The Burning House

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Ann Beattie’s characters live in a world where most of the old certainties no longer obtain. Values have been shaken, religious beliefs overthrown. The passivity of spiritual inertia threatens. Yet humankind has a history of readjusting its sights in the face of confusing change and moving ahead with new integrity. The Burning House deals with the passivity and aimlessness of a generation of men and women who have found that the values of an earlier time are out of place, worn down, no longer valid; some of the titles of these stories suggest their plight: “Afloat,” “Waiting,” “Like Glass,” “Learning to Fall.” Work brings no pleasure, even though many of the characters are professionals; the main focus in their toneless lives is overwhelming dispiritedness, a sort of structural fatigue that belies the drama of the title of the work: the house burns down around them.

Beattie’s protagonists are without footholds. Friends do help one another, but the help is merely sustaining, not rehabilitating. In the title story, “The Burning House,” Amy’s marriage is falling apart. Although her house is full of friends whom she and her husband have known for years, these friends can offer no support, for their own lives are torn: Freddy, high on marijuana, can only offer to help with the housework; J. D., whose wife and child were killed in an accident, can only bandage Amy’s bleeding finger. Her husband has a mistress, she has a lover, and the trivial conversation of avoidance continues endlessly.

The friends in “Jacklighting” have gathered to commemorate the birthday of a beloved companion who has died. None of them is able to concentrate on the reason why they have gotten together. The dead man, Nicholas, had defined life for them by seeing them through LSD trips and planning their vacations; now, the young girlfriend of Nicholas’ brother says, “I don’t get the feeling you people had another life.” Each is incapable of mourning or of comforting the others, and the narrator, when she closes her eyes in a kind of tribute, sees nothing.

Children figure significantly in these stories. They are tight, tense, suspicious, selective, wise—in contrast to the adults, who are fearful, preoccupied, guilty, confused, and childish. In “Learning to Fall,” Andrew, eight years old, is taken to the city by a friend of his mother. These two make the trip often, and the friend has known Andrew since his birth, yet the adult cannot love the child—he is not perfect. Slight damages caused by the impatient use of forceps have made him pitiable to this woman. She anticipates the time when Andrew will recognize that he is imperfect and become as self-conscious as adults inevitably must be. The boy clearly loves her and trusts her; he confides that his mother is learning to fall in her dancing class. She is learning to fall slowly and gracefully, a lesson she will pass on to her son: once one begins to fall, there is no stopping, so one must be as resourceful as possible. Perhaps this is a way out of the dilemma of stasis; a message of hope that Andrew will be in control.

In “Afloat,” a sixteen-year-old visits her father. Each year, she brings a message from her mother which contains personal information recalling the life the parents shared ten years before. Annie is angry with her father because he never deigns to send a reply. Her anger, in fact, is quite positive in its energy compared to her father’s distance.

Louise in “The Cinderella Waltz” directs her life as best she can around the childishness of adults: her mother, her father, and her father’s lover. Louise’s mother and her father’s lover become confidantes of a sort, trying hard to be adult in a surrealistic way, while the child is the only one who dares to cry or to show anger. Bryce, in “Desire,” misses his father when he is with his mother in Vermont and misses his mother when he is with his father in...

(The entire section is 1621 words.)