Ann Beattie: “Starlight”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  Ann Beattie’s “Starlight” was originally published in the September 19, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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It’s been six years since Ann Beattie last published a piece of fiction in The New Yorker.  I was looking forward to reading it, though I really disliked her most recent work, the novella Walks with Men (my review here).

“Starlight” is an excerpt from a new novel Beattie, a master of short fiction, is working on.  Though I get annoyed at these excerpts as they usually appear to be paid-for marketing rather than a genuine attempt to give us some quality short fiction, at times the marketing works to our benefit.  I would never have read Beattie’s novel because she didn’t, in my mind, even pull of the novella — stick to your short short fiction, I would say.  But, though “Starlight” didn’t leave me gushing, it did interest me in the topic Beattie chose enough that I may check out the novel, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, which comes out in November (okay, such is my reading load right now that, despite my interest, I’m probably not interested enough to actually read the book, so anyone’s comments are appreciated).

“Starlight” begins with a section entitled “Mrs. Nixon Joins the Final Official Photograph.”  Here are the Nixon’s grasping for some dignity in their final moments before being ejected from the White House.  Beattie does a great job presenting the rush of preparation, the type of rush that is also an attempt to avoid feeling, something like Emily Dickinson’s “The Bustle in a House the Morning After Death.”  But the thoughts will not be pushed aside:

The plane will transport us.  California is there waiting for us, earlier in time, still young.  And Dick: what is he thinking?  That we have to be a united family until the last, united for posterity, acting like the cross in front of the vampire, warding off evil and repelling anyone who wants to transgress against us.  Because we are the Nixons, like a lineup of suspects: that’s the man who said the war had to continue; he’s the one who tried to tell the nation what was best.  And his wife, why isn’t she looking at the camera?  Why isn’t she trying harder?  She went mute long ago.

The next section is the short, “Mrs. Nixon reacts to ‘RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,’” followed by the longest vignetter, “Brownie,” my favorite.  It begins, “What exactly do you do if your husband brings home a dog?”  Mr. Nixon was out for a walk one night and brought home a new dog.  The vignette is a terrible look at a man who just wants to keep the dog and who won’t stop talking.  The back-and-forth between him and Mrs. Nixon is something to behold, Mrs. Nixon mostly keeping quiet, Mr. Nixon going all over the place. 

The final vignette is “Mrs. Nixon’s Thoughts, Late-Night Walk, San Clemente,” which brings the piece to its close, though we can feel it is not finished, and I mean not finished in a bad way.  It’s like the ending was tacked on because, after all, these are just a selection of the many vignettes that will presumably build to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Still, the whole thing takes 15 minutes to read, and dang it if writing this review didn’t make me even more tempted to go read the book when it comes out.

8 thoughts on “Ann Beattie: “Starlight””

  1. Betsy says:

    Ann Beattie’s “Starlight” is four short sections adapted from her new novel, “Mrs. Nixon: a Novelist Imagines a Life”.

    As most novels do, this one may have a very select audience. In this case, it may appeal particularly to women, especially to women who remember Mrs. Nixon, and in particular, to women for whom Mrs. Nixon’s silence strikes a chord. Blond and slender like Greta Garbo, Mrs. Nixon also wanted to be left alone. The difference between them was that Garbo was possessed of autonomy, the force of life, and compelling mystery. Mrs. Nixon, in my memory, seemed merely paralyzed. Beattie’s choice seems initially perverse, but as I read I was touched by the character she created. The Book Bench interview with Beattie is well worth reading for Beattie’s discussion of her motivations choosing Mrs. Nixon as a character to explore. (In this vein, I am reminded of John Adams’ surprising artistic choice to devote an opera to “Nixon in China”, while Nixon’s memory and disgrace was was full and fresh.)

    In Beattie’s first section, which takes place during a photo shoot the morning before the Nixons vacate the White House in shame, Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon comments, “And his wife, why isn’t she looking at the camera? Why isn’t she trying harder? She went mute long ago.”

    Just because this Mrs. Nixon is mute, however, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t think or feel, which puts me curiously in mind of David Means’s mute girl in El Morro. But in this case, I think we get a whole book, and it appears the book will be from Mrs. Nixon’s point of view. Nevertheless, I find it interesting to encounter two New Yorker stories in two months in which the main female character is American, and mute.

    Beattie’s portrayal reminds me of some fifties women, contemporaries of Mrs. Nixon, who also chose to be mute and boxed women, pursuing silence as a role and a livelihood.

