Monday, October 31, 2011

Who's Got Obama's Back?

Unike the Tea Party, which was born when the alien/socialist enemy held all three of Washington’s elected redoubts, Occupy Wall Street inhabits a different political world, one whose most prominent figure, the President, has fallen short of not only many Occupiers’ hopes but also his own—in large part because of the Republicans’ conscienceless exploitation of the perverse veto points of the congressional machine.
--Hendrick Herzberg, Nov. 7 New Yorker

Unlike Herzberg, whose commentary I do follow and highly value, I don’t think it’s as important when the Tea Party was born as why it was born. It was born because a black man became President of the United States. When it was born, the Tea Party was full of low information white people who never even noticed what George Bush and the Republicans did to the economy and didn’t know what a debt ceiling was. And they darn sure never dreamed Barack Obama would win the presidency, especially up against such a powerhouse ticket as John McCain and Sarah Palin. But when he did win, they hit the roof. They wanted to go to presidential rallies carrying a loaded automatic weapon because sometimes the tree of liberty needs to be watered with the blood of tyrants and to them Obama was apparently a tyrant though he hadn’t been in office two months. There were cartoons of a monkey shot by cops. They spit on black congressmen as they entered the capitol building. That was the Tea Party, and more sophisticated right wingers harnessed their racist anger and gave them a code to talk in. Republicans invented that code.

Why would the Tea Party declare war on the social safety net that we've assembled for the sick, disabled, aging and poor in this country.

Why would all these Tea Partiers stand for the ruin of the middle class by banks, Wall Street, and the richest 1% (and what proportion of that 1% do you suppose is white?)? Why would they want to cut off all revenue to the government, a completely nutty idea? Why would they oppose health care reform so somebody besides Big Pharma gets well? The reason is the Tea Party is a bunch of low-information disgruntled people who hate people who are different from them, and there is a rope through their nose ring, the other end of which is attached to Karl Rove, George Bush's brain as he was once referred to, and a group of Republican elected officials who never liked democracy anyway. Those elected officials have no plan to say yes to anything. Famously they vote with uniform consistency against bills they know have bipartisan support and that they themselves wrote and proposed.

They were never this obvious before. A black guy in the White House was the last straw. Senseless primitive racial hate has been harnessed in favor of the Republican agenda. This is the last cornered snake in the big barn. It's been in hiding since Martin Luther King's death and we've made progress. You can't say we haven't made progress. Barack Obama didn't win the Presidency by just a little and that event was unthinkable only a very few years before it happened. His election has flushed out some really bad stuff we collectively still have in us. Nobody in our big world of punditry and opinion expressing says that racism is at the core of our problem today. The very fact it isn't being said let's you know how dark this place is inside us. Barack Obama cannot say he's a victim of racism, and there’s nobody watching his back who will say it for him. Black activists in the US know better than to call a snake a snake. If they do, it's "game on" and they're gonna need more than a pitchfork.

That is what we're up against. For the country's mental health, it has to be named, it must be said aloud. It will be painful.

Tonight on Hardball, Chris Matthews was faulting Obama for not reaching out to democratic congressmen and senators. “Why doesn’t he have them over and play cards and have a drink with them and get them to help him?” Chris said, “He needs to be more like Kennedy, skillful at the politics of politics. Why does he try to do all of it by himself?” Chris was selling his book on John Kennedy. Matthews virtually said, “Why doesn’t Barack have a brother right there with him, like Kennedy had Robert kicking ass for him?” Uh-huh. Think about it.

They both got shot.

Why does Barack have to have a drink with congressmen and senators in his own party to get them to fight the Republicans as they, the Republicans, dismantle the system and the middle class on a singular, pre-announced mission to bring down the President using parliamentary stunts to stop everything, everything, every single thing? You know, that's actually a threat to the security of the US -- when the depression really hits, that will be obvious. Do you know this has never happened before? The country is being strangled, and the economy is being intentionally crashed by a bunch of flag waving know-nothings and their quite evil leaders. Occupy Wall Street is the beginning of a giant reaction, a revolution. A massive number of people are losing their jobs and houses, states are going broke, taxes are the lowest ever and are off the table for negotiation because NO is the answer, period. We can no longer afford to have America be America, and the black guy is why. Social security, medicare, people’s retirement accounts, it’s all gonna go. And if the Tea Party and the richest one percent don’t stop it with this crap they're pulling, it is for sure gonna get loud. I'd prefer for us to win the next election and get the snakes outta there that way.

