Picturing Will

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When Picturing Will opens, Jody has established herself as a successful wedding photographer and is living comfortably as a single parent four or five years after her short, disastrous marriage to Wayne. Will, now beginning to create himself as an independent being, has been essential to her emotional survival. She is a loving and attentive mother, worried that she is too protective, aware that Will sometimes does not like her. She is also a standoffish lover, wary of committing herself to Mel, cognizant that by freely offering physical love yet not committing herself she makes Mel desire her all the more. However much she would like them to, things cannot stay poised in this way for much longer because Jody now stands on the verge of a new career as an art photographer. Fearful of leaving what she has created and uncertain of her feelings for Mel, she hesitates to commit herself either to him or to the slim possibilities of success in New York City. Decisions that seem to be hers are made for her, however: Mel engineers a showing of her work in New York by making it a condition of his working for D. B. Haverford, and Haverford’s promise to launch her career forces Jody to move to New York. Shortly thereafter, it appears, she marries Mel, and he takes over the rearing of Will.

These same events that precipitate Jody’s move and marriage send Will on a brief trip to Florida to visit his father and Corky while Jody establishes herself in New York. This trip introduces a new cast of characters and provides glimpses into some the reader has already met. “Haveabud,” the opportunistic gallery owner, seduces the seven-year-old boy-genius Spencer. The main focus of this section, however, is on irresponsible, philandering Wayne, already considering leaving Corky after only eighteen months. Like Jody, he finds that events have a logic and momentum of their own, as a quick, passionate affair with Kate leads unexpectedly to his arrest on drug charges. Corky, Wayne’s third wife, emerges as a loving but deluded woman who clings to hopes that Wayne will soon want children and who meanwhile shows her talents for motherhood by caring expertly for Will.

The third section, a one-chapter coda entitled “Child,” depicts Will twenty years after these events of 1989, a successful art historian at Columbia University with a wife and young child of his own. Here, too, the author gathers the loose ends from parts 1 and 2, sketching in a few details about Wayne (last heard of in Mexico City), Corky (now a nurse’s aid), and Haveabud (something of a celebrity in Paris) It is also in this last chapter that the reader learns that the essays on childhood and child rearing irregularly placed among the chapters of narrative are not by Jody or the omniscient author but by Mel, who, after Jody’s rapid rise in the New York art world, took over the task of rearing the boy.

In typical postmodern fashion, Picturing Will is less a narrative with a plot than a series of scenes or snapshots. Whether this method of constructing a novel succeeds or fails for the reader will depend on what one expects a novel to do or say. Those with few demands about the conventional devices of plot and character will find much to please them. The writing is witty, insightful, and stylish. Beattie meticulously lavishes attention on each sentence, shearing it of anything superfluous or showy. It is a style often called “minimalist,” an intense, nervous, pared-down prose that aims primarily at a precise depiction of contemporary reality, disclaiming the suggestiveness and symbolic resonances of the twentieth century’s earlier writers. Minimalism has affinities with what Jody learned from Wayne’s wordless departure:

“It had been a rude awakening, but later a relief, to find that saying nothing could be the strongest way of communicating.” In Beattie’s skillful hands, this style is compelling, for even without a continuous narrative thread, the novel pulls one along by the sheer power of each individual incident to engage the attention and reveal something important about present-day life.

Beattie’s great strength as a writer is her ability to convey a scene without rhetorical flourishes or overwriting. The key to her art may well lie in an analogy with photography, for like successful pictures, Beattie’s best scenes “transcend expectations.” Like a photograph emerging from the developing fluid, Beattie’s incidents vibrate with the life imparted by some unexpected detail, some turn of phrase, bit of psychological insight, or emotional truth. These powers of selection and observation reach their height in this novel in the chapter describing a Halloween party and its aftermath. Perhaps the kaleidoscopic and surreal events of the party lend themselves especially well to Beattie’s sensibilities, for her prose embraces the contradictions of mask and reality, child and adult, humor and terror, innocence and foreboding that the occasion holds. The party culminates in the nightmarish scene of Mary’s automobile accident, in which the death of a deer matter-of-factly throws into sharp relief the silliness and pathos of the costumed partiers as they come on the scene.

Few episodes in the book achieve such dramatic intensity, but others have equally memorable qualities. The rise and fall of Haverford’s first client, Luther, is entertaining in itself and perhaps a moral interlude on the pitfalls and temptations that await Jody as she climbs the slippery and precipitous slope to fame in New York’s fickle art world. Jody’s first interview with the slick and conniving Haverford is delicious in portraying the country hick getting the better of the supposedly streetwise city slicker. The book’s most disturbing scene takes place in the motel where Haverford, Mel, Will, and Spencer stop for the night. Haverford at first seems a figure of innocent fun when he smears his and the boys’ lips with lipstick, but this turns into pederasty when, to Will’s uncomprehending eyes, Haverford seduces Spencer in the bathroom. There are tender moments too, however, as...

(The entire section is 2496 words.)