Ann Beattie‘s novella Walks With Men was largely pummeled by critics when it came out last summer. The story of Jane, a 20-something Joyce Maynard-ish woman in New York who falls for a man she knows to be manipulative, it was largely criticized for piling on incidents and abuses without a connecting thread. Jane “leaves us hungry—for at least some authorial insight into this flat account of Jane’s aimless and impoverished life,” wrote Dinitia Smith in the Barnes & Noble Review. Jay McInerney, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was more sympathetic, in part because Beattie’s minimalist style was so influential on his. But he came away feeling much the same: “[W]e are pretty much living in a universe of accidents and unexplained events; Beattie’s unwillingness to explain or connect seems almost perverse.”
I’m bouncing around Beattie’s new collection, The New Yorker Stories, and unquestionably Walks With Men falls short. Where a taut story like “Janus” centers a woman’s failed romance and dour obsessiveness around a particular fetish object (a ceramic bowl she thinks helps her sell houses), Jane lacks much of a center, and she’s inexplicably prone to random connections and absurd disappearances. The randomness is not entirely without a point: Jane’s lover (and later husband) is a pompous pedant full of specific suggestions about how to live a better life, and if Jane learns anything by the book’s end it’s that life undoes such guidance. But, yes, its abstracted plot is maddening.
Still, it’s not as completely random as the reviewers have made it out to be; part of the reason why it’s frustrating is that Beattie does occasionally attempt to apply a kind of order to the proceedings, giving hints of Jane’s inner life that might have deepened her character. About midway through the novel, after Jane learns an old lover has died in a subway accident, she sits in a psychiatrist’s office talking, and her chatter becomes a mini-narrative of losing it:
Neither I, nor my old husband, wanted children. He’d had a vasectomy. A pre-nup was what I meant by “contract.” Since it seemed to be to my advantage, what the hell. I had, indeed, thought to get my own lawyer. I sometimes listened over and over to a tape of “We Are the World” and tried to figure out whose voice sounded like a knife slicing the air. I wouldn’t do any more research for Neil after I found out she was married. She was younger than he, but older than I…
Jane’s disconnection from herself is revisited a couple more times, as she abandons her own narration and decides to let somebody else do the talking. Eager to revise an earlier conversation with somebody, she writes, “If it had been a movie I could edit, this is the way the new version would go,” and the ensuing conversation is more orderly, more Jane-friendly than real life. Later, she’ll write, “I sometimes play a little game and think of myself as ‘Jane.’ It’s a good game, because it really does give you some distance from yourself, and it lets you sort out what’s important and what’s not. If a character named Jane does this or that, you are only a kind of reporter.”
As a way of showing how unwilling she is to confront herself, those are useful devices. The problem is that Walks With Men is so slim that Jane’s personality isn’t very well established—what is it, exactly, that she’s so eager to step away from?
When the book was published, Beattie gave an interview in which she argued that in a novella, “the writer can sometimes trust in the reverberation of language and images and symbols in the same way the short story writer can trust in their inherent weightiness.” Each image and incident in Walks With Men makes its own interesting noise, but the book as a whole feels like a room full of dissonant echoes.