It is shocking how little empathy is being shown to anybody, and I think that is one of OWS's main issues. Republicans are cold. People this cold are very dangerous. It's okay with them if people remain unemployed another couple of years or decades. People in democratic districts all across the country, let alone in Republican districts, are not being represented, their pain isn't pain, it's just discomfort. Wounded veterans home from Bush’s dumb wars will be jobless and desperate and, pretty darn soon, pissed off. Why does Barack Obama have to play cards with senators on his own team so they get behind the jobs act and fixing infrastructure and not killing public schools? Why aren’t the democratic senators and congressmen raising holy hell? Cat got their tongue? Why don’t the democratic senators and congressmen have the President’s back, I mean in a Giant Ted Kennedy way? In fact, if they can’t get by the filibuster, why don’t they just walk out (as happened in the legislature in Wisconsin) -- pull on their jeans and get some earmuffs and flock down to Wall Street themselves? Their usefulness in their elected office seems over. Getting whipped like that by Republicans would make me awful mad, if I were in there. I'd go down and join the protest. But if the democratic elected officials are stumped and can't do anything, including can't raise hell, that pretty much explains why they've left their president swinging in the wind by himself.

Or, can it be that congressmen and senators in both parties, in significant numbers, are part of the 1%, and/or are inextricably in bed with the rich? Is the system that fucked?

Occupy Wall Street is positive it is.

They, therefore, don't want to be co-opted by, associated with, or pigeon-holed by any party. They certainly don’t want to get swallowed by business-as-usual do-nothing politics in Washington and find themselves up against the expressionless dim gaze of Speaker Boehner. They want action and now they will force it. It's getting cold out. They blame Wall Street for the crimes that gave us a brush with a world depression, a close call that is still a close call, but trust me, for a lot of these people it IS a depression, and yes they blame Wall Street but also they blame the Republicans -- they’re basically the same machine, just two different interconnected parts of it. And they do have each others' backs.

I hope somebody in the Occupy movement realizes that Barack Obama is a very well-placed ally for what they want to accomplish, the best and best-placed ally they could ever have. But divided we cannot stand, and we have been successfully divided. If OWS wants Mitt Romney to be president, and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to have a victory parade in 2012 which the Occupy movement can watch from a tent city somewhere in a warm climate, they should hurry off and find a third party candidate who in their daydreams can do so much better against congress than Obama has done alone, and we’ll all lose and the country will make Karl Rovian "progress" backwards to the glory days of Calvin Coolidge when human beings and dinosaurs dwelled the earth together..

Instead, OWS should meet with Obama this week, play cards with him and have a beer, and they should plan to crush those democracy-hating bastards in 2012 and get us going again -- 99% is a lot of people. Hopefully the Republicans won't be able to stop a significant number of them from expressing their will at the polls, one of their more telling anti-minority, anti-democracy, anti-constitution conspiracies that for some reason nobody can do anything about. Jesus.

Anyway. We have a fully functioning progressive articulate and ready to move on the issues that brought OWS into the streets. In fact, in his famous September speech to Congress, he invited this uprising, he said get up, get out and express yourselves. It was his only choice, to by-pass congress and call on the people for action. Now, for weeks he's been sending signals to OWS that he wants what they want (he's been working around congress by signing executive orders because nothing can get done at all unless he does). OWS needs to go see him. There is still time. They don't need to distance themselves from him like everyone else has. By no stretch of the imagination is he the problem. OWS should walk a mile in Barack's shoes. Occupy the White House, see what it's like being America's first black president.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Birthday Poem

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face,
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

-Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Kunitz, "The Layers" from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. Copyright © 1978 by Stanley Kunitz.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Paris and Books

