Ann Beattie

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Ann Beattie with Steven R. Centola (interview date 17 September 1988)

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SOURCE: “An Interview with Ann Beattie,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 404-22.

[In the following interview, conducted on September 17, 1988, Beattie discusses her writing, including her style, subject matter, and themes.]

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1947, Ann Beattie is most recently the author of the critically acclaimed novel Picturing Will (1989), a moving and often disturbing account of fragmented family life in contemporary American society. Establishing her literary reputation in 1976 with the publication of a novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and a collection of short stories, Distortions, Beattie has since published the novels Falling in Place (1980) and Love Always (1986) and three collections of short stories: Secrets and Surprises (1978), The Burning House (1982), and Where You'll Find Me (1987). She has also written a children's book, Spectacles (1985), and commissioned books on painter Alex Katz and photographer Bob Adelman. In her fiction, Beattie deals mostly with relationships, as she tells us below. Whether she writes about relations between parents and children, husbands and wives, or men and women in general, she accurately records the little joys and sorrows that are daily experienced by members of her generation—the flower children of the sixties grown into the yuppies of the eighties. But her faithful depiction is often unflattering and critical; she holds a harsh mirror up to her troubled society and reveals with disconcerting clarity its imperfections.

Beattie has taught as a visiting writer-in-residence at many institutions. Among these experiences, two stand out: she was a visiting writer and lecturer at the University of Virginia from 1975 to 1977 and a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in English at Harvard University during the 1977–78 academic year. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1978), an award for excellence in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980), and a distinguished alumna award and honorary doctorate of humane letters from American University (1980, 1983).

This interview took place on September 17, 1988, in Ms. Beattie's Charlottesville home. Although she claims not to have much interest in critiquing her fiction, Ms. Beattie's comments are always astute and insightful.

[Centola:] Everyone seems to go after a tag when discussing a writer's work. Do you think any tags are particularly appropriate in describing your achievement as a writer?

[Beattie:] I'll have the nasty word rear its head even before you ask it. Certainly I've been grouped with other writers as being a so-called minimalist, and I'm not sure that I like the definition of that very well. It's been interesting to see my colleagues articulate what's wrong with categorizing them that way, and I feel quite bonded to them in terms of going against that label. I'm most pleased when people don't use “minimalist” in the pejorative but speak about the specifics of my work and how the particularities establish emotion.

Some writers—I'm thinking of Toni Morrison, in particular, who takes pride in the fact that she is a black female author—want to identify themselves as female writers. Do you want readers to view your fiction as the product of a woman writer?

My best guess is that people who read my writing would know that it was written by a woman. I can't prove that, but I know when I read students' stories and see the initials and don't know if it's written by a man or a woman, probably ninety-five percent of the time I guess correctly, and I would say that other people guess correctly too. So I'm not quite sure that there's anything to hide even if you...

(This entire section contains 7266 words.)

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want to. I mean, finally the writingdoes have to do with your identity as a woman. On the other hand, it does have to do with my identity as a woman that I drive a car and that I cross the street.

What, in particular, do you think people could notice in your writing that would identify you as a female writer?

Jung takes a lot of bashing for talking about the difference between the male and female psyche; you get into a lot of horrible stereotyping, obviously, by going along with the generalizations of Jung or of anyone else. I'll admit that some women who write seem more concerned with domestic life than male writers. You could find exceptions to everything, but most of what I write is about relationships, and beyond that I'm not sure there's anything that demonstrates an old stereotype of the female sensibility.

I've always been impressed by your ability to capture the private thoughts of men in your fiction. In fact, it's hard not to be conscious of how well you bring your male characters to life—I'm thinking specifically of John in Falling in Place, Nick in “A Vintage Thunderbird,” and even Charles in Chilly Scenes of Winter. These characters could only be men. Do you find it easy to characterize men, and do you think there is any difference in your handling of male and female characters?

It depends on the character, really. Certainly there are female characters that can be incomprehensible, and there are male characters that can be incomprehensible. I like problems; I mean I like to get in there and try to figure them out, but I suppose the limitations I have in life are going to be the same limitations I have in fiction. One of those limitations does not seem to be that I can only befriend women or that I can only befriend men. And, similarly, when I write, it doesn't seem presumptuous, it doesn't trouble me, it actually seems natural since I spend so much time talking to men, to feel that I understand things from the male perspective.

Part of the answer to your question has to do with image; I don't mean “image” as in what the media think of as a writer. But I think people have notions of what writing is even if they don't articulate them very often, and they do have pretty strong notions, too, of how they want to appear. And sometimes it seems important for those people to explain themselves rather directly—that is, to say women should have a female protagonist and that that female protagonist would, ideally, be an extension of the writer, or a stand-in for the writer, or whatever. As far as I know, it isn't necessary for me to think of myself as a “writer,” period. So I'm not drawn to talking exclusively about women just because I am a woman and want people to understand me as a woman who writes. And because I do think of myself in some larger sense, or of writing as being only a particular thing I do, I suppose I'm not drawn to exploring myself and my feelings exclusively in what I write; in other words, a male character I create might function quite well as an exploration of certain feelings because characters are never just a continuation of my own identity.

So you enjoy a degree of detachment as a writer and don't see yourself as working through your personal problems with your characters.

No, or at least not personal problems per se. I mean certainly the characters may embody some variations of my personal problems, but I'm not writing autobiography.

Do critics try to suggest that a specific character in your fiction is really you?

Not convincingly—that would be very hard to do. While it's sometimes assumed that these may be autobiographical pieces, I've never experienced the corresponding autobiography. I write a lot of stories in the first person, which leads some people to make the mistake that the “I” narrating is the author. More often I've had people understand that these stories must be the world I move in rather than that they're some episode that really happened in my life, and even about that they're right and they're wrong. A lot of these things are only things that I've observed, things that I've seen that seemed problematic—not perhaps the most likely things to have explored because of the region or the people that I hung out with, or anything like that, either. The fiction obviously does have to do with me, but it has more to do with what's captured my attention, what seems possible to transform into art.

Earlier you said that a lot of your stories deal with relationships. One of the relationships that stands out is that between a parent and a child. You often seem to suggest that parents are in some way responsible, if not primarily responsible, for the problems their children face. Would it be accurate to say that in your stories children often have to deal with problems that they haven't created but have more or less inherited from their parents? Do you see that as a problem in American society?

Quite simply, yes and yes. I don't think anything is going to change in a hurry.

Is that an eternal situation, or are children in American society nowadays growing up with certain kinds of problems that they didn't have to deal with, say, fifty years ago?

The nuclear family has broken down, so there's a different set of realities. I think adults often make the mistake of thinking they understand their children. I think children are always watching and understanding but may not be quite as comprehensible to the parents as they think.

In a novel like Falling in Place, then, John and Louise have allowed Mary and John-Joel to grow up too fast because they assumed that their children were older mentally or emotionally than they actually were?

Yeah, sure, partly. But they've also had to acknowledge that the children are just out of their control. How they got out of their control has, I think, as much to do with social forces as with anything else. I think the book is probably a pretty accurate picture of particular aspects of suburban life. It's hard; it's not as easy as just pointing the finger and blaming somebody.

Your stories also deal with the problems that men and women face in their relationships. Once again, I'm wondering if you're dealing with a timeless situation, involving the battle of the sexes, or if you're showing new problems in male-female relationships that may not have occurred previously.

They were covered up previously. Increasingly, people have moved out into the workplace. Society might define people by their jobs, but I don't think people necessarily think of themselves only as worker bees. When there's such a division between public and private identity, there's going to be a fair amount of anxiety and chaos.

Are your female characters more conscious of their opportunity to express their feelings—feelings women have always had but have never before been allowed to verbalize?

I'm not sure that many of my women characters verbalize their feelings, though, even now. What I see in the stories are attempts that both parties have made to adapt, or the failure to find some sort of cohesive way to live, rather than what you've just said.

But how about the narrator in “Where You'll Find Me”? She strikes me as a woman who knows she is confused and knows she is in a relationship that she's uncomfortable with because it isn't right for her. Doesn't she express her feelings when she tells her brother, Howard, about her momentary contact with another man, and her realization of their mutual attraction?

Howard reveals himself first, and then he starts that game of falling dominoes. Presumably, what she's doing—part of the mistake that she's making—is that she only reveals things, really, on the defensive, not on the offensive. That's part of why she's lacking the energy she's lacking in that story. He says, “Well, okay, let's turn the tables; let's play truth.” And then she tries to top him. And he goes on to top her, and we end up with people who have topped each other but still not escaped their distance or their problems.

There's a level of discourse men and women can, and sometimes do, have. But I also think that what you see on the surface can be quite misleading. The clothes people go out and buy for themselves can have more to do with what they hope to express than their modes of conversation. There can also be a kind of extremely disembodied way in which people relate, at least the people I'm writing about in a story like “Where You'll Find Me”—New York City people, of a certain social class. There can be a terrifying veneer; people can exchange words but actually not talk much. What some of my stories demonstrate is not much different from theater of the absurd plays in which people don't communicate—they're Pinteresque point and counterpoint, or something like that.

Don't your stories suggest that people really lead, or want to lead, secret lives? A lot of your characters either have clandestine affairs or harbor within themselves secret desires. Aren't your characters essentially torn between their public selves and their private selves?

Yes, that puts it very well.

So, first and foremost, they cannot connect with themselves, and as a result, they cannot connect with anyone else.

Yes, but I think that they realize it's condoned that they not make this connection. A lot of the stories are about moments when people get tricked into revealing something that they didn't mean to reveal, or something happens and there's a kind of epiphany. It's about when those worlds get shaken up a little bit.

Is that why your characters often seem to use drugs, alcohol, or casual sex as a way of escaping from their problems? Would you care to comment on your characters' use of these means of hiding from reality?

I think people are often very unhappy. I also write more often about what troubles me than what pleases me. If someone wanted to assign me to write about the cat show at the armory, I probably could go off and write a nice piece about the cats. Or maybe not. But such an assignment wouldn't interest me.

So your characters do use sensation as a way of escaping from their problems?

Well, even if they aren't, they have to interact with people who are. The woman in “The Burning House” has a brother-in-law who is smoking grass in the kitchen when the story begins, but she's not alcoholic or out of control, laughing and screaming like Tucker, who runs the gallery. She's certainly not as pathologically devious as her husband. But those people's worlds are the only world she lives in.

Since we're talking about the world your characters live in, let me ask you a related question. Are you aware of how frequently you refer to cars like Volvos and Thunderbirds, to schools like Harvard and Penn, and to a lifestyle that is generally associated with the more affluent members of American society? Do you deliberately deal with this particular class of people to show that the rich have a more difficult time giving their lives meaning than the poor because the rich devote almost all of their lives to the pursuit of materialistic goals?

I don't think that at all. Rich people are individuals, too. Though, in point of fact, I think poor people are worse off than rich people. If I had to have problems as a rich person or as a poor person, I'd rather have them as a rich person. I'm writing about what I observe, though I'm uncomfortable with my writing being deciphered only in terms of social class. Some of these stories are urban, some are not. Does social class really matter in a story about, say, spacemen who come to earth and take pornographic pictures?

I asked that question at least partly because of a difference I've observed between the fiction of white and black writers in America today. This may be oversimplifying matters a good deal, but I think it is generally true that black female writers dealing with a black community give more emphasis to spiritual matters and are more likely to celebrate the communion among souls that can be found in their community. White writers, on the other hand, seem to focus more on an affluent society characterized almost exclusively by people's alienation and disintegration.

Well, look, rich people have more time to be alienated; I mean, it's as simple as that. You can sit around and not have health insurance and not have food on the table, or you can run out of white wine and be sorry you were never given an honorary doctorate from Yale.

Which is the more serious problem?

Not having food on the table. I'm not writing what I write because I think I'm solving problems. I would be the first to admit that I don't think anything I write is going to stand society on its ear. I think that there are quiet and personal forms of desperation that can be very meaningful, regardless of social class, and that maybe the black writers writing about spiritual matters are often implying that that may not be the path to salvation. Certainly, such writing is not only being done straight, any more than John Updike's writing means to extol the virtue of being able to have an argument and jump into your brand new car and roll off into the suburban night.

I don't know whether you believe that people have the freedom to mold their lives, but in some of your stories your characters lack that freedom. They try to grapple with overwhelming forces that they ultimately fail to control, and because they struggle and fail to give their lives meaning, their situations can justifiably be described as tragic. I'm thinking of a story like “In the White Night” and the novels Falling in Place and Love Always. Would you agree that there is a tragic vision of the human condition in these works?

Well, you've said it, and I guess I would have to agree with it. Again, though, it's interesting that I don't tend to think of those ideas as being united in the way you just said. On the other hand, I don't think that what you said is wrong, though the works you've named all seem very different to me. I hope that the people I'm writing about have different sensibilities. Personally speaking, it seems to me that people often have more free will than they wish to exercise, but I think that you really have to talk about the stories case by case.

In “Spiritus,” there is a striking scene where the male character seems to register mentally a litany of facts to ground himself in an existence that, I thought, at least temporarily held off absurdity.

Let's put it this way. You asked a question before about secret lives, and I do believe everyone has them. I don't think that they're necessarily titillating. Certainly there are variations, and I don't mean to say that I think that people are inevitably and only bizarre in their secret lives. But I do think that people have certain yearnings, and in this culture there are not necessarily many outlets for them. I like to create characters to try to see if I can locate their secret lives, but once I've done that, I like to look at the secrets within the secrets. The character in “Spiritus” is vacationing on the Cape, worrying about his wife versus his mistress, and he has a nice life in Boston, on some level. His are perhaps not the worst problems in the world. But the nagging thing is that he has to say his own litany because there really isn't anybody for him to talk to. In spite of all the talk about bonding and sharing, America has become, for a lot of people, a silenced community.

So it's almost as though the public existence is a type of charade and the real existence is the private one.

Then again, if nothing gets enacted, the word “real” can become very problematic.

Isn't everything, then, reduced to absurdity?

It doesn't seem that clear-cut to me; it's not just that people close their doors and then the charade ends. It seems more that people have to both enact the charade and at the same time find ways to accommodate other people who are doing some other charade.

Is this a particularly American situation?

As far as I know. For instance, in Italy, you rarely see the breakdown of families you see here; it's the exception rather than the rule.

Often in your stories, there is a nostalgic remembrance and sad acceptance of the loss of some past experience; in works like “Winter: 1978,” “A Vintage Thunderbird,” and “Jacklighting,” you seem to suggest that we long for an irrecoverable past. Is that an accurate way of summing up how some of your characters respond to the past?

Yes. The people I know miss things a lot. I think that's another thing that doesn't get articulated in this culture. You know, it's become a joke: the psychiatrist who says, “Was yours a happy childhood?” That's the clichéd joke of our time, right? And so much humor turns on that. Well, was it? I mean, clichés exist because they're based on something that's transpired over and over.

Is the past that's longed for real, or does it inevitably become somewhat distorted simply because it is the past?

The Great Gatsby should have taught all of us the answer to that question.

In an interesting exchange between Garrett and Nancy in “Skeletons,” Nancy asks him if he is afraid that “somebody might know something about [her] that [he does not] know.” Isn't it always the case in relationships that one person fears somebody else will know more about his lover than he knows?

I guess it's usually the case in fiction. That's how the writer can be convincing: by raising the right questions, more than by answering them. If you manage to convincingly demonstrate that you know all aspects of that character well, usually you can pull off the story. And if you don't, you're lost.

In that same story, Garrett tells Nancy, “Everything is a competition.” Do you think a lot of people approach relationships with the same notion?

No, I don't really think that. Again, they're particular characters. Also, you can't necessarily take him at his word when he says that everything's a competition. When he's announcing that, he's not speaking to her as though he's broadcasting an opinion to the world; he's not sitting on a panel and saying this is his personal philosophy. He's used to gaining power in his relationship with her by seeming to be self-effacing. And probably on some level what he is saying is true, but on another level, the problem is more complex. And, of course, it's always a good trick—as everybody knows at the age of five—to pretend to be your own worst enemy, because then people console you. He's maneuvering.

And she ends up marrying him and having his children, yet, ironically, Kyle has this beautiful vision of Nancy at the end of the story and almost seems to glorify her or give her immortal status because of her embodiment as a romantic ideal in his imagination.

But, of course, she never knows it. She really does have no idea that on the particular night when his car goes out of control, he suddenly remembers her again. He had even started to forget before that skid happened and jarred the memory. I hope everybody's secret life is implied in Kyle's sudden vision of Nancy Niles. When they don't expose themselves in that story, I expose them—even quite literally, by making an analogy and holding up an x-ray. At the end of the story you're left with a visual image of a swirling car, while people are marching down the street somewhere in another city, not knowing that the car is going out of control. So, on one level, you have an image of motion and action and so forth, but what the story is about is people who have drifted and never taken any action. Obviously, she didn't make the most intelligent decision. Obviously Kyle lost out, and her husband lost out, and she's lost out.

The feeling that is evoked reminds me of the end of The Great Gatsby.

At the end of Gatsby, when Fitzgerald writes the famous “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”—I think he believes that. I think that at least for the moment of that book, Fitzgerald did have an expansive ideal he wanted to mention. But he doesn't end in such a way to eulogize his characters. He wants readers to be complicitous in his hopefulness but skeptical because of what history has—or should have—taught them. When he put that particular ending on The Great Gatsby, he was assuming that his readers could be enlightened and even seduced.

Do you have any specific audience in mind while you are writing your stories?

I don't, but I certainly have traveled around a lot, and it seems to me the audience is so diverse that I couldn't pitch something to “the audience” if I wanted to. The thing that's so surprising to me is that I meet people who have read me very carefully and who understand the complexities, whereas when I read reviews, even positive reviews—forget negative reviews—they might like it but they often don't understand what I've written.

Why do you think some critics have problems understanding your works? Take, for example, reactions to the conclusions of both Chilly Scenes of Winter and Falling in Place. Several reviewers have criticized the happy endings of these novels, but these books obviously do not have happy endings.

I'll tell you, those people must get along in their daily life better than I do; they must be philosophical when they don't get the correct change at the car wash.

All the details in Chilly Scenes of Winter point out that it is impossible for Charles and Laura to live happily ever after in the kind of fairy-tale romance Charles imagines. Even without the last scene, everything suggests this is an impossible relationship. So why do you think they complain about the “happy” ending?

Maybe they believe that there are snowflakes that are “just alike.”

I find the story “Snow” to be very powerful. I especially like the way you convey abstract ideas with evocative images in a series of sentences near the end of the story: “Who expects small things to survive when even the largest get lost? People forget years and remember moments. Seconds and symbols are left to sum things up: the black shroud over the pool. Love, in its shortest form, becomes a word. What I remember about all that time is one winter. The snow.” Can you talk about how you came upon these lines?

The thing I like about writing is that I write things that I haven't thought of before in another form. In other words, I could be sitting with my dearest friend in the world, and there wouldn't be any reason to explore some of the things I have explored in the stories. What you just quoted is something that occurred to me at that moment in that context, which is a fictional context. There are things in that story, as a matter of fact, that are true, but as a narrative and as an explanation, they're a fabrication. I also like it that I can believe things that I discover in particular moments of fiction and not think that they apply in any larger sense, or that they sum things up for me either.

So you wouldn't say that seconds and symbols sum up your experiences?

They may be things that rivet my interest, but I wouldn't say that they necessarily sum everything up. Also, we're talking about fiction and narrative tone, rather than the way I function in my daily life. I have to keep drawing the distinction because I really don't exist only in various fictional modes.

So when you're writing and creating your fictional universe, you have to enter your characters' bodies, minds, and souls to bring them to life.

The writer is the person who's creating the persona, so some of you gets into that—your preoccupations or your despair or your whatever gets into that—but the conclusions you come to are arrived at in terms of the narrator's mind; you're answering for someone else.

I found it curious that “The Lifeguard” opens with a joke, yet the events that occur are some of the most tragic that have ever appeared in your writing. Was there any particular reason you chose to open the story that way?

I suppose I wanted to make things as discordant as possible because that's what tragedy does.

When you create something as tragic as the events in that story, are you hoping that by watching somebody else's destruction or self-destruction the reader might gain an awareness that perhaps would never have been experienced without some involvement in your story?

I guess that if I really felt I had that power, I wouldn't exercise it obliquely. I think that if I did want to take the responsibility and did presume to think that I could enlighten people, I wouldn't couch it in fiction at all. I don't feel superior to my characters or to my audience, and I don't have the answers either.

So you're basically saying to your reader: “Here it is. This story presents you with a situation involving these people. Do with it what you will.”

They don't have to learn any lesson. Every experience—and fiction is just another experience—doesn't have to instruct people. Though you hope the work gives them pause. It's just beyond my comprehension that stories are written to legislate to anyone. It seems to me that what you have to do is be very faithful to complexities, and if you've done that (at least I want to let myself off the hook here), that's where the obligation ends. To articulate something complex, it seems to me, is all you can ask for.

Let's talk a little bit about technique. I like the way you use interchapters in Falling in Place; I think you call them codas.

I should have known you when I was turning in the book and had to explain to Random House what they were.

I was struck by the ease with which you could modulate viewpoint with this technique. Of course, the novel is centered mostly in John's consciousness, but the interchapters allow us to penetrate the minds of other characters, thereby providing us with additional perspectives and insights.

Well, it was very convenient; I have to admit that. I was very happy when the idea occurred to me, but it didn't right away. They started out being notes to myself about things I'd have to remember to include, later, in the chapter. And then I liked the immediacy, and I could see they were a good way both to augment and to undercut the main narrative. And I decided, “Well, just write your sentences a bit better and leave them there as is.” I began to see that they could function as an undertow. They also seemed appropriate to a book in which I wanted to suggest that something was always going on underneath the surface or on the periphery.

Is there anything that you do over and over again in your fiction?

I look at short stories and see other people find a way around using dashes for punctuation, but that dash—as though you're connecting quickly and making one thing contingent upon another in that direct a way—is something I do time and again.

Is that idiosyncratic in the sense that it is part of your unique voice or your distinctive style as a writer?

I certainly don't feel very comfortable not calling myself into question in some way in the text.

Would you say it's your signature?

It's not that methodical. When I read Don DeLillo's Libra, which is a great book, I perked up because there's a character named Nicholas Branch who is writing a purported history, for the CIA, of the “real” story of the killing of Kennedy. It's very hard not to imagine that DeLillo is closely allied with Nicholas Branch. I probably ally myself with some character or position, too. I admit that I'm somewhere in the text. The italicized sections of Falling in Place were an obvious admission of that. The novel I just finished writing [Picturing Will] includes a text different from the body of the text you're reading: essays on the subject of childhood. Actually, it's a different fictional device than in Falling in Place because, as it turns out, there's a real necessity to have them there. It's not my voice at all. It's very hard for me not to call the assertions of the main text into question because I certainly don't believe that there is any one story or any one way to tell a story. If you think about it, although they're sort of intermittent, the crazy letters of Love Always, just dropped into the text and so badly written, do remind you of that larger world of lunacy outside the text of my book—and outside every other book. A counter-narrative provides breathing space.

