Saturday, 16 December, 2017.

Abstract: The paper deals with the short stories and novels of Ann Beattie, one of the finest  contemporary American women writers and probably the best representative of the so-called minimalist fiction.

Keywords: short story, narrative, minimalism

In 1983 the British literary magazine Granta announced the birth of a new realistic style  in American writing and a literary twilight zone dealing with the dark side of contemporary America. The new writing depicts ordinary people and mass culture with apparent indifference, objectivity and reticence. It contains a latent rebellion against realism: the writers of "dirty realism", "Coca-Cola realism", "hick-chic" or "Post-Vietnam, post-literary, post-modernist blue-collar neo-early-Hemingwayism"[1] reject "falsifications of experience for the sake of drama"[2]. Memories from the Vietnam war, marriage disasters and failures in professional lives are surrounded with silence, whereas the uneventful and the trivial in the lives of the characters  come into focus.  Minimalists (and minimalism becomes the most frequent, although least inventive, label for these textual tendencies and strategies in American writing) attempt at presenting the reality the way it is -  as a flat line of death -  and reject the customary conventions  which turn realism into a system of literary artifice.  This kind of writing includes quite different authors, such as Raymond Carver, Frederick Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason,  and Mary Robinson,  who are called  "the sullen nephews of Hemingway and Chandler" and chroniclers of the "national hangover from the Vietnam war".

The discussion of the so-called "dirty realism" or minimalist fiction is incomplete without Ann Beattie.  Ever since she found the outlet  through The New Yorker, she developed a style immediately recognizable by its deliberate focus on jotting down the inpidual quagmires of confusion. Beattie is called a post-1960's chronicler, a compiler of trivia and a voice of the baby boom generation, since she mostly writes about the post-hippie generation's inability to cope with changes and risks in the everyday life. Ranges of characters and situations in her short stories are the more intriguing as we observe their repetitiveness.  The motives such as porce, adultery, abortion or Vietnam syndrome recur, together with some metaphorical images that almost go unnoticed, for instance the  poison ivy in the novel Falling in Place and the story Second Question, or tweezing eyebrows to make women's eyes look bigger in Falling in Place and Chilly Scenes of Winter.

Ann Beattie has developed a style  of short flat sentences, non-sequiturs, matter-of-factly focusing upon the banal details of contemporary popular culture, and the so-called "missing effect". Her story-telling is fragmentary and economic, regularly eliminating description for the sake of exposition. Her stories lack a central theme, consistent modes of characterization and a clear time-scheme. Instead, she only registers trivial notions and moments, unimportant situations and non-motivated digressions. Description is rejected in favour of epiphany  over a banal event, which is partly the reason for author's using  the present tense exclusively.

Unlike Raymond Carver, who dealt with the blue-collar workers from the Hopelessville and their low-rent tragedies,  Beattie focuses upon  the New York white  upper middle class. She deals with her characters' grieves, pleasures and fears with a touch of  empathy mixed with irony. Her  rich people from the East Coast do not have to work for their living, they  are free to juggle with their future prospects, and still, these well-to-do people cannot grasp happiness and harmony.  They either float from one cheap thrill to another, or stay immobile, and their way out from pain and indifference are pot, rock and wine.  All of Beattie's novels and short story volumes deal with the identical search for happiness and with various strategies to achieve harmony, whether they be purely psychological, emotional, physical. Ann Beattie's characters actually strive to escape life unscathed.

Exceedingly shrewd perception and vivid imagination of Beattie's characters  serve both to depict a person and narrate the story.  Beattie uses musical or visual leitmotifs to  open her heroes’ hearts to us, thus creating a sort of selective objective correlatives. These correlatives and their function are largely dependent on the reader's sensibility and susceptibility.  The recurring song in the novel Falling in Place,  Blondie's "Heart of Glass", functions as a metaphor of the protagonists' emotional fragility.  The lyrics from the song "As Tears Go By" and the coarse voice of Marianne Faithful at the very beginning of the novel Another You predict a downfall which is underway for the two people listening to the song.  By the end of the same novel, the main hero  is watching a film by Harold Pinter, "The Betrayal", in which a story of a love triangle goes from the end towards the beginning. In the deliberately twisted chronology of Pinter's  script, the hero finds an equivalent for the mess of his life.

