Bette Pesetsky Essay - Critical Essays

Pesetsky, Bette


Bette Pesetsky 1932–

American short story writer and novelist.

Pesetsky's fiction focuses on the dispirited lives of female protagonists whose ennui can usually be attributed to unstable or failed relationships. Isolation, estrangement, and hopelessness are themes which permeate and connect the stories of the author's first work, Stories Up to a Point (1982).

Though similar to the stories in its dark themes and cutting humor, Pesetsky's first novel, Author from a Savage People (1983), ostensibly offers the possibility of escaping despair through action. Rather than accept her underpaid position as a ghostwriter, May Alto, the protagonist, blackmails her famous client. The ironic result is that May, angered by oppression, becomes oppressive.

Pesetsky is generally regarded as a skillful writer. While her stylistic economy has at times been seen as a deficiency, most critics praise Pesetsky's unadorned prose style as being reflective of her characters' bleak lives.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

"One day it came to me that I was neither adopted nor the illegitimate daughter of the King of Rumania and Magda Lupescu. Everything, of course, has run downhill since then." So begins "Offspring of the First Generation," the eighth of the 15 brief stories in this collection. But the notes sounded here of humor, disillusionment and cheerful resignation in the face of loss are typical of Bette Pesetsky's infectious first work of fiction, "Stories Up to a Point."

For all, or most, of these stories are about middle-aged women whose lives have broken up, whose parents have died or divorced, whose husbands or lovers have left them, or vice versa, whose children have turned out badly, who do not wish to remember anymore, who cannot find anything to remember or who realize that the only continuity that remains is, as the narrator of one story concludes, "All things that happen to everybody will someday happen to my children."

Yet they go on looking desperately for continuity, these women do, and take it wherever they can find it….

In the fifth story, my favorite, "The Hobbyist,"… the narrator searches for continuity by cleaning out her grandparents' apartment, her grandfather having died at 82 and her grandmother having gone to live in Venice, Calif. She discovers her grandfather's lifelong hobby, which "was collecting dust." He would put dust samples in bottles and label them: "The store on Essex...

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David Quammen

With their compactness, their flat tone, their arresting elisions and juxtapositions, Bette Pesetsky's "Stories Up to a Point" read like telegraphic dispatches from the battlefield of modern life. The telegrapher is in almost every case a woman, anonymously reflecting upon her failures and disappointments as wife, mother, lover, friend, urbanite. Generally these women sound shellshocked. But the messages are clear. They carry, some of them, important news from the front.

The news is all bad…. The only relief Miss Pesetsky offers, throughout her dispiriting reports on the state of human relations, are deft writing and flashes of hilarious pessimism. A testament to these strengths—her craftsmanship and her mordant humor—is that the volume is, against all odds, enjoyable.

This is still more surprising in that "Stories Up to a Point" is her first book…. [The stories] show a controlled originality, a distinctive and consistent vision. Ironically, the book's chief flaw is that very consistency of vision. In the weaker stories, the endless succession of injuries-numbly-adapted-to molds into a blur, and the mood of cool despair seems programmatic or facile. Yet even these few, which don't work well as whole stories, fail interestingly and contain at least touches that do work.

Of the rest, some are terrific. "The Person Who Held the Job Before You" is a small wry parable about the psychic toll of work in a dull office, compressing into four pages and a punch line much of what Joseph Heller pursued throughout "Something Happened." "Moe, Nat, and Yrd," about a self-confessed student of radio call-in shows and the people who make them possible, at first seems to promise only rambling and eccentric comedy, but then snaps closed at the end like a high quality strongbox. Both "Dyslexia" and "The Theory of Sets" are ingeniously constructed and emotionally potent, the sort of short story for other short-story writers to look at and envy.

Social disjunction, dislocation and discontinuity (especially as they afflict women) are the main themes of all these stories, and so the author's use of narrative disjunction, dislocation and discontinuity is apt; at its best her off-rhythm, quirky technique is impressive. (pp. 11, 34)

David Quammen, "Women in Crisis," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1982, pp. 11, 34.∗

Mary Soete

When a character in the title story [of "Stories Up to a Point"] declares that "misery is specific," he could be stating this collection's epigraph. These are first-person tales narrated in a sardonic, slightly depressed voice with the hatchet-edged impact of simple declarative sentences. They have the sort of disarming artifice that seizes attention: shocking misfortunes announce themes that are not pursued; stories of dissecting satire carry titles like "Ulcer," "Scratch," and "Dyslexia." Pesetsky's people collect and document dust; write pamphlets, graphs, business letters of regret, threat, or supplication; are victimized by anonymous commuter abuse, city crazies, their own disconnected families. Funny, absurd, and troubling—the most refreshing challenge to the traditional boundaries of the short story since Barthelme.

