In a Generation's Wake
FOLLIES: New Stories
By Ann Beattie. Scribner. 305 pp. $25
What happens to the voice of a generation when a new generation takes over?
Ann Beattie is famous for inventing, sometime during the 1970s, a fiction-writing technique that captured the relationships among her characters. To tell their stories, she perfected a spare, unsentimental prose style that emphasized the unbridgeable schisms among people who were, for the most part, aimless, passive, weary and depressed. Although she inspired legions of imitators, very few managed to match Beattie's facility, particularly with the stutter-starts and elisions of dialogue. Her fictional conversations more accurately echo the way certain Americans speak than most authors' efforts before or since.
To her credit, Beattie continues to craft a career, having just published her eighth book of stories. (There are also seven novels, but the stories are better.) Her method remains distinctive and surprisingly fresh. It has even evolved, poking a bit into her characters' personalities where it used to glide across their polished surfaces. If her style has not gone out of style, though, her characters have. Where her bewildered sad sacks -- once young, now mostly middle-aged -- used to seem thoroughly familiar and fashionable, both they and the bland world they inhabited have now been kicked to the curb.
Consider, for instance, the protagonists in "Fléchette Follies," the novella that takes up more than a third of Beattie's new book. George Wissone is a longtime CIA agent who changes cities and identities regularly. Soon after relocating to Charlottesville, Va., he absentmindedly rear-ends a car whose driver, a divorced nurse in her fifties named Nancy, insists on getting acquainted. George resists: "He did not know how to make small talk. He seemed to alternate between complete silence and screaming instructions into someone's ear. He realized that gave him an odd demeanor when he tried to exchange pleasantries."
Yet for some reason George allows himself to be drawn in by Nancy. Eventually she asks him to help find her son, a drug addict in his late twenties who has disappeared somewhere in England. George acquiesces, mildly curious to learn whether, after years of following orders, "he could still be a responsive human being who'd do a person a favor. . . . He was trying to do something he thought a more normal person, with a more normal life, would do." One could not exactly call this a purpose-driven life, and Nancy, for her part, has even less conviction: "Most days she sat by the water in the morning and again in the evening and hoped that her son was not dead."
In the end, George's mission fails, and Nancy never hears from him again, shrugging off any responsibility when his CIA colleague tries to track him down. Despite the collision that sparked their encounter, these unhappy people are never going to connect, and Beattie, maintaining an arm's-length politeness, prevents the reader from connecting with them either. She devotes more than 100 pages to characters so remote they seem to fade off the page.
At least George, a Vietnam veteran, has solid post-traumatic reasons for his lack of engagement. The same can't be said of the twentysomething New Yorkers in "Tending Something," who skitter around during a surprise party with vacuous self-absorption. The middle-aged daughters in "Find and Replace" and "The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation" struggle ineffectually with recalcitrant mothers, and the memories of various defenseless youths in "Duchais," "The Garden Game" and "Just Going Out" range from wistful to disturbing, all tinged with melancholy.
In the volume's final story, "That Last Odd Day in L.A.," the peripheral status of Beattie's characters reaches absurd proportions. Keller, a retired professor whose early investment in Microsoft made him unexpectedly rich, is nearly a parody of Beattie-esque detachment and passivity: "His wife didn't care where he lived, as long as she lived in the opposite direction. His daughter might be relieved that he had moved away. He lived where he lived for no apparent reason -- at least, no reason apparent to him." Over a lonely Thanksgiving weekend, Keller is suddenly forced to defend himself when the unglued young son of a woman he's been dating threatens him with a gun.
It turns out that the boy's violence stems from his dismay over the behavior of his own father, a fanatical animal-rights activist who recently took him on an illegal spree to liberate turkeys. But Beattie keeps this father offstage, lavishing her attention on forlorn, moping Keller. Show of hands: Who wouldn't prefer to know more about the turkey-loving PETA extremist and less about Keller, a man so mired in solipsism that "he tended to think that people's unhappiness was rarely caused by anyone else, or alleviated by anyone else"? Keller and his ilk, once the pioneers of a directionless generation, are now at best supporting players in a drama whose mood has changed. The trademark passivity of Beattie's characters has given way to a new generation's urgency, passion, religious and political conviction, determination and certitude. Serving as a generation's voice has its limits: One day the action moves on. ·
Donna Rifkind reviews regularly for Book World.