Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931
Fresh from the success of her new and collected stories Park City (1998), Ann Beattie offers upPerfect Recall (2001), a collection of eleven stories, all set in the present, but using the 1960’s and 1970’s as a mythological buttress which many of the characters reference. The stories mark something...
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Fresh from the success of her new and collected stories Park City (1998), Ann Beattie offers upPerfect Recall (2001), a collection of eleven stories, all set in the present, but using the 1960’s and 1970’s as a mythological buttress which many of the characters reference. The stories mark something of a departure from Beattie’s earlier stories and novels that offer authentic glimpses into the ambiguity of contemporary relationships. Though some of her earlier skill shows through in stories such as “Mermaids” and the title story “Perfect Recall,” this collection is flawed by Beattie’s use of obvious plot devices and transparent characterization, which forces the reader to rigid and largely predictable conclusions. Furthermore, Beattie’s talent for depicting her cultural milieu with accuracy often sinks into baby-boomer nostalgia in some of these stories. One thematic thread that runs through most of the works, the culture of male friendships, adds a different dimension to the book, but does not form enough of a cohesive thread to keep the collection together.
The first story in the collection, “Hurricane Carleyville,” illustrates Beattie’s reliance on simplistic characterization and forced resolution. The story chronicles the protagonist Carleyville’s passage from somewhere in the Midwest to the home of friends Jimmy and Fiona in Maine. He travels with a dog, a cat, and an older horse that he pulls in a rickety horse trailer. He is not feeling well. He hits his hand. His truck battery dies. In essence, this man is an emotional and physical mess. When he arrives at his friends’ home, they are preparing for a hurricane which threatens the coast. In the process of helping his friends, he lures the husband into a hurricane-turbulent river for a swim, and cuts his arm, requiring thirty-eight stitches. The reader does not have to look far to see that the main character is something of a hurricane himself. Then, in the final pages of the story, Fiona makes the comparison even more explicit when she tells him, “We ought to send yououtside and let the damned hurricane in.” This announcement of the symbol detracts from the reading of the story. Instead of being a fully developed character, Carleyville becomes a collection of Dickensian mannerisms that announce the story’s “moral” before the story has concluded. This same problem plagues other stories in this collection, sometimes making the point of the work too obvious.
Another story that uses the same problematic technique is “Coydog.” Here, Beattie adopts an almost Anne Tyler-like method of sketching a dysfunctional family in a moment of crisis. This eccentric family consists of a number of loveable hangers-on and a matriarch who demands that the family get together for holidays before their actual date so that no one will be injured traveling to the family home. The yard is scattered with wooden cutouts of animals carved by a family friend. Fran, the protagonist of the story, resists attending these gatherings. As the outsider who married into the family, she tries to convince her husband Hank that they should not attend. She seems to have particular differences with his sister, “Dreamy Dora.” At this family gathering, Fran makes a negative comment to Dora and she responds rather inappropriately by telling the family that her parents forced her to have an abortion as a young girl and refused to let her marry the man she loved. Later, the family watches a coydog—a crossbreed of coyote and dog—nuzzle the wooden animals in the yard as if they were real and he belonged there with them. As the story ends, Beattie brings the reader to a time several years in the future. It is revealed that Fran and her husband stayed together only four years after this incident. No one recalls Fran’s comments or Dora’s outburst, only that a coydog believed the wooden animals were real. Just as in “Hurricane Carleyville,” Beattie makes the title and the message of this piece too obvious. Fran feels like an outsider and tries to join a family. The coydog tries to befriend the animals, but they are wooden. Fran tries to feel comfortable with the family, but they are not what they seem. Beattie ends the story with an obvious coda: “I remember the day the poor lonesome coydog got a broken heart when it went and fell in love with animals not quite its kind.”
When Beattie’s stories are not delivering obvious endings, they often deflect the reader from understanding where to focus in the story. This pattern is particularly true of the longest story in the collection, “The Big-Breasted Pilgrim.” The narrator, Richard Manson, works as a secretary for a famous chef named Lowell Cartwright. Because Richard spends so much of the early part of the story detailing information about Lowell, his sister Kathryn, and his current girlfriend Daphne, one assumes that Richard’s relationship with Lowell and these relatives and friends will be a large part of the story proper. Beattie loads these opening scenes with information about the clothing of the women, as well as details about Richard’s life and his relationship with Lowell as a trusted friend and confidante. Then, the plot takes a radical shift when Nancy, a friend of Kathryn, shows up at Lowell’s house and Richard immediately begins a romantic liaison with her. The world of Lowell is left behind for most of the second half of the story, with only scattered references to a dinner Lowell is supposed to prepare for Bill and Hillary Clinton in between parties and dates Richard has with Nancy, a hair highlighter from New York. Once more, the reader prepares to settle on this set of circumstances with this new plot as the main point of the story. Then, again, a sudden change occurs as the romantic liaison ends before it really has time to begin, though Beattie has invested almost twenty-five pages in developing this entirely new set of characters and circumstances. Furthermore, the narrator does not seem invested in this new plot. At the end of the story, the focus comes back to Lowell, but only in omission—he has fallen out of a tree and has been seriously injured. Richard sits alone in the house, looking for a wine pull that he fears might have been stolen. Unlike the other stories that had devices to trace the story’s conclusion, this story lacks any narrative control. The two different sets of characters and complications might have worked in a longer work, but in fifty pages, Beattie cannot integrate the two plots into a coherent whole. Consequently, the reader never knows where to focus or what is happening—or not happening—to the narrator.
