Beattitudes: On Ann Beattie
In The Burning House, things are more complex still. A man destroys the delicate ecosystem that exists among himself, his ex-wife, their young daughter and his lover (his gay lover—this is all the way back in 1979) by taking a job in San Francisco. A woman tends to the needs of a half-dozen men—a brother-in-law, a husband, a son, a lover, a family friend, another family friend—on a single swirling night. A man intrudes on his ex-wife and her new husband in a wild attempt to get custody of his son. A woman on the verge of labor tries to befriend her boyfriend’s difficult mother.
Now the stories aren’t about escaping so much as trying not to. The curse of freedom has descended on the land. Relationships are always provisional, subject to change at a moment’s notice. Everybody has one foot out the door. Proximity, not actual connection, is the closest they can get to one another. “I almost love him,” a woman says about her friend’s little boy, and the sentiment could apply, in its senses both of insufficiency and of forlorn aspiration, to a lot of these relationships. People bond with their dogs more easily than with one another. As for the children who increasingly populate the margins, they’re the ones who register the fallout most, forced into a premature and self-protective wisdom.
Beattie’s stories are a master class in narrative technique. First person or third; present tense or past; one story line or several; intercutting time frames or A-to-Z chronology; single scenes, impressionistic fragments, long unfoldings. The effects are precise, understated. A depressed woman is hired for a job she doesn’t remember applying for. Her husband takes the call. “He tells them there was a mistake, and hangs up and walks away, as if from something dirty.” The powers of implication are devastating. A girl receives a ten-line note from her mother, who’s been off chasing the girl’s father again. “It is the longest letter May has ever gotten from her mother.” Quotidian details shimmer in and out of significance. Beattie doesn’t trade in “symbols.” She spreads her nets to catch the moments or objects or acts, unremarkable in themselves, within which feeling suddenly condenses. “I remember Henry saying to me, as a way of leading up to talking about divorce, that going to work one morning he had driven over a hill and had been astonished when at the top he saw a huge yellow tree, and realized for the first time that it was autumn.”
Beattie is an artist of silence, of the things we don’t say or can’t, the things that find expression anyway. She is an artist of the space between the words—of commas and dashes and periods; of section breaks, blank spaces that her characters seem to hit as if running into a wall. Above all, of endings. Her instinct is to leave them hanging, leave them falling. Sometimes she betrays herself and hits it on the nose. Mostly, though, she finds the perfect chord. A wife is in bed with her husband, wanting to know if he’s leaving her. “He takes my hand. ‘I’m looking down on all of this from space,’ he whispers. ‘I’m already gone.’”
By the early 1980s—the pieces later included, for the most part, in her fourth collection, Where You’ll Find Me—Beattie’s work has changed again. Now the stories are almost all quite brief, six pages or less. Two characters, or three, or four; a single scene, a single idea—all her seamless artistry to float a single feeling. Some of them hit like a wave. A couple is seized with grief for a long-dead child. A woman clings to her lover—she’s going to be tested in a couple of days to see if there’s a blockage in her fallopian tube—as they walk to see his old flame. But most of them feel a little light, a little forced. The blaze was dying down.
The New Yorker Stories’s final pieces, which represent Beattie’s work since the early ’90s, reflect, not surprisingly, a mellowing. The stories are longer, laxer, the humor gentler. Moving his mother into a nursing home, a man notices a desk at an odd angle in the corner. “The nurse follows his gaze and says, ‘Miz Banks’s nephew has feng-shuied her part of the room.’” There’s a greater sense of breath, of space, a new store of wisdom, resilience, acceptance, maturity—grace. Life isn’t playing out; it already has. The characters have aging parents, or are ones. The cycle has come full circle. In the final story, the vintage-1970s Beattie character—a lazy, spoiled young man who wants to leave his pregnant girlfriend—is not the central figure but his son.
In retrospect, the decline of Beattie’s powers, and prominence, since those first, great days appears to have been inevitable. In that respect and others, she reminds me of Bob Dylan. Both exploded on the scene with a talent that seemed fully formed. Both created works of perfect purity, efficiency, tact. Both seemed to speak, however unwillingly, for a generation. Both produced and developed at a phenomenal pace. And both, after holding the stage for a number of years, had nowhere to go but down. Yet while her early work is instantly identifiable as belonging to a certain age, it is also completely contemporary. Beattie’s characters are still among us. Their errors and patterns—their selfishness, their foolishness, their self-betrayal and self-pity—are still our own.
