A Persistent Minimalism

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.

Ann Beattie, Walks With Men

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.

Going Long-ish

Ann Beattie‘s new book, Walks With Men, is her first novella, clocking in at just over 100 pages. She describes the appeal of the form in a brief interview with the York County (Maine) Coast Star:

Short stories distill language, which can be to the writer’s advantage; novels don’t exactly do the same thing in the same way, because it would get tedious. But in the middle range (the 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. In a novel — for me — language dissipates, in terms of subtly suggesting things, and other things have to take over.

In saying that, she references a 2003 Bomb interview of Steven Millhauser by Jim Shepherd, where he talks a little more colorfully about the appeal of the middle route:

The novella wants nothing to do with the immense, the encyclopedic, the all-conquering all-devouring prose epic, which strikes it as an army moving relentlessly across the land. Its desires are more intimate, more selective. And when it looks at the short story, to which it’s secretly akin, it says, with a certain cruelty, No, not for me this admirably exquisite, elegant, refined—perhaps overrefined?—delicately nuanced, perfect little world, whose perfection depends so much on artful exclusions. It says, Let me breathe! The attraction of the novella is that it lets the short story breathe.

Sounds nice, though pulling it off successfully is a tougher trick—Don DeLillo has been trying to do it for the past ten years, and only now, with Point Omega, does he seem to have a firm command of that middle length. Last month the Emerging Writers Network dedicated a month-long series of posts to the questions of what the form is and why/if it works. One of the best comments there comes from novelist Steve Stern: “So what if the novella denies you the primary intimacy with its characters that a novel affords; it enhances your awareness of the mystery of their movements, the allusiveness of their speech, while at the same time preserving your appreciation for the beautiful symmetry of the structure that contains them.”

Links: The Big Tent

The National Book Festival is this Saturday on the National Mall. Enough people have confused me for an expert to ask if I have tips regarding what to do there and how to do it, but my suggestions are all pretty obvious and simple. Bring an umbrella, regardless of what the forecast says; make a point to at least walk through the Pavilion of the States, in which every state has a table plugging its literature (it’s as close at the event will get to promoting small-press books); and get a seat early for the bigger names. (There are probably people already parked for James Patterson.) Lastly, don’t stand in line for those C-SPAN tote bags; C-SPAN brought plenty, and one must preserve one’s dignity. The lineups are largely big names and self-explanatory, but seek out David A. Taylor, who’ll be discussing his history of the WPA Writers’ Project, Soul of a People; I interviewed Taylor for the blog earlier this year.

Marianne Wiggins‘ list of the best works of American fiction.

John Krasinski discussed his film version of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men shortly before David Foster Wallace died.

The Wall Street Journal has an excerpt from Look at the Birdie, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s unpublished short fiction.

The most powerful influence on David Updike‘s fiction wasn’t his dad—it was Ann Beattie.

The Guardian uses Granta‘s Chicago issue as an opportunity to wonder if the big-city novel is dead.

Mark Twain, animal rights activist.

It’s the 25th anniversary of the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany, where Mary Gordon may or may not have tried to slug Norman Mailer in the middle of a panel discussion.

Catherine Corman‘s photography book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City, which has a preface by Jonathan Lethem, sounds fascinating, and it has a stellar Web site to match.

Links: Wallace, Robinson, Beattie

Nothing like one writer’s death to prompt idiotic overstatements about the state of a nation’s literature.

Marilynne Robinson explains the rationale behind the simple-as-air title of her third novel, Home: “There’s nothing in the world that suggests comfort in the same sense as the idea of home, and home is the absolute base in America…. And if you say, of a 45-year-old man that he’s gone back home, it tends to mean that the world hasn’t worked out.”

Ann Beattie addresses the state of the short story:

It’s always evolving. Probably it’s more various than the novel. The short story is often praised by critics for the wrong reason, though —for the subject matter. There are a lot of writers now writing short stories who don’t much interest me, because their stories are no more than shoehorning overtly weird stuff into the form. You know all those reviews that praise the story and say: “The cross-dressing leprechaun with TB turns out to be the second wife of the King of Sweden, and both are having a secret affair with Prince Charles.” Too many story writers feel they have to add MSG. The best stories have to be searched out: they’re in Narrative and Tin House and Mississippi Review.