Ann Beattie Beattie, Ann (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beattie, Ann 1947–

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Jack Beatty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

Whitney Balliett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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....

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Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 626 words.)