"Beattie people" are unable to change, take risks and make sacrifices in order to achieve inner peace. Instead of draining the cup of experience, they choose status quo resulting in lethargy and emotional stupor.  On finding out that she is pregnant, Jane from the story Playback  learns that she does not dare face her lover Jason with the  choice between his wife and his lover.  Her inhibition makes  abortion the only possible solution.  The narrator from Learning to Fall builds a wall of restrained tenderness between her lover and herself, expecting him to rescue her even from her fear of loving and being loved.  After her breakup with her married lover, Rac from Second Question starts taking care of a friend dying from AIDS.

No wonder, then, that Beattie people  are obsessively attached to their dogs, plants or privileged objects. The same as the constant droning of TV in Carver's stories becomes a perfect excuse not to communicate, Beattie's characters find relief in bonding to dead objects and animals: in Falling in Place  and Chilly Scenes of Winter they adore their dogs, which  indicates that the feeling is  compensation for love or a relationship gone sour.  Janus is the perfect example of such a compensation: Andrea  keeps a bowl presented to her by her ex-lover simply because she could not keep the relationship.  All the characters are  ready to choose the lesser evil of two and the devil they know. Beattie and Carver let their characters behave as if the most natural thing in the world was to be a lonely  and inhibited eccentric:  the life of  every Beattie's character is an endless sequence of neurotic hesitation to comply with their own wishes.

Beattie treats her characters with a mixture of sentimentality and irony, genuine compassion and utter derision, while the rhythm of her sentence and its fragmentary structure betray the disorientation and a well-hidden hysteria. Ann Beattie is less graphic than epigrammatic  in her use of language, since she relies much more on the reader's intuition than on his imagination. She is more ready to give signs than to paint pictures. That may be the reason why  Jay McInerney tells that her fiction is "the music of our spheres, etched on microchips".

The way this music reaches the audience is shown in an episode from Falling in Place:  John, art director of a marketing company, is flipping through an artist's  portfolio  and "wonders whether or not it was deliberate that one long black hair was stretched across two sample layouts  on top of the plastic". John asks his secretary  for one of her long blond hairs  and puts it where  the other one has been. Ann Beattie's fiction is hanging on such a thread - the reader may get the right message, but she also may not; she may grasp the meaning, and yet she may not.

"Friends keep calling my broken arm a broken wing. It's the left arm, now folded against my chest and kept in place with a blue scarf sling that is knotted behind my neck, and it weighs too much ever to have been wing like. The accident happened when I ran for a bus. I tried to stop it from pulling away by shaking my shopping bags like maracas in the air, and that's when I slipped on the ice and went down."[3]

The heroine defies the broken wing metaphor as if she wanted to defy her helplessness and feeling of inferiority. However, while rerunning her memory of the event, she clearly impersonates herself as a bird by shaking her shopping bags. Her obsession with losing balance is seen in her ironic description of herself:  "I am a thirty-eight-year-old woman, out of a job, on tenuous enough footing  with her sometime lover that she can imagine crashing emotionally as easily as she did on the ice."[4]

She knows that her insecurity stems from being too timid to take a stand and express herself. Her lover Frank has an herbal farm, firmly convinced of his occupation's profitability, while she secretly puts salt in her meal and refrains from expressing  her dislike of the aromatic smell on his hands.  Feeling protected by men turns into feeling inferior and frustrated. While her brother Howard helps her to put her coat on ("this is the system, because I am always cold" she said, and we can notice that the story is permeated with weakness and fear of cold), she feels "like a bird with a cloth draped over  its cage for the night. This makes me sorry for myself, and then I do think of my arm as a broken wing, and suddenly everything seems so sad that I feel my eyes well up with tears."