There was one day in Paris when Susan and I took the longest walk, starting where we were staying, on Rue Cler, crossing the Seine on Pont l'Alma, angling up Rue Montaigne and intersecting Champs Elysees, strolling the Tuileries all the way to the Louvre, crossing back on Pont Royal basically threading the needle between the far reaches of the Louvre on the Right Bank and the Musee d'Orsay on the left, proceeding up Rue du Bac (a favorite street during our stay), then bending into the Jardin du Luxembourg, across to the Pantheon, down to Shakespeare and Co. on the river across from Notre Dame. We crossed onto Ile St Louis, and dipped into Le Marais for ice cream which we ate on the bridge, Pont Louis Philippe. From there we contemplated finding Hemingway and Hadley's place on Rue Cardinal Lemoine, which we could see from the bridge receding into the Latin Quarter. A Moveable Feast traced the route. In that book Hemingway, conscious of the fact that he was remembering first hand from the 1950's his days in Paris during the Lost Generation years, that famous literary heyday from back when writers earnestly engaged themselves in writing what we called then "books" (see wikipedia for a definition and an illustration) -- conscious as he was of how one day we would romanticize the literary Paris of the '20's because the romance of writing and books would nosedive, he took special care to write not only the ethereal spirit of Paris but the physical place itself, the beauty and vitality of the streets, of the people, of the language. I have to say, the beauty and vitality have survived.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ann Beattie and the Late History of the American Short Story

This discussion will draw 100% from Ann Beattie's new book, see above. This book reprints in chronological order all 48 stories Beattie has published in the New Yorker since April of 1974. In this single volume we can observe the evolution of one of our master story writers, one who was a prime mover in the late lamented renaissance of the short story. As I read it, and really as I read her work over time, I thought I observed Beattie’s evolution from chronicler of the boomer generation to authentic master adapting to and riding out the storm of time – and it has been a storm. I think this is the kind of evolution and adaptation such committed artists do and how their art changes shape and continues on, growing better and deeper and smarter.

I arrived in Charlottesville in August of 1974 to begin a Charles Stewart Mott doctoral fellowship at UVa, and there was a rumor that Ann Beattie was in town. She’d already been in the New Yorker once by then, her first appearance, April ’74. Starting in August of that year I was in Charlottesville for a year and eleven months, and by the time I left, she’d been in the New Yorker seven times. People do forget that in those days the New Yorker frequently contained two short stories per issue. But still!

Here is Ann Beattie’s first New Yorker story opening:
When Ellen was told that she would be hired as a music teacher at the high school, she decided it did not mean that she would have to look like the other people on the faculty. She would tuck her hair neatly behind her ears, instead of letting it fall free, schoolgirlishly. She had met some of the teachers when she went for her interview, and they all seemed to look like what she was trying to get away from—suburbanites at a shopping center. Casual and airy, the fashion magazines would call it. At least, that’s what they would have called it back when she still read them, when she lived in Chevy Chase and wore her hair long, falling free, the way it had fallen in her high school graduation picture. ‘Your lovely face,’ her mother used to say, “and all covered by hair.” Her graduation picture was still on display in her parents’ house, next to a picture of her on her first birthday.

It didn’t matter how Ellen looked now; the students laughed at her behind her back. They laughed behind all the teachers’ backs. . . .”
“A Platonic Relationship”
April 8, 1974
I remember enjoying this story. By ’74 I was six years married, I’d taught high school for a year, then been drafted (Germany for some reason, not Vietnam), then paid my compulsory dues to unemployment for a year (because they didn’t hire the vets upon their return), then had gone back to school. I can’t resurrect from memory when it was, but sometime early in the 23 months I was in Charlottesville, I learned from a dependable source exactly where Ann Beattie lived. It was in a nice neighborhood with fairly big houses, the kind that sometimes are turned into law offices. I would walk my big malamute Shadrak in that area sometimes (and with increased frequency once I knew she lived there). A few times in the late evening as I passed by I’d actually rather theatrically genuflect in her front yard. I never saw her there, but I did keep my eyes peeled as I strolled by looking in the windows (kidding), though just being in her neighborhood was really enough. When I first actually met her, in the fall of 2000, I told her all about this, including the bit about genuflecting, and she advised me she didn’t live in that area, that those houses weren’t really residences but had all been converted to law offices. Grrrk.

