Beattitudes: On Ann Beattie
Beattie takes up the episode of Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955, one of the “six crises” his vice president would later write about. Nixon concentrates on Nixon, of course—“the narcissism of mediocre storytelling”—but “as a fiction writer,” she says,
I want to know: what do the daughters do when RN disappears? Does Mrs. Nixon have an easy time reassuring them, or is it difficult?… What is it like for this woman to be with people [the press, in the Nixon basement] it would be unwise to communicate with? Does a water bug scuttle across the floor? Has one of the bulbs in the overhead light fixture burned out?
“As a fiction writer”: the idea is not so much to restore to the moment the texture of reality, as to the narrative the texture of fiction. Beattie is teasing out the unexpected, the interruptive, the moment when a minor character comes forward or something sends the story in a new direction. She’s writing a novel, and letting us watch how it’s done.
The seminar is replete with demonstrations. Carver’s “Are These Actual Miles?,” Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog,” Frank Conroy’s “Midair,” Edward Loomis’s “A Kansas Girl,” George Garrett’s “An Evening Performance,” Gish Jen’s “Duncan in China”—these and other stories are educed to illustrate the ways that writers alter tone and pace, layer different moments from a character’s life, create dialogue that veers out of control, suddenly reveal their own presence, and much else. Wider questions are discussed, as well: what Katherine Anne Porter meant when she said that Virginia Woolf “ranged freely under her own sky,” what Louise Glück had in mind when she spoke of “the impossibility of connecting the self one is in the present with the self that wrote.” Beattie is an excellent guide to these matters: lucid, patient, humane—the writer as reader, the reader as teacher.
Mrs. Nixon is a book that keeps coming at you—keeps coming at itself—from different directions. You’re never certain what you’re going to get on the next page: RN swimming with dolphins; Ike making a surprising proposition; a deftly wrought scene where the author, who grew up in the nation’s capital, runs into Pat and Tricia shoe shopping at a local department store; a story, written in the manner of F. Scott Fitzgerald, that has nothing to do with the Nixons other than incorporating one of RN’s rather stiff little love letters. Beattie is having fun, and so, for a while at least, are we. The humor is impish in her late style. Pat bakes cookies with Hillary Clinton. Beattie envisions her own hate mail (“I suspect you are looking for book sales, not truth”). She imagines a rather improbable visit: “If the Nixons came to my house in Maine, they would be overdressed…. I would of course know to pour superior French wine for Mr. Nixon, though the rest of us could drink plonk.”
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But finally the book does not succeed. Its bric-a-brac approach is ultimately wearying: nothing ever quite gets under way. One ends up feeling as if Beattie has spent the whole performance clearing her throat. For all the little vignettes, the quick raids on this or that moment in her subject’s life, she never sustains a narrative line, which would perforce be an interpretive line, never commits to the imaginative risk of fiction. The commentary overtakes the tale; looking at the act of looking supersedes what might be seen. Beattie is more at home with the stories, with Carver and Conroy, than she is with her subject. You can hear it in the prose: so close to the writers, so far from Mrs. Nixon. Her subject often seems a pretext, something just to get the conversation started.
Even when it seeks to bring us toward the character, the literary material often takes us further away. There is much talk of plays as well as stories; Mrs. Nixon acted in high school and college, even made a stab at Hollywood. Beattie wonders what she might have learned from those productions about the nature of love or domesticity or choice, though there’s no reason to believe, as the author intermittently acknowledges, that she learned anything. Mrs. Nixon read The Glass Menagerie to Julie, offering Beattie an opportunity to compare her subject to both Laura and Amanda. A sketch called “The Young Nixon” was published in the same issue of Life as a series of letters in response to a review of A Doll’s House, opening the way, rather circuitously, to Nora. Madame Bovary comes in, too. Mrs. Nixon becomes a mannequin: now Beattie dresses her as Laura, now as Amanda or Nora or Emma, seeing which costume might fit. Her husband, courtesy of Tolstoy and Joyce, becomes Ivan Ilyich or Gabriel Conroy.
On one level, though, Beattie knows exactly what she’s doing. A late chapter is called “The Nixons as Paper Dolls”; it’s the one where they visit the author in Maine. We’re well beyond the realm of biography here, deep into a kind of self-consciously desperate ventriloquism that her subject’s reticence has forced on her. Six chapters later, after more than 200 pages of feints and starts, Beattie finally gives her fiction-making skills full play. Beginning with the story of the man who showed up at the ex–first couple’s house on Halloween in a Nixon mask (this was during their retirement), she crafts a scene of subtle irony and pathos. It’s like something out of an Ann Beattie story. Here, she seems to be saying, this is what you wanted all along. And having supplied it, she shatters the book into splinters, reeling off eleven consecutive chapters of less than a page apiece, some of them only a few words long, and most of them having very little to do with the matter at hand. The book is enacting its own dissolution. Mrs. Nixon, Beattie seems to confess, cannot be cracked. The volume’s final words, spoken in its subject’s voice, appear to address the author herself: “You won’t stop winking till you hear what I want most, will you?”
Still, the book is not just a noble failure; it’s flawed in fundamental ways that Beattie doesn’t seem to recognize. She claims to want to see her subject “from all available angles,” the point of the volume’s formal variety, but she circles the same few questions throughout: Why did she agree to marry him? What did she really think of him? How could she have stood to live with his disgrace? Never mind that Beattie neglects to consider the things that might have mattered to Mrs. Nixon—her life as a mother, for example—as opposed to those that matter to Beattie. Never mind that far from freeing her subject from her husband’s shadow, as she says she wants to do, she seems incapable of seeing her except in relation to him (hence “Mrs. Nixon,” never “Pat”). The biggest problem is that Beattie doesn’t seem to realize that her subject’s opinion of her husband may not have been the same as Beattie’s own. That Mrs. Nixon must have been a Nora, an Emma Bovary—disillusioned by her spouse, remorseful about her choice to accept him, grimly playing out a spoiled existence—is simply taken for granted.
Mrs. Nixon’s voice, as rendered here, is superficial, naïve, full of chintzy bounce, a kind of Reader’s Digest chirp. “Your world doesn’t have to become less cheery because some writer tries to convince you people are out there scheming or turning their backs on their fellow man…. If that’s the message, tuck the bookmark inside, shelve that book, and move on!” It’s all a mask, we’re meant to understand. What Mrs. Nixon really wanted from life, Beattie tells us again and again—though on what evidence she never says—was freedom, adventure, fun. “One of these days I’m going to surprise everyone and just act up a bit!” Beattie mentions a poem she came across while working on the book, “Skinny-Dipping With Pat Nixon.” Everyone wants to recruit Mrs. Nixon to “our” side, it seems, as if that were the only authentic way to live. If she wasn’t behaving like us, she wasn’t being real. “Not only I, as a young woman,” Beattie writes, “but my mother before me, had escaped being Mrs. Nixon: domestic and modest; picture-perfect; always smiling.” The notion is fundamentally condescending, not to mention that, on Beattie’s own showing, “we” didn’t do so well with our lives, either.
This is blue-state literature at its most uncomprehending. How could anybody not hate Nixon, including the woman who loved him? How could anybody not value what we do? The real challenge would have been to suspend our easy notions of spiritual superiority and refrain from measuring the lives of women like Mrs. Nixon by the standards of our own. The angle Beattie missed is the possibility that values like cheerfulness, usefulness, duty and humility are not just compensations for a diminished life. Truly seeing things from Mrs. Nixon’s point of view would have meant considering the likelihood that she saw her husband not as a liar, a creep and a crook, but as an underdog who did his best but was defeated by his enemies. Imagine that.