Her feeling inferior to Howard can be seen from a  completely different angle when we learn of  the brother's and sister's  respective love stories.  Howard confesses having a love affair with a student. The relationship with a young girl further complicates  his otherwise very hectic life with his third wife and her two children. His affair  was perhaps unconsummated, but emotionally devastating:

"It was all pretty crazy (...) There was so much passion, so fast. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I don't think I let on to her how much I cared. She saw that I cared, but she... she didn't know my heart kept stopping, you know? "

Howard's story may seem a cliché, but its uncommunicated emotional intensity makes it look very different from any kind of trivial cheating on one's partner. Howard is a deeply romantic soul which had not had a proper passionate outlet of his illusions  about love at the first sight. He  believes some situations and encounters to be predestined. On the other hand, his sister thinks that such encounters happen like in a "bad movie". She tells Howard about the man who could not take eyes off of her in a restaurant, leaving his card and several identical messages: "Who are you? Please call." She does not engage in a one-night stand, but she keeps the card. Several months later,  she sends a photograph of hers to her unknown admirer, leaving no  return address. Howard takes her encounter as a sign, and he passionately tries to  make her look for the man, with the same zest he asked her not to rush to tell one of his colleagues that she is  tied up with somebody, because  "he's a nice guy, and he deserves a chance".  Howard believes in abrupt changes and exciting new loves  happening to us when least expected.  He thinks that our drab surroundings can miraculously change into an exciting  carnival. He believes in magic, whereas his sister  takes life in a realistic way: a "magic encounter" in the restaurant may only be a failed one-night stand, whereas "the kinetic energy" between two people amounts to sexual arousal. Besides, the man of her dreams is probably married. .. Nevertheless, she  admits that on a summer day the feeling came over her that  the man was thinking about her,  which may mean she is willing to accept the predestination. The border between romantic illusion and sobriety is more blurred than it appears at the first sight: life indeed resembles a bad movie, abounding in unmotivated, illogical  and inexplicable events. In Howard’s case, true hopes in romantic love fail, whereas miracles happen to people who do not ask for them. Emotional idealism is equal to walking on thin ice, but it is indispensable. Howard’s sister decides to keep the card of the man who is never going to find her.

In the final scene, she is seen while watching Howard's walking on ice:

"Back at the house, as Howard goes in front of me up the flagstone pathway, I walk slower than I usually do in the cold, trying to give myself time to puzzle out what he makes me think of just then. It comes to me at the moment when my attention is perted  by a patch of ice I'm  terrified of slipping on.  He reminds me of that  court house figure - I don't know  what it's called -  the statue of a blindfolded woman  holding the scales of justice. Bag of ice in the left hand, bag of ice in the right - but there's no blindfold."

The last epiphany relates to the metaphors of thin ice, broken wings and slipping: contrary to his sister who waves her hands in the air striving to keep her balance  but not being able to  prevent broken bones and broken heart, Howard walks steadily.  Although he  reminds her of the court house figure who holds the scales of justice, he also differs from it: his eyes remain open. He does not let himself be impartial when emotions are at stake, he rejects  rational thinking while his sister does not dare let herself in.

If Ann Beattie is in the least concerned with "male" and "female" attitudes towards love, she surely converts the stereotypes. Howard is the one who grabs for love not letting himself think and hesitate, while his sister  broods over every emotional reaction. Stiffness  and passivity resulting from too much contemplation may prevent one from making a wrong move, but they also deny the joy of love. The main character feels she is inferior to her male friends mostly because they possess spontaneity, rashness and activity she lacks.  She is forced into passivity (the man in the restaurant was attracted to her quite accidentally), dependence (on her father's money she inherited, on her lover's lifestyle) and invisibility (the same as the bus driver does not notice her shaking her bags in the air and slipping down, she is a mere side show in her own life).

It is passivity, dependence and invisibility that drive Beattie's female characters into similar problems: indecision and reluctance in the critical moments of their lives leave an imprint of indifference and  numbness. The way they behave in the crucial  moments of their lives is in complete discord with the intensity of their emotions.

Second Question, Beattie's story on AIDS, love and devotion, introduces a nameless narrator - a female nicknamed Rac, for "raccoon". She takes care of her friend Richard, a film producer  who is dying of AIDS. An encounter with illness and  suffering  becomes, paradoxically enough, Rac's rescue from a dull life and a futile relationship with a married man.