In a lot of your stories, you use the third-person limited omniscient point of view. The ones I'm thinking of are “A Vintage Thunderbird,” “Dwarf House,” “In the White Night,” and “Distant Music,” in particular. Is there any reason why you chose this particular point of view for these stories?

Because they would never succeed if they seemed at all sentimental.

Did you ever start a story with one point of view and decide it just wasn't working right, and then start over again using a different point of view?

No, although there certainly have been a lot of stories that never got finished, and sometimes that might have been the problem.

You once mentioned a connection between Hemingway's “Cat in the Rain” and one of your stories.

“The Big Outside World,” which is kind of a deliberate variation on “Cat in the Rain.”

On occasion your prose reminds me of Hemingway's writing. For example, I was rereading “A Vintage Thunderbird” recently and found one scene particularly striking: where Nick is on the telephone listening to Sammy tell him everything that's wrong with his life, and Nick's response is simply to look out the window. Your description of Nick's looking through the grimy window conveys nicely, without any commentary or unnecessary details, exactly what he is feeling at that moment. The objective correlative here reminds me of Hemingway's use of the same technique in “Soldier's Home,” when Krebs simply looks at the bacon hardening on the plate in response to his mother's harassment about his finding a job. Is letting some detail speak for the character something you learned from Hemingway?

I probably learned it from Hemingway; it was probably done by osmosis before the age of sixteen—truly.

So you're conscious of his influence in your development as a writer?


Despite that influence, though, your writing has a voice all its own. I'm not sure I could accurately describe it, but I know I wouldn't confuse it with the writing of Raymond Carver, Anne Tyler, Bobbie Ann Mason, or other contemporary writers. Do you think about your voice or style of writing?

I'm more interested in writing and revising than doing a critique of myself, even though there's always an implicit critique in the revision process. This is probably not the most important thing to remark upon, but when I did start writing, I think I had very little sense of what other people were doing. I didn't read much contemporary literature and I had very little sense of what other writers sounded like. I knew what Jane Austen sounded like and I knew what Hemingway sounded like, but I didn't really know what contemporary writers (with a few exceptions) sounded like, and I wasn't trying to approximate anything.

You seem to be suggesting that to be a writer one has to have a voice.

I don't see how anybody could ever write without a sure voice.

So you wouldn't say that creative writing is something that can be taught?

Does anybody ever say, “Here's X; I taught X how to be a creative writer”? There are certainly writers who have helped other writers, or teachers, I should say, who have helped other writers. I would imagine how far you could go would depend on how good the combination was between teacher and writer. When I teach writing, I feel lucky because I don't have the freshman class assigned to me. I'm sure it would just not work. I wouldn't care if they wrote or not, for starters. But if there's something there to begin with that I can relate to, I'm usually able to be helpful. There may be very good science fiction writers. I just tell them, categorically, “I don't know the genre; I don't have any feelings about it; you could turn in something great or something terrible; I would never know. Don't take my class.” But since I don't teach beginning writers, what I tend to do is line edit. I think they can learn even if I just hand the stories back with scribbles all over them, even if they don't talk to me. I think you can inspire people. There's also something to be said for going into a classroom as a real-life rabbit.

Have you ever felt after seeing something published that the story would have worked better if you had done something differently?

My revision tends to be that if the story emerges with a beginning, middle, and end to begin with, it's declared itself, and then I work within the parameters of what is given as best I can. If I can't do anything, I throw it out, and it never emerges at all. Some of them are personally meaningful to me in ways that others aren't, or I'll do something that seems different from what I've done before, and just for that reason, I'll like it.

How long does the composition process take you?

Longer than it used to. It took me three years to do the rough draft of Picturing Will, and I threw out at least fifteen chapters.

In what ways do you think your writing has changed from your early stories to what you're working on today?

There are things that indicate a change in style to me that would sound funny if I talked about them with somebody who was not a writer. Structurally, the stories have changed. I think that they flow in a different way than they used to. If you look at Distortions, you'll see that the book is full of asterisks. That's because I was jumping around in time. Now I think that method seems a bit intrusive, or just too easy, or more suited to the randomness I was grappling with then in the lives of the characters than what I tend to write about now. I can't imagine relying on asterisks anymore. The recent stories tend to be more of a piece; they don't quite cover as much territory as some of the earlier stories. And then I'm usually fond of beating myself over the head and saying, “Yeah, another difference is that I've lost my sense of humor.” I just can't imagine that I would ever again be as loose as I was when I was writing those early stories. They were very speculative stories; they were “Let's pretend” stories. The stories I write now are more claustrophobic. The stakes are higher.

As I was rereading your short stories, I was struck by the tonal consistency of those in Where You'll Find Me. What seems to me to be the most meaningful way of describing the essential difference between the early stories and the later ones is to say that the recently published stories are much more poetic. They are much tighter than the early ones and more consistent in tone. “Imagine a Day at the End of Your Life” seems to fit in with the stories in Where You'll Find Me too because of its powerful use of evocative images that help to create a strong tone.

Also a lot of them are about storytelling now, as is Picturing Will. It just occurred to me that “Imagine a Day at the End of Your Life” asks you to listen to stories. Somebody tells a story at the end of that story. In “Where You'll Find Me,” the brother and sister tell each other stories. And then a story like “Coney Island” becomes a real volley in which each person comments on what the other is saying as though they're demonstrating storytelling techniques: “You forgot the part about X,” or something like that. I'm conscious that people tell stories; it's not just writers who tell stories. I'm absolutely amazed at how perfectly lucid the elevator operator is.

Now that you've finished Picturing Will, what projects will you be working on?

I'm going to write a text to go along with my friend Bob Adelman's photographs. There's a book that Aperture just published of photographs by Sally Mann—it's called At Twelve—that I wrote the introduction for, and I might do some more of that. I like to write about visual things.

It seems appropriate for you to be working with photographers; your writing is remarkably visual. Does writing about photographs affect your fiction writing at all?

I like to think I'm pretty sharp to begin with in noticing detail, but it's funny: when you work with somebody who really is purely visual, you realize you're not very sharp at all. It keeps me on my toes. It's also nice to have somebody to discuss things with because I do respond to things that are highly visual. Dialogue in fiction comes rather easily to me and is never as meaningful for me as getting something going visually. Or it isn't as mysterious, I should say, as beginning to establish a visual motif in the story. Sometimes I like to talk about visual images more bluntly; I like to be able to say, “Look at this photograph; this is what I think is happening,” instead of masking things in any way—being as subtle as I need to be to be convincing in fiction.

Do you ever think about how you would like to be remembered by future generations of readers? What would you hope people would see in your fiction?

The same thing I always hope now: that it's moving; that it makes you think; that it makes you wonder about something. Certainly I would not care to be thought stylistically innovative, or anything like that.

Would you want people to be able to say after reading your works that they had an idea of what American society was like in the 1970s and 1980s?

Not American society—no, I would really hope that whatever I said might describe human nature in a larger sense.

Is that your ultimate goal as a writer?

I would be very pleased if the stories were thought of as moving.


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Ann Beattie 1947-

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, children's writer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Beattie's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 13, 18, 40 and 63.

Beattie's fiction primarily focuses on the post-World War II “baby boom” generation. Her characters are typically passive and unable to comprehend their own lives and that of those around them, trapped in dissatisfactory situations. Beattie employs a prose style composed of flat, declarative sentences and detached observations, paralleling the listlessness of her characters. Her protagonists are typically well-educated people who experience a sense of loss as they attempt to reconcile the idealistic convictions of their youth with their present lifestyles. Refusing to resolve the dilemmas developed in her fiction, Beattie rarely explores the inner motivations of her characters. She focuses instead on their external environment, providing idiosyncratic and telling details, including frequent references to consumer goods and popular songs.

Biographical Information

Beattie was an only child, born in Washington, D.C. in 1947. She did not thrive in the District of Columbia public school system, and earned poor grades. Nevertheless, Beattie was accepted to American University, where she studied English. After graduation, Beattie attended graduate school at the University of Connecticut. She published her early stories in the New Yorker magazine at the encouragement of her professor J. D. O'Hara. Her first collection, Distortions, was published in 1976, along with her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Beattie served as a visiting writer and lecturer at the University of Virginia from 1975 to 1977, and as the Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in English at Harvard University in 1977. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978, an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award in 1980, and a distinguished alumna award and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from American University in 1980 and 1983, respectively.

Major Works

Beattie's early volumes of short fiction focus on characters who lack permanent emotional ties and who experience pervasive, vague despair and confusion regarding the direction of their lives. Distortions features characters who are more affected by the consequences of experimenting with drugs and sexual freedom in the 1960s than by the political upheavals of that era. Secrets and Surprises (1978) depicts similar characters living in the increasingly conservative 1970s. Many of the characters in this collection are involved in relationships that they are afraid to leave, or remain saddened by the memory of a long-lost lover. Where You'll Find Me, and Other Stories (1986) contains pieces in which the past helps illuminate the characters' present dissatisfaction. In this collection, Beattie depicts people at the onset of middle age who have never achieved the success or happiness they seemed destined for in their youth. Attempting to adjust to the death of their daughter, the couple in the story “In the White Night” possess a maturity lacking in most of Beattie's earlier characters. The most celebrated story in this volume, “Janus,” concerns a woman's obsession with a bowl given to her by a former lover. The woman's life is defined by the loss she's experienced; and the beautiful bowl, perpetually empty, becomes a symbol of her own life. What Was Mine (1991) is a collection that focuses on affluent suburbanites struggling with their own mortality and the ravages of divorce. These stories also explore the randomness and unpredictability of life. In the title story, Ethan's war veteran father is killed by a falling bucket of paint and his mother is unable to cope with the unexpected loss.

Beattie's novels utilize similar episodic styles and concentrate on the short, intense moments of unenlightened feeling that were found in her short fiction. Chilly Scenes of Winter relies heavily on conversations between people in their late twenties, whose nostalgia for the 1960s reveals their prolonged adolescence and bewildered approach to adulthood. In Falling in Place (1980), Beattie focuses on a man's inability to choose between his family and his lover—a dilemma that is unexpectedly resolved when his son accidentally shoots his daughter. Love Always (1985) is a satire of both show business and the publishing industry. The novel centers around Nicole Nelsen, a fourteen-year-old soap opera star who takes a vacation to visit her eccentric aunt in Vermont. Beattie introduces nearly a dozen principal characters and the narrative is told from several viewpoints. Beattie's highly acclaimed novel Picturing Will (1989) is divided into three sections—“Mother,” “Father,” and “Son.” Interspersed throughout the novel, Beattie includes italicized, first-person meditations on the relationship between parent and child. The novel follows Will, whose natural father abandoned him. His mother is an ambitious photographer and her second marriage provides Will with his only true parental figure. Another You (1995) is more realistic and less minimalistic than Beattie's previous novels. The protagonist Marshall Lockard is an English professor in New Hampshire who develops a relationship with a student. His life is further complicated by his dying stepmother, his troubled family past, and his wife, who is also having an affair. My Life, Starring Dara Falcon (1997) covers events in a friendship between two women: Jean, a naive New Hampshire housewife, and Dara, a flamboyant stranger who befriends Jean. The novel explores issues of trust and narcissism in relationships. In 1998, Beattie published a volume of short fiction titled Park City: New and Selected Stories. The stories in the collection primarily focus on vignettes from the lives of a variety of neurotic middle-class characters.

Critical Reception

Known for the simplicity of her prose, Beattie is often referred to as a minimalist, a label which she rejects. Several reviewers have hailed Beattie as a spokesperson for her generation, but at the same time, assert that she does not idealize her subject matter. Steven R. Centola stated that Beattie “holds a harsh mirror up to her troubled society and reveals with disconcerting clarity its imperfections.” The stark quality of Beattie's prose, coupled with an absence of commentary upon her characters' actions or their inability to act is considered unsettling by many reviewers. Patricia Storace stated, “Some of Beattie's characters and settings have at best the life of images; there can be something oddly interchangeable about them, as if they were not quite important to their own stories, and could be shifted to other stories with the right cosmetic changes.” Reviewers have noted that as Beattie's writing matured, she moved away from her minimalist beginnings to a more realistic style. Some critics have complained that when Beattie's fiction became increasingly realistic, her sparse characterizations remained too sketchy for her new style. While some commentators object to her characters' lack of psychological and historical backgrounds, Beattie has been praised for the photographic accuracy of her descriptions, and many agree that her stories realistically reflect the disjointed and haphazard nature of contemporary life.

Ann Beattie with Patrick H. Samway (interview date 12 May 1990)

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SOURCE: “An Interview with Ann Beattie,” in America, Vol. 162, No. 18, May 12, 1990, pp. 469-71.

[In the following interview, Beattie discusses her writing and her novel Picturing Will.]

Ann Beattie is a fiction writer who lives in Charlottesville, Va. Her works include Distortions (1976), Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), Secrets and Surprises (1978), Falling in Place (1980), Jacklighting (1981), The Burning House (1982), Love Always (1985), Where You'll Find Me, and Other Stories (1986) and Picturing Will (1990). This interview focuses on her thoughts about writing fiction and her latest novel.

[Samway:] Since Picturing Will deals, in part, with childhood, I am sure our readers would care to know something about your background and, in particular, what situations in your early life you tend to put into your fiction.

[Beattie:] First of all, I was an only child. While it is not necessarily peculiar to only children—but it is often true of only children—they become watchers because they belong to small families and are tightly bonded to those units. At the same time, they are just little kids and so they can't really quite function at their parents' level. I think that from early on I just wasn't up to a lot of things that I was experiencing; I was taken along and hovered over. It made me a watcher. Thus it is logical that I might attempt a profession like writing, but I have never written a story that was “A day in the life of. …”

Second, what keeps me so interested in writing, and still makes that storage of information in the brain seem so vital, is that I am continually squirreling away situations that I don't consciously realize are registering. Only when I write do I ever bring them forth again. They are not necessarily momentous things (I am not talking about witnessing a mugging on the street or something like that); it can be the smallest gesture, yet a real one, that I, at least, think I saw, yet the character that I am writing about has nothing to do with the flesh-and-blood person. It is a kind of automatic process in the subconscious, or whatever, of blending and fusing things. Remembered people and events just spring forth. What I remember is not inherently dramatic; it is just that when I write all those events and gestures become fictionally appropriate.

Do you find that you return often to your childhood?

I return often to the emotions of earlier days, to that sense of wondering, of being an outsider. I was an extremely shy person back then. Though there has been a good deal of continuity in my life (my parents, for example, still live in the same house they moved into the year I went to kindergarten); much of my childhood is still a blur to me. My early stories were written when I was living in New England—I was in graduate school at the University of Connecticut for a number of years—and to some extent I was writing about the life around me in New England, but those stories were not autobiographical. I tended then, as I still do, to write about things that puzzle me. When I started writing I turned into the life around me at that point and thought of it as fiction; I can't say that I returned to childhood memories back then per se.

What writers have been, and continue to be, important to you?

Certainly there are writers that have been great inspirations, but there is no direct relationship between what they do or did and what I do. There are so many writers I can think of. Don DeLillo, for example, who is, as far as I am concerned, the best American novelist writing today. He is consistently looking at the dark underside and what he sees is absolutely fascinating. Ray Carver was a terrific inspiration too. Also, I like Updike's stories very much. It's funny, but when I first started writing I didn't have the money to buy literary magazines, but I did get The New Yorker on occasion. I like particularly the way Updike brings his stories around, but I never tried to appropriate his style or technique. Hemingway taught me about indirection and allusion and the correspondences of the external world to the emotional state. I acquired a good deal before I could articulate what it was.

I think, likewise, of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers of the 1920's. And, later on, Virginia Woolf became important to me. In fact, in Picturing Will, I had in mind trying to do something with the surprise revelations about Jody at the end of the novel that were not exactly analogous to, but certainly were inspired by, the death of Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse. In a parenthesis in Woolf's novel, you find out that Mrs. Ramsey has just died—and the world changes completely after that. So when I flipped into the 21st century in my own novel, and suddenly Jody was not the person the reader probably would imagine her to be, I was definitely paying homage to Virginia Woolf.

Your stories tend to be rather short, often six to seven pages in length. Why do you write using this minimalistic form?

I have often asked myself that and I honestly don't know the answer. It is almost like asking somebody why green is his or her favorite color. I think of the various forms and genres as all being quite distinct from one another; I don't think that short stories have all that much in common with novels, nor poetry with short stories. I like each form or genre for what it inherently possesses. I do not write poetry and could never really express my world through poetry. A story re-creates for me more directly what my sense of the world is; a short-story writer has to use language differently from a novelist. Visual symbols are very important to me, and I try to have something visual in a story other than direct exchanges between the characters. And often that's what excites me to sit down and write. I can begin, for example, by looking out my window and seeing a real maple, and I might ask myself about a child who might sit in the tree. But I tend to see the tree before I see the person. Often it is not important for me to clarify my characters physically but to clarify the world they are living in. The sense of detail energizes me to write—like being a photographer or a painter.

In Picturing Will, I found the italicized sections philosophically quite moving; they reminded me of the prologue to James Agee's novel A Death in the Family. Were you thinking of Agee's novel when you were writing Picturing Will?

I read Agee's novel years ago. It certainly is possible that Agee influenced me; that's all I can say. No one has ever asked me that before. I am not sure if I will ever know what impelled me to write this novel. I do know, however, that I had a lot of hidden anxiety in writing Picturing Will because the novel form is not the one that comes to me most naturally. I normally rev myself up by having some complex idea, not in terms of plot exactly, but in terms of how I'll approach writing the book. This novel went through many revisions. Initially I had all kinds of ideas about how to write it, and the italicized sections emanated from the narrator—they became the narrator's voice—and thus these sections, I can say, would not necessarily be my thoughts at all. As the novel developed I tried to make them more free-floating, and once a reader understands these sections in retrospect, they definitely, I believe, open up the character whose views they finally are.

I wrote these sections as a kind of frame for the novel. Yet, I find it interesting that there are a number of chapters where Will does not appear or is referred to only in passing. The novel is not just about Will. I think children, in general, influence a person's life even when they are not present. I deliberately wanted to shift the focus from Will to the other people, who, in turn, would lead the reader to reflect on the power of childhood. In general, too, I believe these sections stabilize the text.

In Chapter 15 of Picturing Will, Haveabud and Spencer take Will through a shocking initiation into adulthood. Since you are often cited as being a comic fiction writer, how does this scene fit into your imaginary world?

I believe that we go along in life, often with a smile or a laugh, and then BOOM, something happens unexpectedly to us. Samuel Beckett felt that in almost everything he wrote. I really didn't know I was creating a child molester. I was just writing about a type, about a troubled person who might prosper in certain large cities. But, as we all know, there is a really dark side to those people just when they are really flying. Yes, I'm making a moral judgment here, and it's put there to surprise the reader precisely because it is ghastly. It could have been the climax of the book, but rather I consider it a kind of throwaway, while at the same time not a throwaway. The reader does not know exactly the repercussions of this on Will. This scene represents my notion that fiction never does tell you certain things even, paradoxically, if it tells you those things. I was completely shocked myself when I found out what went on in that motel, but, of course, I knew that Haveabud was not completely just a buffoon. He was evil. I think, from that scene on, there is more anxiety even if the reader tries to put it out of his or her mind. The scene serves as the last real reference point.

Eudora Welty has written about the importance of place in fiction. I notice that Charlottesville is becoming more and more important in your work. Will you continue to write about this city?

It is hard to say. I know that when I have lived in cities, I have written about the country and vice versa. So I am not so sure that I will write about Charlottesville while I'm living there. In Picturing Will, Charlottesville is mentioned, but I don't think it is too important as a specific locale in the novel. I wouldn't be surprised if I wrote about Charlottesville more in the future.

Let me pick up on something you mentioned before about the visual nature of your work. Since Jody, Will's mother, is a photographer, how do you view the relationship between taking photographs and writing fiction?

I don't have any trouble at all composing. I am not one of those people who walks around a still-life six times to see what it looks like. I instantaneously know what picture it is I want to take. And that is analogous to the way I write. It is clear to me right from the beginning who is a major character and who is a minor one. If that hasn't worked itself out, if it hasn't impressed me dramatically enough, then I haven't seen the picture yet. Maybe I am just being imperious. Mel does say in the novel that we put a border around our world. It is not a concept unique to me; all of us put borders around our worlds. In this novel, I am not saying something definitive about childhood, but only putting up borders around this particular child. And any border should be distrusted. There is nothing that can be taken at face value; people always use various postures when they tell you who they really are.

Do you read the type of criticism that Jacques Derrida and his confreres write about framing and other such literary devices?

No, but my husband does. He often says, “Hey, you'd like this!” I think quite a few fiction writers do not want to know that some concept like framing has been written about exhaustively. It can be counterproductive.

Do you think that you will write essays about the nature of fiction?

I doubt it. I think others have said it very well. I, at least, need to have a “presumed innocence” about writing, I would be afraid that writing such essays would encroach in some way on my fiction, and that once I expressed such critical views they would be chiseled into my mind and inhibit me in future writing.

How would you like your peers to remember you?

Certainly not as a chronicler, a quasi-journalist or “The Voice of Her Generation.” I would like my fellow fiction writers to see the larger implications of what I do and to judge me as being astute about human behavior. I am always very happy when people see the humor in my work and the precision that I think is there. I guess I would just like my peers to read my work carefully. What more could any fiction writer ask?

Principal Works

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Chilly Scenes of Winter (novel) 1976

Distortions (short stories) 1976

Secrets and Surprises (short stories) 1978

Falling in Place (novel) 1980

The Burning House (short stories) 1982

Love Always (novel) 1985

Spectacles (children's literature) 1985

Where You'll Find Me, and Other Stories (short stories) 1986

Alex Katz (essays) 1987

Picturing Will (novel) 1989

What Was Mine (short stories) 1991

Another You (novel) 1995

My Life, Starring Dara Falcon (novel) 1997

Park City: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1998

Rand Richards Cooper (review date 18 May 1990)

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SOURCE: “Ann Beattie: Less than Minimal,” in Commonweal, Vol. 117, No. 10, May 18, 1990, pp. 322-23.

[In the following review, Cooper provides an unfavorable assessment of Beattie's Picturing Will.]

Last November, Harper's Magazine published a lengthy essay by Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in the which the New Journalist-cum-Newer Novelist lamented the state of contemporary American fiction. One aesthetic mistake singled out for special dismay was the movement often called minimalism—those “K-Mart Realists,” as Wolfe put it, who write about “lonely Rustic Septic Tank Rural settings, in a deadpan prose … with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of novocaine.”

