MASTERY: Beattie makes sheer narrative technique sing.
Ann Beattie emerged in the 1970s in the pages of the New Yorker
with a cast of post-grad characters who smoked pot, bummed around, fell in and out of relationships, and faced the world with a shrug and the latest rock and roll on the stereo. We weren’t in Cheever country anymore. Or even Updike country. Beattie hit big and was part of a crowd of writers — Frederick Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mary Robison, and Raymond Carver among them — then seen as changing the short story. I’ll save arguments about minimalism and “the art of the short story” for another time, but what you need to know right now is that Beattie’s new novella, Walks with Men
, is sharp and funny, with an aggressive edge that could surprise those who criticized her early work for its “passivity.”
|Walks With Men | By Ann Beattie | Scribner | 112 Pages | $10 [Paper]|
The story is familiar, drawn from the limitless literary terrain of what one critic has called “the land of bad relationships.” The narrator, a writer named Jane Costner, looks back to 1980, when she first came to New York City and fell in love with a heel. He’s the kind of charismatic older man who always spells trouble for young women in these stories. As she explains to another character, he’s a Svengali — meaning someone manipulative but also more than that: “somebody who makes you think you need him in order to accomplish anything.”
The narrative bumps of betrayal and reconciliation and new betrayal might not surprise, but, as always, it’s how the novelist gets there that matters. Beattie takes wide swings through time and place, and reconstructing the story’s chronology in your head is a challenge. At one point, she retells the same incident with slightly different emphasis. At another, she switches from first person to third as a way for Jane to look at herself as a fictional character.
And yet, as a painter friend of mine used to say about Cézanne: even if the bowl doesn’t sit on the table, it sits in the painting on the table. Everything in this swift and funny story belongs here. This is technical mastery that sings. The minimalists were slammed for their uninflected obsession with surface detail, but Beattie’s choice of detail always enhances nuance and affect, whether nailing the political climate, a social type, or a state of mind. Jane’s evil boyfriend, Neil, is the author of Prometheus in California: The Rise of the Executive Counterculture, but he’s also writing a pseudonymous advice column for a women’s magazine “with a panel of so-called experts that included a cross-dressing society haircutter, the owner of a jazz club, and a Ritalin-addicted SoHo veterinarian (his former Harvard roommate).” A passing news item reports, “Someone who owned a bodega had been arrested for selling controlled substances hidden in the bottom of devotional candles.”
What’s most impressive is Beattie’s dramatization of the flow of consciousness, the technical command as she moves from exterior observation to interior sensation, from direct dialogue to paraphrase, the larger issues juxtaposed with the kind of unrelated details recognizable as emotional flotsam. When Jane is freaking out, her mind circles, goes back to the old boyfriend she broke up with in order to be with Neil, trying to remember, “What book had I been reading that I’d left behind?”, adding, “There had also been a green sweater.”
Yes, Beattie’s characters talk about books and authors. Isn’t that nice for a change? Walks with Men appears to be a teaser for the October publication of a new collection of her work, The New Yorker Stories. Can’t wait.