Sunday, September 25, 2011

Chatty With Beattie (An Overly Long Overview)


The first word that comes to mind when considering Beattie is chatty.
I have encountered few characters who consider themselves and their surroundings, circumstances and pasts so completely and as often as those entombed in a Beattie short story.
In The Women of This World, a short story in Beattie’s “Perfect Recall” collection, we learn about Dale, her thoughts about her medical condition, her talent for cooking food she can not consume and for selecting drink for others that she can not indulge in. She considers everyone: her neighbor who ends up dying, her would-have-been father in law, her mother in law, her would-have-been-father-in-law’s soon-to-be-ex wife and her own soon-to-be-ex-husband. What she does not consider is her marriage, which is ironic because her husband (who seems to have very little going for himself) is considering leaving her.
I find some of the short stories of Beattie’s collections difficult, narratively, to follow. Beattie has a talent for, or an addiction to, slipping from character to character within the same paragraph. I find I appreciate knowing what different characters are doing, or why. I like the different angles of a story—I just prefer them in different paragraphs or chapters.
In Flechette Follies, a 100 page short story leading her 2005 collection “Follies,” my head begins to ache when Beattie introduces a police officer a page or two after the accident and by the next paragraph, “The driver of the car was Nancy Gregerson—Gregerson having been her married name. Her maiden name, not resumed after the divorce, was Shifflett. The town was full of Shiffletts…”
At this point, I am tempted to skip to the end. But, my curiosity leads me to read more. Why is Beattie significant and to whom? And, for whatever reason I like her, but while I’m reading her, I don’t know what it is I like, so I have to keep reading to figure it out.
Relationship conflicts seem to be a favorite theme for Beattie. In Cat People, a “Perfect Recall” short story, the narrator—who does not seem to have a job but does seem to have some sort of psychosis—is married to a painter who paints live models who according to the narrator: all “come to love” her husband,” (136). The couple is renting a house (transients seem to be another Beattie favorite). Next to the house they rent, there lives a couple for whatever reason trapped in a marriage of extreme compromises: she wants cats, he wants to kill cats. Love is never mentioned and neither is anything else that would make it likely that this couple would stay together—except her mental condition: Which is more pronounced than the narrator’s is. The narrator may not be insane, my proximity to all that she considers is.
In the stories I have read, very little is revealed through dialogue. The absurdities pile up in Cat People: brother and sister modeling in the pool while an old man paints them; fighting neighbors throwing things and cursing at cats; cat jumping through the hole in the fence over shooting the hole and landing in the pool; model acutely afraid of cats; cat circling the woman “like a shark” (138); woman getting hit in head with an apple; strings of her bathing suit breaking; police…it gets to feel like too much, too many hands in the pot, I mean plot.
I am thankful for the slim dialogue. It makes the stories feel genuine and less stifling. Her characters, like real people, say one thing and feel, think, experience another. But, in several of Beattie’s stories, the narrator, the omniscient third person or the talkative first person, knows and reveals what feels to be an exuberant amount of information, about everything.
Several of Beattie’s stories have paragraphs that span half the page, Flechette has one that spans the entire page (page 12) and another that spans the length of page 14. There are a lot of clues smashed into a Beattie paragraph, still, I stopped reading. But, while skimming the story, I begin to see the promises of psychology fulfilled. Wedged between Nancy’s reflections on her screwed up relationship with her drug-addict son, Nicky, and Lawrence aka George’s back story, there is a page and a half long paragraph that tells of Nancy’s brief marriage, miscarriage, potential annulment and eventual pregnancy (with the aforementioned loser): “She never slept with him again, though—as she suspected—she was already pregnant.” Lines like this, I think, continue to make Beattie formidable in contemporary fiction.
When skimmed, there is a tension in Beattie’s stories that is lost when read word for word. She seems to enjoy weaving her characters, bringing them close and then having them go their separate ways (but not, of course, before delving deeply into their circumstances) and bringing them close again: in that, it reminds me of Nevesky Prospect. I find the psychology most intriguing: the things her characters think, their motivations.

Other Beattieisms:
Unlikeable, self-absorbed characters—it’s almost refreshing to encounter stories where learning something about the human psyche, not liking the characters, is the motivation for reading—almost.

Avoids the obvious:
Beattie throws people together: the mother with the wayward and finally missing son with the spy/government operative…and while the obvious thing, at first, would be to have him find the son, by the time you finish digging deeply in their closets (they are both single) you imagine they will meet again for sex. But, no. They meet again to find the son. What is not obvious is that this professional, will be hit by a bus.