While the narrator of Where you'll find me seemingly accepts to live on her inheritance, Rac has a  bizarre but well paid part time job of a hand-model.  This means that she has to obey to certain rules specified in her contract: she has to wear raccoon-like white gloves which protect her from scratches, broken nails and chapped skin.  Protecting her "paws", Rac also protects herself from all the chaos and disturbance of real life. However, as the story goes on, she has to affront pain, suffering and death.

In the beginning, Rac almost indifferently registers the vomiting, nausea and shock in the transfusion room of a Boston hospital, sticking on the phrase from a Tina Turner's song,   "Gonna break every rule". She is just another person  who happened to be in the room, no matter how hard she tried to  take care of Richard, a man she  accidentally met  in a cheap haircutter's, and a man who took her home to shower, since hot water rarely made it up to her top-floor apartment.  Like many other Beattie's heroines, Rac feels as a spectator of other people's lives. She is an intruder both in the transfusion room and in the once homosexual relationship between Richard and Ned, both in her ex-lover's married life and in the verbal exchange between two sisters whose mother is dying:

"'Our mother's dying, and she doesn't care,' the girl said. Tears began to well up in her eyes.

(...)

The girl faced me, mascara smudged in half-moons beneath her eyes, her nose bright red, one side of her lip more pointed than the other. From the look in her eyes, I was just a person who happened to be in the room. The way I had happened to be in the room in New York the day Richard came out of the bathroom, one shirtsleeve rolled up, frowning, saying, 'What do you think this rash is on my arm?' "[5]

Unlike Rac, Richard's friend Ned  readily breaks the rules,  and engages in  thinking what would happen if time could stop. He and Rac are mighty opposites: she is a heterosexual,  a bit standoffish, logical but delicate, whereas Ned is  extrovert, reckless and  unrestrained. Trying to surprise each other, they tell anecdotes which almost unintentionally reveal their real nature.  For instance, Ned tells a cartoon-like story of a  hilarious sexual "hit and run" adventure in which there are only two things that fall out of the pattern of a typical male sexual anecdote: it is a homosexual story, and the lover Ned cheated on died of AIDS.  Rac tells how the pearl necklace of her lover's wife she was wearing broke during the sexual intercourse. When she saw what had been done, she swallowed several pearls so that the necklace would not be the same length when restrung: "I didn't want them to fit anymore if she tried to put them over her head (...) I wanted her to know something had happened." Her act is a kind of passive challenge to her lover's wife and a disturbing proof of how female invisibility works.

Nevertheless, Rac's and Ned's reactions highlight attitudes that do not match their respective temperaments:  although Ned is so provocative and obnoxious,  he did not dare tell Sanders how he had ended up naked and penniless in the street. He rather invents a story of getting mugged. Sander believed him, because, growing up in L.A. and spending the rest of his life in New York,  "he knew you had to believe everything." On the other hand, Rac does not cover up the traces: no matter how vague this evidence would be, she swallows the pearls in order to  show her lover's wife  that she exists. However, her swallowing pearls is the same kind of message as is a blonde hair in the portfolio: an obscure and very unreliable sign that may go unnoticed. The way Rac's perception works is much  too incomprehensible in a world which hungrily demands only ocular proofs.  Unlike Rac's experience, Ned's  hilarious story can amuse friends ("I smiled, but I had already heard this story. Ned had told it at a party one night long ago, when he was drunk. It was one of the stories he liked best, because he appeared a little wild in it and a little cagey, and because somebody got his comeuppance. His stories were not all that different from those stories boys had often confided in me back in my college days - stories about dates and sexual conquests, told with ellipses to spare my delicate feelings"). Rac's story is a tremor of earth that went unnoticed, but it is still an ocular proof which points at the core of Beattie's strategy: the tiniest and  almost invisible things can be of  the utmost importance.

After telling her story, Rac starts rubbing Richard's back, not  noticing she is breaking another rule. When Richard asks "What happened to your paws, Rac?", she understands that she is  doing something she  had trained herself not to do years ago: she forgot to  put on the lotion and the gloves, and she is pressing her fingers into Richard's back. Her insurance contract forbids any manual work, from making beds and washing dishes to  giving a massage. This breaking of the rules becomes a rite of passage: while she was doing nothing but protecting her hands Rac was impeded to reach maturity.  It is her taking care of Richard that brings her back to the forgotten functions of the body and the soul.

