I am a late bloomer to Ann Beattie's austere and edgy short stories, and it proved favorable . Her minimalist style is for the veteran reader, and for those of us willing to ponder their poignancy like we would a numinous painting whose meaning is often beyond its containment and yet embedded there. Her photographic eye for surface details expose cracks and tensions that open to a scalding world of suffocation and denial. Her characters circumvent the truth by poking at it peripherally or trying to defy it, shielding covetously from the pain or cynically attempting to control it. Comprehension is lying in wait behind the ambiguity of the narratives. But Beattie isn't superior to her reader; she entices you to be the psychologist of these subterranean reveals. She isn't going to solve their problems.
There are forty-eight short stories chronologically advancing from 1974 to 2006. I feel an intimacy with her narratives that I don't always feel in this form. She isn't over-stylized. Her almost toneless, declarative sentences are wry and cinematic rather than stilted and dismal. Beattie is ingenious at blending the strident with the yielding, the clamorous with the quietly desperate. The indirect slap and the whispered howl threaten to topple each house of cards.They illuminate the weakness and dissolution of her characters. Additionally, she enhances their impotence by the presence of the animal word. The dogs (present in numerous stories) are more lively and resolute than the people, and inhabit their space more fully.
One of my favorite stories is "The Burning House," written in 1979. Amy is the only female in the story, surrounded by a boisterous number of family and friends and a husband, Frank, who doesn't love her. Her closest friend is her gay brother-in-law, Freddy, who is perpetually stoned and, although he loves Amy, remains more dedicated to Frank. This story reveals Amy's chronic alienation from her supposed "supportive" loved ones . The final sentence, uttered by Frank, in bed, is soul-ripping.
In the 2006 "The Confidence Decoy," Beattie's atmospherics include a pronounced sense of unease and self-doubt. A retired lawyer, Francis, is packing up his dead aunt's house. He is interacting with the hired movers while also attempting to puzzle out his ineffectual son's actions. One of the movers carves confidence decoys for duck hunters. These decoys serve as a metaphor for Francis' own listlessness of confidence and focus, and lead to a harrowing course of events.
Beattie's ability to inflict her characters with shame, fear, confusion, alienation, and incapacitation is chilling . These tales are dark but not bleakly executed; they are crisp and deadpan and astonishing. The author is brilliant at limning the time period of each piece in just a few short sentences, yet they are timeless in essence. The later stories are more lyrical but just as emotionally terrifying. And her opening sentences are unrivaled. I highly recommend this for lovers of erudite and commanding literature.
From "Zalla"--says Little Thomas to his mother, after being struck for mutilating some silhouettes of the family:
"Do you think I care if I didn't have a nose?...I wouldn't care if I didn't have a nose or a mouth or eyes. I wish the sperm hadn't gone into the egg. I wouldn't mind if there was no me, and you wouldn't, either."