In 1974, the whole baby boom was living in college towns getting graduate degrees. Many of us were back from the army, and Watergate was in the news. We all drove Chevy Vegas, Ford Pintos, AMC Gremlins, and VW bugs. We all owned Smith-Coronas and Olympia typewriters, and lusted after IBM Selectrics with a correct key. We still had our guitars from college. We were writing poems, novels and songs, or at least that's what we told each other over beer. People were still getting killed in Southeast Asia, but it was nearly over (it would be years before "The Things They Carried" and writing that had perspective on the war). We were streaming into the U. of Iowa writers workshop. In writing, and a lot of other fields but not teaching, men were still courting the illusion they were in charge.

In “The Platonic Relationship,” Beattie’s protagonist, Ellen, leaves her husband because at the age of 32 she thought there had to be more to life than being a lawyer’s wife; so she took a teaching job and sank into it the way one really has to to be a good teacher, and she move out on her husband. Probably not knowing what hit him, he helped her move into her own place, and before long she had a roommate, a guy named Sam who was strange but thought she was pretty, and before long Sam had also befriended Ellen’s husband saying he wanted to go to law school, and after a few months of friendship, Sam abruptly left on a new motorcycle bound for California and Ellen’s husband wasn’t able to find his mother’s jewelry box. Ellen was happy to be on her own teaching, and still liked Sam because he thought she was pretty, and the story concludes with neither Ellen nor her husband knowing what hit them. In those days, the youth culture was teeming, everyone in first marriages, with no children quite yet, and the bonds and boundaries of marriage were being stretched every which way. Nixon was in office and people still didn’t trust anyone over thirty even if THEY were over thirty. The women’s movement was on the move, and thus chess pieces on the board were moving differently than they ever had. The generation of the Summer of Love, the War on Poverty, pot, free love, the Civil Rights Movement, and the loud and tumultuous anti-war demonstrations on the moral argument, was careening into adulthood on the skids; there was a moral compass, in theory, but as the pragmatic realities came to bear in their lives and the generation began the entropic journey to becoming their parents only worse, there was also cultural confusion. Twenty five years later, we got two boomers for president, Clinton and Bush, both, like me, a year older than Ann Beattie and representing, at the turn of the century, a baffling exact 50-50 split in the philosophy and political orientation, right and left. 50-50! Beattie’s story fixes a point in time when that split becoming manifest but wasn’t quite showing. Her flat style would not comment on the big picture because our focus was definitely on the trees and not the forest.

Here’s the first paragraph from Beattie’s second appearance in the New Yorker:
Silas is afraid of the vacuum cleaner. He stands, looking out the bedroom door, growling at it. He also growls when small children are around. The dog is afraid of them, and they are afraid of him because he growls. His growling always get him in trouble; nobody thinks he is entitled to growl. The dog is also afraid of a log of music. “One Little Story That the Crow Told Me” by the New Lost City Ramblers raises his hackles. Bob Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” brings bared teeth and a drooping tail . . . If the dog had his way, he would get Dylan by the leg in a dark alley. Maybe they could take a trip—Michael and the dog—to a recording studio or a concert hall, wherever Dylan was playing, and wait for him to come out. Then Silas could get him. Thoughts like these (“fancy flights,” his foreman called them) were responsible for Michael’s no longer having a job.”
“Fancy Flights”
October 21, 1974
In this selection, Beattie’s signature first person/present tense makes its initial appearance in a story of hers in the New Yorker. Ann Beattie, as I said, appeared in the New Yorker 7 times in two years after she first broke in. The New Yorker had been through a giant John Updike phase in the sixties, Updike being six years older than Ray Carver and fifteen years older than Beattie. Beattie was a genuine boomer, and, think about it, the New Yorker had to transition. A giant generation was coming and college kids didn’t normally subscribe to that magazine; their parents did. I think the giant push with Ann Beattie was brilliant but, if not at all intentional, then certainly fortuitous. In ’74 I already had a Harper’s and Atlantic subscription (thanks to Duke Rank, my first college advisor), but in '74 I was buying the New Yorker off the shelf or we were getting it from my wife’s parents, long time subscribers (and my wife thus a long-time John Updike afficianado). In those days it seemed like Beattie was always in the New Yorker, and her stories about long haired girls and tall skinny boys, rock’n’roll and weed and young people’s angst and malaise, supplied parental units with a study guide and handout on us, their kids. The term minimalism had already been applied to Beattie and Carver and others, though it was never a term Beattie accepted as accurate about her. But the style must have driven the older generation crazy--it would explain nothing, just lay it out there as if to say, "Here it is, folks, what you've created!"

