The Inscrutable Ann Beattie

Her Latest Novel, Enigmatic as Usual

Ben–no last name–a student at a boarding school in New England, is just Trying To Figure It All Out, man, as one does during the throes of late adolescence. He has an engaging, enigmatic teacher who treats him like an adult, a cold, aloof father, an unknowable stepmother, and various classmates juggling tics and mottled pasts. Ben wanders, dazed, through the present’s half-comfortable wreckage, staring down a future that doesn’t promise anyone anything, perceiving reality in temporal curlicues of consciousness that are at first manageable and later almost impossible. In that sense, he’s a lot like most of us. He’s also, unfortunately for him, an Ann Beattie character trapped within A Wonderful Stroke Of Luck, the latest Ann Beattie novel.

Critics have slapped the label of ironist on Beattie, who first found fame in the early 1970s as an author of short stories. Early comparisons to the late Donald Barthelme were frequent and largely baseless. In actuality, her gift is to observe modern life from odd angles, and to ramble. In a 2011 Paris Review interview no longer available to non-subscribers, she confessed that much of her fiction is improvised, unplanned, completed at one sitting. Whether or not this is true, it has the ring of truth. For less-than-fastidious readers, it complicates the experience of being a Beattie fan. She’s written a lot of short stories that she’s compiled into a lot of short story collections, many of which you can find cheap in paperback at used bookstores. Buy one sometime. Read it, slowly biting, slowly chewing.

These stories generally drift and meander, but they meander languidly, cruising to meaningful resolutions only on occasion and usually concluding before a traditional climax is anywhere in sight. Short stories, I learned, should zoom in on impactful moments in characters’ lives. Beattie, who taught writing at colleges for years, happily disregards this writing-seminar tenet in her own work. The disaster doesn’t happen, the confrontation is postponed, the realization arrives years too late. The reader’s own inference can be a key to cracking these stories’ codes. Whenever I try to sell friends on Beattie, I bring up “Fancy Flights” from The New Yorker Stories, where an out-of-work father’s life is slowly falling apart–a failing marriage, a steady intake of substances, a splintering of self and perception. Nothing significant happens. Beattie acts as a non-judgmental narrator, though it dawns on us that some dads should never receive unsupervised visitation rights.

She has an ear for details and dead-ends and a penchant for piling them up in upper middle-class tableaus. A softly aching sadness pervades all of her writing. Reading her, you get the sense that your very existence, and its little pockets of joy, are doomed to impermanence, that the ideal soundtrack for every waking moment is probably a Carpenters best-of collection.

But it’s easier to meander for 10 or 20 pages than it is to meander at novel length. With the notable exception of 1997’s excellent My Life, Starring Dara Falcon, where a nearly blank protagonist battles with the titular, Gatsby-esque grifter for the reader’s attention, Beattie’s novels and novellas are tough hangs . They’re difficult to read once, let alone twice, yet you can’t dismiss them outright. Time jumps, light surrealism, and aching, aimless stretches compel, eventually drawing you back. She surprises you. Picturing Will, from 1989, includes around its midpoint a single chapter so retrospectively inevitable and excruciating that I remember it several times per year, shuddering. That book also featuress a number of piercing, acid-trip descriptions of dreams experienced by its characters.

Did people actually read this novel in normal book clubs? How terse and silent and unbearable must those meetings have been? How aghast must Beattie’s friends and colleagues been when they’d finished the galleys? And why aren’t we talking about A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, her first novel since 2002, which is ostensibly the focus of this book review?

Why? Because Ben is a typically hopeless Ann Beattie protagonist. The author clearly had more fun putting words in the mouth of Ben’s teacher, Mr. LaVerdere, than Donna Tartt had with Julian Morrow in The Secret History. Luck follows a similarly neurotic, discursive course. There is a pleasure in reading along as Ben grows up to an unsettled middle age, awash in details, missed connections, and blind spots.  Beattie understands well what most adults should grasp after a while: daily life eagerly serves up a cornucopia of demands that allow for the ongoing elision of personal problems and their root causes.

If the Readers’ Guide questions hanging over Luck are “What kind of school was Bailey?” and “Why was Ben a student at Bailey?”, the novel answers them eventually. But those answers aren’t a reason to hang in there. Instead, wait for the 9/11 chapter, and for every ounce of nuance Beattie wrings from what previously registered as a rather staid boarding school setup. Also hang in there for Ben’s brief, hostile pre-Cornell habitation with a dour Bailey classmate and his asshole roommate. There’s  a post-Cornell interlude where, after Ben catches an on-again-off-again girlfriend in a threesome during their vacation, a couple awkwardly fails to pick him up. And eventually you also get revelations of what was bubbling up between adults in the background of those now fading years back at Bailey.

Luck, like so much of Beattie’s other work, is pregnant with possibilities of where the narrative could lead. Characters enter the story, drop out, or maybe return transformed. The settings sidle ambivalently toward the author’s beloved Northeastern United States where, as anywhere and everywhere, Ben and every one of us are stranded and ultimately alone. Remember a discussion point from Mr. LaVerdere’s class, earlier on in Luck: “The subject seemed to be whether things that were enigmatic held more fascination than things transparent­–the question being: Might we be impressed by having to figure something out, while sometimes failing to appreciate equally important ideas merely because they seemed so accessible?”

Keep that in mind as the almost casually innocuous final line of this novel hits with the force of an anvil.

(Viking, April 2, 2019)

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Raymond Cummings

Raymond Cummings lives in Owings Mills, Maryland. A 1999 graduate of Washington College, he is the author of books including Assembling the Lord, Crucial Sprawl, Open for Business, Notes on Idol, and Vigilante Fluxus. His writing has appeared in SPIN, The Wire magazine, The Village Voice, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. Whorl Without End, his latest collection of poetry, was independently published in January 2020.

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