Hailed by many as the spokesperson for her generation, Ann Beattie (1947 -) won numerous awards for her novels and short stories focusing on vapid, upper-middleclass characters. Although Beattie’s work has often been criticized as pointless and depressing, there is a method to her seeming madness. The stories and novels are not a mix of ennui and untapped angst but rather detailed examinations of the lives of several apparently different—but uniquely similar—people. Not one specific character is repeated in any story, but some, like the Vietnam veteran, appear in different versions and perform different functions, as plot catalysts, for example. At the same time, all Beattie’s characters share the same vague feelings of discontent and lack of fulfillment, the knowledge that something is missing in their lives.
Chilly Scenes of Winter
Initially, a Beattie character may seem feisty and self-assured, even defensive about his or her lack of enthusiasm. In Beattie’s first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, one player remarks, “[Y]ou could be happy, too, Sam, if you hadn’t had your eyes opened in the 60’s.” The promise of a better life that was given to these characters has been transmogrified into unhappiness and loneliness without relief. Beattie’s novels are, accordingly, laced with irony.
It is the acknowledgment of this transgression through the use of irony that provides a saving grace for the stories and novels. The main character of Chilly Scenes of Winter is granted all that he wishes; in the end, however, all that he wants is to escape his gratification. Charles, the protagonist, is in love with Laura, a married woman. His desire for her eventually dominates his life, so that he is unable to function without that desire or—as he would believe—without her.
Charles’s obsession with Laura colors his relationship with his own family: his mother, Clara; her second husband, Pete; and Charles’s sister, Susan. Even though his sister has accepted Pete, Charles refuses to acknowledge him as a replacement for their father, a man whose good qualities are magnified by the virtue of his death. Charles regards Pete as both a loser and a catalyst for Clara’s chronic hypochondria. He claims that Pete refuses to accept life as it is and, instead, continues to make excuses for Clara’s instability. The irony is that what Charles so clearly perceives as Pete’s faults are really his own. Charles cannot—or will not—admit that he, too, fantasizes about the woman he loves and constructs absurd ideas about her that are founded on nothing but his own imagination. Charles will never be able to have a normal life with Laura, just as Pete will never be able to have one with Clara.
There is also the thought, which runs throughout the novel, that marriage itself is not a desirable norm. Sam, Clara’s friend, comments, “It’s nuts to get married,” and indeed none of the relationships in Chilly Scenes of Winter seems to bode well for the participants. Pete and Clara’s marriage is tainted by her mental illness, Jim and Laura’s seems emptied by their lack of interest, and Charles and Laura’s relationship is adulterous (and thus unable to be acknowledged).
The lack of sanction for Charles’s love is typical of his whole existence. Nothing in his life lives up to his expectations, so he wanders pathetically, searching for both the ideal and the unreal. He is terrified of discovering a truth in his miserable existence, and this fear prevents him from completing his quest for love and a meaningful life. Charles is consumed by the thought that he will develop an “inoperable melanoma,” even though there is no indication that he will; it is merely a phrase he has overheard in a hospital room. After Laura leaves Jim, Charles refuses to contact her; he will only drive past her house, hoping for a signal that will never be given.
Falling in Place
In contrast to this world where the characters are forced to wander endlessly, searching for a direction, the players in Falling in Place are given a very clear signal when a significant event occurs. The story opens with John Knapp, his estranged wife Louise, their children Mary and John Joel, and John’s mistress Nina. During the week, John lives with his mother, ostensibly to be close to his job in New York City but really to be far away from Louise and the children and closer to Nina. Naturally, this situation affects his children, and they become bitter and distanced not only from their father but also from their mother. Instead of swimming in a maelstrom of their own emotions, however, the characters in Falling in Place actually reach out to others and are influenced by them. John Joel’s deviant friend Parker brings the action of the novel to a head: He provides John Joel with a handgun, and the latter proceeds to shoot his sister Mary in the side. When asked why he shot her, John Joel explains to his father, “She was a bitch.”
Perhaps this phrase succinctly sums up Beattie’s child characters in the story. Instead of behaving like real children, their circumstances force them to become miniature adults, faced with adult problems and desires. John Joel has an eating disorder, his friend Parker smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, and cold Mary dreams of sacrificing her virginity to singer Peter Frampton. They are a sad band of children, imitating the worst habits of their adult counterparts in the worst possible way. John Joel mouths adult words and defines his teenage sister in adult terms.
Finally, John and Louise divorce, freeing themselves and their children to pursue meaningful existences. None however, really believes that he or she will be able to attain this. At one point, John complains to Mary, “Don’t you think I might already realize that my existence is a little silly?” Mary replies, “[T]hat’s what Vanity Fair is like. Things just fall into place.” John wonders if his daughter’s advocacy of predestination seals her fate or if she simply cannot, or will not, try to imagine a future over which she has any control. Mary is not, however, the only member of her family who refuses to admit to a future. After Nina and John finally unite, Nina begs him to consider her wants: “Acres of land. Children. A big house. Try to realize what you love.” John only replies, “You’re what I want.”
John, then, refuses to realize, to make real, his existence with Nina and any sort of happiness they might have. He and his fellow characters are moderately pleased with their ties to the past and present; one boasts of a once-removed acquaintance with singer Linda Ronstadt. No one, however, will consider the effect of his or her present actions on the future. No one wants to be responsible for shaping a future; all merely accept whatever happens as a logical consequence of an illogical life.
