single image, that of snow, and uses it not only as a symbol of the lost love the narrator is contemplating but also as a metaphor for storytelling as practiced by the author.
The remembered lover has explained to the narrator at one point that “any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.” The narrator then tells a story, actually one paragraph within this story, about her return to the place where the lovers had lived in order to be with a dying friend. She offers her story-within-the-story as an example of the way in which her lover said stories should be told.
The narrator goes on to say that such efforts are futile, bare bones without a pattern to establish meaning. For her, the single image, snow in this case, does more to evoke the experience of her life with the man than does the dramatized story with the details omitted. In the story’s final paragraph, the narrator concludes that even the single image is too complex for complete comprehension. The mind itself, let alone the narratives it creates, is incapable of fully rendering human experience and emotion. The best a writer, a storyteller, can do is to present the essence of the experience in the concrete terms in which his or her consciousness has recorded it.
What the reader inevitably receives, then, is minimal, to return to John Barth’s theory. It is equally important, however, that Barth argues that the minimal can be more than enough. The characters in this fourth collection are generally older and wiser than their predecessors. They have, as a rule, survived an enormous loss and are still hoping for a richer, more rewarding life, or at least one in which they feel less out of place and alone.
Andrea, the real-estate agent who is the main character of “Janus,” is typical. Safely married to a husband who is interesting and financially secure, she is also successful in her career. The two of them take great pleasure in the things that they have accumulated. Yet Andrea takes most pleasure in a relatively inexpensive and quite ordinary-looking ceramic bowl, a gift from a former lover who asked her to change her life, to live with him.
Although she has long since turned him down, Andrea finds herself growing increasingly obsessed with the bowl. She begins to believe that all of her career success comes from the bowl’s being precisely placed in the homes that she shows to her clients. A mystery to her, the bowl seems to be connected to the most real, the most private parts of herself. She loves the bowl as she loves nothing else.
She fears for its safety. She is terrified at the thought that it might disappear. She has lost the chance that the lover represents, choosing instead stasis and comfort, remaining intransigent about honoring her previous commitments. Sometimes she goes into her living room late at night and sits alone contemplating the bowl. She thinks, “In its way, it was perfect; the world cut in half, deep and smoothly empty.”
Such is the world that Beattie observes, but Beattie is, after all, an artist, not a real-estate agent. All that Andrea can do is contemplate. Beattie can fill the bowl, to use a metaphor, with whatever she chooses. She can capture, again and again, the story behind the “one small flash of blue, a vanishing point on the horizon,” that Andrea can only watch disappear.
Barth’s description of the impulse behind minimalism, the desire “to strip away the superfluous in order to reveal the necessary, the essential,” is a fair assessment of Beattie’s work. Yet it is equally important to recall what necessary and essential elements remain after the superfluous has been stripped away. They are love, friendship, family, children, music, and creativity. Beattie fills the bowl of her fiction with much the same fruits that other writers have used.
“Windy Day at the Reservoir”
In contrast to her earlier, so-called minimalist stories, Beattie’s more recent short fictions seem to be moving more toward length and elaboration, making more use of novelistic techniques of character exploration and realistic detail. “Windy Day at the Reservoir,” the longest story in her collection What Was Mine, focuses on two people who, while house-sitting for another couple, make a number of discoveries both about the homeowners and about themselves—for example, about the vacationing couple’s impending breakup because of the wife’s mastectomy and their own inability to have children. The point of view moves from the house-sitting husband, to the wife, to the mentally disabled son of the housekeeper, who walks into the reservoir and drowns. The final section focuses on the housekeeper, who provides a novelistic resolution to the two couples who have both broken up. Ending with a realistic resolution rather than a metaphoric embodiment of conflict, the story reflects Beattie’s moving away from short-story techniques to novelistic devices.
“Going Home With Uccello” and “Park City”
A clear contrast between short-story and novelistic technique can be seen in the difference between two of the eight new stories in Beattie’s collection of selected stories, Park City—“Going Home with Uccello” and the title story “Park City.” In the former, a woman on a trip to Italy with her boyfriend has a realization about why he has taken her there when he flirts with a Frenchwoman about an Uccello painting. She understands that he has taken her to Italy not to persuade her to join him in London forever, but to persuade himself that he loves her so much that no other woman can come between them. The story ends in a typical Beattie ambiguity about whether the man in the story can commit himself to a relationship or whether he is continuing, as so many of Beattie’s male characters do, to look for some ineffable dream.
In “Park City” the central character spends a week at a Utah ski resort during the off-season looking after her half-sister’s daughter, Nell, who is three, and her half-sister’s boyfriend’s daughter, Lyric, who is fourteen. The story is filled with dialogue between the three females in which it seems increasingly clear that the woman is more naïve than the precocious fourteen-year-old. In one particular encounter, the girl spins out a long invented tale to a stranger about having had breast implants. The story ends when the central character tries to get on a ski lift with the child Nell and the two almost fall off. They are saved by a man who, significantly, tells her, “the one thing you’ve got to remember next time is to request a slow start.”
In the twenty odd years that Beattie has been publishing short stories, mostly in The New Yorker, her milieu and her method have changed little, which has led some to complain that she has nothing new to say about the era she has evoked so sharply. However, Beattie has said, “My test was not did I get it right about the sixties, but is it literature. I am not a sociologist.”
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