Ann Beattie’s characters take off on quixotic cross-country motorcycle trips. They rent country homes in Connecticut and Vermont and throw dinner and lawn parties, where, drinking scotch and smoking hash, they talk about themselves too much and deliver veiled, half-sober confessions of desire to one another. They drop out of graduate school, go back and forth about re-enrolling, divorce their husbands, couple and uncouple, and move in with people they don’t love. They are, emotionally and geographically, adrift and unsettled.
In a remarkable publishing relationship spanning more than 30 years, Beattie placed 48 stories in The New Yorker that would align her with the minimalist school of fiction and inspire a new adjective: Beattiesque. Beginning with the publication of A Platonic Relationship (April 8, 1974), Beattie carved out a special niche in the magazine’s fiction department: wry chronicler of the post-Woodstock generation. Beattie’s characters are largely white and educated, men and women plagued by aimlessness and ill-defined friendships (are they lovers, or just friends?), superficially tied to oversized circles of geographically dispersed friends and acquaintances, creating patchwork families of ex-husbands and ex-wives who occasionally make awkward reappearances in each other’s lives.
The relationship shuffle and profound emotional ambivalence that characterizes many Beattie characters and situations is already present in Vermont (April 21, 1975). The narrator leaves her husband for a friend of the couple, and then vacillates between feelings of half-hearted affection and genuine love toward her new lover. When he proposes they move in together, she agonizes over the decision. At one point, she observes a young boy in the park and seriously considers forcing him to make the decision for her: “A chubby little boy wanders by, wearing a short jacket and pants that are slipping down. He is holding a yellow boat. He looks so damned pleased with everything that I think about accosting him and asking, ’should I move in with Noel? Why am I reluctant to do it?...Tell me the answer, kid, or I will take away your boat.’”
If Beattie uses subtle humor to reveal her characters chronic indecision and self-absorption, her later works use humor to capture the grim reality of aging boomers.
If Beattie uses subtle humor to reveal her characters chronic indecision and self-absorption, her later works use humor to capture the grim reality of aging boomers. In one of the best of her recent stories, The Rabbit Hole As Likely Explanation (April 12, 2004), the narrator must cope with her mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s. When a doctor insists that her mother should be placed in an assisted living home, the narrator makes a series of bad jokes, which involves putting her mother in the “the slammer” for her own safety. The doctor chides her: “We can’t have a serious discussion if you pretend we’re talking to each other in a comic strip.” Beattie writes: “I bring my knees to my forehead, clasp my legs, and press the kneecaps hard into my eyes.”
The open-door policy Beattie enjoyed with The New Yorker during the 1970s and ’80s now seems a particularly propitious development, allowing Beattie to build a distinct oeuvre of stories populated by emotionally unknowable characters. One gets the sense Beattie has plenty to say about her generation, the “strange, complicated lives” of her friends, as she once put it, and her genius is the singular ability to capture the ennui and confusion of their lives with texture and clarity. Moreover, with the benefit of a collection spanning three active decades of storytelling, Beattie emerges more strongly as a gentle satirist of her generation, subtly detailing her characters’ flighty excesses and vulnerabilities.
“Beattiesque” can sometimes evoke the arch coolness of ’80s-era minimalist fiction, where reader is kept at an emotional arms-length from character and scene. The temptation to dismiss Beattie’s universe, with its seeming reconfiguration of the same unsettled, self-involved character, can present a challenge. But Beattie’s vision, speaking to her character’s persistence in the face of loneliness and ambiguity, is a remarkable achievement represented in nearly every one of these stories.
Ann Beattie’s The New Yorker Stories was released on November 16 by Scribner. To purchase it, click here.