In 1975 the Pushcart Prize (Best of the Small Presses) was first published. You can be assured this is because the baby boom was writing and submitting and there wasn’t room for everybody in the New Yorker. Writers like Joyce Carol Oates, already well established, became great advocates for the small presses and the rising optimism that one could get published if one was persistent and good. Writers, make no mistake, were modeling on the stories in the New Yorker. As it says in the fly leaf to her new book, there was actually a term "Beattie-esque." I do remember that.

My favorite story of Beattie’s has long been “Waiting,” which I’m sure I read in the New Yorker when it came out. Ann Beattie told me in 2000 that her favorite story of her own was “The Burning House.” At the time of our first conversation, her big new and selected collection was out, Park City (1998), but the title of her previous collection of stories (1995) was The Burning House, after the story which was first published June 11, 1979 followed immediately by “Waiting” the next week!

In the story “The Burning House,” Amy is occupied by doing dishes and snatching a moment with her lover, Johnny, on the phone when he calls just to hear her voice, a very loose thing to do that predicts the lid coming off before too long. In the other room, her husband is holding court with his men friends, and in the shreds of conversation that she hears, she knows he too has a shadow life that is pulling at him. In bed, alone together, in the final scene of “The Burning House,” Amy asks for clarity on their situation:
“I want to know if you’re staying or going.”
“Everything you’ve done is commendable,” he says. “You did the right thing to go back to school. You tried to do the right thing by finding yourself a normal friend like Marilyn. But your whole life you’ve made one mistake—you’ve’ surrounded yourself with men. Let me tell you something. All men—if they’re crazy, like Tucker; if they’re gay ... like Reddy Fox, even if they’re six years old—I’m going to tell you something about them. Men think they’re Spider-Man and Buck Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you don’t feel? That we’re going to the stars."
He takes my hand. “I’m looking down on all of this from space,” he whispers. “I’m already gone.”
“The Burning House”
June 11, 1979
Beattie has often been called the chronicler of the post-counterculture boomer crowd, and in “The Burning House” we can feel the sacrament and legal arrangment called marriage sorting out all crazy as men and women struggled to find a new balance. The pill was a new reality and with it freedom. The human potential movement was driving us all crazy. All things were both possible and not, and the International Year of the Woman had been established in ’75 -- in ’82 the Equal Rights Amendment would fall only three states short of ratification. That was some of the Big Picture change that was causing an earthquake in middle class American boomer marriages.

In the more ghostly story “Waiting,” the young wife who is the first person protagonist is selling a piece of furniture. People are calling in on the house phone to come over and look at it. One lady has come to buy it. As we track through their negotiations, we understand that the young wife is blue on this day; her husband left a few months ago for no reason that is actually stated, except to play in a band. He was going to take the dog with him, but she stopped that saying the dog wouldn’t survive the trip, so off her husband went alone. Again, we don’t know why. In first person present tense we move forward as if with blinders on, what happens next, what happens next. In this point of view there is no looking around, planning, or even contemplating what’s going on or why. The next thing just happens. The young wife looks down and her dog is not reacting to her. She tries to get him to move, but he won’t. She’s sold this important piece of her life, and now is making lunch and the dog has apparently died in his sleep right there on the linoleum. She goes out on the front porch. Male friends have been looking in on her since her husband left. One of her favorites, Ray, has come over and she’s on the porch and he kindly says he’ll make them both some lunch, and she’s happy about that. As he’s going in, she tells him, “...

If there’s anything wrong, just fix it.” In other words, if you happen to spot my deceased dog, please handle it. And here’s the New Yorker ending.

