The Boomers' Roadmap
How Ann Beattie has helped a generation understand itself.
In 1980, when Ann Beattie published her fourth book in as many years, the New York Times turned out a lengthy profile paying homage to "her cultural significance." Beattie was by then the most famous young fiction writer in America, and her reputation was based partly on the idea that the stories she had published since the early '70s, mostly in The New Yorker, reported something true about the hearts and minds of a large, disaffected generation. This was not an unfair characterization. Beattie's early books centered on boomers foundering on the far side of the counterculture, caught in an aimless recessionary grind. By the middle '80s, she had branched out, but the reputation stuck.
Since then, Beattie's productivity has hardly flagged. In the past decade, she has produced two story collections, one novel, a novella, and a sheaf of pieces yet to be collected. She is not today, by most measures, a vastly different writer than she was 30 years back; her short fiction still trails characters from her own age and demographic. These days, though, nobody is calling Ann Beattie a chronicler of the zeitgeist, nor has any of her recent work inspired the adulation that greeted the early fiction. Why has such a deft and indefatigable writer, once the hero of careful readers and MFA classrooms, been unable to hold her public ground?
Beattie's new book, The New Yorker Stories, comes as both an answer to that question and a gentle plea for reassessment. Spanning 32 years, 48 stories, and every piece of fiction Beattie ever published in The New Yorker, the book amounts to a career compendium, a chronological record of a confirmed master's best work. It starts with twenty- and thirtysomethings languishing in commuter towns, has a fling with New York life, survives the fallout from a few midlife affairs, and settles back into the (now upper-middle-class) suburbs to make labored conversation with grown children in the new millennium.
Along the way, we realize what distinguishes those well-known early stories from her recent work. Beattie started as a writer in the shadow of the liberalizing '60s and the crush of the recession. Her fiction from this period traced not only the mood of her young cohort but an identity crisis in the middle class: a point when old measures of lifestyle, success, and ambition had been overturned and no new measures had replaced them. Beattie's early achievement was to set a roadmap for this post-countercultural America. As middle-class identity took shape again through the '80s, though, that map became less illuminating. She's remained as deft a generational chronicler as ever, but, these days, the generation she describes no longer requires Ann Beattie to understand itself.
The problem facing Beattie's characters is a paradox of choice and limitation, and it comes through most clearly in stories such as "Colorado," which appeared in The New Yorker in 1976 and launched Beattie's first virtuosic run. The story features a pair of twentysomething friends, Penelope and Robert, living in Connecticut. She's a flighty former model who now works as a boutique clerk; he's a Yale art-school dropout who aspires, sort of, to be a painter. Robert is in love with Penelope, sort of, and in the midst of a stoned night, she breaks up with her nonentity boyfriend and comes to live with him. Quixotically, they leave the East Coast to go live in Colorado, where Penelope's friends Bea and Matthew, whose young marriage is coming apart, live in seclusion. Beattie perfectly renders their numbed evenings together ("Bea says that there is honey in the Stroganoff. She is ignoring Matthew, who stirs his fork in a circle through his food and puts his plate down every few minutes to drink Scotch"). In this company, Robert comes to face the downward pull of entropy, the fate of moving out into a world that offers every choice for self-creation but no continuity or measure of arrival.
Stories like "Colorado" are vivid portrayals of a middle class manqué—a powerfully nostalgic group of young people who try to lay claim to adulthood in an era deprived of its old milestones. Whether Robert and Penelope play into the system (cling to the shadow of Yale) or fight it (flee to the rural Southwest), they gain or lose nothing appreciable. A version of this problem haunts most early Beattie characters. In one short story of this period, a young man realizes that his life is categorically the same whether he lives with a family he doesn't love, works a job he doesn't like, or spends the whole day getting stoned. (He settles on the last option.) Most characters in these stories have experienced a failed marriage by 30; friendships and affairs break up when someone moves, for no particular reason, out West. In "Colorado," Robert's final revelation is that Matthew, the denizen of a foundering marriage, was a member of the Harvard class of 1967—the implication being that all the chutes and ladders of adult life lead to the same place, that leaving the preppy East to live in the Southwest isn't really much of an escape at all. What's missing here, we realize, is contingency: the sense that unique choices lead to unique outcomes.
Beattie's characters aren't trapped by the limits of their class, in other words. They're trapped by their youth culture. The shiftless, libertine, socioeconomically blurred world wrought by the '60s leaves almost no choice out of bounds—and yet without a fixed idea of adulthood, the exorbitance of freedom is homogenizing. All decisions lead to the same place. Beattie's project in these stories becomes teaching her characters (and readers) how to feel the stakes of their choices again, the tugs of desire and loss. In "A Vintage Thunderbird" (1978), one of Beattie's early masterpieces, a young man feels this pain when his "oldest friend"—he's known her seven years—offhandedly sells the car that helped define their early history together. "Do you think maybe we could get it back if I offered him more than he paid me for it?" she asks in the final scene of the story. It's a rending moment, but it's also an epiphany, marking a wrong choice in a culture that otherwise offers no consequences to set one's compass by.
Beattie never ceased to detail the lives of her boomer peers to a T, but as the '80s advanced, that effort no longer revealed as much as it once did. In "Where You'll Find Me" (1986), the title story of Beattie's fourth collection, a 38-year-old New Yorker visits her brother's family upstate for a Christmas party. A lot about her situation matches that of Beattie's early characters—she's unemployed, halfheartedly involved with a lover—but the mood is different here: This narrator feels guilty that she doesn't have a job and is impatient with her fundamentally directionless relationship. As she runs errands with her brother after telling a story about a man she once locked eyes with across a restaurant and never saw again, he confesses an affair he started with a young student but never followed to fruition. Then they both return to Christmas and their lives. "I'm conscious, all at once," the narrator says of their return to her brother's home, "of the cigarette smoke swirling and of the heat of the house, there in the entranceway, that turn the bitter-cold outdoor air silver as it comes flooding in." It's a startling image, and it carries the story: Like the cold air rushing in, the siblings enjoy returning to a world based on constraints of structure and responsibility.
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.