Ann Beattie: Walks with Men

I am too young to have been a part of any talks about the Beattie generation.  She published nearly 50 stories in The New Yorker between 1974 and 2006, but over 80% of those were published before 1990.  Nearly 50% were published between 1974 and 1981, when she was publishing three or four stories per year in the magazine.  From what I remember, I had never read an Ann Beattie story, and I’m not sure I would have any time soon were it not for the recent publication of The New Yorker Stories, a collection of, obviously, her New Yorker stories.  When browsing for that book in a bookstore, though, I came across her also recently published novella, Walks with Men (2010).  Thinking this relatively late work might be a good introduction to Ann Beattie, I picked it up.  I’d like to recommend you not make the same mistake — go with her short stories!

There is nothing wrong with the writing in this novella.  Indeed, its direct, sparse style is refreshing and can be captured in the first sentence:

In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him.

The narrator here is the young Jane Jay Costner.  She’s 22 and has gained a certain degree of notoriety for an interview she gave The New York Times, in which she, a summa cum laude Harvard graduate, “disparaged [her] Ivy League education, at graduation, in the presence of President Jimmy Carter, and stated [her] intentions to drop out and move to a farm in Vermont.”  Listening in was Neil, 44, the man who promised to change her life, in only she’d let him.  A year after the interview (a year Jane spends in Vermont, true to her word, with her boyfriend), she returns to New York for a medical procedure.  Neil finds her and makes his promise with a condition: “You give me a promise that nobody can trace anything back to me.  I explain anything you want to know about men, but nobody can know I’m the source of your information.”  

He proceeds to teach her about matters of taste and culture, digging deeply into the nuances of sugar and salt.  We see it coming: Jane soon moves in with Neil, quite content to research birds for a book he’s writing.  The interesting thing is seeing how Beattie gets there, or, rather, how Beattie is suddenly just there.

You see through this; understand I was naïve, even if you factor in that I was young.  The ’80s were not a time when women had to put up with male tyrants.  No woman had to fit herself around a man’s schedule.  To do so was lazy, as well as demeaning.  But I didn’t introspect; I didn’t ask enough questions.  I expressed passivity by pretending to myself that whatever I did for Neil was charming, old-fashioned dutifulness.  More embarrassing still was the fact that I let him support me, that I had delusions about becoming a major essayist (In this culture? as Neil would say).

If you think for a minute, you might guess what happened next, because clichés so often befall vain people.

I moved in with Neil.

Such ellipses often work well.  Another comes soon.  Jane learns, though we know it’s coming because we know this story, that Neil is married.  His wife shows up one day to talk to Jane, and they commiserate for a moment without necessarily warming into a friendship.  As they talk about how manipulative Neil is, they can’t help but exude a bit of pride that he is — though not exclusively — their man.

“My friends were suspicious.”

“My friends hate him, but still: a lot of them fantasize about sleeping with him.”

“My friends do, too.  They call him.  Flirting.”

“Then he asks you what he should do about them, right?  Letting you know how loyal he is, and at the same time making sure you know how untrustworthy your friends are.”

This is still early on in the novella, so it’s not a spoiler to say that Jane moves out . . . to a friend’s house . . . for two weeks . . . until, after a bit of drinking, Jane returns.  It has been raining.  Another ellipsis:

Three months later, after their quickie divorce, we got married at City Hall.

The book started out well enough for me.  Largely, I enjoyed Beattie’s writing and, at first, could move along with the blank space where many writers would find the need to elaborate, perhaps not entirely trusting the reader to connect the dots and fill in the characters’ development.  Still, the story was quite familiar at first, and about halfway through I was already getting tired of Jane’s frustrating relationship with a man she understood but was powerless to resist, one of those relationships filled with hatred but also with a glowing kernel of irrational attraction.  I began to see that it was simple to connect the dots because the ground between was material we’ve seen before.

Then the novella turned into one rather large blank for me.  It was no longer particularly unoriginal (Jane’s hippie exboyfriend comes back to New York too, but there’s not much tension, surprisingly, even though he now goes by Goodness; Neil has some trouble that causes him to leave the picture too), but it is all of the sudden very arbitrary and, by my eyes, meaningless.  The blanks where most authors would be explaining become bigger, and the reader is left to wonder if even the characters care about what has happened. 

This happens in life, obviously, and I’m a fan of works that can somehow show how arbitrary life can be by flouting the reader’s expectations not just for a satisfying resolution but for for any resolution at all.  Here, though, it just seemed like blanks, like something unfinished.  For a short story, this can work quite well.  For this novella (is it because it is a novella?) it just doesn’t.

5 thoughts on “Ann Beattie: Walks with Men

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Fair warning, Trevor – I will get the New Yorker collection before any other Beattie.

  2. Trevor says:

    Good call, Lee.

    On another note, Ann Beattie is interviewed in the new issue of The Paris Review, and it is quite good and interesting — not that I can think of a single Paris Review interview that isn’t, on some level.

  3. Shelley says:

    “If even the characters care about what happened.”

    That pungent comment is a death knell for a literary style.

  4. Thomas G says:

    Agreed. Beattie is at her best in the short story form. I recommend “The Burning House”, “The Cinderella Waltz”, and “Where You’ll Find Me” to start.

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