Ann Beattie Long Fiction Analysis
Although Ann Beattie’s fiction has often been criticized as pointless and depressing, there is a method to the author’s seeming madness. Her stories and novels are not a mix of ennui and untapped angst but rather detailed examinations of the lives of several apparently different but uniquely similar people. No one specific character is repeated in any story, but some character types, such as the Vietnam War veteran, appear in different versions and perform different functions—as plot catalysts, for example. At the same time, all of Beattie’s characters share the same vague feelings of discontent and lack of fulfillment, the knowledge that something is missing in their lives.
Chilly Scenes of Winter
Initially, a Beattie character may seem feisty and self-assured, even defensive about his or her lack of enthusiasm. In Beattie’s first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, one player remarks, “You could be happy, too, Sam, if you hadn’t had your eyes opened in the 60’s.” The promise of a better life that was given to these characters has transmogrified into unhappiness and loneliness without relief. Beattie’s novels are, accordingly, laced with irony. It is the acknowledgment of this transgression through the use of irony that provides a saving grace for the stories and novels. The main character in Chilly Scenes of Winter is granted all that he wishes; in the end, however, all he wants is to escape his gratification.
Charles, theprotagonist, is in love with Laura, a married woman. His desire for her eventually dominates his life, so that he is unable to function without that desire or—as he would believe—without her. Charles’s obsession with Laura colors his relationship with his own family: his mother, Clara; her second husband, Pete; and Charles’s sister, Susan. Even though his sister has accepted Pete, Charles refuses to acknowledge him as a replacement for their father, a man whose good qualities are magnified by the virtue of his death. Charles regards Pete as both a loser and a catalyst for Clara’s chronic hypochondria. He claims that Pete refuses to accept life as it is, instead continuing to make excuses for Clara’s instability. The irony is that what Charles so clearly perceives as Pete’s faults are really his own. Charles cannot—or will not—admit that he, too, fantasizes about the woman he loves and constructs absurd ideas about her that are founded on nothing but his own imagination. Charles will never be able to have a normal life with Laura, just as Pete will never be able to have one with Clara.
Running throughout the novel is the idea that marriage itself is not a desirable norm. Sam, Clara’s friend, comments, “It’s nuts to get married,” and indeed none of the relationships in Chilly Scenes of Winter seems to bode well for the participants. Pete and Clara’s marriage is tainted by her mental illness, Jim and Laura’s seems emptied by their lack of interest, and Charles and Laura’s relationship is adulterous (and thus cannot be acknowledged).
The lack of sanction for Charles’s love is typical of his whole existence. Nothing in his life lives up to his expectations, so he wanders pathetically, searching for both the ideal and the unreal. He is terrified of discovering a truth in his miserable existence, and this fear prevents him from completing his quest for love and a meaningful life. Charles is consumed by the thought that he will develop an “inoperable melanoma,” even though there is no indication that he will; it is merely a phrase he has overheard in a hospital room. After Laura leaves Jim, Charles refuses to contact her; he will only drive past her house, hoping for a signal that will never be given.
Falling in Place
In contrast to a world where the characters are forced to wander endlessly, searching for a direction, the players in Falling in Place are given a very clear signal when a significant event occurs. The story opens with John Knapp; his estranged wife, Louise; their children, Mary and John Joel; and John’s mistress, Nina. During the week, John lives with his mother, ostensibly to be close to his job in New York City but really to be far away from Louise and the children and closer to Nina. Naturally, this situation affects his children, and they become bitter and distanced not only from their father but also from their mother. Instead of swimming in a maelstrom of their own emotions, however, the characters in Falling in Place actually reach out to others and are influenced by them. John Joel’s deviant friend Parker brings the action of the novel to a head: He provides John Joel with a handgun, and the latter proceeds to shoot his sister Mary in the side. When asked why he shot her, John Joel explains to his father, “She was a bitch.”
Perhaps this phrase succinctly sums up Beattie’s child characters in the story. Instead of behaving like real children, their circumstances force them to become miniature adults, faced with adult problems and desires. John Joel has an eating disorder, his friend Parker smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, and cold Mary dreams of sacrificing her virginity to singer Peter Frampton. They are a sad band of children, imitating the worst habits of their adult counterparts in the worst possible way. John Joel mouths adult words and defines his teenage sister in adult terms.
Finally, John and Louise divorce, freeing themselves and their children to pursue meaningful existences. None, however, really believes that he or she will be able to attain such an existence. At one point, John complains to Mary, “Don’t you think I might already realize that my existence is a little silly?” Mary replies, “That’s what Vanity Fair is like. Things just fall into place.” John wonders if his daughter’s advocacy of predestination seals her fate or if she simply cannot, or will not, try to imagine a future over which she has any control. Mary is not, however, the only member of her family who refuses to admit to a future. After Nina and John finally unite, Nina begs him to consider her wants: “Acres of land. Children. A big house. Try to realize what you love.” John only replies, “You’re what I want.”
John, then, refuses to realize, to make real, his existence with Nina and any sort of happiness they might have. He and his...
(The entire section is 2626 words.)