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.


  1. I was given this collection for Christmas and have relished every story I've read. I'm gong through front to back and am eager to get into more recent pieces. There's such bare truth in Beattie's writing, and she instructs me about telling a tale simply and honestly. Thanks for this.

  2. Hi Phil,

    I remember discussing "Waiting" in your workshop. It is one of my favorite stories, too, and after that workshop I got my hands on all of her collections. I'll soon get this newest one and, I'm sure, learn something new from this great writer.