I look back at the house. Ray, balancing a tray, opens the door with one hand, and Hugo is beside him—not rushing out, the way he usually does to get through the door, but padding slowly, shaking himself out of sleep. He comes over and lies down next to me, blinking because his eyes are not yet accustomed to sunlight.
Ray sits down with his plate of crackers and cheese and a beer. He looks at the tear streaming down my cheeks and shoves over close to me. He takes a big drink and puts the beer on the grass. He pushes the tray next to the beer can.
“Hey,” Ray says. “Everything’s cool, OK? No right and no wrong. People do what they do. A neutral observer, and friend to all. Same easy advice from Ray all around. Our discretion assured.” He pushes my hair gently off my wet cheeks. “It’s OK,” he says softly, turning and cupping his hands over my forehead. “Just tell me what you’ve done.”
“Waiting” June 21, 1979

I never have been able to understand what this ending establishes. I think there is no definitive answer. Some may find it maddening. Ray, too, is puzzled—what’s going on with this woman and her husband? We can imagine a number of possibilities, and to effectively keep the ending open effectively opens the story to various takes and several biases and orientations. This is realism. There are not always answers to what’s going on, and at the moment of the ending of the story, the young wife isn’t likely to want to or be able to say. But we recognize the family of dilemmas being referenced. And wouldn’t it be the shits if right in the middle of it Hugo croaked? So her crying could be joy. Joy! How often do we see that in an Ann Beattie New Yorker story of the seventies.

It was these stories of the ‘70s that helped cause a resurgence in the short story, a literal renaissance of the short story, that was much talked about in’80s. The New Yorker helped cause a renaissance and I’m sure caused a renaissance in Harper’s, The Atlantic, and at the New Yorker itself, not to mention the explosion of AWP and the MFA program movement, not to mention the establishment of the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and the blizzard of competitions we see now which replace subscriptions as a way for magazines to raise the cash to continue. In 1986 Ray Carver was the guest editor of Best American Short Stories, and in 1987 it was Ann Beattie. If they ever were minimalists (I think they were), by then they weren’t anymore. By then Raymond Carver was dry and had a hold of his own career and craft—witness his lush story “Errand,” his last one, paying homage to Chekhov and at the same time staring his own death straight in the eye.

And Ann Beattie was no longer the chronicler of the boomer generation. As one reviewer put it, the generation no longer needed a chronicler to explain them to themselves. Instead, Beattie continued to evolve, continued to write from the perspective of her generation as it moved through its time. In “Find and Replace,” one of the last stories of the 48 in the New Yorker stories volume, the first person protagonist, named “Ann,” travels to Fort Myers to see her mother. It’s the first time she’s seen her mother since her father passed away. During this visit, her mother breaks it to her that she’s moving in with a man who lives next door, a man who was a good friend of Ann’s parents while both were living and who spoke at her father’s funeral. It is clear that her mother continues to desire connection with the world, and full-grown adult Ann feels that as a waft of a double loss and a betrayal. The author of this story is not the long haired hippie girl literary lion of 1974. It is the grown woman who’s kept on with the times, as we see in this paragraph from the first page of “Find and Replace”:

On a globally warmed July day, I flew into Fort Myers and picked up a rental and set off for my mother’s to observe (her terminology) the occasion of my father’s death, six months after the event. It was actually seven months later, but because I was in Toronto checking out sites for an HBO movie, and there was no way I could make it on June 25, my mother thought the most respectful thing to do would be to wait until the same day, on month later. I don’t ask my mother a lot of questions; when I can, I simply try to keep the peace by doing what she asks. As mothers go, she’s not demanding. Most requests are simple and have to do with her notions of propriety, which often center on the writing of notes . . .
My mother has a million friends. She keeps the greeting card industry in business. She would probably send greetings on Groundhog Day, if the cards existed. Also, no one ever seems to disappear from her life (with the notable exception of my father). She still exchanges notes with a maid who cleaned her room at the Swift House Inn fifteen years ago—and my parents were only there for a weekend . . .
Anyway, all the preliminaries to my story are nothing but that: the almost inevitable five minutes of hard rain midway through the trip; the beautiful bridge; the damned trucks expelling herculean farts. I drove to Venice, singing along with Mick Jagger about beasts of burden. When I got to my mother’s street, which is, it seems, the only quarter mile long stretch of America watched by God, through the eyes of a Florida policeman in a radar equipped car, I set the cruise control for twenty and coasted to her driveway.

