Picturing Will was Ann Beattie’s eighth book of fiction and fourth novel. She and her typical protagonist belong to what is sometimes called the Woodstock Generation. Their detachment and characteristically unfocused rebellion against the society their elders bequeathed them do not so much mellow as atrophy in middle age. Twenty years beyond the point of not trusting anyone over thirty, they face the ordeal of trusting themselves to be forty. They often can accept neither the commitment and responsibilities of parenthood nor the other miscellaneous obligations that society—now the society that they had a substantial part in forming—imposes on them. Yet if Jody’s contemporaries in Picturing Will are the Woodstock Generation, the third section of the novel, in leaping to Will’s adulthood, projects a hypothetical future, as if the author cannot wait for enough “real” time to elapse to make Will an art historian at Columbia University.
The six-page excursion into Will’s future seems to suggest that if Will and his generation will not prevail, at least they will endure. Beattie’s critics argue inconclusively about whether her photographic techniques work as well in long fiction as in her short stories. Picturing Will is a kind of album, perhaps suffering somewhat from the typically unselective nature of albums, but some of the pictures are vivid and true. They are not all beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, and some, such as the homoerotic scene Will is compelled to witness on the trip to Florida, are disturbing, but some, such as Will’s discovery of Mel’s diary, are touching. It is to Beattie’s credit that she finds shards of hope among the wreckage of her generation, even as she avoids easy solutions to the problems arising from their improvisational lifestyles.