Beattitudes: On Ann Beattie
Let’s imagine Ann Beattie in the early 1970s. She was a thin young woman, bucktoothed, with an open, vulnerable face and long straight hair in the period style. She was a little waiflike, maybe, a little mournful, a little recessive. She was surely not a confident person—she’d been depressed a lot in high school, and finished near the bottom of her class. Her childhood had been ordinary, and she had been even more ordinary. Now she was treading water in graduate school, still not much of a student, bored, buying time. The last thing she wanted was to have to get a job. She shared a place with a bunch of other people, more or less aimless like herself, no doubt, mourning the ’60s and waiting for something to happen. We can imagine her sipping tea on cloudy winter afternoons, listening to people’s problems. There must have been a lot of pot, as people drifted in and out (did she smoke herself, or did she prefer to keep a clear head?), a lot of empty talk of plans and dreams.
She had a secret life though, late at night, up alone with her typewriter. It was very cold where she lived. She’d put a pillow on the floor in front of the radiator, get an extension cord, sit as close to the heat as she could and write all night. It was just a hobby. She never thought that anything would come of it. Did she write to fill the hours of insomnia? To laugh at her friends behind their backs? To keep at bay the chaos she must have felt, the sense of emptiness, anxiety, free fall? Was the writing just the manic backlash of the day’s depression, or did she feel a growing strength of craft, something she was finally good at?
She showed some stories to a friend. Without telling her, he sent one to The New Yorker. A reader pulled it out of the slush pile and passed it on to the fiction editor. The editor sent her a note: in the future, please address your submissions directly to me. The magazine rejected the first seventeen she sent. Then, in the spring of 1974—she was 26—they published one, “A Platonic Relationship.” Over the next three years, they published fourteen more, and another eighteen in the six years after that.
A generation, it was felt, had found its chronicler in fiction. Beattiesque, Beattieland, the Beattie generation: these terms were soon coined. No one had written about these kinds of lives before: children of the counterculture set down, with a thud, in adulthood. Self-involved stoners, serial wives, absentee parents, would-be hippies, women trapped not in domesticity but outside it—stunted, stunned, impulsive, lost; hungry for love but unable to give it. People without families, without contexts, without enduring relationships, without anything at all to hold them in place. People yearning to escape, then yearning to escape their escape. People who needed to feel unique and ended up making themselves completely typical. People who couldn’t grasp what was happening to them, even though they were the ones who were doing it. “What am I trying to think about,” one of them wonders. “I’d like to care,” another tells his wife (she’s talking about the daughter he’s abandoned), “but what you just said didn’t make any impression on me.”
No one had written this way before, either. Raymond Carver and other minimalists were forebears, but Beattie’s work was unique. “You figured out how to write an entirely different kind of story,” John Updike told her. The sentences were short and spare—simple declaratives, subject-verb-object. The diction was plain, unobtrusive. Hemingway’s prose called attention to the fact that it didn’t call attention to itself. Beattie’s really didn’t call attention to itself. The sense was of an absent maker, characters abandoned to themselves. The atomized syntax manifested their atomized consciousness. These were people who were going through their lives a moment at a time, trying to get to the next sentence:
He walked up the two flights of stairs to their door. It was quiet inside. He didn’t have the nerve to knock. He went downstairs and out of the building, hating himself. He walked home in the cold, and realized that he must have been a little drunk, because the fresh air really cleared his head.
Sentence followed sentence as impulse followed impulse. The affect was blunted, like the characters’. The plots meandered, looking for rest and meaning. The tense was often the present, bespeaking individuals with no past, no future, no clue. The very choice of form appeared to be significant. Not everybody’s life was a novel, it turned out. Sometimes, there just wasn’t that much to say about you.
Behind it all, hiding in plain sight, was a shrewd, cool consciousness, composing and composed. Invisible threads held the stories together. Beside the sorrow, like a rainbow edge, was a perfectly poker-faced humor. The dialogue read like music, or comedy, all poetry and rhythm and bounce. Here a man asks his sister-in-law why she and his brother are getting divorced:
“He burns up all the furniture,” she said. “He acts like a madman with that boat. He’s swamped her three times this year. I’ve been seeing someone else.”
“Who have you been seeing?”
“No one you know.”
“I’m curious, Alice. I just want to know his name.”
“Hans. Is he a German?”
“Are you in love with this German?”
“I’m not going to talk about it. Why are you talking to me? Why don’t you go sympathize with your brother?”
“He knows about this German?”
“His name is Hans.”
“That’s a German name,” Sam said, and he went outside to find Richard and sympathize with him.
The characters don’t talk past each other; they talk against each other, grappling for position. “Short stories could hardly exist,” Beattie has written, “without the way power shifts within them.”
* * *
Beattie didn’t know a lot of other writers during those initial years. She had no context in which to place her success. I imagine her sending her dispatches from Connecticut, still sitting on the floor, then later from her place in Chelsea, where she lived with her dog. People started to recognize her in public. The night John Lennon was killed, a couple of men stopped her on Twenty-third Street. “Boy,” one of them said, “I’ll bet you’re really glad you write instead of sing.” By then, two collections had appeared, Distortions (1976) and Secrets and Surprises (1979), as well as an equally celebrated novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976). Another pair of collections would soon be published, The Burning House (1982) and Where You’ll Find Me (1986), the lion’s share of their material drawn, like that of the first two, from The New Yorker. (Four more collections have followed, along with six more novels and a novella.) Beattie’s contributions to the magazine, which were collected in The New Yorker Stories last year, have been relatively scarce over the past couple of decades, only eight stories altogether, but the first long burst, forty stories in thirteen years, gives us a wide window on her development during her heyday.
We can see her learning very fast, changing volume by volume. (A prolific producer and tough self-critic, Beattie has estimated that she’s abandoned three stories for every one of the 125 or so she’s published.) Already in Secrets and Surprises, the situations are more complex. The characters are increasingly reflective, not quite as callow and heedless. There are a larger number of them, too, and they’ve known one another longer. Families appear, however tenuously joined, and more important, the contemporary substitute for families, groups of adult friends. Domestic spaces gather weight—the kitchen, the lawn. The past puts greater pressure on the present; these are people to whom something has already happened. They’re trying to put the pieces back together, but they’ve lost a few, and the ones that are left no longer fit.