The title story in the collection, “Perfect Recall,” also contains a large cast of characters, but in this work, Beattie more deftly distributes the less-rounded characters amongst the essential players of the story. The narrator, Jane, has “perfect recall,” and the entire story shows how her memory helps reconstruct her family’s saga. Despite the fact that Jane recalls sometimes arcane details about the family—the way her uncle’s girlfriend’s dog Prince Valiant could balance a hot dog on his nose, for example—the story never digresses from the central characters and their relationships with each other and their children. The central conflict occurs at the end of the story as Jane and her sister Elizabeth must decide whether to tell Elizabeth’s stepson that he has inherited an expensive painting from his eccentric uncle Nath’s collection. Although this conflict arises late in the story, Beattie successfully integrates past experiences with present situation to make the end resolution seem imaginative and uncontrived.
Probably the best story in the collection, “Mermaids,” uses a mixture of these same methods, as well as a first-person limited omniscient narrator, to good effect. In Key West on Christmas Day, an unnamed woman suns herself and begrudgingly looks for the aunt of Miles Hetherly, a friend of hers who has driven three hours to Key West to go fishing with her husband, James. Using internal monologues, Beattie showcases the protagonist’s neurotic tendencies. Obsessed with her age and her relationship with her husband, she constantly speaks to herself in the language of self-help books and psychologists. She is a standard example of women of her type. She seems moderately in control of her emotions and relatively happy. Yet, when she meets Miles’s Aunt Rose, the protagonist’s glib internal monologues belie an anxiousness and depression that surface when she speaks to another sympathetic woman. The reader learns that her husband has had an affair, and she is not happy being left alone on Christmas Day. Later, the protagonist goes to meet her husband and friend’s fishing boat, only to discover it is a “pleasure” boat, filled with drunken men and sluttish women dressed in mermaid costumes. Beattie adeptly displays the shifts from the protagonist’s earlier belief in herself to this low point of degradation. “Mermaids” represents a high point in this collection, showcasing Beattie’s strengths in manipulating point of view and creatively portraying a modern woman in a stressful situation.
The collection as a whole is held together by a repeating focus on male friendships and their fragility in the modern world. In three of the stories, men take on roles as other men’s secretaries or confidants. In most of the cases, outsiders in the story presume that the male secretaries are the gay lovers of the wealthier, established men. In “The Infamous Fall of Howell the Clown,” the opposite is true: Everyone assumes that Howell is having an affair with a woman, when actually he is gay. Though in most cases the stories speak positively of the need for male friendships and how often they are misunderstood, in “The Women of This World,” the male bonding between son and stepfather showcases their fatuous misunderstanding of the women in their life. The men sit home and proclaim their need for perfection, both in wine and in women, while the two women help another woman who has been attacked in her home. Certainly James, the husband in “Mermaids,” and his wife’s friend Miles Hetherly have made a pact that might seem typical of the carousing, womanizing male. Yet, in “In Irons,” Beattie explores the relationship between Eugene and Derek, a male friendship so deeply felt that Derek’s wife leaves him because of it; furthermore, Derek does not end the friendship to save his marriage. The two men share a true sense of camaraderie that transcends the sexual and affects Derek more strongly than any other relationship in his life. Beattie may be saying in these stories that men are often deprived of male friendships because of new stereotypes. Many of the men in these stories are restless, needing to move away from women into environments where expectations of success and responsibility take a back seat to more pressing emotional needs.
Taken together, the stories in this collection disclose some interesting insights into the world of male friendships and the women who are involved with them, but they lack Beattie’s careful crafting of plot and character. Though her occasional flashbacks to the 1960’s and 1970’s in the stories show where her work has come from, her inability to represent the present as authentically makes this collection problematic.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (November 15, 2000): 586.
Library Journal 125 (December, 2000): 194.
The New York Times, January 2, 2001, p. E9.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (January 14, 2001): 7.
Publishers Weekly 247 (November 20, 2000): 44.
The Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2001, p. W9.