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Ann Beattie

September 30, 2012

I haven’t started reading the story yet. I’ve heard people compare Beattie to Tao Lin. Or at least cite them both as mutual influences. So I made some kind of comparison in my mind. But I’ve got this big collection of Beattie’s New Yorker stories and I’m balking. I think it’s the New Yorker thing. What’s a New Yorker story? What makes me feel like I will automatically not like them for being published there? J.D. Salinger’s stories were published in the New Yorker. To me, the NY seems to epitomize a kind of urban, middle-class contemporary mindset that I don’t associate with. Rich people’s problems. Having a real job and finances and going to a psychiatrist and getting divorced and socializing, being on a yacht at some point, drinking alcoholic beverages I don’t recognize the brands of, eating at fancy restaurants, coming to terms with something or avoiding coming to those terms. The New Yorker is waiting-room reading material. I want to like this story, but I’m worried I won’t.

The mother says, “Listen to the things you say! They’re so obvious, I don’t know why you say them.” And of course, the reason is that they aren’t obvious. You expect someone to take something for granted and so you understate the thing or try to be subtle, but then the thing is missed. And so the next time you overstate everything and spell everything out. Lately I’ve been thinking about the things people find funny and how the masses respond to overt expression over subtlety. I’m not saying there is no subtext in this or other NY stories. But maybe what successful stories do is place their content on a level that is accessible. And why not? Writing stories is a form of entertainment, a business. You need to target your audience by offering them something they’ll understand. I certainly don’t think Ulysses is better for being difficult.

A lot of these stories I’ve read for this class have similar dialogue style. It feels sitcommy and real-making. It isn’t real real. It’s pretending to be real, or maybe I just don’t talk to enough people. “We can’t have a serious discussion if you pretend we’re talking to each other in a comic strip.” That’s exactly what the dialogue feels like. Like the quotation marks are in quotation marks. I don’t even know if that is a flaw of the writer or of writing. Because I know I hate writing dialogue. I’m trying to think of a writer whose dialogue doesn’t sound forced.

I’m using this story to critique writing in general, not just this story.

“Of course it’s fiction, but I’ve given up telling her that, because in a way I think it’s symbolically important.” This is something I’m interested in. Although Beattie isn’t talking about her fiction, she symbolically is. Using fiction to elucidate the function of fiction, like how ventriloquists will often reveal the trick of what they’re doing. Ventriloquists are the opposite of magicians who never reveal their tricks. Because the revelation of a magic trick makes the magic mundane. Whereas the revelation of the ventriloquist’s trick is the ventriloquist’s trick. Well, part of. You get the audience to suspend their disbelief and then you bring them back to face reality. And that fluctuation, that control that you assert over your audience, is what makes it work. And I think here the implication of fiction and symbolism is Beattie trying to remind her audience that she is telling a story. But she’s still being crafty about it. She’s still using the puppet to speak for her. Later, she’ll come out a little, in case you didn’t get it the first time: “Everybody has little embellishments. There wouldn’t be any books to read… if storytellers weren’t allowed a few embellishments.”

“…no one over the age of twenty seems to have neutral, let alone happy, expression.” I kind of wonder if depression has become the status quo emotion. Like it’s just a given that the protagonist of a story will be depressed, that the author writes to overcome depression, or to express it. Happiness is boring. It doesn’t provide stimulus for change or motivation for conflict, which “they” say is imperative to any story. Can you name a story in which the main character was happy or satisfied? This feeds our identities so that we become numbed to it. We accept it as status quo because we see it everywhere. But if you are depressed, how do you write a story about being happy? Is that even the solution?

“The temptation to dismiss Beattie’s universe, with its seeming reconfiguration of the same unsettled, self-involved character, can present a challenge,” a Slant Magazine review says. The upside being “her character’s persistence in the face of loneliness and ambiguity.” I think in the end, I do like this story. It led me outside of its parameters and got me thinking about things that have nothing to do with its content and then brought me back unto itself, like following the rabbit into its hole.

 

Next week’s story is “Graveyard Day” by Bobbie Ann Mason. It is not on the internet.

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