Introduction

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Beattie, Ann 1947–

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An American novelist and short story writer, Beattie is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her fiction is concerned primarily with the fortunes of the Woodstock generation in the spiritless seventies. (See also CLC, Vols. 8, 13.)

Each story [of Secrets and Surprises: Short Stories] begins with a different young couple. They are living together. Sometimes they are married. Exhausted (by the sixties?), these people seem waiting, just as Chekhov's and Turgenev's people waited, in lonely houses in the country; but these, it seems, have no neighbors. The skill with which their gifted author renders their passing days tends to convince the reader, as the stories pile up in his mind, that this eventlessness is in fact the rhythm of life itself…. Impressive reporting of curiously Russian, technology-age lives….

"Notes on Current Books: 'Secrets and Surprises: Short Stories'," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1979, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 55, No. 2 (Spring, 1979), p. 56.

Richard Locke

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"Falling in Place" is stronger, more accomplished, larger in every way than anything [Beattie's] done…. (p. 1)

Her fiction has none of the usual gimmicks and attractions that create a cult: it's not conspicuously witty or bizarre or sexy or politically defiant or eventful; in fact, it offers so colorless and cool a surface, so quiet a voice, that it's sometimes hard to imagine readers staying with it. Her subject matter, too, is deliberately banal: she chronicles the random comings and goings of disaffected young people who work in dull jobs or drop out, and spend a lot of time doing and feeling practically nothing except that low-grade depression Christopher Lasch has called the characteristic malaise of our time. This tepid nihilism or defeated shopping-mall consumerism is depicted in a deadpan, super-realistic style: I am not a camera but a videotape machine. (pp. 1, 38)

Ann Beattie's people are often deliberately dull; they feel life is stale, flat and unprofitable. They're a drag, and they apologize for it….

Inevitably these studies in domestic sorrow recall the stories of J. D. Salinger or John Cheever or John Updike: Ann Beattie's world, like theirs, is a miserable suburban purgatory inhabited by grieving wraiths. But the extraordinary literary color, shape and motion that animate the work of those older New Yorker writers are qualities Ann Beattie turns away from. Her stories are defiantly underplayed and random, trailing off into inconsequentiality, ending with a whimper or, at best, an embarrassed grin. And unlike her predecessors, she has no grand conservative vision buried deep in the background of her books.

It's curious, even disquieting, that she should be so abundantly gifted with an ear and eye for other people's voices and surroundings, so sensitive to the ebb and flow of family life and to the desultory interactions of old friends, yet should so consistently eschew the delights (and responsibilities) of a narrative voice and literary structure of her own…. Her imagination is at once nostalgic and minimally historical (there is no time before 1968), both anti-intellectual and sensorily acute: No ideas but in things. To judge from her prose style, she hasn't even a hope for literary or esthetic pleasure…. [Sorrow] and defeat rise from the surface of these bleak households like the smell of yesterday's take-out supper….

Yet nothing Ann Beattie has written could quite prepare us for her new novel, "Falling in Place." It's like going from gray television to full-color movies. Not that her themes or settings have changed that much, but there's a new urgency to the characters' feelings and a much greater range and number of characters and points of view…. (p. 38)

These characters are not just quickly sketched-in; no fewer than five have distinct points of view: we learn and come to feel a lot about them and about the way they see the world. Moreover, the settings are not only the leafy rich suburban Connecticut where most of this unhappy crew resides, but also the scruffy student-residence sidestreets of New Haven, an apartment on Columbus Avenue, and the offices, lunch counters, train stations, streets and museums of Manhattan in July.

More than ever before, Ann Beattie has made an effort to shape this material, to give it literary form. She's built the novel around one melodramatic event—an accidental shooting—scattered a few literary (as well as rock-music) allusions and carefully constructed a recurrent verbal and imagistic motif: the "falling in place" of the title is echoed half a dozen times…. "Falling in place" means both falling into your socially determined niche and, as in "marching in place," doomed activity without progress or relief….