“Find and Replace”
The contemporary details, the hectic pulse of travel and urban life, the shelters we seek in good sound systems in the cars, and the realistic depiction of the relationship to our parents once life has gone on—this is not the voice of a chronicler of the generation, rather one of someone who’s in for the ride, who’s writing to digest and understand. (You can hear Ann Beattie read this story aloud at:

The reviewers don’t rave much. And the New Yorker has stopped publishing her stories. The New York Times Book Review of the New Yorker stories volume said that the short story is a marginalized form and thus Ann Beattie is a marginalized author. Barely a month later the New York Times listed Beattie’s book one of the five best fiction books in their list of Ten Best Books of 2010.

Here are the last lines of a review by Nathan Heller of Ann Beattie: The New Yorker Stories in Slate (posted Dec. 10, 2010): . . .

This is formally self-conscious work—as readers, we're forced to study how the story's elements and motifs hang together—but it is also an effort to break past the conventions of literary storytelling, to mimic the disorderly, superstitious process of searching for meaning and direction in the brambles of personal experience. What these recent stories manage to convey is the aesthetics of consciousness: the feeling of being a mind in motion in the world.
Today, those quieter, more subjective portraits have replaced generation-channeling as Beattie's virtuosic skill—in part because the boomer generation has, at this point, been channeled as broadly as the BBC. What's startling in The New Yorker Stories isn't how her work has fallen behind the times. It's how persistently she's kept ahead—first using fiction to bring legibility and emotional direction to a society that needed both, and then, when that goal lost its urgency, turning her attention to interior life and formal innovation on the page. More than perhaps any writer of her generation, Beattie has remained tuned to the literary needs and intimations of middle-class life. Her latest lesson on the boomer zeitgeist is the most poignant one so far: acknowledgement that, even at the moment when we reach our highest point, the world moves on.

Nathan Heller
Dec. 10, 2010

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Upcoming Workshop

Hop in. I'm figuring out right now how we might include you from your home if you don't live in the area and want to work along with us in a six hour workshop to write a story by afternoon you didn't know you'd write in the morning.

Drop me a note at if you have questions or want to sign up through me instead of the regular system.

30 dollars.

It's a benefit for Dzanc Books.

Spread the word.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan and the Daydream of Good

I was watching Japan dying today on MSNBC, and in other news, was so very happy to hear the Right Wing champing at the bit to invade Libya. They were mad at the President for inaction. They never saw a war they couldn't afford, these people who are so worried about "entitlements," health care to the less fortunate, and balancing the budget. When it comes to helping people, including Americans but most obviously people in foreign countries, suddenly the old anal retentiveness sets in and they get that addled look my dog gets when I want him to crap and it's raining. We can't quite think what to do when it comes to helping. We send in 74 guys from the elite Task Force 1 from the Fairfax, VA fire department, with rescue and recovery dogs. We send in some ships with some aid, and some helicopters, but ultimately this “help” says more about our inability to conceive of the size of the disaster. Why don't we invade Japan with help, swarm over the debacle, with tents, water, blankets, food, boatloads of medical personnel, soldiers to clear the debris and rebuild. Send the Army Corps of Engineers. Draft people into service to go help. Draft Glen Beck, I’m sure he’d be willing to serve, and I’d serve right beside him. Are there only 50 brave men and women on the planet to pour water on those melting rods, but an unlimited number to play shoot 'em up in selected small dictatorships and kingdoms we've tolerated for years but that now have us in a bad mood? Isn't intervening in this disaster a more important endeavor than kicking the snot out of another tiny country with overwhelming military force? Isn't there a strong argument that saving Japan from a most horrific ruination is more important? Remember "Right to Life"? Remember "Family Values"? Remember "Christianity"? Remember true heroism? Remember international trade and the stock market? Doesn't Japan right now present us with a 21st century opportunity for a new model of global leadership, one that doesn’t include killing people? If we can even contemplate another war, why can't we motivate ourselves to save lives and help an ally with fervor equal to or greater than bombing and shooting? This is our chance to unHiroshima our Karma and square ourselves with modern history. Here's a chance to do something we can all agree on with that untouchable defense budget; here's a chance to do combat with global disaster. We need to start getting good at it, because the disasters are getting bigger and I’m almost certain our national lucky days are numbered. Why can't just once we be an overwhelming force for humanity and the Greater Good like we think we are in our dreams?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ann Beattie's New Yorker short stories, collected in a single volume

