Ann Beattie. Few writers are exalted so young. When her stories were first published in the New Yorker in 1974, she was barely 26. The literati hailed her as the voice of a generation — a writer whose spare prose and emotionally stripped dialogue captured the ennui of the young upper-middle class. Numbed by privilege, bored by sex, glazed by drugs, her characters were antidotes to the fiery Beats of the ’50s or the hotheads of the ’60s. They were post-assassinations, post-Vietnam, post-rage.
In truth, Beattie’s stories never spoke for a generation. She knew it. Her contemporaries knew it. That didn’t stop her work from being ballyhooed by literary keepers of the gate — George Plimpton, William Shawn, John Updike — all of whom roundly proclaimed Beattie a generational prophet. She has worn the mantle uneasily, attempting to shuck it with every book in her remarkably productive four-decade career. She used her novels — from “Chilly Scenes of Winter” to “Love Always” to “Picturing Will” to “Another You” — as opportunities to cast a veritable trail of narrative voices behind her.
But her short stories have always been stamped with a tart, abbreviated style that is unmistakably Beattie. She has been feted for this by America’s most venerable literary institutions: PEN/Malamud, the Rea Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
But here comes Beattie to rattle it all and test our patience. “Mrs. Nixon” is ostensibly a novel about the first lady, and yet it hardly engages Pat Nixon at all. The first hint we have that we’re in for a bill of goods is on the book’s jacket. Under the title, in a time-honored spot that should read “A Novel,” we’re given: “A Novelist Imagines a Life.” A novelist imagines a life? That’s like saying, “A Pianist Plinks Some Notes,” “A Historian Dredges Up History,” “A Hen Lays You an Egg.” Call it truth in packaging. “Mrs. Nixon” is anything but a novel; and it is not, except in the most perfunctory way, about Mrs. Nixon. It is about the pianist, the historian, the hen. It’s about Beattie.
The book is made up of more than 60 scenes, all told in different moods, at various times, by random people. In one told by Mrs. Nixon’s daughter Julie, our heroine is a young woman who works in a department store and pluckily drives an elderly couple cross-country for a little extra cash. In another, Pat gives the serious young man who is courting her a gift of two books: one by Karl Marx, the other by Guy de Maupassant. They marry. He talks. She listens. Suddenly, they are in the White House. There are fleeting, quirky moments with H.R. Haldeman, Elvis Presley, Mamie Eisenhower, Roger Ailes, the angry, spitting crowds in Caracas — even the family dogs — rendered like so many chips in a whirling kaleidoscope. Throughout, Mrs. Nixon is painfully robotic, a ’50s caricature who keeps her emotions carefully in check until her brain detonates in two killing strokes that Nixon blames on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The 37th president, in Beattie’s imagination, is a lumbering fool who loves to hear the sound of his own voice: a ghoul who opens the door to trick-or-treaters one Halloween night and sees a rubber mask of his own face staring back.
None of this, however fascinating as it might sound, inhabits “Mrs. Nixon” in anything resembling a story line. Nor does it occupy center stage, since by Page 4 the authorial “I” has elbowed in and completely dwarfed the heroine. “As far as I can tell,” our author says grandly, “she was born somewhere near midnight the day preceding St. Patrick’s Day.”
I? “As far as I”?
By Page 5, a good number of Beattie’s writing friends have crowded in with her. By Page 6, we’re reading about pet names that Beattie’s husband likes to call his wife. By Page 9, we’re getting a lecture on that most risky of writerly strategies: the “unreliable narrator.”
On page 22, we realize with a sinking heart that Beattie is not being a novelist here but a professor, a position she actually holds at the University of Virginia. Here she is, lecturing us about Mailer, Auden, Chekhov, comparing Mrs. Nixon to the lead character in Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Little Dog.”
Now, I (I!) love Chekhov as much as anyone. I love the whole arc of literature, love English professors, know some, am related to a few — love classrooms! — but what is all this love doing rolled up, sausage-style, in a novel dressed up to look like Mrs. Nixon? What happened to story? What happened to the kind of writing done by those who are trotted out as exemplars of the craft? Peter Taylor, Flannery O’Connor, A.A. Milne, Beckett? What happened to that seductive promise that the “Novelist” will “Imagine” for us “a Life”?
“Mrs. Nixon,” in short, is less about the eponymous Mrs. than about an endless parade of wordsmiths trotted out for show. But it’s also about Beattie’s students, her porch, her friends’ habit of decorating their dining room tables with quirky centerpieces. “As a writer” may be the most frequent phrase in the book, followed by the ubiquitous pronoun. “The fiction writer in me wants to know,” she says. Poor Mrs. Nixon doesn’t stand a chance. In fiction as in life, she is shunted aside, more trivial and neglected than she ever was in Mr. Nixon’s White House.
Garcia Marquez once said that he didn’t dare let up — that there couldn’t be one jarring word, one interruption, one distracting image to break the hum, to keep a reader from suspecting that what was happening on any given page wasn’t really happening. I reckon the same could be said for Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Carver, any one of the writers Beattie summons to her arsenal. You can’t help but wonder as you read this self-important tissue of didacticism why she hasn’t taken those writers more to heart.
But if you’re like me — me! — you’ll wonder one thing more, and you’ll wonder it as Beattie runs smack dab into Mrs. Nixon in the shoe department, or as the dread Dick putters shoeless through her house: What did she have in mind when she lured us to this labyrinth of ego in the first place? Was it: Look at this woman, whom I’ve always pitied? Look at the man I’ve always despised?
You’ll find the answer on Page 4, in all its vertical glory: Look at me.
Arana is a former editor of The Post’s Book World.
A Novelist Imagines a Life
By Ann Beattie
Scribner. 282 pp. $26