The problem with “movements” of writing, of course, is knowing just who belongs. Who are these much-celebrated, much-maligned minimalists? One would surely point to the late Raymond Carver. What about the Barthelme brothers—do they belong? What about Tobias Wolff? Joy Williams reads like one—sometimes. Peter Cameron most of the time. Tom Wolfe says that Robert Coover is one. Can we take his word for it?

One way out of this is to look past the sociology of K-Marts and rural settings, into the lives of words and sentences. When Ann Beattie, whose new novel, Picturing Will, has recently been published by Random House, burst onto the scene in 1976, one felt oneself in the presence of a writer who used language in a new way. Her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), read like a minimalist manifesto, and established her as one of the movement's Founding Mothers. Ironic, exceedingly simple in plot and diction, the novel joined a Hemingwayesque syntax to a hip, me-decade vision of pop culture. The effect was like reading “Big Two-Hearted River” rewritten as a script for, say, Robert Altman. Above all, the novel's manner was beguilingly plain. (A German friend has commented that it's a perfect book for students learning English as a second language.) Here is a good example of minimalist sentences in action on a random page of Chilly Scenes:

She's very nice, Charles thinks. Why couldn't you like her? He looks down at the piece of paper again and makes a notation on the pad. He has the eerie feeling that when he looks up Laura and Jim and Rebecca will be there. He throws his pen down. He gets up and picks up the pen, goes back to the desk and sits down. Lobster Newburg. That must have been delicious. That cheeseburger was awful.

Seven books and almost fifteen years later, Ms. Beattie still presents an array of standard minimalist props. Her pages are laden with brand names. Popular tunes float in the background. The TV is always on. And yet the sentences are radically different:

… Without knowing much about him, without even knowing, until they applied for a marriage license, that he had been married before, without ever pausing to consider how strange it was that he had no friends and that his own brother was mystified that he had been asked to attend the wedding, without any knowledge beyond what she saw in his eyes and what she felt when she touched his body—she was willing to leave behind worried friends, argue with and finally stop speaking to her parents, and view her own ambition with skepticism.

Chilly Scenes of Winter took up the lives of young people just out of school, unattached and on the move. Its sentences—even its pages, so full of white space—suggested the atomistic nature of its characters and their lives. Picturing Will, on the other hand, is a meditation upon that most mysterious and profound of all human attachments—that of parent to child. Its language complicates itself accordingly.

The novel sets forth a network of relationships centering on a young boy named Will. Jody, Will's mother, lives with him in Virginia; she's a wedding photographer who keeps wishing she could be marrying the men whose weddings she photographs. Mel, Jody's New York boyfriend, wants her to marry him, bring Will to the city, and take up a life as a real photographer—that is, as an artist. Wayne, Jody's first husband and Will's father, is a philanderer who is living with his current (and third) wife, Corky, in Florida, where his job as a delivery man provides ample opportunity to pursue his favorite hobby.

The narrative is constructed in part of short, italicized reflections on parenting. “You have created the child, but you could not have anticipated the child's power. Because the child's presence and desires are so constant, it becomes the course of least possible pain to persuade yourself that being subsumed is synonymous with parenthood.” These portentous observations form a kind of text of which the story itself seems to have been intended as an illustration. But that story, unfortunately, is both fragmentary and tedious. Its events are desultory in the extreme. Mel arranges a show for Jody in a New York gallery. It succeeds, and Jody launches a new career. Will plays with his best friend, Wagoner. He takes a trip to Florida to see his father. Wayne has a torrid affair with a woman who turns out to be involved in cocaine deals. He gets arrested. Patsy Cline sings “You Belong to Me” as they take Will's father away. Will goes back to New York; Jody marries Mel. The novel ends.

Picturing Will is a novel of pointless, annoying digressions. Why, for instance, do we need to know, following a recollection of Jody's first, chance encounter with Wayne—she was passing him on a crowded street when the heel of one of her shoes snapped off—that “the thin little leather heel she held was the shed tail of a captured lizard”? (Is this a “foreshadowing” of the boy's fascination with dinosaurs, hundreds of pages later?) Why, in an overheard conversation between two anonymous women in a park, are we given to learn that the former surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, used to roam his neighborhood as a child with his mother, looking for stray cats he could capture and bring home to operate on?

These things pile up. Again and again, minor characters—a cop, a waitress—wander into the edge of the action where, instead of performing their function and quietly disappearing, they seize the narrative by force, and we find ourselves wrenched from an important conversation between Jody and a gallery owner, and set down in a long passage about their waitress's strange dreams, her acting class, her psychoanalyst. Why? Well, why not?

The digressive mode weakens the larger elements of the novel as well. Inquiring into every conceivable “story,” leaping about among multiple points of view, burdening characters with their pasts as if with several layers of clothing, the narrative has trouble performing the simplest motions. There is a nightmarish quality to Picturing Will; story opens into story opens into story, and we forget where we started. In a certain sense, Picturing Will is the ultimate democratic narrative—it continually hands the microphone over to the audience; it lets every person's story be told. One longs for a touch of the novelist's benign authoritarianism. What has been minimized here is not prose but architecture; not the novel's emotions, but its form.

Buried in all the mess is a sometimes pained, sometimes rapturous account of the state of being a parent. Consoling her son after a nightmare, Jody knows the strength to be found in another's need: held in her arms. Will becomes “her buffer against the world.” Part of the importance of photography to Jody is its simple promise to freeze the child in time; to keep him forever young, protected, and thus protecting. Beattie understands and evokes the significance, to an observing parent, of something as small as a child's tripping over a light cord and then figuring out what has happened. “He reaches down and puts the plug into the socket again, and as he does that, you look at his quick concentration and know that you have lost him for all time.” It is a virtue of Picturing Will to understand that a child can be lost to something as undramatic as competence.

Ultimately, however, such small revelations get lost in a flood of sentimental longing. Curiously, the object of everyone's affection, the actual Will, is not persuasively present in the novel. He is seen; we know a lot about him (he likes won ton soup and GI Joes, makes ash trays in pottery, etc.); but we don't know much about him from the inside. In the mosaic of perspectives the novel attempts to paint, his is the least vividly done. And yet all the other characters are set into action by their relation to him. The effect for a reader is weird. It's like watching people watch a show we can't ourselves see. What's everybody sighing and cheering about?

William H. Pritchard (review date Autumn 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Picturing Will, in Hudson Review, Vol. 43, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 489-97.

[In the following excerpt, Pritchard complains that Beattie's Picturing Will, “which begins intelligently enough, grows ever more random, trivial, and maddeningly unfocused.”]

… I wanted to like Ann Beattie's novel [Picturing Will] since it was advertised as both more human and more formally ambitious than her made-to-order stories (some of which stay in the memory) and her previous novels—of which Falling in Place, with its monstrous adolescent John Joel, is perhaps the most telling.1 But alas, Picturing Will, which begins intelligently enough, grows ever more random, trivial, and maddeningly unfocused. The opening segment has affecting moments: a young mother, Jody, and her child, Will, live together in Charlottesville (as does Ann Beattie), having been deserted by Will's irresponsible father, Wayne. But the moments don't last: Jody becomes a photographer and hooks into the New York art scene through an entrepreneur named Haveabud. The latter is a wholly repulsive character (though Beattie doesn't seem to mind him) and as the book proceeds to leave Jody and follow Haveabud's journey—with Will and another young boy—to Will's father in Florida, things really come undone. (There is an especially unpleasant bit of sexual inversion involving Haveabud and the boy, with Will as a witness.) Nor is the book held together by interspersed passages in italics emanating from an unnamed voice, portentous and boring in its heard-before sentiments:

You have created the child, but you could not have anticipated the child's power. Because the child's presence and desires are so constant, it becomes the course of least possible pain to persuade yourself that being subsumed is synonymous with parenthood. You can only pray that by early evening the child's eyelids will grow heavy with sleep. Then you hope that the sleeping child will not loom large in your own dreams, that once the night-light has been switched on, that beam of light alone may guide the child to dreamland.

I was unmoved by Beattie's lyricism; in fact as I tried to take seriously this unmoored sensibility, I yearned for large doses of Anthony Trollope. Like it or not—and some do not—Ann Beattie's gift is for the deadpan, flatly stated treatment of scene and character. Picturing Will attempts to go deeper into both scene and character, and the result is unhappy. …


  1. Picturing Will, by Ann Beattie. Random House.

Further Reading

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Rifkind, Donna. “Homewrecker in the Nursery.” Book World 27, No. 25 (22 June 1997): 11.

Rifkind complains that Beattie's My Life, Starring Dara Falcon is disappointing.

MacLachlan, Suzanne. “Finding Meaning in Life's Complications.” Christian Science Monitor, (25 June 1998): B7.

MacLachlan asserts that while the stories in Beattie's collection Park City are bleak, they are worth reading for their authentic slice-of-life feel.

Additional coverage of Beattie's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Bestsellers, Vol. 90:2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 53, 73; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 82; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 11.

Patricia Storace (review date 15 August 1991)

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SOURCE: “Seeing Double,” in New York Review, Vol. 38, No. 14, August 15, 1991, pp. 9-11.

[In the following excerpt, Storace points out the strengths and weaknesses of Beattie's writing in What Was Mine.]

… Ann Beattie appears to be living a double life as a writer. As a writer, she may be married to literature, but she seems to be having an affair with television. There is a strain of Beattie story that can be read in a state something like the kind of sensuous amnesia that television often provokes. In this kind of Beattie story, character, decor, and language are smoothly recognizable without being truly specific, as if they were the results of casting instead of writing. We know details about the characters that are establishing instead of revealing; as in the story “Honey,” we know that Elizabeth is forty-five, drinks Courvoisier, owns wind chimes, but not what her personal history or passions are. Some of Beattie's characters and settings have at best the life of images; there can be something oddly interchangeable about them, as if they were not quite important to their own stories, and could be shifted to other stories with the right cosmetic changes.

Since 1976, Beattie has been known for her bittersweet, intelligent, and suave stories of the confusions and fears of prosperous, most often youthful, Americans. Her new collection, What Was Mine, with its catered parties in Charlottesville, vacations in Amalfi, and Vermont farmhouses crammed with folk art, is rooted firmly in the territory she has made her own, for good and ill. Beattie's characters are emotional drifters, unstable in the midst of their tasteful houses, barely able to sustain connections with each other; they wish they could burrow in their luxuries like sleepers under covers. It is a fresh source of wonder for them that death is present even on the most idyllic afternoon.

In “In Amalfi,” on an afternoon of chilled white wine and Mediterranean views, the main character waits for the return of someone boating: “She reminded herself that it was a calm sea, and that the woman could not possibly be dead.” In “You Know What,” a father is told that his daughter's teacher has been hit by a truck: “She was struck from behind. … She was out getting groceries. It seems clear that that is so often the way. That in some very inconspicuous moment, a person can be overwhelmed.” There is no escape either for people who have given up trying to placate death by offering it a cocktail and an hors d'oeuvre.

In her opening story, “Imagine a Day at the End of Your Life,” Beattie suggests that there is something tragic even in the simple act of perception; perception, which is supposed to join us to the world, also separates us from it, since what is perceived fully will include an ominous consciousness of coming death. The father of a family goes for a rare walk in the woods:

That day in the woods, I thought: Don't run away from the thought of death. Imagine a day at the end of your life. … You're not decrepit, you're not in pain, nothing dramatic is happening. … You're going along and suddenly your feet feel the ground. … Clouds elongate and stretch thinly across a silvery sky. … Then imagine that you aren't there. …

Seven out of the twelve stories concern themselves with the consequences of divorce, and all are shadowed by the allusion to a violence underlying American domestic life. Working within a narrow range of class and setting and emotional preoccupation can sharply expose a writer's mannerisms and technical preferences, and means that within close confines, even within the same story, good and bad variations on the same material will be played out.

Beattie achieves her pervasive atmosphere of threat and disorientation through radical economies. She often truncates her characters, emphasizing what is peripheral about them instead of what is central. In “The Longest Day of the Year,” the narrator, a woman whose third marriage is failing, describes a trying visit from a neurotic neighbor. We never learn the narrator's name or background; we learn little about her marriage, and we never find out where she is living, though most of the story is taken up with a discussion of the community. What is local and distinctive, in both characters and setting—history, class, education, region—goes unaccounted for. As in a conventional television series, the episode itself is supreme, and the complexity of social detail is diluted.

In “What Was Mine,” although the widowing of the narrator's mother is a crucial event in both their lives, the mother tells her son nothing about his father. She doesn't reminisce or talk about his gestures or how they met; nor does the son ever ask her to talk about his dead father. Without context, their behavior seems inexplicable. Beattie's stories sometimes seem less narratives than assemblages; she pares away a character's history and what it may contribute to his motivations, foreshortening her people into a permanent present tense, while lavishing her most detailed descriptions on the objects surrounding them, telling her story through props. “The Working Girl” even reads like a treatment, since Beattie is openly giving the characters and settings the traits that will quickly establish them for the reader. “Details. Make the place seem real. In the winter, when the light disappears early, the office has a very strange aura. The ficus trees cast shadows on the desks.” We are never told what the working girl's work is; there is no explanation of why her lover leaves his wife for her, no clue to what draws them together. We know that “her future husband had two dogs in his life, and one cat,” but not where he comes from, or what he does. The omissions create the unnerving distortion that is the hallmark of Beattie's world; Beattie achieves the illusion of alienation and unknowability between character and character by limiting severely what the reader can know about them. In “Honey,” a story about a group of suburbanites seen at leisure and again during a moment of common crisis when a swarm of bees attacks their Sunday brunch, we know little about the past of the main character, her occupation, or her strained marriage, but the meals she makes are exhaustively described:

One tray was oval, painted to look like a cantaloupe. The other was in the shape of a bull. She had bought them years ago in Mexico. Deviled eggs were spread out on the bull. The cantaloupe held a bottle of gin and a bottle of tonic. A lime was in Z's breast pocket. A knife was nestled among the eggs.

The trays are given what almost amounts to a biography; the characters are not.

There is a disturbing undertone in some of Beattie's work, a kind of American equivalent of the state of mind that in Britain is called “twee.” In Britain, “twee” involves the sentimentalization of the past, all thatched cottages and Devon cream teas on flowered china. Its tougher transatlantic cousin is the sentimentalization of pop culture, its adorable bad taste, its sly celebration of the menace hiding beneath the façades of ordinary lives. It is the twee of David Lynch movies or Twin Peaks, in which the perversities and evil that go unacknowledged under their suburban marquetry give those lives a sentimentally heroic dimension, in which pop culture and suburban trappings are invested with a precious malice. Many Beattie stories are riddled with this tone.

In “Honey” an undercurrent of drunken flirtation between an older married woman and a younger man is given an infusion of queasy charm:

Inside, Len went to the basement door. … She followed him … there was a rather large cage with MR. MUSIC DUCK stenciled across the top. … The duck … hurried to a small piano. … After five or six notes, the duck hurried to a feed dish and ate its reward.

“They were closing some amusement park,” Len said. “My brother bought the duck. The guy who lives two houses over bought the dancing chicken.”

This is adorable Americana, its very innocence a self-loving decadence, cherishing and superior to its own expert bad taste. Piano-playing ducks accompanying bizarre erotic transactions are America's equivalent of the thatched cottage, as are menacing lawn sprinklers: “The lawn sprinkler revolved with the quick regularity of a madman pivoting, spraying shots from a machine gun.” And “Welcome Wagon” ladies, as in “The Longest Day of the Year,” cracking up during the course of their hospitality visits to neighbors, revealing their awful secrets and the awful secrets of their seemingly placid small towns. When the wife in “Home to Marie” puts her husband through an elaborate charade of preparing for a catered cocktail party, and tells him that there is no party, and that she is leaving him, you can practically hear the laugh track, except that this time the laughter sounds sinister.

Beattie's characters tend to behave with a solitary theatricality, as if they were living in front of invisible cameras, like Charlotte, the divorcée of “Horatio's Trick,” who on receiving a Christmas present of chocolates from her ex-husband, “dumped the contents out onto the kitchen floor and played a game of marbles, pinging one nut into another and watching them roll in different directions.” And when this variety of Beattie character has a conversation, the dialogue has a calculating quality, as if the character were talking for publication or being filmed. Charlotte speaks to her son with precisely calibrated, mannered pauses: “‘No,’ she said quietly. ‘You're entirely right. He didn't even notice that we left.’” The final speech of “You Know What” spoken between two men, strangers brought together by an accidental death, has just this tailored-for-an-audience quality: “‘McKee,’ Stefan says, walking beside him, ‘all my life I've felt like I was just making things up, improvising as I went along. I don't mean telling lies, I mean inventing a life. It's something I've never wanted to admit.’”

Paradoxically, Beattie's best writing is concerned with wordlessness. She is a marvelous witness of how behavior, rather than words, carries coded messages of love and hate. At a family reunion in “Imagine a Day at the End of Your Life,” “The TV ran night and day, and no one could keep on top of the chaos in the kitchen. Allison and Joan had even given friends the phone number, as if they were going into exile instead of visiting their parents for the weekend. The phone rang off the hook.” And in “Honey” it is in a moment of wordless panic, when bees invade an elegant outdoor meal that the characters show what they are; the arrival of the bees is like a testing in wartime:

Max became in an instant the coward, chair tipped back, colliding almost head-on with Margie Ferella; … as a bee flew past Ellen's nose, she screamed, shooting up from the chair, knocking over her glass of wine. … Louise snatched the baby back from Ellen, hate in her eyes because Ellen had been concerned only with her own safety, and it had seemed certain that she would simply drop the baby and run.

In the last and best story of the collection, “Windy Day at the Reservoir,” Beattie's brilliant observation of the inarticulate governs the story. Here she gives a virtuoso account of the relationship between a single mother and her twenty-six-year-old retarded son, done entirely without a moment of conversation between them.

In describing the boy's infancy, Beattie gets across the sheer murderousness obligation can take on:

His screaming when he was two years old had brought his mother to tears, daily. … She had a lock on one small closet that contained clothes she would wear when she took him into Boston to see doctors. Except for those clothes she would often stay, all day, in her nightgown. Even after his teeth came through, she rubbed his gums with whiskey, hoping he might fall asleep earlier. She would smash delicate things that fascinated him before he had a chance.

Through the action alone, Beattie conveys devastatingly the nakedness of the mother's love and hate, her impulse both to kill and to sustain her son.

Beattie succeeds remarkably in her portrait of the boy himself, with his incommunicable resentment over the inexplicable restraints of his life, and the eerie coherence of his view of the world, far more coherent than his mother's. “Royce, after promising he wouldn't go out, had left a note for his mother (he had whirled the yellow crayon around and around in a circle, so she would know he was taking a walk around the neighborhood).” The mother's world is one of desperate fidelity, the boy's one of omnipotent appetite.

The passages describing the boy's walk outdoors are commandingly alive:

He took off one shoe and sock and left them by a tree, because the little piggy that cried “Wee-wee-wee” all the way home was also telling him it wanted to walk barefoot on the grass. When he took off the shoe, he made a mental note of where to find it again. He had left it at tree number fifty. There were exactly four thousand four hundred and ninety-six trees on this road to the reservoir.

The boy is made up of components, and each component has its own desire.

It is this story in particular that shows how much better than Ann Beattie Ann Beattie can write. Like her most interesting characters, her work is a mixture of weaknesses and strengths. She is in the exceptional position of a writer whose powers may guide her into unknown territory, and whose weaknesses are marked by an easy glamour and appeal that can undermine the reality of her gifts.

John H. Hafner (review date 12 October 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of What Was Mine, in America, Vol. 165, No. 10, October 12, 1991, pp. 253-54.

[In the following review, Hafner lauds Beattie's short story collection What Was Mine, stating, “Ann Beattie tells fine stories that are complex in their sense of time, perceptive in their revelations of people and compelling in their concerns for the ordinariness of life and the unpredictability of the future.”]

For the people in the world of Ann Beattie's short stories, things fall apart. In [What Was Mine], her ninth book (her fifth collection of short stories), the characters are wonderfully realized as they live their lives with friends and neighbors, with husbands and wives and children, with interesting jobs in interesting places. But things just do not work out. Marriages, for example, keep breaking up, yet the reasons for the breakup are not always clear though they seem inevitable. The husbands and wives care for each other, yet they grow apart. In “Home to Marie” Marie plans a party, hires a caterer, then walks out on her husband so he'll know what it's like “to have food prepared … and then just to wait.” His reaction is to remember a time when he was mugged, presumably because Marie's action is as random and arbitrary and mean. In “What Was Mine,” Ethan's father survived the war only to be killed by a falling bucket of paint. Ethan's mother isn't able to come to terms with such a quirk of fate. In “Windy Day at the Reservoir,” Fran and Chap divorce after what seems an idyllic, though restless, vacation.

Time is important in all these stories. The action moves back and forth, and central events are often remembered ones. whether the story is told from a first-person point of view or omnisciently from a center of consciousness, the reader often experiences events through a haze of nostalgia. Even the title suggests this: Was when is would also be accurate. But this sense of time, of the importance of the past, is not usually captured through plot. In fact, in many of the stories, not much happens though much is remembered. Startling things occur: A woman gives a rocking chair to Goodwill because “it encouraged lethargy”; a divorced couple vacations together; bees suddenly invade and bring chaos to a party; a man celebrates his wife's promotion by taking her ice skating and buying her new panties; a retarded boy drowns in a reservoir.

The unexpected reveals character and carries meaning. In “Windy Day at the Reservoir.” Mrs. Brikel observes: “What did it matter if you were a little eccentric, if you did not act exactly like everyone else? People were quick to forgive. They forgave you because they were eager to keep things polite and eager to get on with their own lives.”

This startling quality is also a part of the imagery of the stories: “He frowned like an archaeologist finding something he had no context for and having to decide, rather quickly, whether it was, say, an icon or petrified cow dung”; a couple “were as attuned to each other as members of a chorus line (he looked at the cornbread, and her hand pulled the tray forward).” The unexpectedness of so much of the action, of the imagery, of the characters is all a part of the general sense that things happen no matter what, that all a person can do is be prepared, that ripeness is all.

Many of the stories are centered on an object that assumes symbolic importance to the characters. The story “In Amalfi” has a magic ring. A woman whom she does not know asks Christine to keep her ring for her while she goes out in a boat. “The ring was amazing. It sparkled so brightly in the sun that Christine was mesmerized. It was like the beginning of a fairy tale, she thought—and imagine a woman giving a total stranger her ring. … The woman had sensed that she could trust Christine. … Even though she was right, the woman had taken a huge risk.” There's an important bracelet and a duck that plays the piano in “Honey,” a manhole cover in “Installation #6,” a dog that performs tricks in “Horatio's Trick,” a rabbit in a classroom in “You Know What,” two photographs with reversed labels in “What Was Mine,” a set of Fiestaware in “Windy Day at the Reservoir.” Each object is an ordinary part of an ordinary setting that gradually acquires an importance beyond the ordinary as it reveals character, triggers thoughts, establishes interpersonal relationships, changes the direction or momentum of its story. The rabbit, for example, in “You Know What” shifts that story's center from a study of the unconventional marriage of Francine and Stefan to a revelation that results in an unusual male friendship. Likewise, the Fiestaware in “Windy Day at the Reservoir” reveals Lou's character and the flaw in his marriage to Pia, exposes the propensity of Fran and Chap to snoop and allows Mrs. Brikel to have the story's last word.