In her celebrated new collection Ann Beattie: The New Yorker Stories, I went searching for a couple of stories in particular. In my classes and my own mythology about the past, I thought I remembered that Beattie had begun scoring The New Yorker in the early seventies. Turns out her first one was in the April 8, 1974 issue. I once asked her, this was ten years ago or so, what her favorite story (of her own) was. John Updike had fairly recently edited Best American Short Stories of the Century, and had included in that celebrated volume her story “Janus,” which was in the 1986 Best American Short Stories. And while that selection worked well in Updike’s overall editorial scheme, I had an opinion what her very best story was (don’t we all?) and was curious to see what the master herself would deem her best. As I say, this is old information and has probably changed by now, but she said “The Burning House” was her favorite, and I’ve said on this blog that my traditional favorite is a little beauty titled “Waiting.” The pieces in Beattie’s collection of New Yorker stories are arranged in chronological order, from the April 8, ’74 story "A Platonic Relationship" forward to “The Confidence Decoy” in November of ’06 (she's continued to place stories there since then, but that's the span of this new collection). Surveying the table of contents, what pleasure I got from finding “The Burning House” and “Waiting” back to back, both having appeared in The New Yorker (a week apart) in June of ’79. It was back in the days when Beattie led a school of writing called Minimalism, and two more muscular samples of minimalism would be hard to find. Her famous first person present tense is right there in the first sentence of “The Burning House”: “Freddy Fox is in the kitchen with me.” Using present tense like that, the reader can never see anything coming. There is no anticipating from accumulated evidence. One thing after another happens. Our point of view character is stoned by the bottom of the second page and so is dicey even reporting what we need to know as it happens. A family friend, J.D., is late for the dinner gathering. Our narrator is washing dishes at the sink when J.D. pops up in the kitchen window right over the sink – he’s wearing a goat-head mask and scares crap out of her. It’s two paragraphs later before we learn that she cut her hand when she reacted. It is a characteristic of the social events at this house that her husband’s friends, all male, make the scene, never any other women, and a lot of the interaction in the story is stuff she hears from the kitchen while the men are shooting the shit in the living room. Freddy Fox, her husband’s gay half brother, stays in the kitchen with her. They all seem to be early thirty somethings. They’ve known each other, all these friends, and of course the half brother, many years and history plays through the conversations. Our narrator is lonely; her husband controls most of what goes on. Because of present tense, even though there’s access to the interiority of our narrator, we only feel the relationship of the husband and wife in the story is shaky, we don’t know it. But in bed that night they have a conversation and the reality of the dismal, deteriorating marriage they have rolls over them and us all at once in the last lines.

In creative writing, teaching dialogue, we try to show students how when people talk the communication is barely communication at all. In “The Burning House,” all of the conversation is loaded with allusions to things we the readers know little about except what we can glean from their literal statements. And two conversations at once are going on, Freddy and our narrator in the kitchen, Frank Wayne, her husband, and his several pals in the living room. The story is finely tuned to spring its trap in the last four lines and suddenly fly open.

A week later she published “Waiting” in The New Yorker, an entirely different story but using the same superstructure and vector. You have only to read the first line to know you’re in for it again: “’It’s beautiful,’ the woman says. ‘How did you come by this?’ She wiggles her finger in the mousehole.” So deliciously oblique a beginning, so tantalizing the middle. There is an emotional load riding in the sentences, a momentum that's like being hurled forward while blindfolded. In present tense we can’t see the end coming. Suddenly it’s there with that satisfying minimalist one line culmination, pop.