Several days later, she will know how to deal with  human pain when she meets two girls in the hospital bathroom.  The image of a girl crying disturbs her so deeply that she  takes her into her arms, taps her forehead against hers  and slips her fingers through the girl's.  A little later, Ned will cup his hand over hers, saying: "Because luck was with me. I always knew that. Just the way luck shaped those pretty hands of yours. Luck's always been with me, and luck's with you. It's as good as anything else we have to hang on to."  The story ends in a quiet and peaceful observation of the surroundings, the same way it began. It is only that the narrator is a different person:

"He lifted his hand from mine, and yes, there it was:  the perfect hand, with smooth skin, tapered fingers, and nails curved and shining under the gloss of a French manicure. There was a small, dark smudge across one knuckle. I licked the middle finger of the other hand to see if I could gently rub it away, that smudge of mascara that must have passed from the hand of the girl in the bathroom to my hand when our fingers interwove as we awkwardly embraced. The girl I had been watching, all the time Ned and I sat talking. She was there in the coffee shop with us - I'd seen them come in, the two sisters and their boyfriends - her hair neatly combed, her eyes sparkling, her makeup perfectly stroked on. Though her sister tried to get their attention, both boys hung on her every word."[6]

A small dark smudge over Rac's knuckle that passed from the hand of the girl in the bathroom when their hands interwove is a pledge of compassion, showing that Rac is not an intruder anymore, and that she ceased to be a passive observer of other people tragedies.  The smudge signifies a change, it shows that a consolation had worked. Rac sees the girl  entering the coffee shop with her hair neatly combed, her eyes sparkling and her makeup perfectly stroked on.  Richard's battle may be lost, and they will never know if the experimental out-patient-treatment program he was submitted to really worked. Rac and Ned had no way of knowing whether Richard had been given the new medicine or whether he had been part of the control group.  That makes Ned's belief into luck sound ironic, but Rac will not question the fate anymore. From now on she will believe in  the obvious, visible gestures, as is a squeeze of one's hand.  Richard may be dying, but Rac's touch served the purpose of cheering a girl up. Breaking rules is what life demands of us in order to go on.

Beattie's prose consists of what Virginia Wolf would call "a myriad of impressions", of  countless unnoticed quotidian earth tremors that change a person's character slowly and steadily.  Beattie's characters perceive and conceive all those mycrochanges in themselves and their surroundings, risking to be misunderstood because they see what others are blind for.  Therefore "minimalism" has nothing to do with empty hearts and dull-witted perception. Everything seemingly trivial and unobserved which serves to change these characters amounts to nothing but a cluster of  "little earthquakes" we all feel.


Vladislava Gordic received her PH. D. in American Literature from the University of Novi Sad.   In her mother tongue Serbian she published three books: a study on short stories of Raymond Carver (The Syntax of Silence, 1995),  a study on Ernest Hemingway's short fiction (Hemingway, 2000) and a collection of essays and articles dealing with contemporary American and Serbian writers entitled "Correspondence".  Vladislava Gordic edited several renowned Yugoslav literary periodicals and  has been reviewing books for various magazines and dailies in Serbia. She is a columnist for the largest Yugoslav daily "Danas", covering the whole range of topics related to literature, Internet technologies and language.   She is Assistant  Professor of American and English Literature at the English Department of the University of Novi Sad.
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[1] Ann-Marie Karlsson, The Hyperrealistic Short Story: A Postmodern Twilight Zone in Danuta Zadworna-Fjellestad and  Lennart Bjork (eds), Criticism in the Twilight Zone: Postmodern Perspectives on Literature and Politics,  Stockholm, Almqvist ad Wiksell International, 1990, p. 144.

[2] Frederick Barthelme quoted in ibid., p. 145.

[3] Ann Beattie, Where You'll Find Me, New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, p. 185

[4] Ibid., p.  188.

[5]Ann Beattie, Second Question, The New Yorker, June 10, 1991, p.44

[6]Ibid., p. 44

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