Ann Beattie tells fine stories that are complex in their sense of time, perceptive in their revelations of people and compelling in their concerns for the ordinariness of life and the unpredictability of the future.

Leo Schneiderman (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Ann Beattie: Emotional Loss and Strategies of Reparation,” in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 53, No. 4, 1993, pp. 317-33.

[In the following essay, Schneiderman analyzes the emotional loss and abandonment experienced by the characters in Beattie's fiction in terms of their love relationships.]

Much of the psychoanalytic literature dealing with emotional loss has focused on the early origins of narcissistic injury. Masterson, for example, speaks of “the mother's libidinal availability for the child's separation-individuation needs” (1981, p. 132). The child is viewed as introjecting a “withdrawing maternal part-object,” with consequent abandonment depression. Whether one relates the resulting intrapsychic structure to borderline or narcissistic personality disorders, the depressive component cannot be ignored. My present purpose is to analyze Ann Beattie's fiction with special reference to emotional loss in the context of adult love relationships. I will also explore links between the sense of abandonment, depression, and a variety of coping mechanisms as described by Beattie. I have chosen Beattie because her work is highly representative of contemporary trends in fiction, in which love relationships are often depicted not only as problematic but as impoverished and filled with loneliness and a sense of loss. To the extent that these trends reflect patterns of behavior in real life—always difficult to determine—it is possible that love relationships, family life, and nurturance in contemporary America are undergoing important historic changes of an entropic nature.

Beattie's “A Vintage Thunderbird” is one of many stories that illustrate the theme of irreparable loss, in this case not only the ill-advised sale of a vintage auto but more importantly the damage done to assorted love relationships by misunderstandings, indecisiveness, and self-centeredness. As if gratuitously, Beattie causes her bachelor protagonist to catch a glimpse of a little boy playing with a hula hoop, a reminder, perhaps, of lost opportunities for a normal family life. The symbolic meaning of the child is underscored by the circumstance that one of the female characters, a married friend and short-term mistress of the protagonist, has had an abortion earlier on the same day.

All of Beattie's characters in this representative story suffer from abandonment depression, being left behind repeatedly by their lovers. Unlike the arrested narcissistic personality described by Masterson (1981) or Kernberg's regressive narcissistic personality (1975), with their characteristic grandiose defenses, Beattie's characters are at the mercy of their depression. They accept their rejection or abandonment by their lovers as a fact of life, hoping that their phone will ring—as it does unexpectedly from time to time—but not really believing that they deserve to be loved or that they can successfully pursue their love objects: “He had seen for a long time that it didn't matter to her how much she meant to him” (Beattie, 1978, p. 15).

Beattie's protagonists cannot separate from their unavailable love objects, even though they fail to receive positive mirroring. The frustrated protagonist of “A Vintage Thunderbird” experiences a brief flare-up of anger when his elusive girlfriend sells her Thunderbird, which he had idealized as much as his girlfriend. But it is not typical of Beattie's protagonists to mobilize rage in response to their endless disappointments. In fact, the hapless protagonist of “A Vintage Thunderbird” is the victim of other people's rage, being mugged and severely injured on two occasions immediately following rejection by a girlfriend. If it was Beattie's intention to “punish” her protagonist for failing to meet the emotional needs of his lovers, she has succeeded, although most of the emotional pain experienced by her characters is self-administered.

The fear of loss and abandonment may be one of the reasons Beattie's characters remain locked into unsatisfactory love relationships, breaking up and reconciling only to part in anger and bafflement over and over again. Once they are separated, they are overcome by anxiety and feel bereft of emotional resources. It is not so much that they are lonely as they are puzzled by their failure to connect. Their loneliness begins, in fact, when they come together. One cannot speak of separation anxiety because Beattie's characters do not anticipate their abandonment, even though they have experienced it many times. The reason for their lack of prescience is that they do not learn from experience but live existentially from crisis to crisis. Though oft-wounded and conscious of their pain, these rejected men and women do not wonder why they have been made to suffer and are surprised to be told that they have made others suffer. It is this incapacity for veridical reflection that is their doom and their saving grace, as well, protecting them from unbearable insight. Beattie remarked in an interview (McCaffery and Gregory, 1984, pp. 165–177) that though some of her characters have insight, their self-understanding is usually limited, distorted, or incapable of guiding their actions in a constructive direction. She adds that her characters are unhappy because there is “something missing” in their lives, which neither she nor her protagonists can identify.

One explanation for the plight of Beattie's characters is that she has placed them in relationships in which, in Mahler's theory, they are not emotionally responsive to each other (1979). Part of their difficulty is that, even though they are adults, they have not undergone the kind of separation-individuation that Mahler associates with early childhood. At least one critic, Joseph Epstein (1983, pp. 54–58), has remarked on the interchangeability of Beattie's characters, who are often distinguished by their names only, names that are nondescript to begin with. One can understand why they are trapped in relationships in which they are unable to give each other emotional support or even communicate their own feelings: these characters are undifferentiated from each other except with regard to gender. Their symbiosis resembles the relationship between a mother who cannot let go and a child who is afraid to break away. Beattie's unhappy spouses may plan to obtain a divorce, like the father in the novel Falling in Place (1980), who is unable to act until forced to make a decision by an external event, in this case the shooting of his daughter by his son. In the short story “Distant Music,” sudden success as a songwriter permits the male protagonist to leave his mistress in New York in order to start a new life in California. The mistress, for her part, remains tied to the memory of her erstwhile lover by holding onto the dog they had raised together, even though it has become vicious and all but unmanageable.

Symbiotic relationships in Beattie's fiction are characterized not only by inertia but by tremendous tension fueled by unconscious resentment of the partner whose claims, often unstated, bar the way to freedom. Sometimes the impulse to break out of passivity results in psychotic acting out, as in the story “A Reasonable Man.” This story is told from the point of view of a young mother who has not yet recovered from a recent psychotic break, in which she accidentally endangered the safety of her small son at the beach by leaving him in the surf while she impulsively ran off to the end of the beach and returned in a confused state. The mother has no insight into her condition and cannot understand why her husband (whose name she apparently no longer remembers, thinking of him only as “the man”) urges her to get out of the house more often, or why she is obsessed with the thought that her telephone never rings anymore. Her husband's “reasonableness” is tinged with half-concealed anger and is devoid of empathy. The wife, who has long been neglected by her “busy” husband, and who feels totally isolated, wonders if she can “lure him into bed. Perhaps if that works, the phone will also ring” (1978, p. 47). To add to the woman's frustration, her critical and insensitive mother-in-law, who has taken custody of her son, has also enrolled her in an arts-and-crafts class as a form of therapy. Her instructor, who seems to understand her situation, gives her a book of poetry by Sylvia Plath and wants her to realize that “many women felt enraged—sad and enraged” (1978, p. 50). The woman is unable to share her pain with him because “That would cast a pall over things, though. The instructor would feel uncomfortable. … Talk about something neutral. Talk about the weather” (1978, p. 50). Significantly, the only topic her husband talks about with her is the weather. “A Reasonable Man” is a powerful statement about the impossibility of communication, the substitution of banality for candor, and the sense of entrapment in a failed relationship. This time, the protagonist has lost more than her love-objects because she has lost contact with reality and her sense of efficacy as a person, as a wife, and as a mother.

A possible interpretation of “A Reasonable Man” is that the reaction to symbiosis sometimes takes the form of abortive flight, which in the present case resembles a fugue of short duration. The young mother's wild dash along the edge of the beach may be seen as a momentary acting out, not very different, in essence, from the vicarious acting out symbolized by the brother's shooting of his sister in Falling in Place. Is there a systematic relationship between abandonment depression as depicted in “A Reasonable Man” and acting-out behavior? If so, we may have a partial key to the etiology of acting-out behavior in some individuals where there is evidence of maternal neglect. In such instances, the desperate effort on the part of the poorly differentiated child to break out of a symbiotic, nonempathic relationship may lead to acting out as an expression of frustration and rage. Beattie's characters are not antisocial necessarily, much less psychopathic. On the contrary, they are highly socialized, even when their speech is flavored with the obscenities that have become commonplace among middle-class youth. These fictional protagonists are much closer to narcissistic and borderline personality disorders precisely because they are not antisocial, but depressed and self-destructive. In this context, acting out can take many forms, conditioned by middle-class as well as lower-class cultural norms. For example, Masterson (1981, p. 46) speaks of psychopathic acting out as a defense against the fear of engulfment, in some cases, and in other instances, the fear of abandonment. Defensive rage, flight, or aggression are not peculiar, however, to the psychopathic personality, but may be seen as reactions to maternal deprivation in general.

The story of “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” illustrates some of the difficulties involved in parent-child relationships that are not manifestly symbiotic, but produce defensive rage in the child. The tale describes a charismatic father figure who comes to be perceived by his daughter as standing in the way of her growth toward autonomy. The two protagonists are the college-age son of a famous painter and his girlfriend, who is the daughter of a celebrated poet, some of whose poems are based on memories of his daughter's childhood. When the poet dies by his own hand after being told he is terminally ill, his daughter finds herself becoming enraged when anyone refers to her father and what a great man he was. Her anger is so intense that she terminates her relationship with the painter's son when the latter recalls how he once thought her father was “larger than life.” Is she angry because of the explicit charge by her lover that her father has dominated her life, or is her rage symptomatic of her ambivalence and melancholia? In the context of Beattie's other fictional works, in which people sometimes become attached to objects and pets, rather than other people—“A Vintage Thunderbird” and “Distant Music” are examples—and where relationships are precarious, the present story appears to deal with the fear of engulfment. The daughter had never imagined that her gentle father played a destructive role in her life until her lover reproached her for being under the older man's domination. In fact, there is more than a suspicion that the lover has projected his own conflict over individuation onto the hitherto repressive girl, bringing to the surface defensive rage she did not know she possessed.

The theme of a young woman being under the domination of an older father figure is developed more fully in “Weekend,” in which the woman cannot break out of a deeply frustrating six-year relationship with her lover, an alcoholic, failed English professor twice her age. The male, who is portrayed as a narcissistic, aging roué, shows far more interest in his former female students than in his mistress, who tries to lose herself in domesticity. The former professor, dismissed from his post and with plenty of time on his hands, entertains his erstwhile students every weekend, taking long walks in the country with selected young women and engaging in animated conversation with them in the presence of his house-bound mistress, whom he hardly ever addresses. Despite the fact that the mistress has had two children by the professor, she feels excluded from his life and sees daily evidence of the man's self-absorption and indifference to her needs. To add to her pain and humiliation, she overhears him saying to one of his students that she, the mistress, is “simple” for staying with him. Her brother has urged her for years to leave the older man, but in vain, partly because the woman feels pity for her lover, having seen a number of agonized facial photos that he took of himself and then concealed. Finally, the professor, quite drunk, embraces one of his students in front of his mistress and gleefully announces that he is in love with the young girl, who rejects him at once, bursting into tears and fleeing from the house. After the student leaves, the professor curses her, but is consoled by his long-suffering wife, who says to him: “I'm the only one you can go too far with” (Beattie, 1978, p. 127).

The self-abasement of the mistress in “Weekend” corresponds closely to Masterson's description of borderline pathology (1981, pp. 99–102). His view of the salient features of the borderline condition includes failure of individuation, inhibited self-assertion, and low self-esteem associated with self-image disturbance. Sometimes, compulsive defenses are part of the picture, as exemplified by the counting compulsions shown by several of Beattie's inadequate protagonists, including the professor's mistress in “Weekend.” Beattie's uncanny ability to dramatize the borderline personality is matched by her gift for describing a variety of what Masterson calls “caretaking” relationships by which the borderline “clings” to the object selflessly, blocking individuation. Anger and depression go hand-in-hand with compliant behavior as the borderline struggles to ward off the threat of abandonment by stifling self-assertion at all costs.

The plight of Beattie's inadequate, passive protagonists is understandable not only in terms of borderline pathology but also in the light of the drug-oriented counterculture of the sixties and seventies in which they find themselves. But one must not make too much of the cultural or cohort context. Beattie's fictional failures of attachment, the underlying rage experienced by her characters, their poor sense of self, their acting out via alcoholism or drug abuse, and their lack of self-direction are all symptomatic of a trend in which anomic features of popular culture intersect with the breakdown of the traditional family for a variety of historical reasons.

Thus, Beattie's protagonists, despite their privileged middle-class background and college education, are as much the result of defective childhood nurturance as Joyce Carol Oates' or Harry Crews' violent characters. The difference is that Beattie's characters are self-destructive, wasting their lives in aimless, promiscuous relationships and living from hand to mouth, whereas Oates' or Crews' protagonists, no less disoriented and filled with a sense of emptiness, act out their frustrations in an extrapunitive way. Lovelessness and an incapacity for healthy object relations are the common factor along with the erosion of the ego ideal, although the more aggressive coping mechanisms of Oates' or Crews' characters suggest a narcissistic character structure, with characteristic features of grandiosity and omnipotence. The fantasy themes explored by these contemporary writers parallel developments on the plane of everyday reality. These developments are described daily by the mass media with their terrifying accounts of crime, homelessness, drug addiction, spouse and child abuse, and many other indices of social pathology. Here, too, it is necessary to distinguish between the pathetic helplessness of borderline personalities, such as many homeless people, addicts, and the like, and the predatory behavior of narcissistic characters whose rage is channeled along sociopathic lines.

The generation that Beattie writes about—at least its middle-class members—is indeed different from earlier generations in its relative affluence and its lack of a sense of urgency about career choice, marriage, and “settling down.” The evidence of borderline personality traits in her characters is consistent with the lack of structure in their lives. This is to say that the parental generation and authority figures generally have disappeared from the scene. They exist only to send monthly checks and worried letters to their wayward children, as in “Colorado,” in which an aimless graduate-school dropout allows himself to be persuaded by his unstable girlfriend to drive out from Cambridge to a remote part of Colorado merely for a change of scene.

In the absence of pressures to strive for acceptance into adult society, or to hold onto a job, or pursue an education, or even to be self-supporting, Beattie's tarnished, pot-smoking jeunesse doré are forced to create their own structure. Or, it would be more precise to say that hedonism replaces society's traditional structure of age- and role-related expectations. Accordingly, Beattie's protagonists do not “act their age,” but are dependent and self-absorbed. Nor do they act like parents to their neglected children, as in “Starley,” in which a man hardly ever bothers to see his son and wonders why his son does not like him. In effect, these characters allow their lives to be structured by accidental circumstances or by other people, as in “Deer Season,” in which a young woman, fearful of turning into a spinster, is persuaded by her former lover to go off with him into a problematic future: “She … thought that perhaps being powerless was nice, in a way” (Beattie, 1978, p. 188). Symbolic of the young woman's fate is a newly slain deer tied to the top of a van whose driver stops to help the stranded couple who are on the way to no place in particular.

The lives of Beattie's characters testify to the futility of hedonism and the destructive effects that result from the dismantling of long-term, committed relationships, familiar routines, seasonal rituals, and other activities that provide a framework of predictability for people's lives and a semblance of security. The much-vaunted informality of American life turns out to be a form of social “deconstructionism,” as interpreted by Beattie, not unlike its counterpart in literary criticism. The consequences for Beattie's characters are much more serious than those produced by the reinterpretation of iconic texts. What is absent in the lives of Beattie's protagonists is nothing less than the network of mutual expectations that bind people together into a cohesive society. Her fictional borderlines, for this reason, are more than examples of the walking wounded. Their isolation from each other is emblematic of centrifugal forces at work in society. I do not wish to push the analogy too far, but the lack of integration seen in borderlines seems to parallel the weakening of the nexus between individuals on the macrolevel of the social system as a whole.

In her analysis of the borderline adolescent, Paulina Kernberg (1979) speaks of unpredictability, poor impulse control and weak integration resulting from low frustration tolerance, low anxiety tolerance, and low depression tolerance. To understand why Beattie's characters are unable to bond with each other it is necessary to see their impulsivity, and low frustration tolerance, in particular, as contributing to their instability. For example, in “The Lawn Party” a young married man impulsively kisses the bare toes of his brother's attractive wife. Earlier in the story, he was described as spending all his spare moments with his wife's sister, making no attempt to conceal the affair, until the latter, on a sudden impulse, drove her car off the road, losing her life in the “accident,” and causing the protagonist to lose his right arm.

The embittered protagonist deliberately insults everyone present at a family reunion, including his 10-year-old daughter. The story ends with the protagonist watching his brother's wife dancing drunkenly on the lawn as he undresses her mentally. Here, in a single story, the motifs of failure as a husband, father, and brother are developed against a background of quasi-incestuous relationships. The protagonist, whose mutilated body is the outward emblem of his poorly integrated self, responds to the loss of his mistress and his arm in a pseudoeuphoric manner that is indicative of his incapacity for tolerating not only frustration but depression as well. The euphoria is manifested by his sudden infatuation with his brother's wife, which has less to do with mature sexuality than with regression to the rapprochement crisis. Otherwise, why does the angry, isolated man kiss each of his sister-in-law's toes, saying, “Give back that piggy,” an obvious reference to the babyish game, “This little piggy went to market?”

The connection between impulsivity, hedonism, and depression that is suggested by “The Lawn Party” is best understood in the context of attempted reparation for emotional loss and deprivation. As Thomas Edwards observed in his review of Beattie's 1986 collection of short stories, Where You'll Find Me in the New York Times Book Review (Oct. 12, 1986, p. 10), Beattie's characters fail to find replacement for what they have lost earlier in life—not only love objects but the capacity for intense feeling that once was invested in these objects. The search for reparation sometimes centers on symbolic representations of these lost objects, as is illustrated by the story, “Janus,” in which a glazed bowl becomes the symbol of a woman's erstwhile lover, who had given her the bowl as a gift.

Other expressions of attempted reparation take the form of groups living in rural, commune-like settings in which young married and unmarried men and women—former lovers and would-be lovers—try to create the illusion of togetherness. The long story, “Friends,” is one of many examples of this tendency in Beattie's fiction and illustrates the tenuousness of the ties that exist among such people, despite their physical intimacy and tolerance for each other's idiosyncrasies. In “Friends,” too, a physical object—in this case a borrowed oak table—links two women to each other in a long-term relationship by phone, even though they have no real interest in each other. The group life of these characters is regressive, with much drinking, pot smoking, carelessness, and petty annoyances caused by their egocentricity. They even arrange their physical space as if to recall their childhood: “Seeing the clothes on hooks reminded him of the way coats were hung in his schoolroom in the winter when he was young” (Beattie, 1978, p. 226).

The reader is given to understand that there is more to the lives of these unsettled people than is suggested by their bohemian lifestyle, with its alternations between communal life and reclusiveness in remote corners of New England. They are, after all, half-serious artists, poets, and musical band members. Their reclusiveness is nominal because they spend hours talking to each other on the phone and lose no opportunity to congregate in each other's rustic dwellings, even though they live far apart from each other. Beattie has these lonely people circling each other, in quest of elusive lovers or in flight from present spouses, or trying to escape from the isolation of their self-centered lives. Like Perry, the protagonist of “Friends,” a would-be poet with a cast on his broken leg, they drag themselves around from one crowded New England farmhouse to another, uncertain whether their destiny is to be a poet or a carpenter, a platonic friend or a lover.

Another character resolves her conflict between being a responsible, nurturant mother to her young child or becoming somebody's mistress by deserting her husband and eloping with her former lover. The woman whom the protagonist loves epitomizes her own conflict as follows: “I don't know what I want. … When Anita had her baby I wanted to be a mother. I want to be left alone, but I need to have people around” (Beattie, 1978, p. 247). She is certain, however, that she wants to become a “famous” painter, but rarely gets beyond painting nude portraits of herself. The story ends abruptly with the woman on the threshold of success, waiting calmly to be interviewed by a reporter from the Village Voice. The protagonist, whose mistress she has become, less out of passion than expediency, knows that she will never marry him and resigns himself to obscurity and the realization that “his importance in life was to take care of other people—that he would be remembered as the person who housed them and looked after them” (Beattie, 1978, p. 261).

Beattie's fictional peer groups cannot provide love and security because they are pseudo-families prone to fragmentation, each member eventually veering off in a different direction. Like the borderline adolescents described by Kernberg (1979) in her analysis of rapprochement difficulties, Beattie's characters alternate between using other people as a support for their fragile sense of self and a tendency to turn against others, or away from them when their behavior does not correspond to unrealistic self- or object representations. In “A Clever-Kids Story,” for example, Beattie describes a young woman who is by no means a borderline, but whose grief over the loss of her older brother in Vietnam is intensified by the knowledge that their relationship during childhood had been almost incestuous. The woman had successfully differentiated herself from her brother, but she continues to experience her relationship with her lover as if it retained important elements of the physical intimacy that had existed with her brother during childhood. The protagonist's brother had been the dominant one in their relationship, compelling her to listen to his wild bedtime stories while he shared her bed. The young woman, for her part, had turned out to be a realist, having urged him to flee to Canada rather than risk death in Vietnam. Nevertheless, she continues to experience her brother's attraction to the uncanny, associating it with a portion of her childhood identity that is forever lost because it was tied to her brother's psychic structure.

The theme of imperfect differentiation of the self is explored in “Tuesday Night,” in which a divorced woman doesn't know what to do with herself on Tuesday nights, when her lover has to attend business meetings. She is chronically bored and depressed but is less than enthusiastic when her lover offers to change the night on which the meetings are held. It is as if she needs to have time to herself, as she maintains, and wishes to differentiate herself from her lover, but cannot structure her life as a separate person. Ominously, her lover “has been saying for a long time that our relationship is turning sour for him” (Beattie, 1978, p. 292). In the reader's last glimpse of the protagonist, she fearfully awaits her lover's declaration that their relationship is at an end because the night before he had said: “If there has to be so much time alone, I can't see the point of living together” (Beattie, 1978, p. 292). In “Secrets and Surprises,” the title story of the 1978 collection, a 33-year-old woman whose husband has left her takes a 21-year-old lover who was her music student. She cannot abandon the hope that her husband will return to her, a hope that is kept alive by his letters, which keep her abreast of his travels, presumably with another woman. At the same time, she regrets that her young lover is about to leave her to travel around Europe.

