Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ann Beattie's "For the Best"

Ann Beattie's short stories began to appear in small quarterlies while she was a graduate student in the early 1970s.  When, after many rejections, The New Yorker accepted one of her stories in 1974, she devoted herself to writing full time.  Critical reactions to her early collections--Distortions (1976), Secrets and Surprises (1978), The Burning House (1982), Where You'll Find Me (1986), and What Was Mine (1991), was pretty much split between those who admired her pin-point portraits of the yuppie generation of the 60s and 70s and those who accused her of psychological vacuity and sociological indifference.  Seen as the spokesperson for her generation, Beattie was alternately praised for her satiric view of that era's passivity and criticized for presenting sophisticated New Yorker magazine versions of the characters on television's Seinfield, unable to understand themselves or others.
Park City (1999), was a sort of retrospective summation of her short-story career--containing many Beattie favorites that are entering the canon as anthology selections in college and trade texts, such as "Dwarf House," "A Vintage Thunderbird," "Shifting," "The Lawn Party," "Jacklighting," "Greenwich Time," "The Burning House," "Weekend," "Janus," and "What Was Mine."
Beattie's early stories reflect a keen awareness of how the modern short story since Chekhov explores complex human relationships while seeming on the surface merely to be anecdotal events.  For example, in "Janus," a classic of the so-called minimalist genre, the central character is a real-estate salesperson who uses an elegant bowl as a sort of trick to get buyers interested in a house.  The bowl not only has a personal meaning for her because her lover gave it to her, it also has a mysterious symbolic significance, for it seems to be both practical and spiritual at once.  Every house she puts it in becomes the home that she and her lover never had.  When she refuses to leave her husband, her lover asks, in an obvious reference to the title of the story, "Why be two-faced?"  However, like most Beattie characters, she is unable to make a break, a decision, a commitment.  The dichotomy of the bowl is emblematic of how Beattie makes use of concrete details in  her stories.  For even though it is ordinary, practical, even mundane, it is simultaneously subtle, significant, and shimmering with meaning. 
In contrast to her earlier stories, the eight more recent short fictions in her collection Park City seemed to be moving more toward length and elaboration, making more use of novelistic techniques of character exploration and realistic, non-metaphoric, detail, for example in Going Home with Uccello" and the title story "Park City."  In the former, a woman on a trip to Italy with her sometimes boyfriend has a realization about why he has taken her there when he flirts with a Frenchwoman about an Uccello painting.  She understands that he has taken her to Italy not to persuade her to join him in London forever, but to persuade himself that he loved her so much that no other woman could come between them.  The story ends in a typical Beattie ambiguity about whether the man in the story can commit himself to a relationship or whether he is continuing, as so many of Beattie's male characters, to look for some ineffable dream.
In "Park City," the central character spends a week at a Utah ski resort during the off-season looking after her half-sister's daughter, Nell, who is three, and half-sister's boyfriend's half-daughter, Lyric, who is 14.  The story is filled with dialogue between the three females in which it seems increasingly clear that the woman is more naive than the precocious 14-year-old.  In one particular encounter, the girl spins out a long invented tale to a stranger about having had breast implants.  The story ends when the central character tries to get on a ski lift with the child Nell and the two almost fall off.  They are saved by a man who, significantly, tells her, "the one thing you've got to remember next time is to request a slow start."
In her last collection of "new" short stories, Follies (2005), Beattie left realistic minimalism altogether and just seemed to have a good time writing parodies and creating comic voices.  Several stories in the collection are light experiments with various academic and literary conventions.  In “Duchais,” a graduate student fills in for his sick roommate, taking a job as a professor’s research assistant. However, he is actually made to do a variety of household chores--going to the dry cleaners, mixing drinks, serving as a butler and houseboy at the professor’s home.  Years later, after he has become a lawyer and has returned to Virginia for a twentieth class reunion, he stands in front of the old professor’s house and remembers himself as a young man who had tried to prove he could face difficult things, but instead had felt like a helpless child.
“Apology for a Journey not Taken,” subtitled “How to Write a Story,” is a playful literary game in which a woman has to postpone a planned trip over and over again because of a variety of unexpected events.  The story begins with the narrator saying she could explain why she was not where she should have been, but that perhaps the story should itself evolve.  In fact, the story--perhaps an illustrative exercise for one of Beattie’s creative writing classes--is about the basic narrative truth that stories are, by their very nature, postponements of completion, for if there were no postponements, the story would end immediately. 
“Find and Replace” is based on the metaphor of the word processing function by which a novelist can immediately change the names of her characters by finding all instances of the name and replacing it with another immediately.  The protagonist returns to the home of her childhood in Florida to be with her mother after the death of her father six months earlier.  However, she finds that, in a seeming immediate “find and replace” fashion, the mother is planning to marry another man.  The story is energized by the flippant voice of the daughter narrator, who at first is distressed by her mother’s precipitous action, but, because of a serendipitous encounter with a young man at a car rental agency, realizes how things change, even in a very short time.
