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.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In form, Picturing Will resembles chronologically arranged snapshots of a postmodern family. Divided into three sections entitled “Mother,” “Father,” and “Child,” the novel often focuses on the characters’ external environments, exhibiting Beattie’s trademark use of telling details, including references to consumer goods and fashionable trends. While Beattie has often been praised for the photographic accuracy of her descriptions and her realistic portrayal of disjointed lives, Picturing Will deals more with the emotional complexity of relationships than her previous work does, demonstrating that people are not simply the roles they are assigned, such as the role of “mother.” The complicated, fragile, and enduring love between a parent and child has more to do with commitment than with biology. Interspersed throughout each section are italicized passages that attempt to deal with the frustrations and terror, the joy and wonder of rearing a child.

In part 1, “Mother,” Jody is forging a new life for herself and Will after having been abandoned by Wayne four years earlier. She cannot really remember why she married Wayne, but her life and ambition had been thwarted by the experience. In her new life as an in-demand wedding photographer and Will’s caretaker, she knows that she has the luxury of suspension, to be “neither the harried mother nor the beleaguered artist.” While Mel is waiting for her to decide whether she will marry him, Jody seems to relish her work (she often returns to the scene of a...

(The entire section is 636 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Some critics view Ann Beattie as writing about a new “lost generation,” a generation of people who came of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and who wander through a landscape of postmodern disappointment and general dissatisfaction. In Picturing Will, however, Beattie seems to have gone more deeply into the psychological ravines of the characters than she has in previous novels (Chilly Scenes of Winter, 1976; Falling in Place, 1980; and Love Always, 1985). She has acknowledged in interviews that this novel took three years to write and that this work contains more of her personal vision of the world than her previous work does. While Picturing Will still does not offer any preconceived answers to the perplexing questions and disappointments of life, love, and rearing children, the powerful images presented to the reader like a shifting collage of photographs leave the reader with a shock of recog-nition. Some of the most mundane events in life are, in fact, the most illuminating.

Beattie forces the reader to examine experience and the fact that experience may not be what it seems. In this novel, conventional roles are turned upside down. While Jody is not a conventional mother, Beattie never lets the reader forget that she is an artist, and as an artist, she is on a personal quest. The roles that people play in the lives of others are not strictly defined by biology and gender. If that were the case, life might easily be framed in a photograph. As Beattie points out, however, life is not that easy, not that resolute. Some people make better choices, have better luck, or gain more from experience.

As a minimalist writer, Beattie has been grouped with such writers as Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, Tobias Wolff, and Alice Munro. Picturing Will, however, seems to take this pointillistic approach to style one step farther. She has captured the ethos of her age and has shown once again fiction’s ability to hold up a mirror to life and reveal the foibles and pathos of a given era. As bleak as life may seem, the object, as Mel says, is to proceed. A character in “Learning to Fall” (from The Burning House, 1979) expands upon Mel’s advice and perhaps sums up the ideal, if not the reality, of Beattie’s vision: “What Ruth had known all along: what will happen can’t be stopped. Aim for grace.”

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Whatever the changes in her material and methods over the years, Beattie remains famous a the voice of a disaffected generation, and...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Commonly acknowledged literary predecessors of Beattie are post-World War II writers such as J. D. Salinger, John Updike (as he wrote in the...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

This book has been preceded by several novels and collections of short stories and is succeeded by the short story collection What Was...

(The entire section is 606 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Beattie, Ann. “An Interview with Ann Beattie.” Interview by Steven R. Centola. Contemporary Literature 31 (Winter, 1990): 405-422. This discussion ranges over Beattie’s work up to and including Picturing Will. Her disclosures that the rough draft of this short novel required three years and that she discarded “at least fifteen chapters” provide an idea of the distillation involved. Centola’s questions generally solicit useful information about Beattie’s literary aims and techniques.

Gerlach, John. “Through ‘The Octascope’: A View of Ann Beattie.” Studies in Short Fiction 17, no. 4 (Fall, 1980):...

(The entire section is 564 words.)