The Secrets and Surprises collection, taken as a whole, then, elaborates the theme of symbiosis and the difficulty of breaking off outworn relationships by people who are poorly integrated and lack a sense of purpose. The underlying affect is that of depression and loss, without insight, and with compulsive hedonism as one of several desperate remedies. Are these stories, published originally in periodicals in the seventies, symbolic expressions of Beattie's inner conflicts and preoccupations, or are they an objective summing-up of the lives of representative middle-class, white Americans of the post-Vietnam years—or both? My present purpose is not to attempt to explore the personal sources of Beattie's fiction but to call attention to the larger implications of her portraits of people who resemble borderlines along certain dimensions. These fictional bohemians and jaded housewives are more than creatures of the sixties and seventies counterculture. Beattie's fiction is an attempt to deal with the complexities of love relationships against the background of important changes in the structure of family life and the viability of long-term emotional commitments. These relationships are explored in different contexts.

In the story “In Amalfi,” in the 1991 collection, What Was Mine (the title itself suggests irretrievable loss), published 13 years after the appearance of Secrets and Surprises, Beattie continues to probe love relationships that cannot be sustained, yet cannot be terminated. This time the protagonist is a divorced woman who had married her English professor, then had divorced him after a short period; but had kept in touch with him for 15 years, even after he remarried and had children by his second wife. Now the professor is once again divorced and spends his vacations with the protagonist. The point of the story is that the renewed relationship between the aging professor and the much younger protagonist is impoverished, with the professor spending much of his time writing a book and ignoring the protagonist: “It no longer irritated her that for seconds or minutes or even for half an hour, she could be no more real to him than a ghost” (1991, p. 15).

In this collection, however, Beattie depicts people who wonder about each other's motives, as well as their own reasons for entering into or ending relationships. Her characters are no longer shown from the outside, but are given an inner life, though not a very detailed one. The result is that they appear to be closer to each other, or at least within reach of each other, if not on the level of empathy, then on the level of tolerance. These dissatisfied men and women are still restless and feel constrained by family ties, as is revealed by “Imagine a Day at the End of Your Life,” which is about a retired householder who is relieved to get away momentarily from his large family, whose members have gathered to celebrate his fortieth wedding anniversary. He finds solace in driving out to the countryside alone, without his hyperactive wife, and walking in the woods while he tries to rediscover his links with nature and contemplates his eventual death. As if he has had enough of people, he has filled a photo album (a gift from one of his daughters) with pressed autumn leaves instead of photos of his family.

In contrast to the escapist motivation implied in the above story, Beattie explores a moment of coming together and genuine empathy and mutual concern in “Honey.” Here a middle-aged housewife, already a grandmother, is in love with a 23-year-old man. Their relationship, largely unspoken, has not gone beyond sharing a tub of popcorn at the movies and licking butter off each other's fingers. At a backyard barbecue attended by the housewife, her husband, and her would-be lover, as well as others, the protagonist and the young man instinctively clasp each other's hands across the table when everyone is thrown into a panic by a swarm of bees drawn to a honey pot opened by the young man. The woman seems to have been thinking about the meaning of her attraction to the young man when she wonders why her married daughter decided to have a baby: “Please let it not be because she thinks that if someone needs her, he loves her” (1991, p. 34). If Beattie means for this line to epitomize the housewife's feelings toward the young man, it would suggest that her fictional world has ceased to be a universe in which people cling to each other out of blind need and has become a place in which they reflect on the meaning of their relationships. Is this shift an indication of greater inwardness on Beattie's part or has she decided to abandon her erstwhile method of distancing the reader from her characters? Another possibility is that Beattie no longer sees her fictional people as products of a particular period, i.e., hippies and posthippies of the sixties and seventies, but as individuals with the same wishes and fears as everyone else, and as capable of much greater self-determination than her earlier creations.

The last-named possibility gains credibility from some of the stories in the What Was Mine collection, in addition to “Honey.” Although not all the stories are an advance over her earlier work, the general tone is different. For example, “The Longest Day of the Year,” a story about a couple who are about to end their marriage, reveals no evidence of soul searching. It shows an impatience on the part of the wife, once her mind is made up, to get on with the process of dismantling her old life and moving away, even though the local Welcome-Wagon woman insists on taking up her time on the eve of her departure. In this story, Beattie depicts a woman who is no longer ambivalent about terminating a failed relationship, but her decision is not based on any special insight, as far as the reader can tell.

Another example of decisiveness, but without evidence of reflection, is provided by the lives of the protagonists in “The Working Girl,” in What Was Mine. This is an account of a female office worker's marriage to a middle-management executive and of his eventual death following surgery. The account is remarkable for its sustained externality and its “deadpan” treatment of crucial events in people's lives, all in the guise of the author pretending that she is trying to make up a story about an imaginary working girl. Beattie distances herself completely from her colorless protagonists at the same time that she enables her male protagonist, the executive, to divorce his beautiful wife without hesitation once he has become enamored of his rather ordinary office worker.

A similar example of single-mindedness is displayed in “Home to Marie,” in which a housewife arranges for an elaborate catered party at her home and then deliberately walks out on her unsuspecting husband as he awaits the guests who will never show up because they have never been invited. The stunned husband is last seen being consoled by the caterer and remembering how he was once mugged and badly injured after leaving a bar one night. The suddenness of his assailant's attack, the reader surmises, has its counterpart in the abruptness of the wife's departure, suitcase in hand.

Decisiveness is seen also in “Television,” in which a man suddenly falls in love with the female narrator of the tale while they are treating their lawyer to a surprise birthday lunch at a restaurant. The man's unexpected declaration of love is matched by the woman's shocked rejection of him: “This surprised me so much that as well as moving away from him I also went back in my mind to the safety and security of childhood” (1991, p. 97).

The decisiveness, indeed, the recklessness shown by Beattie's characters in What Was Mine, can be seen as something apart from thematic or stylistic experimentation. Whatever the sources in Beattie's personal development or in the events of her private life, the shift from listless, irresolute characters to people who act with seeming confidence on the spur of the moment suggests, in psychodynamic terms, that impulsivity is sometimes the reciprocal of obsessive blocking and indecision. In such cases, the fear of impulsivity may have given rise to obsessive defenses in the first place. Accordingly, what appears as decisiveness may represent a weakening of obsessive defenses against acting out. In such instances, acting out can take the “positive” form of falling in love, perhaps serving as an attempted antidote to doubt and depression. Similarly, acting out can take the form of falling out of love, as an expression of repressed anger and resentment that has finally surfaced.

In “Horatio's Trick,” impulsivity takes still another form, namely, harsh candor, as a college-age son confronts his divorced alcoholic mother with her heavy drinking, her phobic attitudes, and her blocked, repressive style of life: “I'm going to say this, because I think you aren't aware of what you do. You don't ask anything, because you're afraid of what every answer might be. It makes people reluctant to talk to you. Nobody wants to tell you things” (1991, pp. 112–113). The son also accuses his mother of showing no interest in his father's new family, as if she “doesn't want to know things.” It is as if the young man has saved up his reproaches and finally has to unburden himself, despite the obvious pain to his mother. Although candor is quite different from what is usually meant by acting out, and can be a deliberate act, it can also be seen as an effort to overcome passivity in others by means of reproach.

When one views the collection What Was Mine as a whole it is clear that Beattie understands the power of repression and has set out to create characters who can act on their feelings, albeit not always with full understanding of what impels them. These new characters are very different from the characters in Beattie's first collection of stories, Distortions (1976b), in which people seem to have no will of their own and are prepared to accept a destiny that is shaped entirely by fortuitous circumstances. Nevertheless, there are echoes of Beattie's earlier themes in What Was Mine, as if Beattie cannot avoid certain fictional situations. As mentioned earlier, for example, “Home to Marie” ends with the deserted husband alone with the caterer, a young woman who tells him about her love life and seems to sympathize with his predicament. One finds almost the same ending to a story in the earlier collection, The Burning House (1982), in “Greenwich Time,” in which a man who is visiting his former wife and her new husband in what was once his own house is comforted by his former maid while he awaits the arrival of his ex-wife and her husband. The theme of loss and attempted reparation is obviously a thread that runs through Beattie's fiction from her earliest work to her latest writings.

The breakdown of repressive defenses in the behavior of Beattie's more recent protagonists may indicate that she is at the threshold of exploring the sources of depression, apathy, and irresolution, rather than concentrating on symptoms and defensive strategies. I say “symptoms” because Beattie's fiction deals with the long-term after-effects of faulty parenting and early traumas without making direct causal connections. In the novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976a), for example, the reader listens in at great length to the conversations of two dysphoric young men who bemoan the vacuousness of their lives, their sense of hopelessness, and the decline and moral decay, as they see it, of America as a whole. We learn that their families were dysfunctional, alcoholic, and unsupportive, but Beattie's focus is on her protagonists' bad feelings and general cynicism. When one of the male protagonists, for example, receives an urgent call from his mother, in which she states that she is in such great pain that she thought of killing herself, he remarks angrily to his sister: “She's not in pain. He's out with some barfly and she's acting up. … She's either drunk or in a bad mood because he's out with some woman. She's done this a hundred times” (1976a, p. 4).

The son's analysis of his mother's motives is correct and she is indeed a troubled woman, who is lying stark naked in bed when her son and daughter arrive to summon an unneeded ambulance. The son had earlier expressed his rage at his mother to his friend: “Even your dog had the good sense to lie down and die.” Beattie does not examine the inner life of the mother or her early relationship to her children. The son sums up his mother's predicament as follows: “I think that one day she just decided to go nuts because that was easier. This way she can say whatever she wants to say and she can drink and lie around naked and just not do anything” (1976a, p. 14). He brushes aside suggestions that the deaths of family members may have contributed to his mother's behavior. Although it is not a fiction writer's obligation to provide a clinical analysis of why parent-child relationships turn destructive, Beattie's detached treatment of her characters leaves the reader without insight into their emotional problems, and therefore, without an understanding of them as people.

In a later novel, Falling in Place (1980), the disasters of family life are given their due as the author traces the breakup of a marriage, but the exact relationship between parental unhappiness and the rage and confusion felt by the children is left to the reader's imagination, perhaps in keeping with Hemingway's theory of leaving the most important things unsaid. Beattie seems to grasp this relationship in a general way, but her focus alternates between the children and the adults and she seems unable or unwilling to interweave their lives in an illuminating way. As was noted earlier, Falling in Place involves, among other things, a 10-year-old boy shooting and wounding his 15-year-old sister, but the sources of the boy's disturbed personality are not dealt with, either artistically or by the way of psychological analysis. The lack of connection between causal factors and adult behavior is even more conspicuous in those works by Beattie that deal only with adults. Her habit of writing stories spontaneously and without a definite plan or predetermined ending is well known to critics and has led Beattie into a style of writing that highlights surface behavior and neglects etiology. To deal with the sources of aimlessness, boredom, affectlessness, depression, and emotional dependency and the other traits described by Beattie requires a very different strategy of composition and a different style.

Unless, of course, Beattie is writing about people who suffer from what Kohut (1977) has termed “empty” depression, or nonpsychotic states that are not motivated by the usual feelings of self-reproach associated with depression. Kohut sees such pathology as reflecting a fragmented self-structure in which there are no goals in life to provide direction or coherence, so that the individual gives the appearance of being depleted. Kohut traces “empty” depression to the absence of empathic response on the part of the sufferer's parents or caretakers. In a similar vein, Basch (1975) posits impairment of the symbolic concept of the self, with the implication that the depressed person cannot objectify the self and is therefore responding to a sense of loss of his identity as an autonomous person. In this connection, Beattie seems to be writing about depressed people who are driven neither by self-blame nor remorse, so that it is not necessary for her to construct scenarios involving symbolic “crime” and self-punishment. Beattie's scenarios of separation and loss have special relevance for understanding depression in women, even though Beattie makes use of male protagonists as often as female.

Blatt (1974) compares anaclitic with introjective depression and argues that anaclitic depression is more characteristic of women than men. Presumably, the preoedipal period is significantly longer and more problematic for girls than for boys, so that girls experience the rapprochement crisis more acutely than boys. When a girl's separation from her mother during her first years is either premature or prolonged, it is suggested that regressive behavior is more likely to occur than if a boy is similarly traumatized. Based on these premises, Blatt reasons that girls require a longer period of attachment to the mother because, unlike boys, they do not have the option of later shifting their identification to the father.

A study by Herman (1979) on sex differences concludes that the female response to a real or symbolic loss in interpersonal relationships is to seek out people for emotional support and to counteract depression, whereas males tend to withdraw. Although this study is based on adult behavior, it can be hypothesized that Beattie's depressed, but oddly social, party-going, hard-drinking, pot-smoking protagonists who run from the arms of one lover to another are engaged in object seeking by way of reparation, and that this behavior is the analogue of behavior in young children. If this line of thinking is valid, Beattie's fictional people resemble depressed women more than men and the nature of their depression is anaclitic. Beattie also has described hedonistic strategies of reparation that are highly representative of our times and involve an almost manic flight into a pseudo-reality. But why are so many fictional people depicted as searching for a lost parent, or more precisely, a substitute object, in Beattie's work? Is it possible that their real-life prototypes are psychological orphans whose parents left them not with memories of warm embraces but with a couple of faded photographs of people they hardly knew?


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Beattie, A. (1978). Secrets and Surprises. New York: Random House.

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Beattie, A. (1982). The Burning House. New York: Random House.

Beattie, A. (1991). What Was Mine. New York: Random House.

Blatt, S. J. (1974). Levels of object representation in anaclitic and introjective depression. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 29: 107–157.

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Harris, H. (1979). Psychoanalytic theory and depression. In R. Formanek and A. Gurian (eds.), Women and Depression. New York: Springer.

Herman, M. F. (1979). Sex differences in depression. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Kernberg, O. (1975). Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism. New York: Brunner

Kernberg, P. (1979). Psychoanalytic psychotherapy with borderline adolescents. In Developmental and Clinical Studies, Vol. 7, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kohut, H. (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.

Mahler, M. S. (1979). The Selected Papers of Margaret Mahler. New York: Jason Aronson.

Masterson, J. F. (1981). The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

McCaffery, L., and Gregory, S. (1984). A conversation with Ann Beattie. The Literary Review 27(2): 165–177.

Ann Beattie with James Plath (interview date Summer 1993)

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SOURCE: “Counternarrative: An Interview with Ann Beattie,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 359-79.

[In the following interview, Beattie discusses her writing style and how it has changed throughout her career.]

Book tours have a way of turning writers into gypsies. After Ann Beattie finished reading from What Was Mine at a Chicago-area book store, I drove her to her hotel, where, upon finding cold champagne and a fruit tray, compliments of her publisher, she expressed the same measure of surprised delight as a tourist might. Her appearance was equally down-to-earth. Beattie wore a loose tunic, patterned stretch pants, and bold socks. Nothing matched, she explained, because she purchased them on the road because her others were dirty. “My Reeboks,” she said, lifting one foot above the coffee table, “I recently bought in Key West. On sale.”

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1947, Ann Beattie enjoyed the early support of The New Yorker, where a great many of her stories of failed and failing relationships appeared. Her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), and Distortions, a collection of short stories published that same year, established her as a spokesperson for the hippie-turned-yuppie generation. Other books quickly followed: Secrets and Surprises (1978), Falling in Place (1980), The Burning House (1982), Spectacles (1985), Love Always (1986), Where You'll Find Me (1987), Picturing Will (1989), and her latest collection, What Was Mine (1991).

During the reading, Beattie sat in a chair on a small platform, rarely looking up from her book to make eye contact with the crowd of sixty or so. Once finished, however, she received the line of autograph-seekers and well-wishers with reception-line enthusiasm, asking each person a question or two, and personalizing every book. By the time she finished, it was well after 10 p.m. Yet, in the hotel room, relaxing somewhat with shoes off and a glass of champagne in hand, she was still gracious, still full of energy, full of interest—and seemingly eager to talk about her work.

[Plath:] Like Raymond Carver, you tend to write what I would call “fictions of aftermath,” where most of the conflict or turning points have already occurred, leaving the characters to cope with or work through resultant problems. What is it about recovery that seems more interesting to you than the cause and effect process leading up to it all, a process you seem to deemphasize?

[Beattie:] I don't think you can omit any mention of the cause and effect process in the story, but I'm not sure that it needs to be the beginning. If the stories seem to resemble “ordinary life,” then very few things happen with a beginning, middle and end. You often can understand things in retrospect, or something will happen that will precipitate a change. But I don't think that most of us lead orderly lives, and it wouldn't be possible for me to write a story that went along with some status quo that I don't even see in operation.

As your characters try to order their lives, they look to the past so often that it almost seems like returning to the “scene of the crime.”

It's true. I think I've very rarely written anything that doesn't invoke the past at some point. At what point that occurs, though, varies a bit. The story that I read tonight, “Home to Marie,” certainly could have been told in reverse order. It could have had a different so-called “punch line.” It's really just an emotional decision, in a way, if all your material is there, to try to figure out how you want to present it. I'm not saying that anything is okay. I don't think you can set a reader up for one set of expectations, and then just reverse course in the story. But I do think that the same information can be given a lot of different ways.

I've juggled a lot. I very rarely make endings beginnings, but I quite often lop off beginnings, because I write many pages before I feel my way into the material. And those things often have more to do with the character's past, how they habitually talk, the physical description. Finally, if you've got it right in your head and you are clear on who they are and you can animate them, you don't need an introduction. I mean, what's more interesting: two hours into the party, or when you're walking through the front door?

A passage from your story “In the White Night” reads, “There were two images when you looked in the finder and you had to make the adjustment yourself so that one superimposed itself upon the other and the figure suddenly leaped into clarity”—which, it seems, could almost serve as directions or a warning label on the side of your fiction for how readers should get through a Beattie story.

Hopefully, that's how the details will work. For me as a writer, the way to make something seem more real is to go at it several times, rather than declaring that it is some particular thing. There are a lot of people who are extremely good at that. Carver, he'll give you some benign landmark—a lamp on a table—and by the time he comes back to the table for the third time, you know the lamp is there and it's gold, whether or not he says that it is. That's just a working method, in a lot of ways, but it also has to do with a personal view of things.

I'm not very interested in looking at the surfaces of things except as starting points. I'm willing to go with the visual detail that strikes me, but it has to be appropriate to the material. It's fairly random if something is going to capture my attention, but when it does, I think you have to hound the reader a little bit about what that means.

I'm thinking not so much about motifs—although they're certainly present in your fiction—but about the way your characters tend to reexamine their childhoods, or estranged couples will meet at houses that hold pleasant memories. They engage in a nostalgic return of some sort in order to find meaning or healing. Has life become so complicated that, like a poem, it has to be “read” more than once?

A lot of the time, people don't see a thing succinctly in the moment, but whether or not they even want to see that thing, other things accrue—and those things are often things from the past that allow the person to more fully see what's happening in the moment. In other words, I'm not talking about people who are out on a quest, or people who are simply sitting and trying to articulate a problem to themselves. I'm talking more about those unexpected moments when people find that they are thinking about the present, and that it's been influenced by the past.

You experiment more in the latest collection with strikingly different narrative voices. I'm thinking of “Installation #6” or “Television.” How did the new voices arise? They're quite unlike the “New Yorkerish” voice which has typified your characters' speech.

They are distinct voices. What was Mine is filled with monologues. Who knows why that becomes interesting to a writer at one point, versus another? When I sat down to write “The Working Girl,” for instance, I wrote the first paragraph which began, “This is a story about Jeanette, who is a working girl.” And sitting there, I thought, “Oh, Ann, you can't execute another story in which you make the presumption that you're the omniscient narrator. I mean, really!” So I undercut it by interjecting a real question. In effect, the question was “Really?” and it ended up being a kind of deconstruction of a short story, and therefore an admission of what the process is, too. But I was funning with myself there; it's not that I wasn't in earnest about what I wrote, but for whatever reason I didn't mind letting people see the skeletal system. Why not?

In some of the newer stories, you deal with people who actually use contractions, who begin sentences with conjunctions. And in Picturing Will, the style is even more complex, more fluid, less stylized than the short stories with their subject-verb-object patterns.

That was deliberate, and partly it was because I realized I was going to be taking years out of my life. You want to set yourself some tasks if you're going to do such a thing. However silly they might sound, I just decided that I was going to write compound-complex sentences for a change. Who knows why? But I had to find a reason for it. It wasn't even my notion when I started writing that book that the italicized portions—the journal entries—would be attributed to any particular character. And when I did decide to do that, then it looked like it was overly conceived, in a way. That it was calling attention to its own form by having the author's voice come in. At first I thought about giving them to Jody, but then I realized no, no, no, no, no.

You've referred, in the past, to things like point/counterpoint, and counter melodies. It seems as if you have relied on these devices, these breaks, in order to give the narrative some sort of texture, some sort of relief, or “counterpoint,” as you say. I don't want to lead you here, but you seem to be growing more and more fascinated with the whole process of authorial intrusion.

I'm more ill-at-ease with the notion that anyone might think that I was defining something in the story, but I think for my own sake, at least, to be able to look at the story and to point to the fact that there are ambiguities, complexities, contradictions, etc., is a pleasing notion—because I'm just the sort of person that if you tell me one story, I won't pay much attention to the story that I'm hearing, or I'll put it in the context of something that I choose.

I'm not really very interested in information. Information is random, so it would be very hard for me to write something that was on some level informative—you know, four-hundred pages of a novel—and to put out something that might be mistaken for being “definitive,” that would not be at all pleasing to me. If I could do such a thing, I guess I would stand on the street corner or something and shout it at the sky, or passers-by, or whatever. I don't think that's what the writing is about at all. It just puts me at my ease, personally, to indicate those counternarrative things, if for no one else but myself. And it is to create texture. You're totally right about that.

How do you relate to your characters?

I just plain try to put enough information there so they're believable. I mean, I try to examine them closely—that's how I relate to them. But it certainly wouldn't be of any interest to me to be directly analytical, because I don't even think people would believe it—not the readers that I was interested in having as readers, anyway. You know, that just doesn't seem to me to be the purpose of fiction.

But believe it or not, I'm certainly trying to do a lot of things by delivering the detail or information between the lines. I hope you will realize that I might have given you the same set of facts, but in a different order. I'm trying to elicit particular emotional reactions with the stories, and I'm quite aware that the way I structure something and the way I omit things, as well as the way I include things, can create or fail to create a real world in the story.

In the past you've talked about private lives and secret yearnings. Are these yearnings, in part, responsible for creating the impossible distance that separates your characters?

I'm hard-pressed to think of a writer who doesn't have characters with secret longings. I mean, Raymond Carver is about nothing but longing in a lot of ways. I could think of any number of people: Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford. … Those unstated things that happen off the page are so often what contemporary fiction is about. They're not empty spaces—they're referential spaces.

Your characters don't travel as much as they used to.

That's because I traveled too much.

But they're still as alone as ever, still not connecting with each other, for the most part. What keeps them distant from others? Personal space? Or are yearnings the culprit?

I don't know that it's just secret yearnings. I don't necessarily assume that my characters have any more social skills than me or anybody I meet. It's a problem to communicate—it's as simple as that. It's extremely difficult. I don't think that, in a lot of ways, this is a culture that really asks people to communicate. It's a culture that asks people to listen. That's why people are so hostile.

