Although marital strife is perhaps the most common subject of modern American short fiction, Ann Beattie probes beyond the ordinary level of this theme in her new collection by projecting the seemingly inevitable conflicts between married partners outward onto metaphoric objects or mirror-image third parties. Beattie is not interested in something so ordinary and blatant as adultery as the cause of separation; rather she focuses on the elusive emotions and subtle tensions that often underlie breakups. Because of their delicate nature, the conflicts Beattie is concerned with cannot be expressed directly and discursively, but rather must be embodied in a seemingly trivial object or an apparently irrelevant other person.
This technique, originated by Anton Chekhov in the late nineteenth century, mastered by James Joyce twenty years later, and practiced expertly by such recent so-called minimalist writers as Raymond Carver, is central in the development of the modern short story as a form. The emphasis is not on internal monologue, for the practitioners of this technique assume that some emotions go beyond the ability of mere reflection to capture them, but rather on concrete situations and details that, even as they seem ordinary and merely “realistic,” resonate with subtle symbolic significance.
One result of this realistic-minimalist technique is that, although a story may begin with seemingly pedestrian details, as the details accumulate they begin to take on a lyrical tone and to assume a metaphoric importance. The first story in the collection, “Imagine a Day at the End of Your Life,” is a paradigmatic example of the technique and thus an illustrative introduction to the collection as a whole. The first-person narrative seems to be merely one man’s rambling account of his family as he faces the changes that the “empty nest” brings; however, but the end of this brief piece, imagination masters mere reality and transports the man to a place where he can touch those things that were always too high to too far to reach before.
Such an epiphany or lyric realization is prompted by an object from a third party in the story “In Amalfi,” in which a woman on holiday in Italy with her former professor, who is also her former husband, tries to understand her previous relationships in particular and her part in general. She arrives at a kind of reluctant acceptance when a stranger asks her to hold a ring for safekeeping while she goes boating. The unaccustomed band on her finger evokes memories and irritates, like a grain of sand in an oyster, making her feel, although inchoately, that something is wrong, albeit inevitable, about her situation.
A simple, single object also serves as a symbolic device in the story “Honey.” As in most of these stories, the narrative element is very slight here; more important is the crystalization of a tacit situation. The unacknowledged attraction a woman feels for another man comes to a symbolic climax at a simple outdoor dinner party when bees swarm a honey port on the table and she and the man reach across the table to hold hands. Although she perceives this as a romantic gesture, her husband says it reminds him of two tennis players gripping hands perfunctorily at the end of a match—a metaphor that suggests both union and competitive separation at once.
Several of the stories focus on an outside character who serves as a sounding board or a symbolic reflector of the central character’s own conflict or realization. The simplest and most whimsical is “The Longest Day of the Year,” in which a woman, facing problems in her third marriage, entertains a Welcome Wagon lady in her and her husband’s newly rented house. During the visit, the Welcome Wagon lady complains about how things in the town are not as good as they used to be and gives the narrator several meaningless and useless gifts from local merchants. Her bumbling ineffectiveness comes to a comic climax when the chair she is sitting in collapses, her makeup gets smeared, and her partial wig comes askew as she stumbles toward the door—all of which reminds the narrator of herself when she drank. The significant poignancy of the event, however, lies in the fact that when she and her husband laugh together about it, it marks one of the last times they ever embrace. The narrator knows the incident would have become a family story if she and her husband had stayed together, but since they do not, it remains a symbol of her own marital failures.
“Home to Marie” is another story that begins in an everyday, pedestrian manner and then, with the introduction of an outside mirror-image figure, becomes lyrical and revelatory. The central situation is established when the narrator’s wife, Marie, gives a catered party. When the party is set and there is nothing to do but wait for the guests to arrive, though, the wife packs her suitcase, gets in her...
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