Commentary Magazine


Ann Beattie & the 60's

Ann beattie’s stories have been appearing in the New Yorker for the past few years, and have now been collected in a volume called Distortions,1 published simultaneously with the author’s Chilly Scenes of Winter,2 a novel. It is unusual, of course, for a new author to appear with two books at once, but evidently Ann Beattie has been able to compel special treatment from her publisher as well as from reviewers and readers. It is the uniqueness of her talent that compels. Her best fiction renders a distinctive subject matter in a distinctive tone, and the note she sounds is powerfully her own.

Her subject matter is a certain shiftlessness and lack of self-apprehension besetting people in their twenties and thirties: a former Phi Beta Kappa guiltily resigned to living on welfare checks, young wives rejecting husbands and lovers in desultory and emotionless gestures of independence, a lesbian feminist whose only friends are male. She conveys the drabness of these lives by her tone and by an almost hallucinatory particularity of detail. We are taken on that round of grocery shopping, walking the dog, getting the worthless car fixed, which Auden had in mind when he said that “in headaches and in worry,/Vaguely life leaks away.” But Beattie’s writing is not tedious; there is, instead, something graceful and painstaking about her fidelity to the ordinary.

The story, “Imagined Scenes,” presents a young woman who works nights sitting up with an old man who has insomnia, while her husband, a graduate student, is busy studying for his oral exams. Or so she assumes. The daily schedules of the couple barely overlap. They do not inhabit the same hours, and there is something chilling and mysterious about the gap between them. When she returns home in the mornings, there are frequent signs of inexplicable activity: three coffee cups on the table, or a favorite plant missing. Once when she calls home at four in the morning there is no answer. Her husband’s explanations are plausible—a couple she has never met came to visit, he was asleep when the phone rang—but they are oddly insufficient, too, and seem slightly sinister in the haze of mutual incomprehension. The glimpses, the physical data, which the woman has of her husband’s life in her absence tell her nothing, though they hint at guilty secrets. They cannot be either ignored or interpreted. Scattered among them are the monologues of her patient, the old man, which are very skillfully made to seem only accidentally relevant to the woman’s puzzling home life. We are given nothing more. However, a suggestion of the peculiar way in which Beat-tie makes such material her own lurks in the title: “Imagined Scenes.” We do not realize, or not all at once, that what the young woman has “imagined” is not her husband’s private or guilty activity. She has accepted not the explanations but the sufficiency unto themselves of the physical facts. She “imagines” only that she is in Greece, or someplace warm, by the sea, while the scene of her actual present life is snowy. It is the reader who has been seduced into guessing at the husband’s hidden life.

I dwell on this short story because it seems to me emblematic of Beattie’s skill in this genre. But one thing more should be said about it, which goes rather beyond skill. We guess at the “real facts” of the woman’s life because we care about her, her sadness has been made significant. It follows that the author has cared about her in the making. But then it is more astonishing to perceive that the woman cares so little, so indistinctly, for herself. She is not suspicious, she has no imagination; the mark of Beattie’s respect for this creation is not to have slipped her some healthy suspicion, as it were, under the counter. In this forbearance the writer resembles some impossible ideal of a loving parent who succeeds in not interfering in her children’s lives. To love one’s characters—Tolstoy is the presiding genius here—is to allow them to be who they are.

A risk of a particular kind attends this achievement and Beattie is not immune to it. The style of much “serious fiction” in recent years has tended to be cool, to attend scrupulously to the surface of events, with a language pruned and polished in respect of its own surface. Now Beattie’s writing has something in common with this style: her sentences are often plain, flat, their grammar exposed like the lighting fixtures in avant-garde furniture boutiques, and the effect is at first wearying. Only later does the sympathetic center of her work betray itself. We may feel misled by the outward reserve, but, again, her willingness to distort when necessary, her passion for the particular, is ultimately an index of her concern for the integrity of things and people in themselves.

Many of the people in these books verge on the grotesque—dwarfs, a cleaning woman hulking in mind and body who believes she was a cat in a former life. Here, too, Beattie risks a convergence with her slicker contemporaries, whose fascination with the grotesque is full of smugness about what is “normal.” (Beattie herself invokes the photographs of Diane Arbus in several places, but I for one have never quite decided what Arbus’s relation to her subjects really was.) There is a dog in Chilly Scenes of Winter who is a good example of Beattie’s success with the grotesque. The dog is purchased to replace an entirely admirable dog who has died of old age, much mourned. But the new dog is ugly—part dachshund, part cocker spaniel—as well as hapless and insomniac. And yet, the people around him feel the dog must be fed and must not be compared to his predecessor; at night, his audible perambulations must be endured. Because, “terrible genetic mistake” that he is, the dog, named “Dog,” is real and undeniable. He is part of that world of fact that Beattie honors almost compulsively, whatever its unwelcomeness or distortion.

