Ann Beattie Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Washington, D.C., 1947. Education: American University, Washington, D.C., B.A. 1969; University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1970-72, M.A. 1970. Career: Visiting assistant professor, 1976-77, visiting writer, 1980, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; Briggs Copeland Lecturer in English, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977-78. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; American University Distinguished Alumnae award, 1980; American Academy award, 1980; L.H.D., American University, 1983. Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters since 1983. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
Chilly Scenes of Winter. New York, Doubleday, 1976.
Falling in Place. New York, Random House, 1980; London, Secker and Warburg, 1981.
Love Always. New York, Random House, and London, MichaelJoseph, 1985.
Picturing Will. New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1990;New York, Vintage, 1991.
Another You. New York, Knopf, 1995.
My Life, Starring Dara Falcon. New York, Knopf, 1997.
Distortions. New York, Doubleday, 1976.
Secrets and Surprises. New York, Random House, 1978; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1979.
Jacklighting. Worcester, Massachusetts, Metacom Press, 1981.
The Burning House. New York, Random House, 1982; London, Secker and Warburg, 1983.
Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories. New York, Linden Press, 1986; London, Macmillan, 1987.
What Was Mine and Other Stories. New York, Random House, 1991.
Park City: New and Selected Stories. New York, Knopf, 1998.
Spectacles (for children). New York, Workman, 1985.
Alex Katz (art criticism). New York, Abrams, 1987.
Americana, photographs by Bob Adelman. New York, Scribner, 1992.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1987. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Actress: Play—Role in The Hotel Play by Wallace Shawn, New York, 1981.
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Chilly Scenes of Winter and Distortions were published simultaneously, and, to Ann Beattie's consternation, she was quickly celebrated as the chronicler of the disillusioned 1960s counterculture. She was praised as an objective observer of the ennui and disillusion of the postlapsarian love children, the generation that turned on in the 1960s but totally dropped out in the 1970s. Of this Beattie said: "That's a horribly reductive approach…. What I've always hoped for is that somebody will then start talking more about the meat and bones of what I'm writing about," and one shares Beattie's sentiment. While it is true that many of her stories use the manners and jargon of the post-counterculture era as a backdrop—particularly its songs and culture heroes—these details function in much the same way as Raymond Carver's Pacific Northwest, or Donald Barthelme's New York City. They create a concrete setting from which larger human dilemmas may be extracted—in Beattie's case, the difficulties of adjusting to the modern world, the growing distance between one's youthful dreams and present responsibilities, and, most particularly, the fragility and difficulty of sustaining relationships and the despair of loneliness. What also persists in Beattie's fiction, at least until Love Always, is a focus on the common human decency and bonds of friendship that survive even the worst of times. Despite their personal circumstances, Beattie's men and women extend themselves to others.
Since the mid-1980s, Beattie has taken a more negative and less sympathetic or ironic and detached view toward members of the generation who became aging, careless, and smug Yuppies. Picturing Will, while focusing on the problems of balancing career and parenthood, reveals entirely new concerns. As the title suggests, Beattie is not only interested in parenthood and children (here a boy named Will) but in the responsibilities incurred by human will, along with the contingencies determined by an impersonal fate.
Chilly Scenes of Winter, more than any of her subsequent works, details the dreams and values of the 1960s. It concerns a 27-year-old disaffected love-child, Charles, despairing over his girlfriend Laura's return to her husband. Instead of pursuing her, the helpless Charles busies himself with a cast of needy people—his childhood friend Sam, his suicidal mother, and ex-girlfriend Pamela (now experimenting with lesbianism), and his helplessly naive sister Susan. When he at last learns that Laura has left her husband he visits her, and they prepare to sail into the sunset.