As they accumulate in our mind, over the course of The New Yorker Stories, they become a world. Some in Manhattan, some in New England, some in Virginia. Some young, some middle-aged, some old. Over here this one, over there that one, each in her little lighted cell, one around the corner from the other. Beattie’s great theme is finally not love—the need for it, the fear of losing it—but time. “Things change,” the aging protagonist says in the volume’s penultimate story. “What did not change?” As W.H. Auden wrote in one of Beattie’s favorite quotations, “Time will say nothing but I told you so.” The “nothing but” is as important as the “told you so.” Beattie does not judge her characters—something for which she’s been criticized—she watches them. And makes us watch ourselves in doing so. Am I a Beattie character?, you can’t help asking yourself. Is my life also not the seven-volume Proustian saga that I always thought it was? How long would it take her to dispose of me? Fifteen pages? Seven? Four? For many years, the copyright on Beattie’s books read not “Ann Beattie” but “Irony and Pity, Inc.”—the perfect, pithy summary of what she gives us, what we need.
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Mrs. Nixon is a very different kind of work: not a semifictional account of the life of Pat Nixon as much as a staging of the process of writing one. The subtitle, A Novelist Imagines a Life, is as important as, often more so than, the title. We get, among the volume’s more than sixty chapters, historical scenes re-created, fictional ones confected, abundant reflections on the writing process, a gallery of Beattie’s favorite authors as instructional aids; jokes, japes, games, fantasies, lists; Pat in adolescence, Pat in the White House, Pat at San Clemente; Julie Nixon, David Eisenhower, Ike, Elvis, Haldeman, Ziegler and, of course, the perfidious RN himself. The book is a kind of Cubist portrait-cum-metafictional excursus or, to use an overworked term, a deconstruction of the biographical novel.
Why Mrs. Nixon? The historical reason is obvious: she was the First Lady with whom Beattie and her cohort came of age, the consort of the era’s blackest bête noire. (It may be worth noting that Beattie’s novella of last year, Walks With Men, is set in New York City in the early ’80s, another excursion to the world of her youth.) But there’s a literary reason, too. Pat Nixon is the only modern First Lady who never produced a memoir. She was studiously silent, constitutionally reticent, kept her cards so close to her vest that she never seemed to look at them herself. No Jackie or Lady Bird, let alone Michelle or Hillary, she wanted nothing but to disappear into the background, the ultimate minor character.
The challenge was to pull her out of the wallpaper, recenter the Nixon story, give a voice to someone who didn’t want to have one. Beattie as artist of silence, again. The book begins, in exemplary fashion, with a scene, quoted from The Selling of the President, 1968, in which the protagonist manages to avoid speaking altogether. Roger Ailes, Nixon’s media consultant, finds himself in an elevator with the candidate’s wife. He tries to draw her into conversation. “She nodded,” then “she nodded very slowly; her mouth was drawn in a thin, straight line,” then she “stared at the elevator door…got off and moved down a hallway.” That’s when Beattie goes to work. “Her possible thoughts?” she asks, then offers nine alternatives, everything from “Mr. Ailes is a loyal supporter, but these people can be a bit naïve,” to “Will you remember tomorrow, Mr. Ailes, that when we spoke I was wearing a green dress?” to “Mr. Ailes, I may very well have forgotten to turn off the bathwater.”
To write fiction, Beattie wants to show us, is to open up the space of possibility. What we know of reality is poor with respect not only to reality but, even more, to the speculative plenitude of fiction. “Let’s imagine,” she invites us. “Let’s say.” She is writing against, not Nixon’s compulsive fabrications, though these are duly noted, but the programmatic banalities of the official record—Julie’s memoir of her mother, Monica Crowley’s Nixon in Winter, Nixon’s own memoir. These are books that give us only the expected, Beattie says, accounts in which “there is nothing to see, because nothing is particularized,” where everyone is “playing a role, while pretending their roles are unscripted.” Wordy forms of silence, then, another way to hide the truth.