ANN BEATTIE IS A WRITER of formidable, scary talents, and she is in rare form in several of the 16 stories collected in The Burning House. Her prose is as uncluttered as a cupboard in a vacant house. She sees with a clarity that admits compassion but not sentimentality. Her eye for detail is penetrating and selective, and she is as up-to-date as next week's Top-40 list. Her work affords me enormous pleasure and, from time to time, a welcome sense of unexpected discovery.
Further, Beattie is especially comfortable and accomplished with the short story. Notwithstanding the excesses of critical applause that greeted her recent novel, Falling in Place, she hasn't quite figured out how to sustain an extended story; in its final hundred pages o so, Falling in Place collapses of its own weight into what is for Beattie a most uncharacteristically contrived conclusion. Beattie is a miniaturist -- or, as some reviewers have described her, a "minimalist" -- whose strength is brevity and who seems most sure of herself when loose ends are left untied; as a result she is more suited to the form of the story than that of the novel. A few of her stories -- my favorites are "Shifting," from Secrets and Surprises, and "The Cinderella Waltz," from the current collection -- nudge right up to the borders of real artistry.
So here we have this brilliant writer -- yes, brilliant -- who though only in her early thirties has already produced five praiseworthy books. Yet this body of work suggests nothing so much as that she is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Over and again, she uses her fine talents to write the same story about the same people: privileged children of the '60s who have failed to grow up and who stumble through life certain only that "what will happen can't be stopped." With occasional gratifying exceptions, the emptiness of Beattie's fiction is astonishing; her prose may be as uncluttered as a cupboard in a vacant house, but it remains that the house of her fiction is vacant.
Though Beattie is widely regarded as a "spokesperson" for the generation that came of age during the '60s, her strongest literary influence appears to be that chronicler of '50s suburban angst, John Cheever. Literally and figuratively, Cheever's people are the parents of Beattie's. Her settings are much the same as his -- the wealthier precincts of suburban Connecticut, Manhattan, Los Angeles, Charlottesville -- and so are her subjects: domestic entanglements and disappointments from marriage to divorce, with pregnancies and affairs and separations as way stations between them. Where Cheever's people fled into martinis and Chivas Regal, hers find escape routes in white wine (gallons and gallons of it) and Valium. Just as Cheever knew all the brand-name signposts of his time and place, so she has identified those of hers: L.L. Bean, Dylan, Godiva, Coltrane, LSD. Like Cheever, she would argue that an upper-middle-class existence is no barrier to universal meaning; unlike Cheever, she has failed to prove the point.
The narrowness of her fiction is quite remarkable. It conveys no awareness that there is a larger world than that inhabited by these bored, haphazardly educated, half-stoned post-collegians named Justin and Jason and Amy and Holly who lie around in sparsely furnished houses or apartments and indulge themselves in empty fatalism; her typical female character "had a breech birth and a Caesarean and she's seeing a shrink twice a week and she still has a problem with drugs" and Daddy probably is picking up the tab. The most these superannuated adolescents can come up with, apart from "what will happen can't be stopped," is: "Hey. . . . Everything's cool, O.K.? No right and no wrong. People do what they do. . . ." Que sera, sera:
"They were married in the living room of this house, while it was still being built, with Elvis Presley on the screen singing 'As Long as I Have You.' Holly carried a bouquet of cobra lilies. Then I sang 'Some Day Soon' -- Audrey's favorite Judy Collins song. The dog was there, and a visiting Afghan. The stonemason forgot that he wasn't supposed to work that day and came just as the ceremony was about to begin, and decided to stay. He turned out to know how to foxtrot, so we were all glad he'd stayed. We had champagne and danced, and Martin and I fixed crepes."
That passage is acute in its observed detail, but Beattie's own point of view toward what she depicts is wholly elusive. Does she see Judy Collins and cobra lilies and large shaggy dogs and crepes merely as details, or as the clich,es of a certain time and place that in point of fact they are? Is she aware that dancing with the stonemason is simple slumming, or does she romanticize it as a triumph of the worker-student alliance, or is it only another part of the landscape to be conscientiously and accurately recorded? Who knows? Beyond her own apparent complicity in the fatalism she describes, she disappears from her own fiction as a moral force.
But it is impossible to dismiss her. When she takes the trouble to infuse a story with genuine energy, the results can be eye-opening. In the aforementioned "The Cinderella Waltz," she produces four real people who have real problems that are resolved, or left unresolved, in an entirely real way. The narrator is a woman who is divorced from her husband, who left her after acknowledging his homosexuality. Their daughter, who is nine years old and precociously worldly-wise ("Children seem older now"), is the tie that keeps them bound together and leads to the woman's close friendship with her ex-husband's male lover: "It seems perfectly logical that he should come alone to talk -- perfectly logical until I actually see him coming up the walk. I can't entirely believe it. A year after my husband left me, I am sitting with his lover -- a man, a person I like quite well -- and trying to cheer him up because he is out of work." Beattie understands that the situation is in more or less equal measures funny and sad; her accomplishment is that she also makes it believable and true.
It is therefore more than slightly ironic that "The Cinderella Waltz," one of the few stories in which Beattie's characters behave in a demonstrably adult manner, should end with the narrator wondering "if Milo and Bradley and I haven't been playing house, too -- pretending to be adults." Certainly that is applicable, though, to most of the others who slouch through these pages. Their fondest memories are those from childhood, when life was less complicated and demanding, and their fondest desire is to return to that easy innocence; failing that, they complacently continue their childish ways -- avoiding commitment, responsibility and challenge, consoling themselves with the morally bankrupt cop out that "what will happen can't be stopped." They are unlikely to find a more observant or perceptive chronicler than Ann Beattie, but there is precious little in what she writes to persuade us that they are worth such attention. It is difficult to avoid the unpleasant conclusion that a marvelous writer is simply wasting much, if not all, of her time. CAPTION: Picture, Ann Beattie, Copyright (c) by Thomas Victor