"TIME WILL SAY nothing but I told you so" is the handwriting on the bathroom wall of a New Haven restaurant. The message makes a young man named Robert think: "A very literate town, New Haven." If you are a character caught in the middle of an Ann Beattie story, as is Robert in "Colorado," such ironic resignation is not only proper, but necessary.
In this new book of stories, Secrets and Surprises, Beattie imagines a very real world of people trapped in relationships that don't work. Resignation is everybody's modus operandi, a spritual routine that gets them from one day to the next. Nick loves Karen, who loesn't love him ("A Vintage Thunderbird"). Sharon falls in love with Jack ('because he was so handsome"), but Jack is devoted to his ambition. ("Distant Music"). Lenore, who's 34, loves hip, ex-professor George, who's 55, even though he treats her shoddily ("Weekend"). Griffin and Diana are unhappily drawn together because they are both the offspring of famous fathers ("La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans"). Robert, the young man in the New Haven bathroom, can be found wrapped around the little finger of a girl named Penelope. But -- you guessed it -- Penelope is more interested in Penelope.
In 1976 Ann Beattie published simultaneously her impressive first novel Chilly Scenes of Winter and Distortions, a collection of stories. Distortions was appropriately named. An embittered dwarf, a "mad boy," who kills himself and three other children, an "amazing animal woman," who looks like a skunk and thinks she's a reincarnated cat, are among the characters who take part in this salute to Diane Arbus. Secrets and Surprises represents a great leap forward for Beattie. This new collection recognizes that the more interesting distortions are those which blend inconspicuously into our lives so as to be almost invisible. But nonetheless powerful.
Secrets and Surprises, in fact, has more in common with Chilly Scenes of Winter than with Beattie's earlier stories. Her novel can be read as a story about people and what they do when they find themselves outside of a relationship, but living in the pull of its force. These new stories complement that vision. They represent the other side of things: what happens when people are attached, involved with each other. What happens, of course, is love.
But love, in Ann Beattie's new stories, comes in a wealth of shapes and sizes. And the varieties of love are not all wonderful. Some versions are horrible. And sometimes the horror is civilized, even sophisticated.
Her characters are most often intelligent, educated, white, middle-class Americans in their late twenties. They have survived the social turbulence of the '60s only to find themselves confused by the emotional turbulence of the '70s. "Normal" family life seems a hair's breadth away in Beattie's stories: couples (if they have been married at all) are divorced or on the verge of divorce. Marijuana and Bob Dylan help, but ultimately nothing dispels the emotional dislocation of those who inhabit Beattie's fictional world. At the end of "Colorado," Robert is stoned and "confused": "What state is this?" is all he can say. He has been permanently damaged by the psychic violence that colors Beattie's stories.
Beattie can convey that violence with the eye of a great painter: "The sky is paleblue, streaked with orange, which seems to be spreading through the blue sky from behind, like liquid seeping through a napkin, blood through a bandage." Or she can transform the ordinary into something revealing and chilling: "Still at the kitchen table, he ran his thumb across a pea pod as though it were a knife."
If people are emotionally mistreated by others in Ann Beattie's stories, they are just as often collaborators in the process: victimization and self-victimization are everywhere. And frequently people's relationship to things runs parallel to their involvement with others. Karen's Thunderbird in "A Vintage Thunderbird," the finest story in the book, takes on a complexity of meaning and comes to symbolize the history of her affair with Nick. Nick "loved to go to her apartment and look at her things. He was excited by them...." But it is her car that excites him most. When Karen is "conned" out of her car by a "New York architect" in what Nick knows is a "set up," he asks her if "the deal is final." Nick, who has been mugged twice and stood up once during the story, knows instinctively that the loss of the car spells the loss of love. It is a masterful story in which a vocabulary of money becomes the language of love.
And love is just another rip-off in a world gone wrong: a cab breaks down, a car is stolen, a phone is ripped off the wall and another's cord is cut by an intruder who puts the receiver in a basket of apples; the narrator of "Secrets and Surprises" has a retarded brother, Perry in "Friends" has a broken foot, the narrator of "The Lawn Party" has lost his right arm. Someone else cuts himself shaving. And Max in "Deer Season" has a recording of a dying rabbit that he plans to use to catch a fox. Predators, emotional and otherwise, stalk through every story.
But this stark world is qualified by the talent and sensitivity of the author who created it. Ann Beattie's intelligence is illuminating. Some of these stories are disappointing, but the five or six solid successes are works of vivid honesty and insight that confirm Beattie's reputation as one of our best young writers.