Influences:
Reading Beattie is similar to reading Mann, Roth, and (Sophie’s Choice): The narrative makes me textually claustrophobic. The experience of being too intimately acquainted with someone reminds me of the diaries—except, I liked those. Perhaps what is different is that since her characters are not necessarily going into mental descent, it feels cluttered. Not uncomfortably close because I learn their weaknesses, I expect that, but that there are so many weaknesses, so many external and internal conflicts within one short story that it feels outlandish, gothic and perhaps Gogolesque.

In a May 2005 Times review of “Follies,” David Means recognizes, “Beattie’s minimalist style, an extension of Hemingway’s technique of omission.” I didn’t quite see that. Means continues, “In her new collection, ”Follies,” Beattie struggles mightily to break out of a minimalist straitjacket she fashioned years ago. Sometimes she succeeds — a few of these stories are her strongest in years — and sometimes she does not.”
In their author bio, Barnes and Nobles compares Beattie to Carver: “Her stories, like those of minimalism’s famous poster boy (and Beattie’s good friend) Raymond Carver, are composed of simple, declarative sentences teeming with irony and finely observed detail; also like Carver, she is a nonjudgmental narrator, completely detached from her characters and their actions and meting out contextual clues to be interpreted by the reader.” This is true, sort of.

Themes:
New York
Key West setting
Adult themes (examples…chains, bike…bad-girl boots)
Counter culture
Fate, psychics: destiny as motivation for characters or a mechanism to draw characters together and then have them acknowledge and act on it.
Current events (pauses, but does not reflect, on)
Sex and sexuality
Marriage
Relationships
Compromise
Indulgence
Irony

Reviews: Beattie is consistently reviewed in the Times, though I have to say I read her work without prejudice (without reading the reviews), so I was surprised that they reacted much the same.
In 1976, J.D. O’Hara declares Beattie, [regarding the New Yorker]:“the best new writer to come down that particular pike since Donald Barthelme.” Of her first collection of short stories, “Distortions” the Times reviewer calls Beattie, the “artist of situations, not plots,” (Times) praising her ability to “renew for us the commonplaces of the lonesome lover and the life of quiet desperation.” What, to me, feels chatty and cumbersome in some of her other works, is hailed by O’Hara—in regards to Beattie’s first novel “Chilly Scenes of Winter” as: “the quietly elegant shape of its reporting.” (August, 1976).
Just over a week later, in another Time’s review of both “Distortions” and “Chilly Scenes of Winter” Anatole Broyard delivers my sentiment completely: “I have been trying to decide whether Ann Beattie’s stories are good, or only fashionable. After some painful–it was painful–deliberation, I came to the conclusion that they are both, but that she could, and ought to, make them better.
A 1997 Times review of “MY LIFE, STARRING DARA FALCON by the infamous Michiko Kakutani, also seems to successfully peg Beattie’s writing:

the memoir within the book:
“This pathetic memoir, called ”My Life,” is unfortunately an uncanny mirror of Ann Beattie’s own novel, ”My Life, Starring Dara Falcon,” which similarly alternates between eye-glazing trivia and mind-boggling melodrama. Indeed Ms. Beattie’s novel embodies the worst flaws of her early and later fiction: the meaningless chatter and anomic cataloguing of the mundane that could turn her weaker stories into formulaic exercises in alienation, and the schematic narrative pyrotechnics that have made her less successful novels awkward and contrived.”

After relating how tedious the characters and plot are Kakutani compares Beattie’s characters to the issues Updike deals with, the result: “The problem here is that Ms. Beattie treats this conflict with the subtlety of Jim Carrey, turning her characters into caricatures and her story into a joke.”
Although not talking about the ending, Kakutani says: “Halfway through the novel, Ms. Beattie is resorting to symbolism so heavy-handed that she might as well have spelled out everything in italics for the reader and appended footnotes.”
While Beattie credits Kakutani’s review as the reason she no longer reads them, there was good news to be found in this review, mainly that not all of her work is received this way. According to Kakutani:
“This unlucky character isn’t the only thing to have disappeared from this novel. Nowhere to be found are the maturity and melancholy wisdom that have distinguished Ms. Beattie’s finest recent work. Gone, too, is the bright, glittering dialogue she could spin off with one hand…An ill-conceived experiment, ”My Life, Starring Dara Falcon” must surely mark a low point in this gifted writer’s career.”
It should be noted that a later work received more favorable reviews.