One must add that this ambitious structure tends to wobble and that there's a considerable failure to pull it all together in the last 40 pages. The shifts in point of view are sometimes brilliant, sometimes arbitrary and theatrically contrived. After the melodramatic catastrophe, the book does not build toward a satisfactory resolution…. The book goes on too irresolutely, too long. Nevertheless, "Falling in Place" is certainly, faute de mieux, the most impressive American novel of the season and establishes Ann Beattie not merely as the object of a cult or as an "interesting" young novelist, but as a prodigiously gifted and developing writer who has started to come of age. (p. 39)

Richard Locke, "Keeping Cool," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 11, 1980, pp. 1, 38-9.

Robert Towers

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[Ann Beattie] has become perhaps our most authoritative translator-transcriber of the speech-patterns, nonverbal communications, rituals, and tribal customs of those members (white, largely middle-class) of a generation who came of age around 1970—who attended or dropped out of college, smoked dope, missed connections, lived communally, and drifted in and out of relationships with a minimum of self-recognized affect or commitment….

[Throughout] the novel purposeful action and even consistent desire are largely suspended, thereby limiting our involvement; in their place we find shifting alliances, aimlessness, and a pervasive depression masked occasionally by bursts of manic exuberance and the need to turn everything—sex, love, jobs, parenthood—into wacky or bitter jokes.

Not for a moment does one doubt Ann Beattie's knowledge of these people or the authenticity of her recording of their scene…. She knows the records her characters are listening to, the slogans on their teeshirts. When not transcribing their speech or listing the artifacts they wear or use, she narrates their activities and thoughts in a sequence of (mostly) simple, declarative sentences in which affect is suppressed almost to the point of numbness. Yet these sentences are not dull; they are carefully adapted to the "cool" treatment of her material that Ann Beattie has perfected. She successfully creates the illusion of letting the facts speak for themselves, of letting things fall into place. On a page-by-page basis the novel held my interest as an exceptionally good documentary film or television program might. But I finished this skillful book about hurt and saddened children with an awareness of diminished returns. So much passivity, aimlessness, and narcissism is easier to take in small doses—in Ann Beattie's short stories for instance—than in a novel of this length. (p. 32)

Robert Towers, "Period Fiction: 'Falling in Place'," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 8, May 15, 1980, pp. 32-4.

Margaret Atwood

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Readers of [Beattie's] earlier books will not be disappointed in Falling in Place…. Neither will they be particularly amazed. It's similar territory, seen, if possible, with an even sharper vision, a more mordant sense of humor.

To say that Ann Beattie is a good writer would be an understatement. Her ear for the banalities and petty verbal cruelties of the late '70s middle-American domestic idiom is faultless, her eye for the telling detail ruthless as a hawk's. She knows her characters inside out, down to the very last nastiness and sniveling sentiment, and she spares us nothing. (p. 1)

All could be illustrations for Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, demanding love and commitment from those around them but unwilling to give it. They feel that their lives are entirely out of control, that they lack power and cannot be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Their dominant moods are anger and self-pity, and we find their triviality enraging until we come to see them not as minor sadists but as drowning people clutching each other's throats out of sheer panic. Adrift in a world of seemingly pointless events, bombarded with endless media flotsam, trapped in a junkyard of unsatisfactory objects, plugged into the monologues of others who appear to be deaf to their own, these characters cry out for meaning and coherence, but their world hands them nothing more resonant than popular song titles and T-shirt slogans.

Despite it all they remain yearning romantics. What they want from each other is nothing less than salvation, and Beattie's vision is ultimately a religious one. With religion having been designated as uncool, however, they're stuck in Middle Earth. (pp. 1, 9)

The only answer for these glutted but spiritually famished people would be God or magic. God appears only as a T-shirt slogan—"God Is Coming And She Is Pissed"—and magic is represented by a third-rate party magician who gets a crush on Cynthia in a laundromat. He's a fraud, but he does represent magic of a kind: His love for Cynthia, unrequited though it is, is the only bit of disinterested altruism in the book. He doesn't want to possess her, he wants to wish her well, and it is through his magic binoculars that Cynthia sees her vanished lover as he finally appears again. It isn't much, but in view of the odds it's a tiny miracle.