    There’s a full woman in this portrait, however, despite the outward silence, someone who loves her daughters and richly imagines their lives, and someone who has a sense of humor, as when she wonders if Henry Kissinger would “be capable of just answering yes or no” if Pat asked him if Nixon actually prayed with him, as Nixon had said in his memoir.

    Mrs. Nixon says, “The loneliness was like sea glass. It was attractive, sometimes. But it could also retain sharp edges.” The story fragments support that loneliness. It is as if Beattie is giving voice to all those fifties women who lived as Pat Nixon did. And because Beattie’s portrait is sympathetic, at least so far, those of us for whom this muted woman is familiar territory want to know more. We want to hear her thinking, much as we wanted to hear from those silent women from so long ago.

    The problem lies with Mr. Nixon. He dominates parts of these New Yorker fragments, and he is deadly. When he speaks, your mind goes numb, which, of course, may be part of Beattie’s design.

    But Pat – in contrast, this Pat understands quite a bit of herself, quite a bit of her daughters, and quite a bit of her husband. Speaking astutely and at length of her husband’s inept, intense, odd smile, she sympathetically concludes, “With his brothers dead, was it ever appropriate for him to smile? ….he was caught between smiling spontaneously and being innapropriate, because they were dead and he was alive, and his mother’s eyes judged him like a camera lens, long after she was dead herself.” I am curious to know what else Pat understands.

    Although Lady Bird Johnson and Risa Gorbachev are mentioned in passing, neither of these is the first lady that Pat summons to mind. In her loneliness, in her isolation, and in her shame, Mrs. Nixon oddly reminds me of Hillary Clinton, and I am reminded of the possibly complex woman that Hillary might be, behind her own muteness on certain subjects.

    Beattie’s challenging choice to mix reality and fiction intrigues me. On that score alone, I am interested the novel, interested in how it is to be carried off, and in the service of what purpose.

    But once again, Trevor, we are faced with a work of fiction that was not originally conceived as short story, and whose publication is part of the “all in the family” policy that the New Yorker pursues. I enjoyed this adaptation, but that is partly because of my age and my interests. As the New Yorker might hope, I will watch for reviews of this novel.

  2. jerry says:

    I enjoyed this and it is certainly welcome to see Beattie again in the pages of the magazine.

    TNY has always published stories that are excerpts from upcoming novels and it’s not that I mind that but it seems they are doing so more these days. It would be nice to see more actual short stories.

    It would also be nice to see some longer stories as we did in the old days of the magazine, but that is a forlorn hope.

  3. Ken says:

    I liked these fine (especially the last one) but again feel these excerpts have become a real problem in the New Yorker. This is obviously part of something which would possibly grow powerful as a whole but in parts, it’s nice little fragments and not much more. The third one-where Nixon goes on and on-is probably deliberately stilted but, as Betsy says, deadly.

  4. Tim says:

    Thanks for your comment, Betsy. I liked the idea for the piece, but couldn’t get into the story. When you spoke of audience, I thought I wasn’t the intended audience for this novel/excerpt.

  5. Trevor says:

    I actually finished this story the day it was out, but I hadn’t sat down to collect my thoughts until now. So, my thoughts above.

    For the most part, I think we’re all in some kind of agreement: it was good, particularly the third part, but as an excerpt something was missing.

    Who here is tempted to read the book?

  6. Tim says:

    It sounds interesting, but I won’t be picking up.

  7. Ken says:

    I don’t think I’ll be reading it either. Do I want to spend this much time with Pat Nixon?

  8. Aaron says:

    As a twenty-eight-year-old male, I’m not at all the supposed “target” audience — hell, I know next to nothing about either Nixon, and I’m far from a fan of non-fiction, particularly memoirs and biographies. And yet, I found this to be one of the strongest works of writing — note, I don’t necessarily qualify it as a story — that the New Yorker has published in some time. I wouldn’t necessarily rush out to *buy* this book, but I think I’ll get it from the library.

    As I write in more detail back at home (http://bit.ly/uqQm9r), Beattie has taken dead photographs and letters and breathed a sort of life into them, and although she’s using her imagination to do so, I don’t see what that should be any less informative or interesting than Pat Nixon doing so. In fact, I find Beattie’s intimidating talent to be *more* of a draw: her ability for monologue (in the section everyone liked, “Brownie”) is terrific, but then again, so are her poetic observations about photographs and time-zones in the opener, and her powerful stream-of-consciousness in the last section. Based on a comment from Tim, I’ve been thinking more and more about what I’m looking for in first-person narratives, and this delivers on just about every count: observations about other people deepen our understanding about the person delivering them, too.

    Lovely stuff.

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