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

1 comment:

  1. Little makes me laugh harder than the thought of you genuflecting on the front lawn of a law office, especially when I try to imagine the interior monologue of the silent observer working late inside. I’ve never been disappointed by a writer you admire, and Ann Beattie is a very pleasing addition to your winning streak. Thank you for posting. Lots in here I’ve wanted to reference since misplacing my blue handout. ;)