I am reading Ann Beattie’s The New Yorker Stories, her collection of short stories published in The New Yorker from 1974-2006.
I’ve always loved her stories. In college I imagined myself a Beattie character: lost, overeducated, nostalgic for the ’60s, and stuck in the soulless American workplace. I loved Distortions and Secrets and Surprises. Now I appreciate the crystalline prose of her dazzling later stories in Park City and Perfect Recall, inhabited by older suburban characters, who are bound and burdened by fragile relationships and complex emotional histories.
But I am very touched by her early exquisite story, “The Burning House,” published in 1979. In this hectic, funny, very sad story, the narrator prepares dinner in the midst of chaos. Her gay brother-in-law, Freddy Fox, drops ashes in the sauce and cavorts with a Limoges plate, while the dog, Sam, skids excitedly into the kitchen mistaking the plate for a Frisbee. In the living room, Tucker, the gay owner of an art gallery, is telling a story to the narrator’s husband, Frank, about his latest gay client genius who has gone AWOL to a “gay pig roast.” The last guest, J.D., a professor who quit his job after his wife and child died in a car crash, shows up late wearing a mask.
The narrator desperately hopes Frank will not leave her and their son for his new girlfriend. But at the end of the night Frank tells her, “Everything you’ve done is commendable…. You did the right thing to go back to school. You tried to do the right thing by finding yourself a normal friend like Marilyn. But your whole life you’ve made a mistake–you’ve surrounded yourself with men.”
It is easy to imagine the devastation: Beattie shows us that Frank is not a terrible person. He is imaginative and almost poetic, but has a cruel streak. Our heroine deserves much, much better.
Frank’s devastating words equally apply to some of Beattie’s other heroines. Jane Jay Costner, the narrator of Beattie’s beautifully-written novella, Walks with Men, which was published separately in 2010, is also surrounded with men and too dependent on them. Rereading “The Burning House” led me to reread Walks with Men.
Beattie begins Walks with Men: “In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him.”
Because Jane thinks knowing about men will “give [her] information about the way I could make a life for myself,” she agrees to Neil’s terms: she won’t tell anyone he is the source of her new taste and sophistication, not even her boyfriend in Vermont.
Jane, a narcissistic Harvard graduate, is famous for having been interviewed about her generation by the New York Times. She meets Neil, a wealthy professor and writer, after he writes a perspective piece on what she told The New York Times. Neil becomes her lover: he tells her what to wear, drink, and talk about. Later, she learns he is married, and his wife confronts her and points out that he has told them to carry identical bags. Jane kicks him out, but she goes back to him.
Neil becomes a famous writer, but Jane’s writing career doesn’t take off. And we see Jane floundering, not writing, centered on Neil, but wanting out of the relationship. She rewrites a documentary film about runaways, and the film wins an Academy Award. But she is lost, muddled, not working, and too close to a gay neighbor whose sexual life includes voyeurs.
Scenes are rewritten from different points of view: Jane’s knowledge of the movies leads her to edit and rewrite in the third person the scene where Neil’s wife confronts her.
At first Jane is too cashmere-and-Harvard to be likable (yes, it’s no doubt because we didn’t go to Harvard and we’re jealous that we didn’t have those Barbour jackets). She’s smart, she’s a mess, but at least she’s pretty. (People are always telling her she’s pretty.) But Jane eventually learns to take care of herself, and that makes the whole experience worthwhile. Beattie manages to create a kind of mini-feminine version of The Great Gatsby. (Don’t make me tell you how she does this, because I’m much too lazy.)
It’s wonderful to rediscover this author after so many years. Yes, she is one of our greatest American writers. Give her the Nobel! (But she’s not political enough, alas.)