In contrast, the characters in Love Always begin by rejoicing that they are “beating the system.” Hildon and his ex-student friends run a slick journal named Country Daze, the success of which, Hildon maintains, is “proof positive that the whole country is coked-out.” Because America, or at least the readership of Country Daze, has gone to rack and ruin, Hildon and associates decide that their behavior does not have to measure up to any modern-day standards. Hildon continues his longstanding affair with coworker and advice columnist Lucy, despite his marriage. Lucy’s fourteen-year-old niece, Nicole, is taking a brief vacation with her aunt from her role as a teenage junkie on a popular soap opera.
Nicole is yet another of Beattie’s adult children, as are John Joel and Mary in Falling in Place. She serves as a foil for the adults in her world who are childishly hiding from the responsibilities and terrors of the outside world in a world of their own devising. Nicole’s aunt, Lucy, writes under the name Cindi Coeur. Ironically, she does not wear her heart on her sleeve but rather flees from mature relationships. Lucy is equally unhappy about Nicole’s adult behavior, but she does not know what to do about it.
During the mid-1980’s, the direction of Beattie’s fiction began to change. While there were still passive, directionless characters in her novels, there were also instances of redemption, primarily through a commitment to other human beings that no one in the earlier works seemed willing or able to make. There are still a great many characters in these novels who fail both themselves and others, however. In Picturing Will, for example, the needs of the five-year-old protagonist are ignored by both of his divorced parents. His mother Jody is more interested in becoming a famous photographer than in taking care of her son, and his shiftless father Wayne would rather drink and womanize than pay attention to Will. The real hero of the story is Jody’s lover, and later her second husband, Mel Anthis. It is Mel who sacrifices his own literary ambitions in order to dedicate his life to child-rearing, thus ensuring that Will becomes the secure man and the loving husband and father we meet at the end of the novel.
In Picturing Will, Mel is introduced as a caring person, capable of loving a woman as difficult as Jody, and his affection for Will is believable. In the protagonist of Another You, however, a striking change in personality occurs, one that promises redemption. At the beginning of the book, Marshall Lockard seems much like the passive characters in Beattie’s earlier novels, except that he is quite content with his purposeless life; in fact, Marshall has deliberately arranged his way of life. As an English professor at a small New Hampshire college, he can live vicariously through literary characters, and he has so well mastered the art of sarcasm that he can repel his students at will. Because his wife Sonja believes him too vulnerable to be subjected to any emotional stress, it is she, not Marshall, who goes to the nursing home to visit Marshall’s stepmother, who reared him and loves him dearly. Although Sonja has become bored enough with this well-ordered existence to indulge in a little adultery with her employer, she does not mean for her husband to find out about it.
Despite all his precautions, however, Marshall is drawn into the untidy world. It all begins with a simple request from one of his students: She wants him to speak to someone on campus about her friend, who is claiming that she was assaulted by Marshall’s colleague Jack MacCallum. Soon Marshall finds himself kissing the student and worrying about repercussions, explaining to the police why MacCallum was stabbed by his pregnant wife in the Lockard home, and dealing with his stepmother’s death and his wife’s infidelity, not to mention the two students’ having fabricated their story and the supposed victim’s turning out to be a narcotics agent. Marshall is so shaken by these heavy blows of reality that he decides to go to Key West, visit his older brother Gordon, and ask about some events in their childhood that have always haunted him. Although only Beattie’s readers find out the truth, not Marshall, by simply confronting the issue Marshall gains new strength. Instead of becoming another drifter in Key West, he heads back to New Hampshire, cold weather, and real life, hopefully with Sonja.
My Life, Starring Dara Falcon
In Beattie’s early works, the characters are often far more interested in the lives of celebrities, such as Janis Joplin and Lucille Ball, than in their own lives. After all, it is much less risky to invest in a tabloid than in another person. A similar kind of vicarious existence is the subject of My Life, Starring Dara Falcon. Here, however, the protagonist, Jean Warner, is so young and so malleable that this is obviously a coming-of-age novel. Beattie even reassures her readers of a happy ending by beginning her book two decades after most of its events and by showing the narrator as a happily married, mature woman who understands herself and others. Thus readers know from the outset that Jean did escape from her husband’s large extended family, which smothered her rather than giving her the security she sought, from a rather dull husband who is ruled by his family, and, most important, from the manipulations of the Machiavellian Dara Falcon.
In both My Life, Starring Dara Falcon and Another You, the protagonists begin as passive creatures who live vicariously through others, but they can and do choose to change, first by coming to terms with their own identities, then by daring to care about others. If in her early works Beattie showed what was wrong with the members of her generation, in her later works she offers hope to them and, indeed, to all of us.
Other major works
Short fiction: Distortions, 1976; Secrets and Surprises, 1978; Jacklighting, 1981; The Burning House, 1982; Where You’ll Find Me, and Other Stories, 1986; What Was Mine, and Other Stories, 1991; Park City: New and Selected Stories, 1998; Perfect Recall: New Stories, 2001; Follies and New Stories, 2005.
Nonfiction: Alex Katz, 1987.
Children’s literature: Goblin Tales, 1975; Spectacle, 1985
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.