____________

 

The central figure of the novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, is a young man named Charles, whose quality of self-ignorance is Beattie’s fullest, most intelligent image. He does not know that he is smart, and apparently does not wish to know it, because he has chosen to work in a government office where his abilities are irrelevant. He does not know that he is kind: his many services to others are unmarked by signs of sympathy, generosity, concern, or liking; he is made dizzy by his sister’s assertion that he is good. His knowledge that he is unhappy is merely circumstantial. Approaching thirty, he has come to terms with none of the absurd relationships that comprise his life. His mother is “emotionally disturbed,” prone to nakedness and sloppy, day-long bathing. Pete, his alcoholic stepfather, depends pathetically on his reluctant friendship. Laura, whom Charles loves but seems—sometimes—to have lost, is married. Charles spends much of the book driving slowly past her house, for the sight of the light in her window. (“What’s this, The Great Gatsby or something?” his friend quips)—only to discover, near the end, that she had moved out weeks ago. Charles’s only workable relationship is with his friend Sam, his constant companion, who is present on nearly every page. It is significant that Sam as portrayed by Beattie is dull, shapeless, unrealized. His friendship with Charles is at once blank and affectionate. Its very existence is capable of surprising them, when they must notice it:

“You’re my only friend”, Charles says.

“You’re my only friend”, Sam says.

“That’s pathetic”, Charles says.

How did this happen?

I don’t know. I just stopped seeing people or they moved or something.

Charles and Sam know nothing, in fact, about the causes of their loneliness except the details of the pleasureless routine it imposes upon them. Charles is forever gazing hungrily into a cupboard bare of anything except Tuna Stretcher and a jar of pickles, forever wondering at the existential courage of people who do all their shopping on one day for the week ahead. “Maybe Edward Hopper? Or a cartoon?” he asks of the world that takes place around him, mingling the surreal and the mundane:

He sits at the counter next to an old woman who smells of mint. Her hair rolls away from her face in even waves. A shopping bag is wedged between her feet. There is a dirty white towel over whatever is in the shopping bag. The woman is drinking black coffee, into which she empties three packs of “Sweet ‘n Low.” She is humming “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Charles orders tea with lemon. A priest comes in and greets the old woman enthusiastically. She moves from the counter to a booth with him, knocking Charles as she draws out her shopping bag. Something moves under the towel: a cat. A striped cat.

The scene is unnerving, as Charles distinctly feels; but he feels, too, that it is harmless, and that it is a mistake to be unnerved. It awakens in him the conviction of his own paranoia: “sleeping people in public places are always dead.” But on second look it is over-shrewd to shrug off the latent threat. The brand name drifts mysteriously into the song lyric. The shopping bag is alive. Charles’s eye for detail reflects the paradox of Beattie’s own: a passive accuracy of observation masks an active, unsettling distrust of what one sees.

The word game of “Sweet ‘n Low” brings to mind one aspect of Ann Beattie’s writing that seems to me regrettable. Charles’s mother’s baths, his own baths, his sister’s showers; Sam’s car, Pete’s car; dogs and cats; medical references, doctors, disease—all these constitute what used to be called “motifs” or images. Details drifting from person to person, thing to thing, they bend too steadily and purposefully toward significance, betraying an obtrusive self-consciousness about craft which is rather rare in Beat-tie’s work. This seems to me directly at odds with the vitality of her talent, her capacity to conjure the independence and actuality of things.

____________

 

Given her particular subject matter, it hardly seems necessary to underline Beattie’s pertinence to the present cultural-political pass. In Chilly Scenes of Winter, in the story “Fancy Flights,” and elsewhere, our attention is called to a contemporary pathos whose effects few have yet begun to gauge: the sadness over the passing of the 60’s. It is by no means necessary to feel this nostalgia in order to ponder its importance. Let me say at once that Beattie herself does not seem sad. Some reviewers have referred to the image in “Fancy Flights” of an ex-hippie locked in his bathroom, smoking dope and talking to his daughter’s bunny rabbit, with the Mick Jagger lyric running through his mind: “All the dreams we held so close all seemed to go up in smoke.” But the reviewers have failed to remark that this is one of Beattie’s only unsympathetic portraits, the only one of her protagonists she doesn’t like.

Charles’s lament for the passing of the 60’s, which is more to the point, occurs in abrupt, anxious seizures of lostness and bewilderment. “Elvis Presley is forty,” he says. “Jim Morrison’s widow is dead.” The tone is that same tone in which he laments the waning quality of Hydrox cookies: “What happened to them? They used to be so good. Sugar. No doubt they’re leaving out sugar.” It is witty of Beattie to confine the sociological import of her novel to such trivial remarks. She conveys adroitly the sensibility of After-the-Fall, without making fictive claims for the heights from which we fell. The Golden Age mythology and its attendant rhetoric will inevitably attach, for a while, to talk about the 60’s. This represents, of course, a historical distortion, matched in its badness of fit only by the myth that the New Left was the Antichrist. Beattie’s presentation of Charles’s nostalgia for the 60’s suggests that such longing has the limits of an elegy to lost innocence, and the advantages, too. It distorts, but it also provides, however disingenuously, the idea that things can be better than they are, because they have been better before now. As usual, the prospects for hope seem to depend upon some degree of mystification.


Footnotes

1 Doubleday, 283 pp., $7.95.

2 Doubleday, 280 pp., $7.95.

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