I’ve dilly-dallied with this book, Ann Beattie‘s eighth collection of short stories, Follies. I’ve been a Beattie fangirl ever since I listened to a teacher / friend / drinking buddy’s advice: “Carver. Moore. Beattie. They’ll change your life.” Looking at my shelf: I have six books of Beattie’s in different stages of Currently Reading.
With Follies, I have been skittish. I somehow sense, peeking between the covers, that Beattie is different. Mature, yes. Now an authority on the craft, of course. Something.
I tried reading “Fléchette Follies,” the novella she sneaked in there. And then I promptly gave it up, and proceeded to her stories. That something was nagging at me.
In “Find and Replace,” Beattie zeroed in on the bored middle-aged woman vaguely fretting over her mother. Vaguely. In “Tending Something,” we’re witness to a party–and here I found vestiges of classic Beattie: the onslaught of characters. It was a meh situation, this party, and while I was reading it, I thought it was a meh story as well. But given time to sink in, I liked it a lot. That meh-ness of the party, the tension humming between old friends, some strangers:
In their early twenties, her crowd’s who’s-sleeping-with-whom? game had been preoccupying: one-night stands, affairs, betrayals confessed over vodkas on ice.
“Just Going Out” and “That Last Odd Day in L.A.” were, I’m sure, nuanced and all that shiz. But my eyes glazed over. I began to notice an almost Joycean element to the conclusions, those epiphanies. I can’t remember if Beattie had power endings in her earlier stories. It was in “Mostre” that I realized, Beattie can be boring. That thought chilled me. There’s this odd apathetic feel to the storytelling. The author distancing herself in a way that was somehow malevolent. A creepy feeling, this. For “The Garden Game,” the only notes I had were, Beattie indifferent! Some quotables, still, here and there, though:
What is childhood, except things intruding that you aren’t prepared for: facts, like unexpected guests, suddenly standing right in front of you.
Was Beattie trying to break out of the Hemingway-ish minimalism she’d perfected in the 70s/80s? The stories on the page were block paragraphs. How strange that the more words she employed, the less heart she had.
The stories I liked best–“Apology for a Journey Not Taken: How to Write a Story,” a meandering report/told story that was just so strange and lovely; “Duchais,” where a young man gets tangled in the wonky relationship of a professor and his mother; and my absolute favorite, “The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation,” a story about a mother getting Alzheimer’s (love this character best). Finally, pathos! I’d written in handy-dandy notebook. Pathos, and dialogue!
“A car makes you think about the future all the time, doesn’t it?” she says. “You have to do all that imagining: now you’ll get out of the garage and into your lane and now you’ll deal with all the traffic, and then one time, remember, just as you got to the driveway a man and a woman stood smack in the center, arguing, and they wouldn’t move so you could pull in.”
“My life is a delight,” I say.
Yes, the stories here were hit-and-misss. I’ve pointed out that creepy indifference Beattie regards her characters with. Three-ish out of nine stories (I am not counting that novella) had pathos, dammit, three-ish! Heart, coupled with charming wit. Sensitivity. THREE-ISH. Yeah, a less-than-ideal return to an old favorite.
I haven’t read Beattie in so long; this felt like reuniting with your favorite [cool] aunt, only to find that she’d changed, and now spent her afternoon sniffing at all the foibles–and yes, follies–of her neighbors. Goshdarnit.