Beattie treats the loss of optimism and first love as by-products of the 1960s youth culture. She also studies, through Charles and Sam, the aimlessness and ennui of the 1970s lost generation. "You could be happy … if you hadn't had your eyes opened in the sixties," is repeated throughout. Beattie retains a characteristic detachment—a balance between an objective (sometimes critical) and affectionate (sometimes mocking) portrait of the times. Charles, for example, is wistful toward the past. Everyone has died, he repeats—not just Janis Joplin and Brian Jones, but also Jim Morrison's widow Pamela, Amy Vanderbilt, Adele Davis, and maybe even Rod Stewart (about whom, of course, he is wrong). Elsewhere, the world-weary Charles and Sam lament that times have grown worse, because "women put their brassieres back on and want you to take them to Paul Newman movies." Beattie has a wonderful sense of humor.
The dreamer Charles, out of place in any time or locale, is afraid of the present; he is also obsessed with illness and death, and, like many others in the book, he longs to be a child again. But his earnestness, sympathy, and kind generosity are redemptive. Even so, the novel ends bitterly. Sam gets a new and ugly dog, "a terrible genetic mistake," as Charles observes, and one can't help thinking the same of his own reunion with Laura.
The stories in Distortions focus on the empty relationships of married and single couples, on the urgent need for companionship and definition that drives most people. Especially moving are the figures in "Dwarf House," "The Parking Lot," "A Platonic Relationship," "Snakes' Shoes," and "Vermont." Although these characters are only peripherally aware of their drab lives, the reader feels deeply for them. More fully portrayed are the characters in Secrets and Surprises, men and women once again trapped in unfulfilling jobs and personal relationships. A more affluent group, they are into gourmet cooking, jogging, health foods, weekends in the country, and the usual fare of the 1970s upper-middle-class mobile society. What they share is a deep sense of emptiness, although friendship and pets (particularly dogs) are once more their only comfort. Some of Beattie's most memorable evocations of loneliness and yearning are in the title story, "A Vintage Thunderbird," "A Reasonable Man," "Distant Music," and "The Lawn Party." Lines that summarize a lifetime—like one character's remark that people smile because they don't understand each other—underscore the collection. These people are trapped but they lack self-pity; they are lost but they still extend a hand.
An even more sophisticated society inhabits The Burning House, but it is the juxtaposition of loneliness and selflessness that continues to move the reader. Little occurs in the way of change, although there are occasional moments of muted insight; once again, the stories are evocations of mood, descriptive of states of being. There also remains very little trace of the 1960s past. Of particular interest is the title story and "Learning to Fall," where Beattie concretizes two characters' remarks: "What will happen can't be stopped," and "I'm sick of hearing how things might have been worse, when they might also have been better." "Girl Talk" is about two women, one young, unmarried, and pregnant, and the other, the unborn child's grandmother, who is many times married, wealthy, still beautiful but no longer capable of bearing children. It is about how "pain is relative." "The Cinderella Waltz," one of Beattie's most evocative stories, is about the complex of emotions exchanged between a mother and daughter and their estranged husband/father and his new male lover.
Falling in Place, Beattie's second novel, portrays the limited control one has over one's destiny and how life just seems to fall in place. Once again, Beattie measures the fragility of relationships, here focusing on the disintegration of a family and the guilt that falls to both parents and children. The book lacks a traditional plot; rather, Beattie shifts from character to character and then combines events from each chapter into brief italicized mood interludes. Set in Connecticut and New York in the summer of 1979, the novel focuses on the surrogate emotional relationships each member of the John Knapp family sets up. The climax revolves around the son's quasi-accidental shooting of his sister and how the family members finally face one another—things fall into place. Although the book ends with a positive resolution, like Chilly Scenes of Winter, it is bitter and the prognosis for future happiness is bleak.
Love Always, Beattie's third novel, marks a change in style and vision. Less detached, satiric, and sympathetic, her indictment of her materially successful, world-weary people is more pronounced. The book opens at a Vermont retreat, where the sophisticates of a trendy New York magazine, Country Daze, have gathered. Lucy Spenser, for example, under the pseudonym Cindi Coeur, writes both the letters and answers for a tongue-in-cheek Miss Lonelyhearts column. Lucy's niece, 14-year-old Nicole, who joins the group, is a TV actress who portrays an adolescent alcoholic on a popular soap opera. The brilliance of the novel results from Beattie's intertwining how the real-life Vermont group is defined not just by the bucolic fantasy of country life espoused by the magazine but also by the fantasies and grim truth of the Miss Lonelyhearts column, as well as the melodramatic, selfish, and sometimes cruel world of television and Hollywood soaps. The so-called real characters in the novel—infertile in every sense of the word—are as needy and blighted as any portrayed by the printed word or on screen. These characters also lack, one should note, the compassion and generosity that have characterized Beattie's earlier people.
