Review Of Ann
Beattie’s Park City, New And Selected Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/26/08
Reading Ann Beattie is an odd experience. She’s not a good writer, but not a bad writer either. She’s that most forgettable of all writers: barely competent, dull, and uninspired. She is perhaps the best living practitioner of the classic New Yorker formula tale about upper crust New Yorkers who vacation in New England and worry of their fading sexuality, or sip champagne with brie at chichi art galleries and museums, bemoaning the encroachment of barbarianism or philistinism in one form or another- for the better or the ill. It is no irony that AB’s short story corpus is almost an unbroken chain of the same from that earlier New Yorker formulaicist, AA, aka Alice Adams. And even Adams’ tales were watered down versions of the two New Yorker Golden Age Johns: Cheever and O’Hara. This makes Beattie a third generation hack, but with only fifth or sixth rate ability. There is not a moment in any of the selected tales that a reader is wowed, or believing that Beattie is going to knock your socks off. Her tales are mattresses, not silken sheets. And Park City, New And Selected Stories gives the reader thirty-six reasons to sleep.
Too often she is longwinded, and has the Postmodern habit of thinking the dropping of a celebrity or brand name is a substitute for real character development. Her tales are too long, larded with ponderous prose (most telling in her unrealistic dialogue), and too soaked with details of insignificant things barely relevant to the main narrative thrust. One need not know the color of some tea set in an apartment to gauge the mood of an impending divorcee. And failed marriages are a staple of her tales, where people often lounge around on piano stools in the nude with their uncouth younger lovers (Secrets And Surprises), jet to exotic locales with a book of Romantic poetry in tow, or photograph selected naked portions of their bodies, all under the gaze of a Julia Child cookbook’s cover photograph. Her tales all end with no real insight, no sense that a sojourn has been undertaken, but, instead, with minor material fillips and almost silent film type irises
In Cosmos a schoolteacher worries of her lover’s affections, an abusive Japanese student, and the morals of her lover’s young son, whom she uses as a model of uncouthness to her other students. The tale is so convoluted I cannot so much tell you what it was really about, as much as tell you I lost interest long before its thirty-five pages ran out. Here’s a sample of both the banality of the phrasing, and worse- the need to spoonfeed the reader shallow emotions that the situation, itself, does not evoke:
Am I? I wonder. A person with any pride would. Then again, a person who cared about the young person she’d spent a year with wouldn’t just waltz out the door, would she? But her question has rattled me. I sit on her two-seat sofa, in the kitchen, and don’t know what to say. Jason looks miserable. He squirms against my side like a baby.
‘Goodness!’ Estelle says. ‘Well, out with it. What is it?’
‘Jason made a mistake. He took the money out of your vase by the stove,’ I say, gesturing to the vase, which still holds dried flowers. ‘He feels awful about it, and he knows it was a very bad thing to do.’
‘You did?’ Estelle says. Her voice is so high-pitched, it almost squeals. ‘Why did you do such a thing? Wouldn’t I give you anything you wanted?’
‘Not a trail bike,’ he says bitterly. The suddenness, the intensity with which he speaks, almost paralyzes me. He wanted a trail bike very much, I realize for the first time.
‘This is the sort of news that might provoke a heart attack,’ Estelle says. ‘Here I open my home to you and offer you anything I can give you, and in return....’ Tears come to her eyes. ‘I don’t want to see you for some time,’ Estelle says. ‘You must go home now.’
At this, Jason starts to cry. It’s harsher than what I imagined; Jason has deeply disappointed Estelle, but he’s a child. And he’s come to apologize. Estelle walks out of the room. She sideswipes his coat and it falls off the coatrack. It lies on the floor, but she doesn’t look back. I hear her bedroom door slam shut. This is not what I imagined.
Note how the modifiers determine what character emotions Beattie wants the reader to go away with, not the actual drama presented. In What Was Mine a man is the only heir to the possessions of his mother’s lover. Don’t expect any great twist to occur. Second Question is a melodramatic and über-PC tale about AIDS, which is so full of its moralizing, from its very title to its end, which reveals the title’s meaning as the second thing homosexuals ask each other- ‘Have you been tested?’, that I wanted to vomit. Not only is the tale- from the 1980s- so dated that it looks out of step with not only the common sense of the time, but must even be embarrassing to gays, which are condescended to in the worst way within. Almost as bad a tale is Dwarf House, except the target of its moralizing is the dwarf in a family that is not at all sensitive. In Going Home with Uccello a woman on vacation with her lover in Italy watches him try to test his fidelity. It is about as banal and depthless a tale as Danielle Steel might write. Ed And Dave Visit The City is an attempted sex farce that takes the worst tendencies of Alice Adams, and puts them on steroids. In Vermont a couple host the wife’s ex-husband and a very young new girlfriend whose idea of depth is wondering if ‘every time we sleep we die; we come back another person, to another life.’ A tale like Wolf Dreams, a quarter of the way through the nearly five hundred page book, shows a glimmer of potential, as it recounts an oft-married woman’s feelings before yet another marriage, but while there are some nice potentialities raised the tale ends with a whimper. The same is true in Jacklighting, a story that deals with the grief over a dead child. It’s a nice idea, with some nice poetic touches, but ultimately goes nowhere. The same is true with Imagine A Day At The End Of Your Life, which basically is what its title claims. Perhaps the only tale in the book that pushes any envelopes is The Working Girl, which has the narrator relating the hypothetical aspects of a character’s life. Again, some moments, but the tale ultimately reveals itself for what it is- a gimmick tale.
The rest of the stories really have nothing to extrapolate upon. There
is, as said, a plethora of detail, but these do not accrete into some syllabus
of a soul. They are just a motley assortment of facts that construct edifices
that serve no purpose to the rest of the story. In a sense, I recalled the great
film of a few years ago, Jill Sprecher’s 13 Conversations About One Thing.
Beattie’s tales are populated with the very same Woody Allenesque characters,
but with none of the depth. And this is precisely what Beattie’s tales lack
the most of- depth. Yes, they are often too long, but they are well-crafted most
of the time. What really kills them is their lack of intellectual depth, and
their one dimensional narratives. This would not be fatal had she a great sense
of warmth and emotion in her tales, but they are bereft of that, as well humor.
Even worse, the characters seem to be perpetually puerile. They are supposedly
in their thirties or older, yet act with the passionate stupidity of teenagers,
or younger. They are people who were never cool, but thought they were. And they
speak in floral shades of purple about everything, even when the moment does not
call for it, such as when the schoolteacher in Cosmos opines in this
manner on her lover’s parents’ deaths: ‘What
could it have been like, to fall out of the sky over Anchorage, Alaska, into
endless drift of snow? For a few seconds there must have been such color in the
air: the engine sparking; detritus blown like confetti, far and wide; a free
fall of bright winter clothes.’
Alas, the years wrought no improvement in Beattie. She seemed to have reached a groove in the mid-1970s, and she’s rutted there ever since. So, when you feel a slight malodor as you read her tales know this: it’s only rubber….burning nowhere fast.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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