Interviews:
In her Folio interview.
On what makes a short story successful: “What makes a story successful for the reader is not necessarily what makes it successful for the writer…I think a story is successful if you really appreciate the shape of it, the weight, the clarity .
On graduate writing programs: “I have mixed feelings about writing programs, as I think most professors and students do. On a good day, when I’ve explained more about a student’s work than she or he knew and also come up with a solution for how to fix whatever problem I see (the smart ones rarely listen to exact advice, which is entirely right)…
On Past and newer (1998) writing styles: “I think a lot of the difference between my newer work and the older work is that I would have tried to imply some of those things before.”
On the very problematic matter of details: I think that [these details] are slightly tedious, but to some extent they have to be included for verisimilitude.
Similarities:
I write about relationships but I tend to leave a lot to the imagination or to interpretation. I am interested in the psychology of relationships, but not in showing a lot through back story. I am trying to find the balance between what I need to know and what readers need to know to get something out of each story.
Writers she has influenced:
According to Kakutani (Times, April, 2005), her style has inspired other writers in that it has “resulted in elliptical narratives free of authorial comment but filled with fistfuls of contemporary details and bright shards of dialogue.”
Like Bobbi Ann Mason, Beattie has been categorized as writing “Kmart realism.”
On endings, Beattie says: “want the reader to be haunted by what’s already happened, not by the last-minute fireworks, as it were.” [Regarding Follies]. I find her endings often unsettling. In Talk, the summary ending: Marie and Brenda, both at different, yet similar points in their narratives, see one another. In what Marie thinks is shame, Brenda pretends not to see her. The ending, the final forcing together of these two extremes, one living youth, the other perhaps reliving it, feels plotted. The ending: “she looks at Jacob, who stands hands-on-hips, jaw set, gazing with narrowed eyes after the drunken fools who could easily have hurt themselves, while the people on William’s substantial boat would have remained unscathed.” The point perhaps is that they are not unscathed; they only appear to be so. It is a conclusion reached before the narrative reaches it.
In, Cat People, the parrot –which escaped during the fiasco around which the story revolves—returns on its own: “It looked well, and seemed to be enjoying its freedom…I would swear that it winked. The moment it said ‘fifteen’ it flew away, having a more distinct idea than most of us when it should leave and perhaps even where it should fly (146).
The story goes beyond what feels like the natural ending. It reaches the point of summary the “in case you missed it…” Kakutani accuses her of in other stories.
What I am impressed with:
Beattie is everywhere.
Bio:
Born in DC in 1947, first story published: A Rose for Judy Garland’s Casket” in the Western Humanities Review in 1972 (Weber)
In 1974 “A Platonic Relationship,” The New Yorker. According to Folio interview, they had rejected 22 of her stories before publishing that one, and after that one, they published a slew of them. Attended graduate writing program at University of Connecticut.
Chilly Scenes of Winter (Novel) 1976
Distortions (collection) 1976
Secrets and Surprises 1979
Fall in Place 1980
The Burning House, 1982
Love Always, 1985
Where You’ll find Me: And Other Stories, 1986
Picturing Will, 1989
What was Mine, 1991
Another You, 1995
My Life Starring Dora Falcon, 1997
Park City, New and Selected Stories, 1998
The Doctor’s House, 2000
Perfect Recall: New Stories, 2002
Follies: New Stories, 2005
Follies for the New York Times, (Anthology) 2008
Also, many stories in the New Yorker (many short stories published), and journals like Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as many anthologies.
Ann Beattie has published 16 novels and short story collections.
She has been included in John Updike’s Best American Short Stories of the Century and has received the PEN/Bernard Malamud Award for lifetime achievement in the short story form. (Simon Says)
“Her awards include one in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980), Distinguished Alumnae Award (1980) and Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree (1983) from her alma mater, American University, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980” (Weber)
Beattie has had books adapted in to movies: Chilly Scenes
Makes a living as:
Writer and Creative Writing professor at University of Virginia (as of 06)
What I have learned:
Endings: I often wonder on what note to end the story, it’s quite simple once I think the story through verbally.
On endings: end it at the end.

References
Follies; Perfect Recall, Talk (Ploughshares) and below links plus:
NY Times Articles
http://www.american.edu/cas/lit/folio/2006winter_inter.html
http://weeklywire.com/ww/08-24-98/boston_books_2.htm
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/writers/writerdetails.asp?cid=575090#biol
http://weberstudies.weber.edu/archive/archive%20A%20%20Vol.%201-10.3/Vol.%207.1/7.1Beattie%20Interview%20.htm
Swapping Family Tedium for Ruthless Narcissism

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