In some of your early stories, the connections between characters were so tenuous that they would do anything to relate to one another. In the case of “A Vintage Thunderbird,” it was the car that served as the main connection, and in another story, it was the Weimaraners. Now though, it seems as if objects are less the bond between characters than an associative method of leading them somewhere else.

I think that's true. Even Chilly Scenes of Winter was a novel about an obsession. Charles would find things that would remind him of Laura all the time. He took all these things to be signposts and guides. He was projecting like mad.

The whole idea of anti-materialism was much in the air when I was going to college. So if we're talking about stories that I wrote in the early or mid-'70s, I was often surrounded by a lot of people who professed not to want material possessions, and who were happy not to own furniture. It was certainly to your credit to have only what could fit in the trunk of your car, including your cat.

I saw a lot of acting-out on the part of a lot of disenfranchised people who were militant about not being ensconced in the world, who were not going to live the status-quo, who were going to have a freewheeling existence. What they tended to do, on however sad or humorous a level, was often to fixate on their pen, or something like that. They didn't have any furniture, no fixed address, no telephone number, no way to get in touch with them, but they absolutely would have had an anxiety attack if they had lost their favorite pen! I never failed to see that, on some level—whether or not they admitted it—there was something that they held onto, and very often in an extremely exaggerated way.

Fixations point to something meaningful, don't they? For an author, as well as a character?

When I was doing The Burning House, the copy-editor at Random House wrote me a letter saying, “You and I know these are distinct stories, but if you keep naming the characters Andrew or Andy, the clever reader is going to go through trying to zig-zag and make a pattern between these stories, so don't you want to rethink it and call Andy ‘Paul’ sometimes?” And that was entirely true.

She also pointed out things like—we're talking about maybe fifteen or sixteen stories—six or seven times somebody has a headache, which seems perfectly believable, in terms of what people suffer in the real world, and I was always sending them off to take an Excedrin. That is, in fact, what I take. I don't think of it as the generic: aspirin. I think of it as Excedrin. She said, “They're going to think you're getting a kickback from the company. You've got to change this. Nobody would believe that every character everywhere is taking Excedrin.” Point granted. I was so fixated myself that I didn't know I was fixated.

I know you're not talking about those small betrayals of myself—you're talking about elements of plot, that people tend to be fixated on external things that bespeak private desires.

Right. In “Longest Day of the Year,” when the Welcome Wagon lady comes, just the sheer irony of her arriving when the marriage is in dissolution is awfully funny. But as she begins to prattle nervously, she starts talking about kids in the neighborhood. That gets her to thinking about rabbits and turtles that also used to be in the neighborhood, which gets her to thinking about the squirrel acrobatics. That leads her to recalling a traveling carnival, which leads her to recalling the animals her husband used to win for her at the carnival, and at that point the narrator/observer concludes: “I was coming to understand that she was suffering too.”

It's interesting, I'll tell you that. To tell you the truth, I put that line in and took that line out half a dozen times. I probably made the wrong decision. I should have taken the line out. But I didn't want the woman who was being visited by the Welcome Wagon lady to seem like anyone's fool, either. I didn't want to condescend to her in any way. She just happened to be a victim, and she happened to encounter someone who more overtly thought of herself as a victim. It was playing off of those two vulnerable positions and having them understand each other for what they were, but still not really being able to do anything for one another, or even to get past that without a lot of awkwardness. I wanted the story to be as awkward as those real-life encounters can be when somebody just starts spinning out of control and you realize that they're saying more than they want to say, than they know they're saying. That was really a consideration again of trying to figure out how to make the woman in that story not seem to be dense. That's why I wrote such an overt line. Of course, as a writer, what I was trying to do was bring in everything from the natural world—the rabbits that used to run around before the place was so sophisticated—the way the world looks when there's a carnival.

I realize as much as the next person that there are things that people expect to hear. I'm used to people making a lot of small talk with me. Everybody is. You sort of expect that. You're always lulled by that. To make the story seem real, you do have to have that level of small talk, in some way, so that you can make readers comfortable enough to stay with you. Then you can begin to surprise them. If you just launch these characters in some wild way, it is as much an assault literarily as it would be conversationally.

I thought that perhaps some of your characters were just using language as a mask.

Oh, that happens too. I certainly admit that. Even the story that you were talking about, “In the White Night,” begins: “Don't think about a cow, don't think about a river, don't think about a car, don't think about snow.” Absolutely. That's a mask for not having any real communication during the evening, and as the story goes on you find out why these people would have everything invested in not wishing to communicate. What painful conclusion would they arrive at if they did? Probably no conclusion, just more pain, you know? A lot of my stories are about masks, a lot of them are about the smokescreens, the facades, and so forth. Nevertheless, considering the characters, they have to vary. It did seem to me that the Welcome Wagon lady might kind of veer out of control because of who she was, in that setting. To tell you the truth, I encountered such a Welcome Wagon lady.

I figured you might have.

I did. I very rarely write things that are true. And it was only true to the extent that there was a lunatic Welcome Wagon lady who did come to visit near the end of my first marriage—not my third marriage, as I made it in the story. She uttered a great line that I could never use; when she unrolled the map—and I never remember dialogue verbatim, but I've remembered this for twelve years—she said, “I believe they have neglected to imprint the map.” It would either look far out, or it would look like the author was just writing outrageous and bad dialogue, to have someone say that. She must have known she was speaking bad dialogue, but it was a mask. She was anxious, and it was a blank piece of paper. She was completely unnerved. So in a lot of the stories I think it's true I want to lead into things, which I do by letting the characters be unnerved.

I thought it was also great use of a symbol to have her sit in the chair that the woman's husband had neglected to properly glue—as she herself is coming unglued.

You may call it a symbol, but as Flannery O'Connor said about her character's wooden leg in “Good Country People,” first and foremost, it is a wooden leg. You may want to say that it's loaded, that it's a symbol, but first and foremost, those were the lousy chairs I lived with for years. By the way, it didn't crack, and she didn't go down. But years later, I realized my anxiety was so great that I had not considered that the chair wouldn't break. So I wrote the story and let it happen. A retake.

Your stories seem driven by underlying emotion. I get the feeling that at the heart of a lot of your stories is a Welcome Lady who, given the right door, may just spill everything.

That's certainly my sense of the world. I don't know if it's the case that I had a particular personality and therefore I became a writer, or if it's because now that I'm a writer, people come up and say things to me because they think they intuit a particular sensibility. I mean, it's very hard at some point to ever sort that stuff out. Whether or not I became a writer, I think I would still be sitting here saying to you, “It's amazing what people will say overtly.” Forget about covertly.

If you think about the day you spend in New York City, or something like that, the cab driver has a rehearsed routine that he's going to recite. Can you think of the last time anyone in public transportation has been interested in your opinion? I just flew in today from San Francisco. No one on the plane made eye contact. Not only did they not want verbal communication, they didn't even want to acknowledge that you were sitting in the same space they were sitting in.

I think that everybody's a volcano. Today I was reading an excerpt from some book that's coming out about Raymond Carver. Somebody said that Ray always said, when the phone rang, “The phone's ringing. The world will change.” That's all it takes. I feel that same way. Otherwise, I would not have an unlisted phone number and screen calls. I do believe that the phone rings and the world changes.

What about Irony and Pity, the name of your corporation? Is that a nutshell expression of how you feel toward your characters, or about the world?

It's a nutshell of what I feel about being told to incorporate. Years ago I had a scandalously inept accountant who told me to do this. It's been nothing but grief ever since, but I did do that for business reasons. I had to pick a title for my so-called corporation, and you know the line, right? Jake Barnes is sitting there talking to one of his friends in The Sun Also Rises, and the friend says, “irony and pity, give them irony and pity”—which, when I read it, I just burst out laughing. I was probably sixteen when I read the book. Actually, my ex-husband came up with the best name. It was “Wasted Inc.” That's pretty good—but the one that I came up with was Irony and Pity.

Speaking of “Wasted Inc.,” I was going to get a group of over-the-hill basketball players in the university intramurals, and we were going to call ourselves “Abilities Ltd.” We also had a diet contest on campus, and the English department chose, for our team name, “As I Weigh Dying.”

That's very good. I have no ability with puns. It's strange. And often they have to be explained to me. Those don't, but often they do.

And do you have irony and pity flowing through your work?

I hope so. I don't know that the irony is so strong. It's often remarked upon to me, but I'm not sure. I almost think that readers take my tone as a matter of course, whereas a lot of critics are very alarmed by it, and I'm not quite sure why. It doesn't seem to me to be that shocking a thing. In other words, I think people get the little ironies very quickly when I read aloud, or even just people who have read my work privately, who talk to me. They understand the dual levels. It doesn't seem to stop them dead. It often seems to stop the critics dead.

When you say “stop them dead,” what do you mean?

To make them analyze the work only in terms of where and when it becomes ironic, to overlook any other impetus of a piece, to speak only about where it's ironic and to form opinions and assumptions—even if they've only become personal opinions and assumptions about me based on that.

Look, here's an example: Twin Peaks on television. Were you shocked and amazed by Twin Peaks? You couldn't be; you've read literature. That was only shocking in the context of its going out to a television audience. Television, as far as I'm concerned, has always essentially condescended to the public. I think there are any number of writers who are communicating clearly to their readers—not condescending—and being understood. But it's only when people come in to do a so-called critical study of this book that they stop dead at point A, as though it's remarkable.

I wanted to wait until a relaxed moment to hit you with the “M-word,” so to speak, since you seem to have bristled when minimalism was mentioned in previous interviews. Yet, you admit to having felt Hemingway's influence, and if Carver has been called the godfather of minimalism, Hemingway is certainly a precursor. A passage from your story, “Snow,” even reads like a minimalist dictum, or a rewording of Hemingway's “Iceberg Theory” of omission.

Yeah, that one's been turned around as a baseball bat a lot of times: “Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.”

That's come back to haunt you?

Sure. I mean, you can always point to the sentence in a book that some critics are inevitably going to turn against you. And then you just think, am I really going to take it out?

Why do you take it as a baseball bat, though?

Because it is always invoked in a negative way, it's always taken as a dismissal. That line has never been used positively. It's only used negatively. It's only been used as a substantiation of someone's own faulty notion of what so-called minimalism is. I don't mind the comparisons. I don't mind a serious discussion about Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, and me. I'm in great company. It's just that I rarely get serious discussions. And as you realize, many interviewers simply mean to be provocative: the “Oh, you're so cute when you're mad” approach.

I think most people who know me well think that I do have a pretty wild sense of humor. But I'm really serious about writing, and maybe I was falsely protected, in that being in the academy for so many years, and graduate school, and teaching, and so forth, I didn't know that people tossed things off the way a lot of interviewers do when they talk to me. So I don't necessarily take people at their word if they say that what they most want to talk about is minimalism.

When many young writers engage in what they consider minimalism, they usually combine it with their idea of Chekhovian slice-of-life, and they end up with a piece of nothing.

Look, if I had to generalize, I'd say what I dislike about a lot of so-called minimalist writing is that it has no clear trajectory. I can't stay with anything if it seems there is no necessity to keep reading. I'm interested in how things are put together to form a whole. I'm really not very interested in the kind of egocentricity that I see in a lot of so-called minimalist writing. And certainly I'm not going to sit here and trash people.

According to theory, the final stage of any genre is self-parody. And I'm wondering if minimalism has reached the point where it has become parodic, except in the hands of people who really know what they're doing.

I think even “parody” puts too nice a word on it. I don't think its parodic, I just think a lot of it is bad. When something is complex, there are ways to read between the lines. You might not agree with my interpretation, but if we sat with a Carver story, I could at least tell you where I think something is being said that isn't verbalized, and how I think he's led into that, and so on.

It's not the first mode to be misunderstood. You have to remember that when modernism came in, people were kicking and screaming. Now we speak about “postmodernism” as though modernism is taken for granted, and now there's this often self-referential, humorous, even parodic thing called “postmodernism.” Did modernism become legitimized because there's now so-called post modernism?

“Postmodernism” and “minimalism” are only buzz-words?

Yeah, which is why I'm very ill-at-ease in having questions asked about that. If I am to take something seriously, what am I being asked?

Alright. The simple sentence style, the preponderance of articles, the absence of contractions—the “I am” instead of “I'm”—what do you feel it accomplishes in a story?

It has a kind of staccato effect, and it has a kind of deliberate artificiality about it that should make you suspect that the article or noncontraction is being invoked for a purpose.

So it's an acknowledgement of the writer/story relationship?

Yes, it is, in a way. It's a kind of tacit admission on the part of the so-called authority figure—the writer—that this is a put-up. It's literature, after all.

Would you go so far as to compare this style to the impressionists—of drawing attention to the process of creation, of diminishing the illusion?

I would almost compare it to the superrealists. I would be more inclined to think about [Richard] Estes, or somebody. Yes, it is the natural world, but it is so hyper. Is there ever a moment when you stop and think about the world that way?

I could easily think of a lot of photographers who try to do the same thing. But there are rarely moments in which time is frozen that are quite that pertinent and complex. You may indeed pass by a store window when you least expect it and see that the light is even in a way that allows you to see everything perfectly reflected. Then you go right on. In other words, it's a refinement and an exaggeration presented as being normative. And that's true of a lot of the prose style you were discussing. It's both things, but it's a deliberate masquerade. It's an intensification for a purpose.

How much forethought goes into crafting a story? Does much of the “planting” occur in rewrites?

No. At this stage of my career, more than fifty percent of what I attempt to write ends up in the trash. If the stories don't start to take on a larger life, I just can't follow through. I have to be surprised in the story in the same way I'm surprised constantly in daily life. Of course, I have to realize that there are obviously a lot of things gestating that I don't realize are gestating until I sit down to write—that I'm making comparisons between things in my mind that are not factually related, and so forth. I might have an overheard conversation in a fictional setting, and that fictional setting might be slightly like my best friend's kitchen. But I tend to write about things that are so-called “real” only to the extent that they begin to transform. And if they never transform, then I feel like I'm a reporter. I feel like I'm just on the scene, and that is so deadening in a fictional context that I can't continue.

You say “if they don't transform.” Is it a first line that will grab you, a character, a sketch, a situation?

Never a situation, because that would too closely resemble plot, and I never know the plot. It's an emotion that starts me, and then the visual image comes. The visual image may eventually be discarded. I can write several pages to orient myself to the world that I'm talking about, and then there could be a line of dialogue, and I could realize then or later that the line of dialogue is the true beginning of the story. I mean, the first forty-nine and a half pages of Chilly Scenes of Winter were thrown out, so that the novel now begins with a line of dialogue—in French no less, because it took that many pages to wade into the material—explaining how Charles and Sam came to know each other, what the house looked like that they lived in, blah, blah, blah. Very nice, once I know it—then I can fly.

Did that happen with Picturing Will too?

Oh, everything imaginable happened with Picturing Will. It was very hard for me to catch on to what I was doing. I had to write a lot to see what shouldn't be written. Even when I did figure out what my notions were, and which characters were major and minor, and, to a large extent, how the book would be organized, even then it was a real problem to figure out how it could be done as directly as possible, while still keeping the reader's interest.

In other words, that seemed like a book that could turn very discursive, and that would be a terrible disadvantage. It's an entire book about storytelling. Everybody tells a story. They actually sit down physically and say things in that book.

This is probably the first time in a novel I so clearly let myself be the manipulator. To have dropped twenty years out of the text was quite calculated. What could I do, though, to make that seem not a cheap shock, or not shocking beyond the obvious, when the reader realizes that here we are in the 21st century, in section three? That was really the question, really the hardest thing to do.

A lot of friends gave me feedback on that manuscript. They understood what I had meant to write. They were very good in being able to say where I had not been clear. Case in point: I thought I had created a pretty cold Jody. I thought I'd presented that dimension to her character rather early on. Her opinions on Atget are not my personal opinions on Atget. I created a character who would have, as far as I'm concerned, a rather odd and insufficient response to Atget, because I meant to indicate something about her character. Point granted in retrospect. I don't think everybody's going to say, “Aha,” and spring up out of his or her chair. I finally went back and wrote that scene where her friend hits the deer, and you see Jody jumping out of the car and saying, in effect, I'm going to now photograph the scene for my art, and “Thank you, God … for the invention of the autowinder.” I put that sentence in point-blank; I knew perfectly well that, at least there, I was announcing something about her character. Therefore, at the end, when you find that she is more than a little removed and more than a little egocentric, if you look back you may not think of her as simply a person under duress and trying to do a difficult job as a single mother. Hopefully, in retrospect, the book will come clear. The last image gets superimposed on the first image, if you will.

Something else in Picturing Will that struck me is that you included some graphic sexual scenes. That's also new territory for you, isn't it?

I was absolutely shocked when the motel door closed and I realized what was going to happen. I didn't realize until that door closed what I had intuited but not verbalized to that point. We all know these people who seem to be completely out of control, in an almost charming way. Very egocentric and narcissistic, they are very interesting to watch from afar. Close the door on those people and, like everybody else, they will either be less crazy or more crazy. So Haveabud's transformation was interesting. But that was not fun to write. I have written things on many occasions that haven't been fun to write.

You were pulled along then.

Yeah, feeling that I had led myself into my own trap, and that I had not articulated the full situation to myself.

Does that happen in a short story as much as it does in a novel?

I wrote a story years ago with a garden hose in it. I had never seen a white garden hose until I visited a friend's house on Long Island where there was this wonderful green lawn and millions of things to observe. I was so stunned, because I had always seen green garden hoses all my life, and there was that glowing white hose in the green grass.

Several years later, when I was writing about that backyard in a completely fictional context—having nothing to do with that man or with me—I remembered the white hose, but only then. I had forgotten it for all those years, and as I was typing the rough draft of the story, I had the character think that it was the East Hampton equivalent of the snake in the grass. And I suddenly realized, at that point in the rough draft, that I had been writing something that referred to the Garden of Eden and to the fall of man.

Your world—at least the characters that you write about—has been somewhat restricted, and I hope that you don't take that in the wrong way, but. …

I try to make my personal life as restricted as possible!

So you don't exactly do field work like Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune, who frequently goes to Billy Goat Tavern to sit and talk with the common folk?

I don't ever do direct research. I mean, I don't do things and think that I'll file the experience away and use it. I have to admit that many things have come back to me in writing. Not conspicuous things, but the overheard conversation or the ordinary detail that becomes the telling detail in the fictional context does come back, so I have to say that my tentacles are out, whether I mean them to be or not. I'm always knowing things that I don't know I know until I sit down to write them. I myself am amazed at how those things both recur and are changed by being put in a fictional context.

How do you remain open to surprise and discovery as you're writing?

To some extent I have to struggle more now than when I began writing, to keep other concerns out of my mind. I never sat there thinking of pitching this to such and such magazine, or what will critic X think about this. I still don't, but so much of my life is encroached upon now with the business of writing that it becomes harder and harder to just plain drop out for a week. Either I have not learned to manage my time very well, or I now realize it cannot be managed well. It's not any longer very interesting to shut out the world. If I go and take the mail from the mailman's hand—and I'm not saying this facetiously, either; I've done that instead of having it dropped through the slot—I've been absolutely amazed at what gets revealed before the mailman leaves the front door.

It's like hopping stones across a river or something, you know? The idea seems logical until you get out there and you realize that the river is wider than you realized, and you've only got three stones. And I think people tell their stories that way a lot. If the mailman stops to say something to me, he may mean it to be quick and brusque, but something either triggers something in his mind, or I look taken aback, and he goes on. And as he elaborates, like the Welcome Wagon lady he finds that he's in deeper, and it can all happen so quickly.

I think people are always vulnerable. You try to pretend that you're not and to keep that out of your conscious mind, but in point-of-fact you are. And as a writer, you really do have to—at least for the physical act of writing—sequester yourself as much as possible. It's enough that these things have been percolating in the subconscious, and hopefully will come to you when you're writing.

So human connection isn't important to you?

I try to forget it when I'm writing. It wouldn't be possible to write if I remembered it. Also, I must say that, with a few notable exceptions, including Picturing Will, I mostly write short stories that don't work out in the course of a day. I have three to five pages of rough draft very quickly. They either get abandoned right away, or they do work out. And in most cases, some very primitive sort of a rough draft exists in a matter of hours, whether it be three hours or six hours. We're talking about a fifteen-page story, not “Windy Day at the Reservoir.” I can drop out for that long.

How many rewrites does each story undergo now?

Well, “The Longest Day of the Year” probably had six words changed. It was written in three hours. “What Was Mine,” the title story of the new collection, had six or seven rewrites before it went off to the magazine.

“In the White Night”?

Right off the typewriter, and that's a rare exception, too. That hardly ever happens, anymore, and when it does, it's something very brief, like “Installation #6” in the new collection. I was sitting on a plane, as a matter of fact. I had very little paper, so the analogies I came up with—like the way people glare at you when your reading light goes on in the airplane, or the way the horizon line looked outside—were because I was on an airplane. I was flying from New York to Houston. I was killing time. I just had a couple of pieces of paper, so I wrote.

Would it be possible to have you do a walk-through on a story?

Well, the genesis of “In The White Night” … which, I was told after the fact, is apparently a term for a hangover. I had no idea. You have to understand, this is the same person who wrote The Burning House having no idea that it was the Buddhist name for the body [laughter]. Didn't know it. Got to The Burning House by way of “ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, your house is on fire. …” But I can't tell you what made me sit down to write, Don't think about a cow.

That was the first line that came?

Yeah. I wrote a story years ago called “Dwarf House,” a story in the first collection. And the first line is “‘Are you happy?’ blank said, ‘Because if you're happy, I'll leave you alone.’” It seems a good beginning, in retrospect, but where did that come from? Then I wrote, “‘Are you happy?’ McDonald said,” because I had eaten at McDonald's that night. And now there is an article out there titled “Ann Beattie: The Imagery of Old McDonald's Farm.” Just amazing! Sometimes a line will pop into my mind, “Don't think about. …” Remember that game?

Anyway, it really did begin with “Don't think about a cow.” So here was somebody saying some perplexing thing, and I had no frame of reference for it. Then you've got the next paragraph. Suddenly, I have to root him visually. I have to put him in the temporal world in some way, so I start them naming things. But I remember when I moved them out from under the protection of the Brinkleys' porch—“the cold froze the smiles on their faces”—I suddenly realized that what seemed to be the case, was not really the case at all. That's a tacit admission to the false level on which they're discussing things, if you know what I mean. The choice of the words, “the cold froze the smiles on their faces,” that did something for me. Then I knew it wasn't the cold.

And then, “Don't think about an apple,” I was actually thinking of [René] Magritte's painting. I had written “Don't think about a cow” just randomly, as far as I know, but then when I wrote “Don't think about an apple,” suddenly I was seeing that painting and wondering, why am I seeing that painting in this context? What's that doing there? Why am I putting that there? So I let it stand in the rough draft, and later we get to it. Later the light, which is red, yellow, and green—the green becomes the apple again. So there you are with the layering. Again, I'm just talking about the physical creation of the story.

