New stories by Ann Beattie are a literary event, because of the rarity of them. Her new work appears under the title The State We’re In: Maine Stories, a relatively slim volume of mostly connecting stories (fifteen in total). Beattie’s so important to me, and to Baby Boomers in particular, as hers has been the definitive voice of the boomer generation since she first began publishing short stories in The New Yorker in the early seventies (those were republished some years back as The New Yorker Stories).
Perhaps it’s more difficult now to understand the radicality of how she’s redefined the nature and structure of the short story. Much of what she writes seems mundane conversation, dialogue, between and amongst rather lost souls, people who never entirely joined The Establishment, but weren’t entire dropouts, either: she uses the quotidian moment, conversation, observation, dialogue of the sparest, most minimal language, often replete with irony, to define what’s gone wrong with this most competitive and most media-obsessed generation. We, the readers, then create the backstory of her characters from the very spare language she uses, and I think that quality of her writing and intelligence is what younger readers may not get: her stories really do call for that famous ‘close reading of the text’ which the first wave of boomers (including me), were encouraged to do when we were being educated in the sixties (Joan Didion, whose writing is even sparer and more minimalist than Beattie’s, is also of this generation, perhaps a few years older, but Didon’s been the torchbearer of the close textual reading: her intuition combined with her astonishing genius is what makes her writing so riveting, and Didion the Cassandra of American letters for decades). I think it’s no accident that the sixties created the minds and ideas of both Beattie and Didion.
Beattie has seen the floundering, lost side to the boomers from the beginning. After graduating from college, a virtual essential of boomer development, so many boomers kind of got lost, not knowing what to do, where to go, how to live: Beattie often had boomers living together in small groups, more friends than lovers, in her early work, which is also defined by the constant appearance of dogs (truly humankind’s best friend in her work), the walking of dogs, pithy conversations, a high level of education and knowledge of the liberal arts but an aimlessness, a sense of being overeducated but undertrained: that’s classic, now vintage, Beattie territory, and she does not disappoint in her new stories, though the boomers are now on the close side of old age. I read these stories with a careful attention to every word, partly because every word in a Beattie story matters, partly because I so admire how she puts words together, and partly to understand where she sees boomers, now, as they are at the end of their professional lives. Maine’s a perfect state to put her characters in, a second house heaven/refuge for many boomers, including some who live year round in the towns of which she writes, as their last attempt at opting out of the greater/larger society. Boomers never wanted to give up their creature comforts, either.
The connecting stories in this new Beattie group may be defined by an overarching sense of melancholia, a deep sadness, almost a resignation, that pervades them: I may not have noticed this quality as much in her earlier works, though it is there. In a typical story, she moves back and forth between a character in his/her early to mid twenties, right to their current points in life in their mid to late sixties: those juxtapositions are brilliantly rendered, so that the early ‘me’ is instantly connected to the ‘old’ me, with disappointment, longing and, yes, still, irony , keeping these characters afloat. One of her main characters, Joceyln, is a teenager stuck in Maine with her aunt and uncle, going to summer school, meeting other kids on the beach, lost souls again, but Jocelyn is a young writer, making us wonder if she’s some version of the young Ann Beattie, not that it may matter, but I love the way Beattie’s young have absolutely no faith in their parents, or their ‘elders’, whom they see as constant liars, and as self-absorbed as boomers have always tended to be (this is a generation that’s been told from birth how very special they are). The key point or points in all these stories will be packed into one or two sentences that hit us with a thud, as she skips the midlife years entirely; this is a superb writer’s ploy, so that the natural disappointments of aging seem that much more poignent, more piquant. If we bear in mind that the boomers started the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the environmental movement, and contemporary feminism, elements of which pop up in Beattie stories, we can understand why Beattie’s version of the boomers is so pitiful, why there’s such a sense of near hopelessness (not complete) in them, and perhaps how and why so much of their lives have been wasted in the constant pursuit of interpersonal relationships, a generation much psychologized, much therapied, much encouraged to think about themselves. At nearly seventy, this generation may well have peaked in the early seventies, and that’s often the backstory in Beattie’s work. If you read these stories, or other Beattie stories, and don’t fill in the backstory yourself, which she clearly provides, you’re going to find them little more than ironic longings and clever sayings at cocktail parties, a celebration of the quotidian, which they are not. Beattie stories serve as the microcosm of the overall macrocosm of the boomer universe. Athough she can often be very funny, she’s also always been deadly serious, and though her irony is terrific, she understands that it’s not a substitute for wit; Beattie is too intelligent for that.
My copy of these stories is packed with underlines, pithy phrases or clauses or entire sentences that continue to define the boomer experience. It’s an enervated generation, one realizes while reading these stories, and Beattie’s characters possess enough self-knowledge (and amour propre, always), to have an awareness of their failings, and a sense of failure floats over and through all these stories, a sense of lost opportunities, pointless grabs for relational happiness, melancholy. When , in one of the stories, a character notes, at another ubiquitous party, that the toothpicks in the hors d’oeuvres are probably made from hand-hewn wood, we know that Beattie’s keenest of eyes on this last liberally educated group of Americans has in no way lost its pith–one may laugh out loud in one paragraph, and get nearly weepy in the next, such is the power of Ann Beattie’s observations and language and intelligence. Yet again, Ann Beattie does not disappoint: she remains the most astute chronicler of a generation born to much, but which carried too much vanity and narcissism and competitiveness all the way through, and now wonders whatever for.