The society Beattie depicts is chaotic and random. Things happen to these characters, they change, but there is no plot in the traditional sense of the term…. "Things just fall into place," says one character, commenting on Vanity Fair. "Maybe things just fell quickly because of gravity," thinks another, "and when they stopped, you said they were in place." Which is a comment also on Beattie's particular art. Sometimes the reader feels caught in an out-of-control short story, sometimes in a locked train compartment filled with salesman's samples and colossally boring egomaniacs, but most of the time, thanks to Beattie's skill, her novel not only convinces but entrances. The details are small, but the picture of our lives and times built up from them is devastating. (p. 9)

Margaret Atwood, "Ann Beattie: Magician of Muddle," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), May 25, 1980, pp. 1, 9.

Phoebe-Lou Adams

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[Falling in Place] begins with a mesmerizing portrait of a family coming undone. Unfortunately it takes a turn from which it never recovers, into melodramatic violence. The event—a boy's half-accidental shooting of his hated sister—is perfectly plausible and yet seems perfectly unnecessary as a revelation of the hatreds that animate this grisly world…. The fundamental problem with the book, though, has to do with its author's sensibility, which is reticent to the point of muteness about values. Once again from this novelist we have something more like journalism than fiction.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Life and Letters: 'Falling in Place'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 245, No. 6, June, 1980, p. 93.

John Calvin Batchelor

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Beattie writes about suburbia because that seems her experience, first in Virginia, now in Connecticut. Her characters have little in common with Cheever's feverish Ray Millands or Updike's pious whiners. Beattie is neither as bitter and cruel as Cheever nor as self-condemnatory and high-minded as Updike. She writes insularly, on a small, drab, qualifiedly romantic canvas, without climaxes, with less energy than her supposed mentors, and with a Southerner's shameless need for the myth of a Lost Cause, in her case the counterculture….

Beattie's politics remain her secret, oddly missing in print, certainly neither economic nor sexual—perhaps inferentially anarchistic: "It's a rotten world. No wonder people want answers. No wonder they want to have parties and get distracted." Beattie might allow Cheever to caress her and Updike to possess her, but then she'd drive all night to get stoned in Vermont with the dissolute….

[Falling In Place] weaves a trap from which [the central] family cannot escape; their home is destroyed in the end by their own sloth, envy, selfishness, and lack of grace. The children are held as guilty as their parents, for Beattie is no believer in the innocence of the young. Structurally, Beattie has written an overlapping series of bittersweet short stories, organized loosely into two love triangles that intersect at the point called Nina….

It is not as complicated as it sounds, and it is charming. It evidences having been written quickly, with a flair for verisimilitude through bland dialogue, and with a great, warm wit. Characters meet, chat, flirt, and either fornicate or separate, depending upon the time and their temperatures. One of Beattie's most peculiar strengths is that she is more comfortable and compassionate with her male characters—in this case John and Spangle, who are disloyal and, truth be told, damned—than she is with her females….

Critics have called Beattie's men gentle, ineffective, well-intentioned, androgynous, murky. They are best understood as losers, either defiantly foolhardy, like Spangle, who has wasted his inheritance (financial and spiritual) while acquiring no purpose whatever, or embarrassingly lost and contemptible, like John, who seems incapable of true love and, indeed, is only mildly attentive to eros.

Significantly, Beattie's women, who miss no opportunity to pot-shot feminism, are fickle, fatalistic, self-centered to the point of being emotionally paralyzed, and visited with no more ambition than to be inoffensive before whomever they encounter. There is also a consistent hint of schizophrenia….