Mary Soete, in a review of "Stories Up to a Point," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, February 15, 1982; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1982 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 107, No. 4, February 15, 1982, p. 474.

Bill Greenwell

Care by Women, the best of Bette Pesetsky's Stories up to a Point is … a skeletal sketch of a marriage, the arrival, adolescence and later life of three daughters, their relationship with their mother, their father's desertion—he'd wanted a son. It is but nine neat pages long (sorry, short). That it could so easily be decked with flesh, knocked into an excellent novel, is irrelevant. The scratches on its surface are exceptionally skilful. This first collection, with its admirably ambiguous title, contains fifteen tight, slightly antiseptic snippets, concerned with the loss of a lover, love, or both. Care by Women is significantly the most striking, as one of only two told in the third person. Pesetsky's speakers, cool, almost emotionless, sound too improbably similar, too mannered to be individual. Fractured in form, some pieces are maddeningly insubstantial. To snatch at a point and miss is agreeably tantalising: not to glimpse one is, well, pointless.

Bill Greenwell, "Novel Tales," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 104, No. 2685, September 3, 1982, p. 22.∗

David Montrose

Bette Pesetsky assembles short declarative sentences into very short stories, the kind that are now usually called fictions, their traditional "story" elements having been minimalized…. [Pesetsky] reflects the influence of Donald Barthelme, revered in creative writing classes for his apparent imitability. All fifteen stories in this first collection incorporate Barthelme's early "see-Jane-run" manner and his "fragmentary" method of construction. Typically, Pesetsky's narrator (always a woman) presents a mosaic of autobiographical episodes linked thematically or by association (the title story, an exception, comprises six récits in no particular order). If the resulting arrangement appears to skip inconsequentially between two points, this is because it is designed only, in Barthelme's words, to "supply a kind of 'sense' of what is going on".

Pesetsky has borrowed Barthelme's method, but not his madness, eschewing the surreal for a firm attachment to the quotidian…. Her world, though, is the familiar made strange: second-hand echoes of Kafka—as distilled, that is, through Barthelme—permeate these stories. Their heroines are anonymous inhabitants of anonymous places; when familiar locations are named, they have no more substantiality than that of words on the page; other people exist only as one-dimensional shadows. Neurotic, lonely, sad, Pesetsky's women endure lives of quiet desperation and write anxious, jerky...

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Doris Grumbach

I admire the strong silences that exist among the words, between the sentences, and hover everywhere over the events in Bette Pesetsky's Stories Up to a Point…. These are original and unusual stories … [in which we notice both] the bleakness of her vision and her barren prose. The only difficulty I had with these poignant pieces is that her prose leaves large air holes through which, if one happens to put the book down in mid-story, memory escapes. Then there is no shortcut back into the story: you must start over….

[Pesetsky's] is wholly a feminine vision…. She is preoccupied with women's lives, their particular brand of hopelessness, their acceptance of their hopeless futures. Her...

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The New Yorker

["Author From a Savage People" is a] darkly humorous novel about a brilliant ghostwriter who is other than overjoyed when an eminent client of hers wins, with "his" first book, the Nobel Prize. The ghostwriter could easily expose the fraud—she larded the text with scenes from the lives of her mother and her aunt—but she would prefer to see the book praised and reprinted rather than discredited and remaindered. Mrs. Pesetsky's novel, which covers about three weeks of tense negotiations before the ceremony in Sweden (the ghostwriter wants the prize money and a hefty monthly stipend; her client wants to buy her silence with one lump sum), is larded with some telling scenes from the life of the ghostwriter, a victim...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

Women are the "savage people" in the title of Bette Pesetsky's effective first novel, "Author From a Savage People"—at least according to the book's epigraph, which reads "'You're savages,' the politician said. 'Women are savages. I've always known that Civilization has never reached women.'"

As for the "author" in the title: it obviously refers to the story's protagonist, May Alto, who is both a writer and a woman, and thus an "author from a savage people." But it also could refer to an author that the "savage people" as a class are addressing—a male writer, possibly, who, the women might feel, was exploiting them and thus would need to be petitioned in a letter sent to the "author from a savage...

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Barbara Koenig Quart

In Bette Pesetsky's awkwardly titled but inventive novel, Author From a Savage People, women are the "savage people" and the heroine, May Alto, is the "author," a much put-upon ghostwriter…. [Its] central emotion is its heroine's intense ambition, her anger and the pleasure she takes in wreaking vengeance, in feeling powerful for a change. May is an uncredited "helper": to her many clients; to her two former husbands, who used her and deceived her, one shamelessly continuing to do so; to her three children. (p. 738)

May is guided throughout by advice (often banal) from her mother and aunt, both long dead—a nice fictional equivalent of the mother-mentor voice we carry in our heads…. May's...

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