Ann Beattie ranks second only to Raymond Carver as being responsible for the renaissance of the American short story in the 1970’s and 1980’s. While Carver focused on the blue- collar aimless and dispossessed, Beattie zeroed in on the college- educated clueless and uncommitted. In all five of her previous collections—Distortions (1976), Secrets and Surprises (1978), The Burning House (1982), Where You’ll Find Me (1986), and What Was Mine (1991), critical reaction to Beattie’s stories has been pretty split between those who admire her pinpoint portraits of the yuppie generation of the 1960’s and 1970’s and those who accuse her of psychological vacuity and sociological indifference. Seen as the spokesperson for her generation, Beattie has been alternately praised for her satiric view of that era’s passivity and criticized for presenting sophisticated New Yorker magazine versions of the characters on television’s Seinfeld, unable to understand themselves or others.
If Beattie’s artistic siblings are Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason, her literary fathers are Samuel Beckett and John Cheever, creators of surrealistic dramas of endless waiting and sterile scenarios of East Coast anomie. As with the fictional characters of both these predecessors, Beattie’s people seldom know what makes them do the things they do and have no real sense of purpose or destiny; thus, instead of engaging in deliberate action, they more often seem acted upon. Some critics have argued that when purpose is eliminated, as it is in Beattie’s stories, trivia fills the gap. Thus her stories have been included in the subgenre of “minimalist neorealism” in which, critics charge, much detail remains meaningless detritus, never elevated to significance.
Beattie’s characters seldom experience the kind of epiphany of awareness readers have been accustomed to in twentieth century short fiction, from James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson through Eudora Welty and Bernard Malamud. Moreover, since many of her stories are told in present tense, her characters seldom engage in meditation or attempt a search for meaning, and there is little cause for her narrators to indulge in exposition or exploration. Beattie, especially in her early stories, seems to follow the Chekhovian-inspired dictum in one of her own stories: “Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.” Although Beattie feels such omission is necessary because of the subtle nature of the conflicts she dramatizes, it is precisely this reticence that has aroused the most criticism of her work.
This new collection—a sort of retrospective summation of her short-story career—contains many Beattie favorites that are entering the canon as anthology selections in college and trade texts, such as “Dwarf House,” “A Vintage Thunderbird,” “Shifting,” “The Lawn Party,” “Jacklighting,” “Greenwich Time,” “The Burning House,” “Weekend,” “Janus,” and “What Was Mine.” Some readers may be disappointed that other favorites such as “Lifeguard,” “Distant Music,” “Snow,” and “It’s Just Another Day in Big Bear City, CA” have been omitted. In the twenty odd years that Beattie has been publishing short stories, mostly in The New Yorker, her milieu and her method have changed little, which may lead some to say that she harps too much on the same tune and has nothing new to say about the era she has evoked so sharply. Yet Beattie does not seem to be concerned. She once commented, “My test was not did I get it right about the sixties, but is it literature. I am not a sociologist.”
“Weekend” is a typical early story that indicates Beattie’s debt to John Cheever, combining a typical Cheever male theme with what has become a typical Beattie female theme. The Cheever-type male is a fifty-five-year-old college professor who tries to deny getting older by sexually exploiting college girls who look up to him. The Beattie-type female is a thirty-four-year- old woman who lives with him and passively accepts the “sick game” that he plays. A central image in the story is a group of photographs that he took of himself in which he looks like a man about to scream. Typical of Beattie’s technique, the story ends with an image of a past moment in the life of the couple, when things were somehow all right, but which is now lost forever.
In “A Vintage Thunderbird,” the central character is a man who drifts through relationships, unable to commit himself to any of them because of a fantasy desire for the woman who owns a vintage Thunderbird, a metaphor for him of some inaccessible idealization. However, although he remembers the day she bought the car and the drive they took...
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