The short stories in Where You'll Find Me are terse, minimalist profiles of Beattie's familiar 1960s and 1970s types, once again estranged from themselves and others. Now successful doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, they have the money, possessions, and social respect that go along with their time, place, and economic efforts. But they suffer the losses that accompany people of their status and age, such as divorce, illness, and death. Beattie's focus is the enormous disparity between external success and inner emptiness. All the same, these figures retain our sympathy. "People and things never really get left behind," remarks one, very much aware that human connection remains possible.
Picturing Will confronts the next, logical question. Can one have it all: ambition, success, and a child? And if so, how does one deal with the eventualities of divorce, missing fathers, potential stepfathers, and—always of central concern—the young child? Will is the fiveand later six-year-old abandoned child of a scurrilous, selfish, and violent father. His mother, clearly the more caring parent, is torn between career and motherhood. It is her lover, Mel, who truly parents and completely loves Will. The novel is divided into three sections that reflect each family member's point of view: interwoven through these, in addition, is yet another commentary that functions as the authorial voice, in matters of true responsibility and a child's deepest needs. The commentary is, in fact, from Mel's diary.
If Beattie's earlier characters were passive products of a specific social, cultural, and political world, the figures here are personally responsible for their own lives, despite the vagaries of fate. But Beattie never loses her sense of humor. Mel, for example, remarks on the responsibilities of fatherhood: "Do everything right, all the time, and the child will prosper. It's as simple as that, except for fate, luck, heredity, chance, the astrological sign under which the child was born, his order of birth, his first encounter with evil, the girl who jilts him in spite of his excellent qualities."
The fragility of human relationships and their inevitable disintegration—between friends, spouses, children and parents—is once again Beattie's subject in What Was Mine. "You Know What," the ironic title of one story, could well characterize many of the others: characters speak on slightly tangential levels that are sufficiently askew to guarantee miscommunication. Mothers and fathers worry over children—whose lives justify worry—but the quality and definition of that worry is frequently inappropriate. In "Horatio's Trick," a 19-year-old college student criticizes his mother for being too intimidated by him to directly ask about his life. Beattie acknowledges the son's disturbance: "She was just sitting there, scared to death." The title piece tells of another son whose father died after World War II, and whose mother, true to the father's memory, lived with but never married "Uncle Herb." Ethan, the son, now a young man, loves Herb as a father, but they are forced to separate when the mother, "irrationally angry," decides she no longer wants him in the house. Herb tries to console the son with advice to listen to Billie Holiday's records, study Vermeer's paintings, and "look around" and "listen." He explains that "What to some people might seem the silliest sort of place might be, to those truly observant, a temporary substitute for heaven." One makes due with what one has at hand. The deep compassion in Beattie's portrayals of these necessary accommodations, along with her exquisite evocation of the emptiness and loneliness in both the self and world, continue to place her among the best fiction writers in America today. One is haunted by lines such as the following, exchanged between two 14-year-old boys: "We both suffered because we sensed that you had to look like John F. Kennedy in order to be John F. Kennedy."
The plot of Another You involves an exceedingly complex set of relationships between characters Marshall, Sonja, McCallum, Cheryl, Sarah, Livan, and Tony. Marshall remains the central figure, however, and throughout the story he is dogged by the awareness of a secret involving his past. Eventually the reader learns what this secret is, but Marshall never does. Darcy Fisher, who goes by the stage name of Dara Falcon, also has a secret, and this provides part of the allure that draws Jean Warner, the narrator of My Life, Starring Dara Falcon, to her. This book represents a shift for Beattie: not only is it her first coming-of-age story, but it relies less on the details of the 1970s (Jean in the 1990s tells the story as a flashback) than on the powerful relationships of its characters.