Introduction

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Beattie, Ann 1947–

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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.)

Terence Winch

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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 divorced or on the verge of divorce. Marijuana and Bob Dylan help, but ultimately nothing dispels the emotional dislocation of those who inhabit Beattie's fictional world. At the end of "Colorado," Robert is stoned and "confused": "What state is this?" is all he can say. He has been permanently damaged by the psychic violence that colors Beattie's stories.

Beattie can convey that violence with the eye of a great painter: "The sky is pale blue, streaked with orange, which seems to be spreading through the blue sky from behind, like liquid seeping through a napkin, blood through a bandage." Or she can transform the ordinary into something revealing and chilling: "Still at the kitchen table, he ran his thumb across a pea pod as though it were a knife."

If people are emotionally mistreated by others in Ann Beattie's stories, they are just as often collaborators in the process: victimization and self-victimization are everywhere. And frequently people's relationship to things runs parallel to their involvement with others. Karen's Thunderbird in "A Vintage Thunderbird," the finest story in the book, takes on a complexity of meaning and comes to symbolize the history of her affair with Nick. Nick "loved to go to her apartment and look at her things. He was excited by them…." But it is her car that excites him most. When Karen is "conned" out of her car by a "New York architect" in what Nick knows is a "set up," he asks her if "the deal is final." Nick, who has been mugged twice and stood up once during the story, knows instinctively that the loss of the car spells the loss of love. It is a masterful story in which a vocabulary of money becomes the language of love.

And love is just another rip-off in a world gone wrong…. Predators, emotional and otherwise, stalk through every story.

But this stark world is qualified by the talent and sensitivity of the author who created it. Ann Beattie's intelligence is illuminating. Some of these stories are disappointing, but the five or six solid successes are works of vivid honesty and insight that confirm Beattie's reputation as one of our best young writers. (pp. E1, E4)

Terence Winch, "Love's Resignation," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), January 7, 1979, pp. E1, E4.

Gail Godwin

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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 for moeurs doesn't add up to a full fiction any more than the attitude of irony can be said to represent a full human response.

The story that, to my taste, best weds feeling with artistic control is "Distant Music," in which an office girl and a graduate-school dropout are brought together by a mongrel puppy named Sam. They take the dog because they fear for its life. They order their lives around it and for a time, consequently, they protect and nourish each other, the thriving puppy their evidence that survival is possible even in huge cities. Each of them grows, but, as is frequently the case, in opposite directions. When Jack leaves for California, where his songs soon catch on (there is a good one about "a dog named Sam") the dog left behind turns vicious. A bad mix, says the veterinarian, and Sharon must put Sam away. But when we last see Sharon, she has taken a man "new to the city" over to New Jersey to show him that, from the proper perspective, New York can be scaled to human possibility. The form of the story and the experiences of its characters have added up to something meaningful.

Gail Godwin, "Sufferers from Smug Despair," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 14, 1979, p. 14.

Daphne Merkin

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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 Man"), a woman going quietly crazy continues to prepare gourmet dinners for the man she is living with. They have a "civilized discussion" about her cooking techniques, notwithstanding the fact that "he does not know exactly what she is talking about." Their situation is a bit more extreme than the average one in this collection, if only because we are given hints that the woman's disturbance is recognized by others and is therefore not merely a heightened form of lethargy. But her emotional minimalism, the drastically reduced expectations that comprise her social outlook, could serve as a credo for the book: "If you have something to say about the weather, you will always be able to make conversation with people, and communicating is very important."

The author does have a few secrets up her sleeve, and at least one surprise. She is a veritable wizard at devising resonant last lines that cast retrospective significance over an entire story…. The surprise is "The Lawn Party," a delicate, Cheeveresque story that evokes the drenched, lyric atmosphere Beattie is usually careful to avoid.

A future social scientist who stumbled across the stories and wondered at their cultural implications could conclude that ours was a dazed, lost time. He would undoubtedly remark upon the consistent displacement of emotional affect on to nonpeople: cats, dogs, songs, cars. And his speculations might converge on the following hypothetical problem? If one of Beattie's characters were to murder another with a hammer, would anyone care? (p. 17)

Daphne Merkin, in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 15, 1979.

Ann Hulbert

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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.

E. S. Duvall

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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.

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