The Boomers' Roadmap
How Ann Beattie has helped a generation understand itself.
In other words, for the first time here, we do know where to find these people, and not just because they've reached a settling-down age. What Beattie manages to convey in her '80s work is the re-emergence of milestones and obligations in middle-class life. There are no trips to Colorado here, no sudden, seat-of-the-pants life decisions. Instead, there is a sense of fixed community, of duty to one's home and children. Beattie's challenge from here on out becomes a different one—how to keep this solidified world fresh and interesting.
Her literary style transformed to adapt to the change. Where the early Beattie stories are flat, dry, and sharply outlined guides to a cultural frontier, the stories of this middle period are small, elaborate, deeply personal line drawings, bringing us not just into characters' consciousnesses but into their eccentric visions of the world. And if the mood of her early work was realism, her style in this middle period might be called the realist surreal: descriptions of a world whose elements and texture we recognize, yet whose emphases feel freakish and engineered. In one story, a couple takes their lawyer to lunch for his birthday; in another, a man instructs his wife to climb a tree for no particular reason. This is Beattie's old approach inverted: Rather than taking a formless culture and making it recognizable, she's here pushing a fixed middle-class world out into bizarre new territory.
In the past decade, Beattie has plowed hard down this path, setting ever more ambitious and experimental flourishes on the page. Her generational portraiture has grown less and less illuminating all the while. The 2001 story "That Last Odd Day in L.A." introduces a character named Keller, a middle-aged, sad-sack pedant smarting from a dissipated marriage and an emotionally distant daughter. Much of the story's detail (the fussy holiday arrangements, the vitamin E capsules, the organic plums) is tediously of a piece with boomer-middle-class stereotypes. Yet "That Last Odd Day in L.A." is also a sinuous, strikingly surreal work: It flows with dream logic from Keller's ruminations about where to spend Thanksgiving (with his daughter or alone?) to his memory of rescuing a drowning possum from his friends' pool in L.A. (he becomes obsessed with the idea that a nearby deer noticed the kindness) to an improbable denouement in which his friend's crazed teenage son shoots him (he lives). This is formally self-conscious work—as readers, we're forced to study how the story's elements and motifs hang together—but it is also an effort to break past the conventions of literary storytelling, to mimic the disorderly, superstitious process of searching for meaning and direction in the brambles of personal experience. What these recent stories manage to convey is the aesthetics of consciousness: the feeling of being a mind in motion in the world.
Today, those quieter, more subjective portraits have replaced generation-channeling as Beattie's virtuosic skill—in part because the boomer generation has, at this point, been channeled as broadly as the BBC. What's startling in The New Yorker Stories isn't how her work has fallen behind the times. It's how persistently she's kept ahead—first using fiction to bring legibility and emotional direction to a society that needed both, and then, when that goal lost its urgency, turning her attention to interior life and formal innovation on the page. More than perhaps any writer of her generation, Beattie has remained tuned to the literary needs and intimations of middle-class life. Her latest lesson on the boomer zeitgeist is the most poignant one so far: acknowledgement that, even at the moment when we reach our highest point, the world moves on.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.