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.
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.
* * *
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.
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.”
* * *
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.