Style and Technique
Beattie’s style is deceptively simple. Related as a collection of very human, often hilarious details, this story gives (as do Wesley’s photographs) the effect of life spontaneously observed rather than arranged or posed, reported rather than judged. Into the zany and poignant moments of the characters’ lives are woven dozens of smaller anecdotes and observations, some experienced by the characters, others merely repeated at second hand. Irony and humor work side by side. The sequence of events seems less important than their accumulation.
However, on closer inspection, the seemingly random details add up to a subtly structured and solid whole. Even small anecdotes and details carefully support (and often offer substantive clues to) the main themes. For example, the cat that Nick and Elizabeth pick up at the side of the road and take to their motel room manages to adapt comfortably to whatever surroundings in which it finds itself, reinforcing the animal secret of survival. In a detail from the past, Nick recalls Benton’s feeling trapped and tossing his wallet out of the car window; Nick retrieves the wallet, which falls open on the seat to Elizabeth’s picture: Benton can no more easily discard his changing identity and credentials (marriage, impending fatherhood) than he can control change itself. Ena takes the dead Wesley’s chain of keys, though they open nothing she can find; still, she keeps trying, hoping perhaps to unlock an answer to her son’s needless death.
In image after image, the themes reappear in major and minor variations; as they do, a single picture begins to emerge. Just as Wesley’s photographs transform the ordinary into something of mystery and beauty, so the story transforms disparate and ordinary elements into a single artistic vision of contemporary life whose harshness is softened by the human touch.