Your characters do exactly what you do. They free associate, going from one object to the next, one element to another, in a modified stream of consciousness.

What may start as “free association,” that has to stay there. But the prose has to intensify within the free association. It has to build. I mean, there are a few thrown-in lines, but not generally speaking. Then, I had set the scene up—what was going on. And then I had to create my story. I knew my characters. I knew what they were doing now, why they were doing it, and who these people were who thought in terms of images.

I did spend time in the hospital when I was a kid. It is nothing that I usually have reason to think about, but once I had started writing this story, which had nothing to do with the way it really was in my life, I could remember my father so distinctly sitting on the hospital bed. He's a very tall man, and even as a little girl I knew that he looked extremely foolish. And he was out of his element with the plush animals and me horribly ill in the hospital bed and my mother backed up against the door. And I just thought—well, what I never thought at the time, what I only know now, really, being an adult—is that there were unspeakable consequences to what was going on. It became worse in the story than it did in my personal life, but “there were two images when you looked through the finder,” and there certainly were, “and you had to make the adjustment yourself so that one superimposed itself on the other, and the figure suddenly leaped into clarity.” So it becomes more her story, in a way, only at that point.

In retrospect, I can see that I could have anticipated. But had the man in the story not gone to sleep, it could have become his story. I could have dramatized. I could have gone from the battlefield and to the animals in the hospital bed. It could have become his story, but, in a way, because she's deferring to him all along, and everybody's out of control—the drunks are out of control, that's why they're hollering this nonsense game; the snow is out of control, because who can control snow? Her memory is out of control, because suddenly something that she knows in one context becomes almost surreal in another. When she stopped at the stoplight, the real world they occupied was out of control—so what are you going to do about illness?

The battlefield is not a random analogy. You can compare a bunch of animals thrown on the floor to a lot of things. The stakes are high, if it's a battlefield. Those things became emotionally loaded enough to cue me as to where I was going. And with the ending, I had a friend who was extremely tall, and who always slept this exact way. It had nothing to do with the world of the story, but when I started imagining what it would be like to have my character's life, I suddenly thought of my friend who was disproportionately tall, draping over everything because nothing was large enough to hold him. When the woman goes back to the fetal position at the end of the story, you know that she is regressing, then you make the analogy between her and the daughter, the young child, the younger person who died.

To some extent it started with the external world, and it got very claustrophobic. So back to the outside world. But by then, hopefully, the wooden leg is loaded—the snow has taken on certain connotations. It's not a neutral snow anymore. And I have to admit that I was thinking of the ending of James Joyce's “The Dead,” when Gabriel Conroy goes to the window and sees the snow that's no longer the same snow at all. He's thinking of it as blanketing and uniting everything; I was thinking, that's interesting. Let's see what the snow means in this story.

So in effect, I just said what the snow meant: “the sadness set in, always unexpectedly, but so real that it was met with the instant acceptance that one gave to a snowfall.” Well, that sort of brings back the normal everyday world. Who's going to get freaked out by seeing snow on the ground? But if you really think about the consequences of that, it means that the world is different, stranger, a little bit out of control. And by then, hopefully, there's been a story in that. I wanted it to be a controlled story about people who were out of control. And it could best be reinforced by having the natural world be out of control.

I once taught a course on “Middle-Aged Crazy: Updike, Carver and Beattie.” Students, light years from their own midlife crises, read the books as if they were fantasy. But they were fascinated by Updike's ten-year reexaminations of Rabbit Angstrom. Have you ever thought about how your characters, though you don't revisit them, have changed over the course of the years that you have written?

Without realizing it, when I started writing, although I was not writing autobiography, I was writing about things that I was curious about, and I was writing about people who weren't exactly like me, but that I certainly thought on some level I understood. I was interested in an almost speculative thinking about those people. I think I've backed off that. I think now you can be speculative all you want, and that won't begin to approach the complexity of what you're dealing with. I just plain didn't know that then. I thought there was some virtue, some personal satisfaction to be taken in that kind of speculation—in going out on a limb, in imagining spacemen coming to earth to take pornographic pictures, or something like that.

When I was writing Falling In Place, Skylab was falling and nothing could have been a more perfect metaphor if I had invented it, and I didn't even have to invent it. But now I'm quite skeptical. I don't want to go for the easy thing, even if it is the perfect thing. I'd rather go for situations and metaphors more off-kilter, hoping that they might reveal something in a slightly more complex way. I don't mean to totally dismiss the earlier stories, saying that they were expedient, but I now see that I was kind of bedazzled myself.

The same is true of your readers, presumably.

I do feel a little bit more like I realize my position as the author. I realize when I'm creating a keyhole and having people look through it. The scene in Picturing Will in the motel with Haveabud was, in effect, that. Where do readers stand physically in terms of these people that I'm thinking about? I don't ever think about the readers in rough draft. But as I'm trying to make the story seem very actual, then I am thinking about the audience. I am thinking about what should be there and where should it be and when should I go private, when should I not? I think I'm less prone to go private than I was earlier. When I was writing a story like “Downhill,” I was presuming to go into the mind of an extremely disturbed woman, I would make those leaps. Fine, that's that. But now what I think I'm interested in is texture or the variance of things—counternarrative. I can't help but realize it as a calculated effect. And knowing that I'm onto myself, I don't want to overuse that device either. I'm on guard.

Generally speaking, I think that the focus is narrower now. I don't mean narrower in terms of honing in on something, but that there is a particular kind of thrust to the story that doesn't have to encompass some of the things the earlier stories had to encompass. There's a difference. Part of it is that I simply understand method better than I used to.

Don Lee (essay date Fall 1995)

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SOURCE: “About Ann Beattie,” in Ploughshares, Vol. 21, Nos. 2-3, Fall, 1995, pp. 231-33.

[In the following essay, Lee traces the history of Beattie's career.]

Myth has it that Ann Beattie published her first short story in The New Yorker when she was twenty-five years old, signed a first-read contract with them, and thereafter made five to seven annual appearances in the venerable magazine—with stories she would write in one sitting, in one afternoon.

As myths go, this one is pretty accurate. In the early seventies, Beattie was a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Connecticut, and a professor, J. D. O'Hara, who was a mentor of sorts, began sticking stamps on envelopes and submitting Beattie's stories for her. After a couple of acceptances at literary quarterlies, O'Hara suggested she try The New Yorker. Her story came back with an encouraging note from one of the editors, Roger Angell, so Beattie tried again. And again. A total of twenty-two stories before The New Yorker finally took one. A seemingly arduous road, except for the fact that all the stories were written in a little over a year, each of them banged out in—yes, it's true—a few hours.

In 1976, the simultaneous publication of a collection of short stories, Distortions, and a novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter (for which the rough draft was written in three weeks), quickly and permanently vaulted Beattie into literary stardom. Her work drew comparisons to Salinger, Cheever, and Updike, and the eight books that followed—all written under contract—confirmed her ranking among the best writers in the country: the story collections Secrets and Surprises,The Burning House,Where You'll Find Me, and Other Stories, and What Was Mine, and the novels Falling in Place,Love Always,Picturing Will, and Another You, which will be released this fall.

Beattie resides for the moment in Maine with her husband, the painter Lincoln Perry. They live modestly, a large studio for Perry on the top floor of the house their single extravagance. Without children, without fixed job commitments—Beattie taught at UConn, the University of Virginia, and Harvard for eight straight years, but hasn't had a regular teaching position for the last eighteen—she and Perry can afford to be peripatetic, and they will likely take off soon to other favored locales: principally Key West and Charlottesville.

At turns animated and circumspect, Beattie is always witty, self-possessed, and forthright. She looks much like she did in her twenties, and often displays a youthful mischief. She is, for instance, a famous practical joker. Once, she called Rust Hills, Esquire's fiction editor, before visiting him, and said she would be accompanied by her personal trainer; then watched his jaw drop as he opened the door to Beattie and her obese friend, with whom Hills had to be stutteringly polite. But Beattie has also developed a territorial distance over the years, wary of intrusions to her privacy. No doubt, much of this guardedness comes from her early celebrity, which created as many burdens of expectation and envy as occasions for privilege. Beattie will readily admit, however, that she was extremely lucky, particularly since writing fiction was something she just fell into.

Born in 1947 in Washington, D.C., she grew up as an only child—introverted, but generally happy and bright, until she became a teenager. The public schools she attended were terrible—academically indifferent—and Beattie responded accordingly. “I became self-destructive,” she admits. She graduated with a D- average, and without a providential connection of her father's, she would not have been able to enroll at American University, much less any college. Lacking any real plans or ambition, she chose to study journalism. After a few years, though, a boyfriend convinced her that journalism was “totally uncool,” that it was a bourgeois trade. He told her she should really be more like an artist and consider being an English major. She switched on the same day.

Not knowing what else to do after graduating, she assumed she would probably end up teaching literature for a living and entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut. Certainly, she never thought writing could be anything but a hobby. There were M.F.A. programs then, but no one she knew went to one. Writing short stories didn't seem to be a viable career choice. To her good fortune, however, D. O'Hara heard about her fiction from some other graduate students, and took an interest in her. “He really became my official editor,” Beattie recalls. “He taught me more about writing than I could have imagined learning elsewhere. He did it all by writing comments in the margins of my manuscripts. We never once sat down and talked about things. I would put a story in his faculty mailbox, and he would return it, usually the next day, in my student teaching assistant mailbox.”

She didn't—and still doesn't—begin her stories with any idea of where she might go, never charting out a plot or outline. “My feeling is that physically I couldn't,” she says. “If there isn't that moment of surprise for me, I don't think that I could stay in the material.” Likewise, she did not set out to be a chronicler of the sixties and the baby boomer generation label she finds reductive, dismissive. She simply wrote about the people who surrounded her: educated New Englanders, some who'd participated in the counterculture of the sixties, languishing now in the ennui of the seventies, fighting vague disappointments and failures with impulsive acts and eccentric obsessions. Especially regarding relationships, Beattie was fascinated with examining people's passivity—“this whole Beckettian thing—I can't stay and I can't go”—but she chose not to excuse the circumstances in which her characters found themselves, or explicate how they got there. Instead, she adopted the deadpan, stark style about which critics made such a fuss. “I think I was kind of a sponge,” Beattie says. “I soaked up all of the obvious weirdness that was around me, and tended to be nonjudgmental. That tone, apparently, superimposed with the more outlandish things, was surprising to people.”

Yet, as she has matured and accrued experiences, it has become increasingly difficult for her to remain objective and open. “I do think I've figured some things out, and it's a disadvantage in a way, because you can pigeonhole people too quickly. You can say, ‘This person is only crazy.’ In graduate school, I knew this guy who was a genius in mathematics and whose best friend was his dog, and he said, ‘Fuck it,’ and went to work in a factory making axe handles. I thought, ‘Huh.’ Now, I wouldn't really think, ‘Huh.’ Before, I would be surprised in point of fact. Now I'm more surprised that I'm surprised. In a way, it's fighting against what time has taught me.”

Stylistically and structurally, her work has changed as well, becoming more complex and sophisticated. “I'm much more interested in formal issues now,” she says, “in how things are put together, and what I might do on that level to get a trajectory that is more clearly the author's. I know ten ways to move through time, and my interest is in finding the eleventh. I want to do something that I haven't done before. I'm not so pleased to have written a bright sentence, because even if it's, let's say, very bright, so have others been.”

Consequently, she doesn't write with the rapidity or frequency she once used to. A novel like Picturing Will will take up to three years to finish, and she'll work in spurts between projects, sometimes idle for as long as six weeks. In recent years, she has also become frustrated with the vagaries of the publishing world, particularly with the magazine market for her short stories, which she has more and more difficulty placing. Despite having a terrific agent, Lynn Nesbit, and being able to choose her book editors, Beattie finds the business disheartening at times. “Any notion that this gets easier, or that people treat me nicer—it's exactly the opposite of what really is the case,” she says. “People think that things are progressive, that when you get to hurdle number three, you've won the race. Only to find out that the terrain has changed after hurdle number five, or that your editor is fired after hurdle number eight. The same contingencies, the same contradictions and problems, exist as you're going along. It's not just an obstacle course that you can do correctly and win. The ground rules are always changed by those in control, the people who own the publishing houses.”

Those external forces, however, did not, at least directly, lead to the crisis Beattie experienced when working on her new novel, Another You. After amassing three hundred fifty pages, she scrapped the book. Pretty much all of it—the entire plot, most of the characters. Less than ten percent of the original version remains in the final manuscript. Why did it take her so long to realize that the novel wasn't working? Part of the problem was that she was writing adequate prose. “Moment to moment, there was no reason to say, ‘Oh, I'm really off today.’” But eventually, she recognized that there was no momentum to the novel, and she didn't care deeply about the characters.

No one ever saw a word of the original book—not her husband, not the few trusted friends who usually critique her initial drafts. Somehow, Beattie still managed to get Another You to her publisher, Knopf, on time, but she has resolved she will never write another novel on contract, and she will concentrate for a while on her preferred medium—stories and novellas.

The anxiety of Another You's false start still haunts Beattie. It took her five long months to recover and begin anew, and during that period, she found little to reassure her. “I was thinking that really I had to admit to myself that there was no other skill I had, and that I couldn't just get into a snit and change careers, because it just wasn't going to happen. I mean, you just hope that there's mercy.”

Miriam Marty Clark (essay date Winter 1996)

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SOURCE: “Postmodernism and Its Children: The Case of Ann Beattie's ‘A Windy Day at the Reservoir,’” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 77-87.

[In the following essay, Clark analyzes how Beattie's “A Windy Day at the Reservoir” changes perceptions of narrative time, and cause and effect.]

In her book, Childhood and Cultural Despair, Leah Marcus observes that the appearance of childhood as an important literary subject “seems always to be a barometer for important cultural change” (242). Marcus posits a relation between social and psychic disorientation and a literary concern with childhood, arguing finally that in certain historical periods—the fourteenth, the seventeenth, the early nineteenth centuries—the experience of cultural breakdown leads to an “idealization of the undifferentiated wholeness of the child's perceptions” (242).

Perhaps not surprisingly, life at the end of the twentieth century generates its own array of compelling and troubled representations of childhood. From the postwar stories of John Cheever and John Updike to more recent work by Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Beattie, Mary Robison, Jayne Anne Phillips, Lorrie Moore, and many others, fictions of childhood offer a sometimes poignant index of cultural disarray: the disintegration of the bourgeois family, the erosion of communities and institutions, and the disappearance of childhood into consumerism, precocious sexuality, and grown-up anxiety. Unconstrained by adult motives and preconceptions, children in stories—even postmodern stories—can be made to function as truth-tellers, pronouncing unawares the dark oracles of daily life. “This is us, excellent,” one of Mark Richard's young narrators explains in the aftermath of a harrowing scene of domestic violence,

a family night out. Not even have we not had to go to Family Fish House to eat but we've come to Psycho Za to snag! Our mom has her hair fixed and has on the too-big red plastic parka with our dad's name on the front. Our dad has said for us to have anything we can think of we want on the list of things to eat. What I'd usually do is split the Maniac Train wreck with my brother but he is still acting funny about eating and stuff, like he's not all the way woken up and his eyes are like old fishtank water. When he cries it's more like a hiss, like how a soft knife sounds when you split a green apple open.


Under postmodernism, both as literary aesthetic and as cultural logic, however, the idea of childhood is itself transformed: its moment of conception in Enlightenment reason historicized, its wholeness of perception dismantled with the decentering of the individual subject and the denaturalization of realist representation, its domain—the private sphere—colonized by commodity capitalism. If representations of childhood provide a barometer for obvious kinds of cultural fragmentation and late century social disarray, they also register these profounder shifts in the experience of self and world.

In modernist stories of children—James Joyce's in Dubliners, Katherine Anne Porter's in Pale Horse, Pale Rider and The Leaning Tower, Ernest Hemingway's in “My Old Man”—childhood is a site of epistemological uncertainty, signifying in its bewilderments, its potent forms of unknowing, the limits of human and of narrative knowledge. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, it functions as a place where meaning is produced and articulated; the child's intuitive grasp takes on the weight and the proportions of epiphany; or later, a memory of childhood illuminates the story's present moment. In Porter's “The Grave,” for instance, nine-year-old Miranda and her twelve-year-old brother Paul set out to hunt rabbits and doves. They pause to explore a small cemetery from which the bodies, including their grandfather's, have recently been removed because the land is to be sold. The children scramble in and out of the empty graves, find some treasures (she a screw head in the shape of a silver dove, he a gold ring), then retrieve their twenty-two Winchester rifles and move on. Miranda, a poor shot and with “no proper sense of hunting at all” (364), ponders their treasures and her own vague wishes. Paul shoots a rabbit. Skinning it together, they find in the rabbit's belly “a bundle of tiny rabbits, each wrapped in a thin scarlet veil” (366). “Oh, I want to see,” Miranda says, despite the blood. “She wanted most deeply to see and to know,” Porter writes.

Having seen, she felt at once as if she had known all along. The very memory of her former ignorance faded, she had always known just this. No one had ever told her anything outright. … Her brother had spoken as if he had known about everything all along. He may have seen all this before. He had never said a word to her, but she knew now a part at least of what he knew. She understood a little of the secret, formless intuitions in her own mind and body, which had been clearing up, taking form, so gradually and so steadily she had not realized that she was learning what she had to know.


This moment—in which the veil is drawn away from birth and death, their secret and inextricable links in adult sexuality—resurfaces twenty years later as memory and becomes the story's second epiphany. In the market street of “a strange city of a strange country,” approached by an Indian vendor with a tray of dyed sugar sweets in the shapes of small animals (including rabbits), Miranda feels the scene leap “from its burial place before her mind's eye”:

It was a very hot day and the smell in the market, with its piles of raw flesh and wilting flowers, was like the mingled sweetness and corruption she had smelled that other day in the empty cemetery at home: the day she had remembered always until now vaguely as the time she and her brother had found treasure in the opened graves.


Like similar moments in many early twentieth-century stories, these epiphanies are predicated upon an understanding of psychic life as prior, continuous over time, shrouded in mystery, submerged beneath ordinary adult consciousness, and glimpsed only as image, symbol, memory, dream.

In contemporary stories, even those with strong ties to their realist and modernist predecessors, the relation of narrative to sources of meaning—truth, memory, knowledge, selfhood—is radically disrupted and with it the role of children and childhood. Fredric Jameson construes these changes, persuasively, as a “repudiation of depth models”—inner and outer, authentic and unauthentic, latent and manifest, depth and surface, essence and appearance, past and present—in a period of accelerating production and consumption (12). I want to argue here that depth is precisely the dimension in which modernist representations of childhood function; in them, childhood figures the past to the narrative present, inner to external reality (vividly in the first three stories of Dubliners), authentic and whole to the unauthentic, fragmented world of adult perceptions. More than merely barometric, representations of childhood create the sense of depth in many modernist short stories, establishing its terms and inhabiting its ratios.

In the repudiation of depth, the anxieties and introspections which are the subject of modernist fictions of childhood give way to something different: to a loss of temporal moorings, which I will take up more fully later in my discussion, and to an array of attention deficits evidenced in non sequitur, in extreme brevity, in very fragile and temporary sorts of coherence. Symptoms give way to signs as the presumption of a (usually submerged) connection between present and past, effect and cause, is replaced by a new conception of experience as arbitrary and transient; “I can believe things that I discover in particular moments of fiction,” Ann Beattie commented in a 1990 interview, “and not think that they apply in any larger sense, or that they sum things up” (Centola, 416). These features, I would suggest, are observable in a great many American stories published between the early 1970s and the present, both in mass circulation magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper's and in little magazines and literary journals. Rather than illustrate by drawing on a wide range of stories, however, I want to look closely at how, in one recent story of more or less neo-realist proportions, Beattie gives voice to these repudiations and transformations.

Beattie makes a good study because her stories are full of children, both true children at the margins of their parents' disordered lives and child-like young people who are adrift or in flight from adult life. The child figures, like fictional children from Henry James's Maisie on, tend to be prematurely burdened (in stories like “Cinderella Waltz” and “You Know What”) with life's worries and dark possibilities. Having lost their innocence, Jane Bowers Hill argues, they function in some stories as redeemers and healing agents “in the tortured, fragmented world adults have made” (198); elsewhere they are more simply disheartened and disoriented. For Beattie's young adults, living in post-industrial, post-Vietnam, post-sexual-revolution America, the threshold between childhood and adulthood is very poorly marked. Things that once signified adulthood—marriage, children, jobs, houses—are commonly postponed or rejected. Other things persist, sometimes curiously, from childhood: school, toys (octascopes, marionettes, crayons, comic books), impulses, pastimes. Childishness, variously construed, is everywhere among the young adults in these stories. It turns up in particularly interesting forms in young married women (in “Shifting” and “A Reasonable Man,” for instance) where it represents a real but unsatisfactory alternative to a constricted and coldly rational (and male) form of adulthood; it also appears in young, unmarried men (in “A Vintage Thunderbird,” “Colorado,” and many other stories) for whom it seems to represent nothing more than shipwreck of one kind or another.

Still, my interest here is less in the sociology of childishness than in the narrative dynamics of repudiation. In “A Windy Day at the Reservoir,” Beattie withdraws—in three or four decisive moves—the elements of narrative depth perception. First, she strips the past of explanatory power. Memory sheds no light on the present moment; the past and childhood itself are without epiphanic force. Second, she renders the past as non-narratable, refusing the therapist's work and the storyteller's of establishing a coherent narrative, of articulating a narrative logic between the symptomatic (neurotic, hysterical) present and the traumas or repressions of the past. Third, she figures metaphorically the flattening out of past and future: the future into a drawing, the past into a still photograph. Finally, she renders the present tense as inescapable and overwhelming and represents a range of responses from lassitude to joy.

The plot of Beattie's story is slight. Fran and Chap, a childless married couple in their thirties, house-sit for several weeks in Vermont for their friends, Pia and Lou Brunetti. In the course of their stay, they realize what they had intuited earlier, that the Brunettis' marriage has “caved in” (206). During the vacation, Fran draws pictures and tries on Pia's clothes. Chap gardens, fights mosquitoes, thinks a little about the Brunetti marriage and somewhat less about his own. He becomes acquainted with a neighbor, Mrs. Brikel, and her grown retarded son Royce. At the end of the summer Royce drowns in the town reservoir, liberating his mother to live like an adult for the first time since his birth twenty-six years before. Fran “runs off” with a lover, who in turn leaves his wife and small son (233). Chap moves to Boston and becomes a surrogate parent to the Brunettis' son Anthony, who suffers from attention-deficit disorder. Anthony's real parents, meanwhile, go their separate ways—Lou to California to practice architecture, Pia to Italy following her rise to fame as a feminist author.