Beattie's genius with all this irrational ambivalence and spastic coupling is that she believes that people don't shape their own destinies—they stumble upon them and then slide along everafter. The reason John, Nina, Spangle, and Cynthia finally enjoy the fruit of their chatty sexuality is that, as Isaac Newton speculated and Ann Beattie would remind us, everything does tend to fall into place….

Beattie has become the Queen of Passive; she has written a novel that is a seamless demonstration of its philosophically contentious title. Beattie is a first-rate American novelist with a rich, influential future, and the only important question about her is whether her sort of literary fatalism will prevail over competing, self-consciously imperialistic schools.

John Calvin Batchelor, "Queen of the Passive," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 22, June 2, 1980, p. 38.

Jack Beatty

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Not surprisingly, and not without justice, Ann Beattie has been praised on sociological grounds as the chronicler of this generation. (p. 34)

My own view is that Ann Beattie's sociological realism is superficial, a reflective realism of accurate detail—what songs are in, what clothes, what expressions—rather than the kind of critical realism whose exemplar is Buddenbrooks. As for her artistry, I think she has yet to adapt her laid-back sensibility to the large-scale dynamics of the novel…. [In] Falling in Place one misses that irresistible momentum of conclusion one always feels in a first-rate novel. She drifts and pads just when we want her to get on with it. She can't seem to rein in her characters, either; and she rivals them in her tolerance for gabby potheads who fill her books with clouds of sophomoric banter. (pp. 34-5)

Drift in a novel is not … what we have always thought it, an artistic weakness, but a profound comment on the way we live now. We drift, characters in the novels that represent us drift, all God's former children drift.

Ann Beattie buries her stories under heaps of detail…. Along with her characters, she seems to be stalling, marking time, trying to figure out what to do next…. Ann Beattie is a writer of sensibility, and the point of all her details is to give that faculty a workout, and never mind that this makes her readers impatient with her fine local effects, and her novels draggy and slack.

In fact, the first half of Falling in Place isn't slack at all…. The surprise is her milieu, for … we are in "Cheever country," that green reach of western Connecticut whose spiritual condition is marvelously evoked by one of Beattie's characters when she says: "It's so beautiful here, and we don't notice it very much, and when we do, it doesn't seem to help." All those lawns, all that unhappiness.

Cheever country it certainly is, and if I may be permitted an allusion, I would say that it is Heller country also—the suburban Heller of the underrated Something Happened. The cast of characters is the same in both novels…. So is the theme implied by this paradigmatic assemblage—that the American Dream is a cheat. That both fictional fathers are advertising men is not Beattie's homage to Heller but an inevitability for any writer who takes up the theme of shadows over suburbia. Advertising, after all, has become an almost wholly metaphoric profession…. It's a relief to know that Beattie is not above exploiting a cliché, for its economies….

There is very little in the way of plot. Instead, to move things along Beattie shifts rapidly from New York to Connecticut, from Nina to John to Louise, and also to John's children, John Joel and Mary….

This brisk cutting from character to character is combined, at first effectively, with brief italicized codas to the main chapters containing the intense ruminations of several of the characters. The shifts in mood and point of view thus produced, plus our roused expectations over whether John, who has already taken to living with his mother in Rye, will finally leave his wife for Nina, create a sense of movement that sweeps us along for a while…. But this method works better in a film, which swims past us in an hour or two, than it does in a novel, where we need the tug of a strong narrative line to make us turn the pages. (p. 35)

Jack Beatty, "Books and the Arts: 'Falling in Place'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 23, June 7, 1980, pp. 34-6.

Whitney Balliett

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[What] matters most in Ann Beattie's short stories and novels is her absolute ear and her masterly deadpan humor. When the two work together, the results are dazzling….

Ann Beattie's characters have an autonomous quality, as if they had stepped whole into her novel from somewhere else. She pores over them, then tells us how they work. (p. 148)

She does not spend much time on exteriors—on streets and highways and landscapes. But she never misses the people who populate them….

