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December 5, 2010

The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie

When I started reading Ann Beattie’s The New Yorker Stories last week, I was concerned I was doing it wrong. I’d never read any of Beattie’s stories before, and this collection of more than 40 stories written over 30 years might have been too much of a good thing. Surely, a  collection like this meant to be savoured, dipped in and out of, but as I’m a little short on leisure these days, an overdose was my only option. And after the fact, I’m actually grateful, because these stories are small worlds constructed of tiny gestures, but the cumulative effect was to hit me with a wallop.

Beattie’s stories are very much fixed in their time, cars with make and year, characters listening to Sony Walkmans, a reference in a 1979 story to “a stereo as big as a computer”, a lot of pre-electric Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger playing on stereos, no matter the decade. This element of detail, however, gives the early stories the effect of a bad orange cover design. It wasn’t so much that the stories themselves were dated as were their backdrops, which made the collection difficult to settle into. But one or all of the following things happened: the stories got better, the sets got more modern, and I began to get a real sense of what Beattie’s work is all about (and this final effect is the very best thing, albeit an exhausting thing, about reading more than 40 short stories in a row).

Reading 40 stories in a row also revealed connections between them, providing the sense of what Beattie is all about. Revealing also that she only knows about seven men’s names, which are mostly Richard, that every dog is called Sam, and that dogs in general are a preoccupation. As are marriages gone sour (and there is no marriage that hasn’t), multiple husbands (though not all at once), children of divorce, deadbeats, misfits, and all the lonely people (who are sometimes justifiably so). At least three times, a character without use of a limb tries and fails to use that limb anyway, and is surprised by their failure. Betrayal, deception, sinister trespasses, and the kind of people who’ll break your heart over and over again.

There is a range to how these stories are constructed, many focused on the personal and the immediate, but the later stories in particular taking on a wider scope. In “The Cinderella Waltz”, a woman watches as her ex-husband breaks his boyfriend’s heart as he once did hers (and he’s breaking her daughter’s at the same time)’; in “Girl Talk”, a woman about to give birth confronts the reality of her lover’s family (and of her lover, and her whole life); in “In the White Night”, a couple still grieving the long-ago death of their child enact the inexplicable adjustments a complicated life demands of us: “Such odd things happened. Very few days were like the ones before”.

I thought of Grace Paley’s work as I made my way through this collection, the way her preoccupations became definite, the way her characters all eventually became thrice-married alter-egos of their author. The way that Beattie’s stories were the kind that Paley’s Faith’s father wouldn’t have understood, wondering why she didn’t just write beginnings, middles and endings. Beattie similarly ponders connections to aging parents, and plays also with the metafictional element in her story “Find and Replace”, in which her narrator (who is a writer called Ann) confesses that all her fiction comes from reality:

“‘People don’t recognize themselves. And, in case they might, you just program the computer to replace one name with another. So, in the final version, every time the word Mom comes up, it’s replaced with Aunt Begonia or something.'”

One phrase at the end of “Summer People” goes far to sum up what Ann Beattie’s stories are all about, and how a restive reader might encounter them: “For a second, he wanted them all to be transformed into characters in one of those novels she had read all summer. That way, the uncertainty would end.” But the uncertainly doesn’t in these stories, and novels these stories aren’t nor do they attempt to be. Here is story for the sake of story, for the sake of truth uncertainty provides. Another line from “Find and Replace” is an extension of this idea, and the very essence of the short story, of their perfection:

“You can’t help understanding. First, because it is the truth, and second, because everyone knows the way things change. They always do, even in a very short time.”

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