Like many contemporary stories, this one situates a vivid, even poignant, memory of childhood in a moment where we might expect an epiphany, a clarifying insight into a character or a relationship. It is Chap's memory, the only one he has in the story, though he claims total recall from the age of five. Noticing that radishes have begun to sprout in the Brunettis' garden, he recalls having grown vegetables in a big cedar tub on his mother's porch. “He suddenly remembered his heartache—heartache!—” Beattie writes,

when, on one of his infrequent visits, his father had pulled up radish after radish, to see if they had formed yet. Only swollen white worms dangled below the leaves. After his father pulled four or five, Chap reached out and put his hand on his father's wrist. His father stopped. His father had been perplexed, as if he had been guaranteed a prize simply for reaching out and pulling, and had gotten nothing.


The relation of this recollection to the events of the story is tentative at best, a metaphorical suggestion about uprootedness—like everyone else in this story, Chap is deracinated—but it is never elaborated into insight and it never, for all the seriousness with which it is offered and received, contributes to any kind of wholeness of character or coherent relation of present to past.

Fran's single memory of childhood has even less substance and even more fragile moorings. Wondering if there will be a farmers' market, firehouse dinners, or special celebrations in the Vermont town they are visiting, she recalls:

In the town her grandmother had lived in, they had an annual celebration to commemorate the day the library opened. She had gotten her first kiss in a rowboat on the lake in that town on the seventeenth anniversary of the opening of the library.


I will say more shortly about the flatness and unreality of Fran's recollection. At this point, however, I want to point out the disconnectedness of both of these childhood memories, neither of which is ever spoken aloud and neither of which is tied to any living person, Fran and Chap being both parentless and childless. The memories make their way into the story as flotsam, as photos fallen out of a lost album. They stand for little except the story's refusal to be case history, to narrate the symptomatic present and its imagery into a coherent relation to the unconscious, the past, the inner, the deep. The connection Freud saw between his case histories of hysterics and fin de siècle short stories is almost completely absent in stories like this one a century later, its very categories of cause and effect, event and symptom, unconscious and conscious, repudiated.

For the Brunettis, even the illusion of organic unity between past and present, mediated by memory and distorted or obscured by symptoms, is gone. In the face of marital breakdown, living outside of their native Italian culture, Lou and Pia begin collecting: duck decoys, hand-tinted photographs, glass insulators, silver candlesticks, salt and pepper shakers from the fifties, Scottie dogs, high heels from the forties, replicas of the Eiffel Tower. “It looks like one of those antique shops,” Fran notes, “that's set up to look like somebody's house when actually everything's for sale” (185). As objects, the past can be accumulated, dismantled, discarded in ways that childhood and memory, however remote from the present, never can be. Unlike recollection, collection holds out no promise of insight or narrative cure. It is also worth remarking—as Fran's comment hints—that in these collections the past takes on the perfected commodity form, stripped of use value, reduced to pure exchange value.

The first and final point of connection between the Brunettis and Fran and Chap is the story's only real child, Anthony Brunetti. As the story disables memory and drains away the illuminating power of recollected scenes, it turns its gaze on childhood and childishness in the present tense, elaborately linking Fran with Anthony. At first, Fran compensates for her involuntary childlessness with her work as a teacher and with a generalized “feeling,” even a special “intuition,” about children; it is she who recognizes Anthony Brunetti's attention deficits and steers his parents to a doctor who can provide appropriate medication. At the same time, however, her childlessness metamorphoses into a kind of childishness. She gets sick with mononucleosis, “a young person's kissing disease,” Beattie calls it, though the kisses she receives from Chap are an unlikely source, “little” and childlike, fond kisses “smack in the center of her forehead” (188). She quits her job and stays home, sometimes drawing pictures, sometimes thinking what she would like to be. “Like a teenager,” Beattie writes, she sketches “her face with and without bangs, to see if she should let the wisps continue to grow or have them trimmed,” deciding finally “to let the hair grow; soon she would have it all one length—the stark but simple way she liked to see herself” (198). In Vermont she considers Anthony's toys and leafs through his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics instead of reading War and Peace or the book by Richard Rorty she has brought with her. Even more tellingly, she plays dress up, “as excited as a child” putting on Pia's clothes, her shoes and earrings, her perfume; she imagines what Pia might say, how she might act. She remains ignorant of Pia Brunetti's mastectomy and the grown up sense of mortality it might confer; in her childlessness she is immune, in another way, from any real sense of time's passage and intimations of mortality. As others mature at the end of the story—Chap into surrogate fatherhood, Pia into authorship, Mrs. Brikel into liberated and newly realized adulthood—Fran is said only to have “run off,” a child's kind of departure, although she goes with a lover.

Throughout the story Fran is closely identified with Anthony, first by her intuitions about him and then by some shared habits and ways of being. They both spend a lot of time drawing. They are the ones who ask the story's ontological questions, and suggest in their wonderments and preoccupations the radical instability of selves and worlds. “What if the ship doesn't ever leave port,” Anthony says as he is about to set out on a cruise with his unhappy parents, “but the people on it all disappear?” (183). Later Fran takes up Anthony's question. “What if they never came back?” she wonders:

She wrote the question in her notebook. It was a notebook covered with lavender cloth Chap had given her for Valentine's Day; since then, she had been keeping some notes, making a few sketches of things she had seen or done during the day. …

She thought for a moment about people who had disappeared: Judge Crater; Amelia Earhart; Mrs. Ramsay. Though it was cheating to count Mrs. Ramsay among the missing: she had died—it was just that the reader found out about her death abruptly, and so reacted with great shock.


Linked linguistically, as the last two letters of her name become the first syllable of his, Fran and Anthony are further and finally linked in Beattie's plot by the fact that Anthony replaces Fran in Chap's life, taking the child's place once the childish wife has run off.

In a larger sense, however, and more important to my argument, Fran and Anthony are linked as fitful occupants of the present tense, people for whom past and future are strikingly one-dimensional and unreal. Anthony, whose fitfulness is diagnosed and medicated, draws the future as a stack of cubes and pyramids, labelling it prominently “The Future” (to which Fran adds, in a teacherly way, a date, May 5, 1985). Fran shares with Anthony the traits of distractibility, restlessness, and impulsiveness which are the diagnostic hallmarks of attention deficit disorder; and her sense of the past is as flattened as his of the future. Her one memory—the kiss in the boat—is no more vivid than a photograph shot from far away, a romantic cliché, unrelated to the entanglements and passions of adult life.

Fran is also associated in detailed ways with the story's other adult “child,” Mrs. Brikel's grown retarded son Royce. Like Fran, he stays home all day, draws pictures, dresses up (he puts on his grandfather's top hat for his walk to the reservoir), moves restlessly, acts on his impulses. Like Fran and Anthony, he occupies the present tense almost exclusively, unable to make much meaning out of the past or to gain much sense of the future. Royce's thoughts on the last afternoon of his life articulate vividly his childish experience of the present, as he moves from restive commentary on passing television images into something like jouissance:

“Get on home, Loretta,” he squealed. There were many things the Beatles ordered people to do that he liked to hear. “Don't leave me standing here” was another, though he could never get the cadence of that one right, so he just shouted it … “Get on home, Loretta,” he said again, to a cat crossing his path. The cat could have run away from a Dr. Seuss book. Come to think of it, he could be the man in The Cat in the Hat because he had put on a top hat for his stroll. A walk was a stroll if you went slower than you normally walk. He slowed down even more, putting the heel of one red-laced high-topper against the toe of his other shoe, and alternating feet so he moved forward one footstep at a time.

John, his second-favorite Beatle, was dead. Royce stopped to practice the Heimlich maneuver on an imaginary victim of choking. Then he metamorphosed into Batman and the bad guy fell to the ground, knocked unconscious.


Royce and his moment disappear, leaving barely a trace—“The hat was found floating,” Beattie writes, “like a hat in one of the comics Royce loved so much. The shoes were found first, then the hat” (231).

Finally, the story itself disappears with hardly a trace. The families disintegrated, the collections dispersed, the rambling, illogical Brunetti house forsaken, only Mrs. Brikel remains to give voice to some lingering questions—“Who knows whether he made a sound?” she thinks, considering Royce's drowning—and to truisms which highlight the story's refusal to yield a deeper or more authentic kind of meaning (236). “You had to give up something to gain something. … Some individuality for the common good,” she thinks (234). And later, “People are quick to forgive” (236).

In the end, Beattie's representations of childhood are elaborately tied to her sense of time, and time's undoing. I want to conclude by suggesting the logic of this undoing. First, as I have already argued in somewhat different terms, Beattie collapses generational time, making children of adults (Fran and Royce) and giving children a kind of precocious gravity and a premature ontological intensity. Second, she flattens historical time, appropriating its imagery—of photographs, of memories—while repudiating its depths. Meanwhile, she suspends rational time—the time of labor, of production and consumption; in other words, nobody works in this story. This suspension raises an array of utopian and childish possibilities even as it obscures the story's enmeshment in the commodity culture of late capitalism. Finally, Beattie radically deforms narrative and generic time by suspending cause and effect, depth itself, and thwarting the epiphany toward which the short story in its twentieth-century forms almost inevitably makes its way.

Works Cited

Beattie, Ann. What Was Mine. New York: Random House, 1991.

Centola, Steven R. “An Interview with Ann Beattie.” Contemporary Literature 31.4 (1990): 405–22.

Hill, Jane Bowers. “Ann Beattie's Children as Redeemers.” Critique 27 (Summer 1986): 197–212.

Jameson, Fredric. The Postmodern Condition. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Marcus, Leah. Childhood and Cultural Despair. Pittsburgh: U Pittsburg P, 1978.

Porter, Katherine Anne. The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

Richard, Mark. The Ice at the Bottom of the World. New York: Knopf, 1989.

William H. Pritchard (review date Spring 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Another You, in Hudson Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 135-44.

[In the following excerpt, Pritchard praises Beattie for the way she presents “the common stuff of life” in Another You.]

… Ann Beattie has always seemed to me essentially a writer of short fiction, although from the beginning of her career, with Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Distortion, both published in 1976, her long fiction has kept pace with her volumes of stories. The new novel [Another You] is her fifth and longest, surely her most ambitious.1Another You eschews (as did Picturing Will, her last) the minimalist style of her earlier work and moves a good deal closer to realism, indeed—if it does not sound too demeaning—to conventional novelese. In Picturing Will things got terribly out of control in a rash of digressive, sentimental writing about a child who was scarcely there on the page. Another You, like all Beattie's work, is more than occasionally trying of a reader's patience, but cumulatively makes a kind of aesthetic and human sense. Its main character, Marshall Lockard, is a college English teacher in New Hampshire who becomes mildly involved with a female student; meanwhile his wife is currently having an affair, his stepmother is dying, and his family past is a complicated one indeed. Just how complicated we don't find out until later, when the at first mysterious and annoying italicized letters that cap many of the early chapters are finally explained.

I've always resisted complaining that a novelist's characters aren't worthy subjects for fiction because they don't measure up as interesting human beings we can take seriously. But that complaint, in reading Ann Beattie, sometimes quivers on the horizon. When her mode is strongly satiric, as in Secrets and Surprises and the earlier stories, one doesn't ask for “serious” three-dimensional actors. But in Another You she is mainly unsatiric, asking us to care about the lives she presents. So as an English teacher I had trouble with Marshall Lockard, whose relation to literature surfaces only occasionally, in less than convincing gulps: “He thought of the concluding lines of Yeats's brilliant poem ‘The Circus Animals' Desertion'”; “the beautiful closing line of Yeats's ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ passed quickly through his mind”; “He wondered, idly, if there was any poem that contained the word ‘banana'” (I could have quoted him Wallace Stevens' Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction—“And là-bas, là-bas, the cool bananas grew, / Hung heavily on the great banana tree”) which, as a teacher of modern poetry, Marshall should know about.

What really does convince is Beattie's marvelous way with the common stuff of life, like preparing to take a shower in a motel you've rolled into dead tired and that turns out to be just what the doctor ordered:

A thick white terrycloth robe hung from a hanger suspended from a hook on the back of the bathroom door. He removed the robe and draped it over the top of the shower door, spent a few seconds figuring out how the faucet worked while admiring the heaviness of the brass. The bath mat was rolled and placed in a deep-chrome-plated basket attached to the tile at the back wall of the shower, along with a back scrubber enclosed in plastic. Standing under the strong force of the shower, he unwrapped the soap, tossing the wrapper sideways, over his head. … He washed his hair with the soap—something Sonja strongly disapproved of, saying it made his hair look like it had been struck by lightning—then massaged each shoulder as he dialed the showerhead clockwise, increasing the force of the water.

This is the sort of thing I read Beattie for, rather than any moral or even dramatic content—although the surprise final section of this novel, “Coconut Grove,” is impressive, both historically and humanly. Whatever doubt one has about Another You overall, there's no question about the writer's commitment to form in the novel, nor any doubt, at least in my mind, that this is the best full-length fiction she's produced. …


  1. Another You, by Ann Beattie. Alfred A. Knopf.

Andy Solomon (review date 21 June 1998)

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SOURCE: “All Her Lonely People,” in Book World, Vol. 28, No. 25, June 21, 1998, p. 5.

[In the following review, Solomon praises the stories in Park City and asserts that they show Beattie's growth throughout her career.]

Like a boxed set of Miles Davis CDs, Ann Beattie's offering of new and selected stories [Park City] is both superb in itself and an essential piece of history. Begin on page 137, after the eight new stories, and as you move through selected work from Beattie's previous five collections, then back for the new tales, you trace the evolution of one of our era's most vital masters of the short form.

Four stories from Distortions (1976) and six from Secrets and Surprises (1978) reflect the themes and early style that thrust upon Beattie a celebrity that might have ruined a weaker writer, and the oppressive title of spokesperson for her generation. To the Beatles' question “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” the answer seemed “From Ann Beattie stories.” Here are the drifting, loveless '70s survivors whose unfulfilled '60s hope and hedonism left them isolate. There's 32-year-old Cynthia of “Wolf Dreams,” entering her third marriage, still without a clue. She “even takes half a sleeping pill with her lunch and that keeps her calm.” But she's fallen asleep at the wheel of her own life, so that her father seems right in saying. “You are never going to find true happiness when you don't spend any time thinking between one husband and the next.”

These early, anguished Beattie men and women fail to see the role they play in their own misery, like the sensitively observed couple in “Vermont,” who split and recombine with others yet never quite know what they want or value what they have. Lenore, in “Weekend,” stays with a 55-year-old unemployed professor who patronizes and demeans her while carrying on with former students, which Lenore tolerates to preserve what little she has.

As much as their matter, their form gave these stories prominence, an elegant reportorial coolness arising from the overcharged nerves of the times, a spare minimalism descending from Chekhov and Hemingway that became an artless vacuity in Beattie's less gifted imitators. As with Muhammad Ali, a host of callow successors aped her style but lacked her gifts. Hemingway, who fervently harbored a lifelong crush on himself, once lauded his “Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by saying that there he “was able to leave out almost everything.” So was Beattie, providing bare essentials that made the full picture take shape in the reader's imagination. Like Picasso, able to conjure a nude's back from just three lines, only a consummate artist can offer those essentials and no more. Beattie could, Carver could, few others.

Her later collections, The Burning House (1982), Where You'll Find Me (1986), and What Was Mine (1991), displayed a constant growth frustrating to those who wanted to arrest Beattie in time. In these later stories, her characters recognize the byways where their path to happiness runs off-course. Many still fear emotional commitment but can seek friends like Ruth in “Learning to Fall,” who “will reach out and touch you to let you know she is listening when you talk,” and who help them learn: “What will happen can't be stopped. Aim for grace.” Their grief can now have a distinct cause, like the couple in “In the White Night” who've lost their daughter to leukemia. If they remain loveless, like sensitive Christine of the exquisitely written “In Amalfi,” they have a better understanding of why. As if to explain many early Beattie characters, the narrator of “Jacklighting” suspects “that if the birds could talk, they'd say that they didn't enjoy flying.”

Increasingly, the stories contain children as a focus of intimacy and source of self-awareness. The tender “What Was Mine” presents briefly the ideal loving stepfather that Beattie fully fleshed out in her novel Picturing Will. (Beattie has uncanny insight into paternal love, and, like Carol Shields and Anne Tyler, genuinely likes men.)

Beattie's style, too, evolved, as her photographic eye began capturing the heart of a story with the perfect image, like Milo in “The Cinderella Waltz” who keeps others at a distance by assuming a position above them. In the story's final line we see him “in a glass elevator … going up and up, with the people below getting smaller and smaller, until they disappear.” The often-anthologized “Janus” centers entirely around a “perfect” bowl that a real estate agent received from a lover who knew she couldn't seize what would make her happy; the bowl is now all she has left of him.

The new stories show further ripening. While not all of equal freshness, the best of them display still greater technical mastery wedded to a deepening potential for affirmation. Beattie's tragic sense of life has not disappeared but doubled, as we now see its dimensions mirrored in a possibility for joy, a mood presaged in the rapturous epiphany ending 1991's “Imagine a Day At the End of Your Life.”

“The Four-Night Fight” presents a bemused look at the short break in contentment of a married couple. The husband has his quirks, the wife her frustrations, but, after a few days' release of pressure, the domestic bond re-adheres, stronger for the breach.

Yet Beattie is no Pollyanna. The lengthy, amusing yet unsettling “Park City” provides a highly readable immersion in where her parent/child theme stands now. A 14-year-old explains her gregariousness. “It comes from being self-involved … What I'm really doing is projecting my anxiety.” And she's right. “Park City,” set in a Utah resort where yuppies buy overpriced Oreos dipped in dark chocolate, reflects not only Beattie's perpetual knack for finding the perfect detail but a command of capturing place, as does “The Siamese Twins Go Snorkeling” with its three-quarter-time evocation of Key West.

Best, perhaps, is “Cosmos.” A young teacher constructs exaggerated personal stories about her stepson for her Japanese students, all irony and pity lost in the cultural translation. As this wry, large-hearted story unfolds, Beattie weaves a remarkable network of unobtrusive symbols to show how all our lives are filled with disorder, some innocent, some hurtful. But, when seen with compassionate eyes, our clutter can be accepted by others as an imperfect but lovable whole. The constant evolution of technique and empathic humanity of these new stories make clear that the mature Beattie is even better than the famous Beattie.

Lara Merlin (review date Winter 1999)

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SOURCE: A review of My Life, Starring Dara Falcon, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 1, Winter, 1999, p. 145.

[In the following review, Merlin lauds Beattie's exploration of love and friendship in My Life, Starring Dara Falcon.]

Few topics have been as thoroughly mapped in literature as love. Yet the inevitable connection of love and sex tends to pull readers' attention toward the excitement or drama of the latter and away from the … what? ambiguity? intensity? shock? … of love. So it is refreshing that Ann Beattie's sixth novel, My Life, Starring Dara Falcon, recounts the unconsummated love between two friends, the title character and the novel's narrator, Jean Warner. Beattie creates a fascinating relationship between the meek Jean and the flamboyant Dara, who claims that Jean resembles Dara's only sister. By avoiding the sheer excitement and vitality of sex, Beattie encourages her readers to meditate upon the eccentric nature of desire.

Dara and Jean make an unlikely pair. An orphan raised by an elderly aunt who did not especially like children, Jean is happily, if quietly, married and living in New Hampshire with her husband's calm and uncommunicative family. Dara, on the other hand, arrives in town intent on making a splash. Presenting herself as an actress, she seems to crave the attention of everyone around her. And, unlike Jean, she tends to get it. Yet the two lonely women have a common need for each other's companionship. Dara provides a catalyst for change in Jean's life, and, perhaps in more subtle ways, Jean does the same for Dara. Dara Falcon forces Jean to challenge every aspect of her existence. Although she had been content with her life, she begins to wonder why she left college after her first year to marry her first boyfriend, a man she had only recently met at the time of their wedding and perhaps never knew very well. She begins to notice signs that her husband's family, which has always seemed uncommonly placid, is straining under the weight of unshared secrets and desires. Moreover, she begins to ask herself what she wants out of life.

Of the issues Jean explores, not the least is whether she can trust her new friend. There is the question of Dara's relationship with Jean's favorite (and married) brother-in-law; her involvement in a boyfriend's plans to open a nursery that will compete with Jean's family's business; her managing to worm her way into a part in the play that Jean has been typing for the author. The women's mutual seduction culminates in Dara's giving Jean a diamond-and-ruby ring that belonged to Tom, her ex-boyfriend, who wants the ring back. The exchange of an engagement ring identifies their relationship in ways that neither can articulate, and thus the question of what Jean will do with the ring becomes crucial.

Jean's growing discomfort with Dara's attempts to mirror her begs the question of the role of narcissism in love, that relationship in which the boundaries between the self and the other can be often similar: often divorced or on their way to divorce, not quite sure of life or of themselves. The writing is always crisp and careful. Relationships have always been central, a story's scope tightly focused on the ordinary desperation of middle-class lives.

As a survey of Ann Beattie's work, Park City is an honest retrospective of Beattie both at her best and at her not-quite best.

Brian Evenson (review date May–June 1999)

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SOURCE: A review of Park City: New and Selected Stories, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 1, May–June, 1999, p. 194.

[In the following review of Park City, Evenson commends Beattie for being a consistently strong writer, although notes that her earlier work took more risks.]

Ann Beattie's collection of new and selected stories, Park City, gathers together thirty-six stories spanning Beattie's career. Each of Beattie's previous collections is liberally represented (from four stories from her first book, Distortions, to eight new uncollected stories), giving the reader the sense of both where Beattie has been and where she's going.

While it is true that the more recent stories tend to be more developed, the characters and emotions fuller, the writing sometimes more subtle, they're also less interested in cutting new ground. Beattie's earlier stories take more formal risks. In the earlier work the endings are more tenuous and risky, there are more (and more severe) disjunctions between sections, the characters themselves seeming more severe and less capable of communication. Even as late as the very fine novella “Windy Day at the Reservoir,” Beattie is willing to try something that questions the necessity of unity in the story. There is a certain urgency, too, to the finest of Beattie's earlier stories, such as “The Burning House,” that one is hard-pressed to discover in the eight new unpublished stories. There are, nonetheless, consolations: in one or two of the previously unpublished pieces, such as “Going Home with Uccello,” Beattie couples the concerns of her early work with a virtuoso style that recalls William Trevor.

Remarkable as well is the degree to which Beattie's concerns have remained constant over the years. The agents of these stories are often similar: often divorced or on their way to divorce, not quite sure of life or of themselves. The writing is always crisp and careful. Relationships have always been central, a story's scope tightly focused on the ordinary desperation of middle-class lives.

As a survey of Ann Beattie's work, Park City is an honest retrospective of Beattie both at her best and at her not-quite best.


Beattie, Ann (Vol. 13)


Beattie, Ann (Vol. 18)