Falling in Place

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Falling in Place by Ann Beattie has the quality of a middle-class bad dream. As one reads it and tries to make sense out of the chapters—time sense, theme sense, character development sense, point of view sense—bafflement and boredom result. The familiar story is an ordinary nightmare, the characters are nonmemorable strugglers, and the ending is a cynical stop on the road. The events in the novel cover the usual contemporary topics: some sex, some violence, some possible divorces, inevitable psychotherapy and a great deal of thin-skinned philosophy uttered while eating or smoking pot. At the conclusion of the novel, everyone takes time out, blinks and pinches themselves, and gets ready to meet another Great Adventure. What falls into place remains manifestly hidden.

The structure of the novel, mirroring the plot and characters’ psyches, is fragmented and repetitive. Each numbered chapter, except for the final one, has two parts: the first part is printed in regular type; the second in italics. Sometimes the italicized parts recapitulate from a different point of view the previous scenes or an aspect of the previous scene in that chapter. Sometimes the italicized versions present an internal monologue/debate/reminiscence about the previous scene. Sometimes the italicized version flashes to another scene from a different chapter to which the present scene is a sequel. The alternating print pattern is the most reliable structural foothold in the novel. The contextual and thematic consistency, on the other hand, among the chapter pieces offers readers who enjoy literary jigsaw puzzles a special challenge.

The novel has many small plots, none of which adds up to a central plot but all of which intertwine and intermesh to create a complex melodrama. The story could start from a variety of vantage points and does. It also begins at two different times, July (“It was July”) and June (“June. A long time left in summer school . . .”). The novel generally takes place in July of one year but some events in the chapters occur before July, some occur sequentially in July, and some occur simultaneously in July or at other times. Events also occur that are unfinished or not necessarily followed by chapters which elaborate on the previous events. “What happens” relies on the reader’s ability to juggle and make continuous sense out of several plots occurring simultaneously and to be able to switch empathic positions as the same characters assume different roles in the various small plots.

In the first chapter, the reader meets several of the main characters who are related to one another but are also involved in their separate dramas with other characters yet to be introduced. The novel seems to start at the end of June, which is the beginning of summer school for Mary Knapp, fifteen and freaked out over Peter Frampton. Mary, who has flunked English, is now attending an English class taught by Cynthia Forrest (A. B. Bryn Mawr and graduate student at Yale). Cynthia, who has never taught remedial English before, has designed the course like a Reader’s Digest Great Books Club. She reads or assigns to the class excerpts, first chapters, or bits and pieces of literary works in the naïve hope of providing cultural enrichment to their young minds. The fact that these teenagers will never attend Bryn Mawr or be inspired to read beyond the first chapter of Vanity Fair does not change Cynthia’s plans. The silliness of her assignments, which reflect an earnest lack of good sense and a fragmented approach to a subject, typifies the thinking and planning in the novel. When one reads that students “were to open Pride and Prejudice at random, and whatever page they opened to, they were to read the whole chapter that page appeared in,” one has a great deal of sympathy for the students who perform assorted discombobulating pranks on Cynthia.

Not surprisingly, Mary Knapp hates summer school and hates Cynthia Forrest, whom she dubs “Lost in the Forest.” She also hates her ten-year-old brother, John Joel. As the novel opens, Mary is walking back from her friend Angela’s house. John Joel, as usual, is sitting in a tree calling abuses and trying to spit on his sister’s head. (This opening vision of family life is significant, for it is from this tree several weeks into the novel that John Joel will aim a gun at Mary as she traverses this same route and will shoot her.) As the chapter continues, Mary exchanges snide comments with her father who has called to tell her to take out the hamburger meat from the freezer. She then masturbates in front of her six Peter Frampton posters. The first section of chapter one ends momentously: “She had forgotten to put out the hamburger meat.”

The italicized chapter part is a scene with Cynthia and her mate, Peter Spangle. Peter has drawn, without permission, a sketch of Cynthia on the ditto she will be passing out to her students describing...

(The entire section is 2031 words.)