So here we are in October, about to discuss August’s book, which was supposed to be some other month’s book, while December’s book is now September’s book because – nevermind. Ah, the joys of blogging.
Ann Beattie was born in 1947, which means she turned 18 in 1965, which sounds like a grand year to be turning 18. I turned 18 in 1987. Fuck that for a game of soldiers.
Apparently early in her career (mid 70s to early 80s) there was talk of a “Beattie Generation”. Beattie Generation – Beat Generation. Do you see what they did there? There wasn’t really a generation of writers who emulated or imitated Beattie’s style, and in fact she has placed herself firmly within the (male-dominated, obvs) American tradition that includes Hemingway and Carver, writers that both Netty and I hugely enjoyed. And for both of us Raymond Carver remains the high-water mark for short-story writers over eight years of the reading challenge.
Ann Beattie, though, is seriously up there.
The New Yorker Stories is a 500-page-plus collection featuring every story Beattie had published in The New Yorker from 1974 to 2006. And it’s a hugely impressive accomplishment. There were a handful of times – actually less than a handful, since by my perverse reckoning a “handful” is exactly five, and I can only think of two or maybe three – when I finished a story and thought OK, that did not work. But the majority are quietly spectacular.
Of the contemporary white, female, American short-story writers Netty and I have read over the past few years (Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, Beattie – there’s also Flannery O’Connor, who was awesome, but she doesn’t quite count here because, y’know, she’s kind of old n dead n shit) I probably enjoyed Gaitskill a little more than Beattie, but for arguably puerile reasons. Beattie is easily the best writer of the four (again, not counting O’Connor, because, y’know…). This may seem simplistic, but: Beattie does first and third person and she can do both superbly (although if memory serves she never attempts second person, which some of the other writers mentioned might). She mostly does female voice, and most of those female voices are roughly the age she was at the time she was writing; but she can do female voices at different ages, and she can do male voice, at various ages, and be convincing at all of it. And of course she can do past tense and present tense and mix them up, but she can also, more subtly and delicately than many, blend the present with the past, ironically but compassionately contrasting a grim, regretful today with a sunnier, hopeful yesterday.
And while there may never have been a Beattie Generation, she has for the four decades represented in this collection been a wry, ironic observer of her own generation – middle-class America, liberated or debilitated (or both) by the sixties, fond of their cigarettes and their marijuana and their booze and their music and their dogs and their infidelities and their divorces and their ex-wives or ex-husbands and their ill-judged decisions to shake life up and move elsewhere; rarely terribly fond of their children (Is that harsh? That might be a bit harsh. Actually sometimes not that fond of their exes, either. Or their neighbours).
Unlike many American short-story writers (and I have Gaitskill in my sights when I say this) Beattie is not afraid to experiment with the length of her stories. Gaitskill sometimes gives the impression that she has a word count to meet and by christ she will meet it. Beattie’s stories, like Carver’s, although let’s not raise the Lish word, are all over the shop. She has a story to tell and she tells it, and when the story is told the story ends. Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill don’t necessarily pad, but… well, maybe they pad. And Lydia Davis is basically incomprehensible to me, no matter how long or short her fucking stories are. No, sorry, not incomprehensible, just… irrelevant. I seem to remember Netty asking, after we’d read Lorrie Moore’s stories (which are mostly very impressive) if we’d found the female Carver. The question now strikes me as slightly misogynist – and I’m supposed to be the literary sexist of this challenge. As a writer – female, male or otherwise – Carver trumps Beattie. But you know what? Only just.
Half a dozen recommendations: Dwarf House (bizarre, hilarious, touching), Colorado (ironic and insightful), The Lawn Party (cynical yet moving), The Burning House (best last two pars of a short story you’ll ever read), Home to Marie (great plot twist less than a third of the way through), The Confidence Decoy (last story, still resonating).