The New Yorker Stories
by Ann Beattie
A review by Joseph Salvatore
Scribner. 514 pages. $30
My college writing teacher was a friend and a great fan of Ann Beattie. This was during the late 80s. In his fiction class, we read lots of Beattie (as well as Carver and Ford and Mason and Phillips). But mostly we read Ann Beattie. We read Distortions and Secrets and Surprises the same semester we read Raymond Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Never stated, yet somehow understood by all of us, was the sense that Beattie’s style (and the style of all of those writers) was the true aesthetic idiom for rendering contemporary American life. We were unafraid to call that style minimalism-that term was then not a dirty word at all, but an efficient descriptor. It smacked of other synonyms that were gaining currency toward the end of that decade: stripped down, spare, clean, essential; there was even something of the nascent garage-band grunge to it-linguistic flannel shirts and jeans replacing the spandex and platform shoes of the glam-rock past.
It was more than simply knowing our taste-we felt it in our bodies, a jittery impatience with the florid texts we were assigned in our literature classes. There seemed to be an earthy grit powdering the white spaces between those sentences in the kind of fiction that Beattie was writing; white spaces that seemed more like a new form of punctuation than an absence of text. Despite some similarities of subject matter (alcohol, divorce, love gone wrong, homes wrecked) and vast differences of character demographics (Beattie’s urban, educated baby boomers compared to Carver’s less-educated, lower-middle-class underground men and women), the so-called minimalists presented a life as one might describe it over a beer or a bong. A recognition of emptiness was natural, essential, to this style-emptiness given aestheticized form.
We wrote Beattie-rip-off stories that were little more than attenuated zen koans. We eschewed denouement. “Falling action” equaled “weak ending”; an epiphany could be barely more than the lighting of a cigarette or a question gone unanswered or the decision to spend the night with someone-unhappily and out of wedlock, of course. And every week we dutifully snatched our New Yorker from the mailbox, hoping not for an Updike, Cheever or Gallant or even another brilliant but brow-cinching Barthelme, but for an Ann Beattie story.
Fortunately, now we can have them all-in one volume-with the publication of Ann Beattie’s 17th book, The New Yorker Stories, a collection of every story Beattie published in that illustrious magazine, the Holy Grail for all creative writing students. The title of the collection is, in some ways, pure Beattie: employing a cultural signifier to stand in for the myriad complexities contained therein. A glance at the table of contents affords the same slim insight. All you get are a roster of one-word titles: “Vermont,” “Downhill,” “Colorado,” “Weekend,” “Shifting,” Waiting,” “Gravity,” “Times,” and “Desire.” But those titles-and this new collection-conceal a wider diversity of narrative approaches than is often attributed to Beattie.
This career-encompassing collection of 48 stories, beginning with her first, published in 1974 (“A Platonic Relationship”) and ending with a publication in 2006 (“The Confidence Decoy”), reveals Beattie’s consistent thematic preoccupations: charismatic men (either careless or too careful); numb but hyper-observant women (often passive or complacent, existentially floating); and, in the later stories, children (abandoned, damaged, cynical, resentful)-all caught in the gears of domestic rupture, marital dissolution, and cultural drift (and, it is true, rarely are they far from a kitchen sink). But the collection also reveals Beattie’s artistic preoccupations. Her stories most often privilege character over plot, surface features over deep interiority, the slightest of epiphanies, and story endings that leave you turning the page to see if there’s something more. When reading these stories one realizes how submerged her artistry is, her narrative techniques often as buried as her characters’ inner lives. Beattie renders a world that is a kind of demented domestic; in her early stories, set in the liberated, tuned-in, countercultural 1970s, her female characters seem less Mary Tyler Moore than Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Her early stories are less chilly than chilling. These stories are uncanny in the sense that Freud intended the term, meaning “anti-home.”
In a decade when women were saying “We are not our mothers,” Beattie’s female characters of her 1970s stories seem unaware of any such distinction: Lenore, the protagonist in the masterful “Weekend” (published in 1976), may be unmarried, but she allows her domestic partner, George, with whom she is raising their two children, to carry on affairs with much younger women (often under their own roof); and she does so not for any free-love, liberating principle, but rather because: “She has a comfortable house. She cooks. She keeps busy and she loves her children.” When two of George’s former students, Sarah and Julie, arrive to spend the weekend, he takes off for long walks with Sarah, leaving Julie behind with Lenore to do dishes. Later, in front of Lenore, George hugs Sarah and professes his love for her. Several characters express their disbelief at her complacency; Julie says: “to have it turn out like this . . . I mean, I couldn’t act the way you do.” Lenore responds, “For all I know, nothing’s going on . . . . For all I know, your friend is flattering herself, and George is trying to make me jealous.” Cooking, housekeeping, children, turning a blind eye to a husband’s infidelities: such stories remind us how strong a hold the 50s still had in the 70s.
A similar complacency affects her male characters. In “Colorado,” Robert is devoted to his friend Penelope, whom he has secretly loved for years: “Actually, he had no reason for being in New Haven except to be near Penelopeâ€¦. He had told himself that Penelope would leave Johnny and become his lover, but it never happened. He had tried very hard to get it to happen.” Later, after he has been up all night, searching for a stoned and lost Penelope, she shows up at his apartment. “I slept with Cyril,” she tells him. “What,” Robert says. “When did you sleep with Cyril?” “At the house,” she says. “And at his place.” “Recently?” he says. “A couple of days ago,” she says. And then we watch that careful, smitten Robert become suddenly careless: When she asks him to impulsively pick up and move to Colorado with her, he does it. In “Tuesday Night” (1977), the usually “inordinately kind” Dan is kindly sympathetic to a mouse the protagonist, Joanna, wants disposed of. But to appease her, he later finds a way to “beat it to death with a screwdriver.”
Beattie’s men and women live with hope as well as the mild anxiety that any change in any situation might bring about something new: whether it be a diet, a divorce, or a move to Colorado.
In the 1980s and after, the stories feel less like ensemble dramas than personal explorations of both the artist and her art. (Several stories feature characters with the name “Ann” or “Annie” [“Afloat,” “Find and Replace”].) The plotting feels less managed than in such early stories as “A Platonic Relationship” or “Colorado.” Beattie’s late fiction becomes more textured with respect to character and form. There’s a lyrical quality to these final stories, not so much on the level of the sentence, but in their structure and movement. There is a sense that we are reading the deeper-looking work of a veteran artist at her full power.
Joseph Salvatore is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review. His story collection, To Assume a Pleasing Shape, will be published next year from BOA Editions. He teaches writing and literature at The New School.