There are constant closeups—but of a strange kind. They are not of her figures' faces, which she never describes, but of their actions and their talk, which she makes almost visible. She cuts adroitly between the strands of her story, inching her figures through their experiences, some of them wrenching, some of them ordinary. (p. 150)

Not all of Ann Beattie's characters come into focus. She regarded John and Louise Knapp as ciphers when she took them up, and they remain that way. The book has a tricky ending. It appears sentimental until one thinks through all she has supplied us. Ann Beattie is a natural writer. Her prose never preens or tires or obstructs. At its coolest, it holds heat. (p. 154)

Whitney Balliett, "Books: 'Falling in Place'," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 16, June 9, 1980, pp. 148, 150, 154.

Pearl K. Bell

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[Ann Beattie] describes a wayward human landscape that is bereft of meaning, in which everyone is chronically vagrant and capricious, and unmoored….

[The] chaotic world of post-everything dropouts has come to seem her private literary fiefdom, populated by men and women well over thirty, educated to no purpose, living on family handouts, unattached and uncommitted. Terrified by silence, they fend it off continually with rock, dope, and the insatiable pursuit of whimsy and new kicks. They all turn up again in Falling in Place, but by now it is drearily clear that Ann Beattie has nothing fresh to reveal about these disaffected drifters…. Confronted once again with these hollow and disordered spirits, whose habits and gestures and speech Miss Beattie knows with flawless intimacy, we are unable to feel anything but boredom and distaste for the muddled weirdness she records with such disingenuous objectivity.

As though she realizes how narrow and unrewarding this familiar ground has become, Miss Beattie has widened the range of her scrutiny in Falling in Place by writing not only about dropouts but also about an unhappy suburban family and its dreadful children. But she moves into John Cheever's territory without any of his mournful humanity, and the people she finds there turn out to be not very different from and certainly no more admirable than her aging hippies….

Though Cynthia is the novel's only character that one can imagine possibly escaping from the disarray, for she alone has made an active and rational choice in life instead of passively letting things happen, it is soon clear that she is no less doomed than the rest of them. At heart she is as dislocated as her lover, subject to numbing depression, often as helplessly mired in swamps of fragmented inconsequence as her adolescent students. (p. 60)

It is not just things that happen to these idle souls, but thoughts and words and feelings: everything flows together with deadpan randomness—laundromats, brand names, cute T-shirts and bumper stickers, rock songs and campy movies, snatches of wispy talk overheard in the New York coffee shops and department stores and offices and Connecticut houses through which Miss Beattie's specimens drift in a listless stupor. While such wads of dissociated irrelevance have some times worked in Ann Beattie's short stories, they become unendurably monotonous in a novel unless the purposeless inertia is disrupted by some decisive action.

That indispensable thunderclap, the dramatic, unexpected event which should stop everyone in his tracks for a long moment of unaccustomed lucidity, occurs more than half-way through Falling in Place…. But the incident alters nothing, enforces no lucidities…. Moral apathy has so completely displaced genuine emotion in all these corroded hearts that their lives must go on as always, untouched by the promise of change and redemption.

But one cannot really assert this with any confidence, for who can be sure that Ann Beattie is passing judgment of such a kind—indeed, of any kind—on the deplorable persons she has transfixed with her keen and indefatigably watchful eye? Not once does she reveal the secret of her fascination with all this exasperating flotsam…. Making no comic gestures, taking everything in with her customary neutrality and giving it all back, Miss Beattie seems oblivious to her readers, unperturbed by their inevitable irritation and boredom.

Though her stories can be strange and clever, though she is an undeniable original, what Ann Beattie entirely fails to arouse in us as we yawn through Falling in Place is any conviction that the men, women, and children whose odd and empty lives she transcribes so expertly count for something that deserves our attention. (p. 61)

Pearl K. Bell, "Marge Piercy and Ann Beattie," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 70, No. 1, July, 1980, pp. 59-61.∗

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