Reading Chilly Scenes of Winter, Ann Beattie’s first novel, is a rewarding as well as sense-stimulating experience. The novelist incorporates a bold critical approach to her topic (especially through imagery) into a delicate storyline. The story may not be accessible to some readers, who cannot identify personally with the character, but the method of presentation is manipulative of the reader’s responses. The audience is urged to identify with (or at least support) Charles, since there is nothing more engaging than a romantic quest. The story is threaded with the characters’ wistful nostalgia for the 1960’s, an era of forceful sociological and emotional power in the student movement, of people grouping themselves together and working toward common goals. And just as the 1960’s “worked” until a widespread cynicism crept in, Beattie examines her own characters’ dilemmas and idiosyncrasies sharply and without cynicism or judgment.
Twenty-seven-year-old Charles is apparently the only person of his age to have not only a dependable (although psychologically compromising) source of income, but also his own inherited house. His friend, Sam, is a recently unemployed jacket salesman. Into their lives resurfaces awkward-to-accommodate Pamela, lately turned vegetarian and lesbian. All are at odds in their various goals, finding little to bind them together other than physical proximity, the tie of having known one another for a relatively long time, and a certain amusement in one another and their respective, seemingly hopeless situations. In contrast to these three is a series of neurotic yet coping parents and others of an older generation, and Susan, Charles’s younger sister who placidly seeks to fulfill more foreign values, staying in college long enough to marry a prospective doctor—determined, whether her target stutters or not.
Despite their discouraging circumstances, both Charles and Sam are able to remain keenly honest with themselves about where they once were and where they are now. They admit candidly that things were better, they were themselves in the 1960’s and they are not so now. And the question arises more than once: are they mad to allow themselves to deal with their compromising present? Apparently not, for although Charles may become desperate in his continuing pursuit of the attentions of his lost love Laura, he is also capable of protean adaptation to a kaleidoscopically foiling set of circumstances. Like the best of twentieth century heroes, including Joyce’s Bloom, Charles endures while others around him do not. Although the 1960’s may have had its own particular type of madness, an initiation into adulthood during that era provided a person with a certain penchant for endurance that people on either side of him in years cannot claim.
As a result, Beattie has given us an isolated handful of individuals, all quietly striving for their own separate goals. But now in an era of the disintegration of formerly common goals, who decides what is important? How does someone decide what he will dedicate every modicum of energy to? Charles wants Laura; Susan wants doctor’s-wife status; Pamela wants an intellectual doppelgänger to fling herself wholeheartedly into a lesbian relationship with; Sam wants to get over his cold and regain a lost imagination. There has been an inversion of past priorities: whereas a decade previously it was not uncommon for one to put aside creature comforts and personal demands in order to find self-actualization in working for the betterment of the social group, now that actualization is found in specifics, in aligning oneself with one other individual or a definite niche in the social order. In other words, molding society is no longer important; slipping neatly into it is. There is a contagious complacency because the common goals and, indeed, the common oppressions have somehow evaporated. Today’s only common oppression is actually that very complacency and the resulting insipidity of society.
Beattie uses several devices to underscore the disjointed relationship between the present and the more dynamic past. One is blatant: the characters themselves mourn to one another the passing of better days. “’You could be happy too, Sam,’” Charles tells him, “’if...
(The entire section is 1760 words.)