Ann Beattie recently wrote in New York magazine about how at 17 she’d ride in a friend’s car and harass other drivers with a bullhorn. It’s a short piece, meant to be a light bit of space-filler in a “summer fun!” package. But MobyLives’ Dennis Johnson is troubled by the piece’s ending, in which Beattie admits her shenanigans led a driver to crash into a tree.
The obvious question, of course, is what did she get away with? One assumes not manslaughter, although causing a car to go “crazily out of control” and crash into a tree isn’t exactly comforting language in regards to that possibility, nor to the likelihood that passengers in that pre-airbag car were at the very least seriously injured. Equally astonishing is that rather than tell us that dreadful reality, and what she thinks now, years later, about her lack of compassion and why she left a crime scene, she resorts to the most unfortunate type of minimalism—the kind that withholds information for cheap effect.
It is a troubling scene—the only defense I can think to muster up is that the ending hints at the shame that attaches to adolescent hijinks, and that a tragedy, had one occurred, would have served the theme of the piece. (Though of course it wouldn’t be much of a “summer fun!” piece then. For what it’s worth, a Nexis search on Beattie’s name and “bullhorn” comes up empty.) Contra Johnson, her willfulness and lack of compassion come through loud and clear; what’s lacking is a sense of the consequences of those feelings (or lack of them).
But the sketch, as Johnson suggests, does promote the idea that minimalism has its limits, particularly in nonfiction. In the New York Review of Books, Meghan O’Rourke recently argues that Beattie’s style has evolved more than her critics give her credit for. The essay is an excellent introduction to Beattie’s style, and why its combination of detail and indirection are so seductive. But O’Rourke gives frustratingly little space to Beattie’s more recent work; she writes that “the work she has written over the past ten years conjures fleshier visions of domestic life and loneliness than she had previously allowed herself,” but the examples of this “fleshier” prose aren’t particularly convincing. On the evidence of the New York piece and her recent disappointing novella, Walks With Men, the differences between Beattie’s old minimalism and her new one can be hard to detect.