Finally, after ten years of short-story silence, Beattie published Maine: The State We're In (2015), which contained fifteen stories she said she wrote all in the summer of 2014—pretty rapid-fire and slap-dash work from a writer who made her reputation writing constrained and crystalline stories of precise prose. I reviewed the collection for Magill's Literary Annual and, for copyright reasons, cannot repeat any of that review here.  I will simple say I was disappointed in the stories. I thought they were loose, rambling, and unfocused—poorly written and careless in syntax and word choice.
Consequently, when her most recent story, "For the Best," appeared in The New Yorker on March 14, 2016, I did not look forward to it.  I have read all of Ann Beattie's stories and have taught many of them before I retired.  I always treasured them because they were such tightly constructed and glowing examples of what has always made me love the short story as the finest fictional form.
However, like most of the stories in her last collection, Maine: The State We're In, "For the Best" is just not anywhere near up to Beattie's best. I have read it three times now, and just cannot find the story in it.
It begins with a 79-year-old man, Gerald, who has just received an invitation to an early Christmas party, warning him, as it were, that his ex-wife Charlotte, who he has not seen since their divorce thirty-one years ago, has also been invited.
The day before the party, Gerald runs into an old acquaintance named Ned on the street and has coffee with him, which provides the opportunity for some back story about Gerald's earlier modelling work and also a dream he has about he and Ned swimming in waters where a shark was "lurking Nearby." Not sure of the relevance of this encounter or dream, that is, if "relevance" is even an issue in this piece of writing.
We meet, briefly, several people at the party, none as interesting as those at the most famous short fiction Christmas party in literature in James Joyce's "The Dead."  And we also learn that this particular day is the same day as the terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, California.
The ex-wife Charlotte, which the first paragraph has alerted us to expect, does not arrive until Gerald is leaving, when she jumps out from behind a Christmas tree in the lobby and says "Boo."  Why does Charlotte do this?  Beattie says she personally would love to jump out from behind a Christmas tree that way—which would even be more fun than writing such a scene.
They walk toward Rockefeller Center, chat about their son, the past, etc., and he puts her in a cab to take her home. Then he runs into, "of all people," Tod Browne, a gay acquaintance who was at the party and who takes him home in his limo.
Gerald's final encounter is with Alonzo, his doorman, and they talk briefly about being a foreigner in America and about Alonzo's wife who has died.  Gerald is guiltily puzzled that he did not know about Alonzo's wife, but finally manages a bit of social consciousness when he scolds a young woman from the penthouse of his building who asks Alonzo to walk her dog.
The story ends with Gerald thinking back about his ex-wife, catching sight of himself in the mirrored wall of the elevator and realizing that he had grown old.
If you lay this story alongside Joyce's "The Dead" and carefully analyze the language, I think you might find what makes one a brilliant short story with all the attributes of the form in subtle arrangement and the other just a lot of stuff that happens one night in New York just before Christmas.  (I have talked a bit about "The Dead" in a couple of places on this blog. You can search for those discussions if you are interested.)
Certainly there are similarities between Joyce's Gabriel and Beattie's Gerald, but Gerald does not have the insight that Gabriel does, and Beattie does not establish a thematic pattern of self-deception that Joyce does.  Everything that happens in Joyce's story leads up to Gabriel's recognition in the hotel room mirror, whereas a helluva lot of "stuff" happens in Beattie's story that seems just "stuff that happen—not all of which leads to any recognition for Gerald, except "I grow old, I grow old."
In her interview with New Yorker editor Deborah Treisman in "This Week in Fiction," Beattie even admits that much that happens in this piece is just stuff that seemed to happen when she was writing it or thinking about writing it.  For example, she says she just "happened" to be in New York on the day on the San Bernardino shooting. Although she says she knew that her being there and what happened in California might not have any inherent place "literarily" in her story, "Still, that's what happened, and sometimes when I'm writing I just go with the givens of a situation."
Going with the "givens" does not describe writing a good short story.  It is not something that Chekhov or Joyce or any great short story writer would give in to.
Granted, Gerald seems to have gone through life rather oblivious to the lives of those around him—God knows where his mind has been all these years—but this rambling and crowded account of the night of the Christmas party does not clinch together with meaning to give any human or literary significance to his realization in the last words of the piece that "he'd grown old."
 I miss the Ann Beattie of my youth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the perceptive comments on the Beattie stories, particularly the recent New Yorker one, “For The Best.” Having recently reread Joyce’s “The Dead,” your comparison between that story’s Gabriel and Gerald in the Beattie story was of especial interest. It’s probably not surprising that Gerald gets the “short end of the stick” ( as the saying goes). But I am left wondering how much of that is a function of their vastly different ages. Gabriel is described by Joyce as a “stout, tallish young man” and Gerald is self-described as “grown old.” Perhaps some of Gerald’s being “oblivious to the lives around him” and his seemingly diffidence to life in general (his most emotionally intense moment in the story comes in his “Jaws” dream -- “he woke up “sweaty, distressed to have such a vivid, disturbing dream”) can be attributed, at age 79, to disillusionment, or perhaps to some insight or understanding of life that the young Gabriel, with his so-called epiphany at the end of “The Dead”, is just beginning to grasp. The main problem I have with the Beattie story is that we don’t get to know for sure why Gerald is the person he is. She does not provide enough insight into Gerald’s background or interior life to make any kind of judgment. That, along with deficiencies in the plotting that you so well describe.