With the times — our post-Brokeback Mountain times, that is — at least one major writer is in disagreement. That’s Ann Beattie, who, in The State We’re In: Maine Stories, her tenth short fiction collection, urges this existential observation: that the homosexual and heterosexual acts are not equivalent; only the latter is the terrifying, potentially co-creative, real thing. So, too, her own fiction. Against the spirit of the day, Beattie says here that she will not anytime soon write as if from inside a same-sex relationship.
She says these things in stories set in Maine, her American everyplace. Necessarily, then, we recall E. A. Robinson, the “Tilbury Town” poet, who similarly elevated Maine. In particular we recall his portraits of out-of-joint characters in an end-time like times. Characters like Miniver Cheevy, who famously, if un-heroically, regretted having been “born too late, . . . / coughed, and called it fate,” and characters, too, like Old Eben Flood, whose response to his generation’s passing was an admirable stylishness. One harvest moon night, he paused on his way home to throw himself a party, albeit a party of one. “The bird is on the wing . . . / Drink to the bird,” etc. As we’ll see, many of Beattie’s Mainers are similarly out of tune with the times.
On the other hand, Beattie’s York ought also to be distinguished from Robinson’s Tilbury: his, a turn-of-the-century mill town whose bustle and commercial focus alienated its well-schooled, village-bred senior citizens, a town where gossip and sawmills hummed incessantly and where class differences were both felt and nurtured; hers, a mildly schizophrenic bedroom/beach community, a place of seasonal visitors and all-the-year-rounders in roughly equal numbers, its air a mix of salt, sand, pine, lattes and low spirits. For, to be clear, Beattie’s Yorkites are more suburbanites than they are townsfolk; they do more of their commerce in strip malls than in York’s downtown. Also, hailing from the high and low of our nondescript American middle class, they do not much calculate one another’s incomes, though real estate values are a shared concern. Some few are faintly pressed by the Great Recession of recent memory; however, more are comfortable. Indeed, many are newly arrived or only seasonally situated in Maine, refugees from the existential bull’s eye that 9/11 has made of their native Brooklyn and Manhattan. Lastly, Beattie sets all of her stories in summer, so the weather in her Maine is not the stern cultivator of inflexibility that it is in Robinson’s. It is, instead, an idyllic circumstance in which residents nurture their domestic and personal discomfits.
Consider, for example, the 77-year-old widow-poet-narrator of “Yancey.” She is in a permanent state of discomfit because her daughter and the daughter’s wife want to take her dog Yancey away from her. The septuagenarian has “tripped or fallen a couple of times,” presumably while walking Yancey, though the text does not make that clear. Also, it’s a problem for the daughter and her spouse that mom becomes distressed and drives her aging pet to the vet if at first pull she fails to remove a tick from its fleece. The vet does not charge mom for this service, but that doesn’t diminish the problem for the daughter and her wife, for their larger concerns are that mom is in the car too often and that her life is “centered around the dog.” It’s not clear whom or what they would prefer mom’s life were “centered around,” but, as mom says, “God help me if they ever find out Yancey and I sometimes split a microwaved chicken burrito for dinner.”
The widow-poet is existentially off-keel for another reason too. The IRS doubts her vocational claims. On the day of the story’s unfolding, it has sent an agent out to make sure that the bedroom for which she has claimed an office space deduction is not being used for purposes other than writing. Her accountant has sent in pictures of the room, but apparently the IRS has a problem with the door. Is it really on its hinges? Such are the questions an unmated widow faces, says the elderly writer harried by officialdom. “People [only] back down when there’s a manly presence.”
Also having trouble getting her contemporary bearings is the empty-nest wife-mom of “Elvis Is Ahead of Us.” In her story’s present moment, she is mildly worried that her just-departed neighbor down the street has left behind in his shut up house “some Jeffrey Dahmer ghoulishness.” Other than his solitary ways, there was little in the bachelor neighbor’s behavior to warrant such worries; still, the wife-mom now alone with her husband has been surprised before by the gothic vagaries of the ostensibly harmless. “One of the things [she] hadn’t thought [her son] Caleb would do,” for example, “was act on his intense hatred of the local high school, let alone blow up the toilet in the teacher’s bathroom.” And, yet, that’s just what her now prospering-in-Silicon Valley son did several thankfully eclipsed years ago. Thus, now when the teens in her neighborhood start breaking into the locked up house, the empty-nest mom follows with foreboding their trespassing capers. True to form, her lawyer husband tells her that the hyper-tacky bathroom appointments reported by the kids — VIVA LAS VEGAS! shower curtains, among them — are no big deal. Also, he rules in his lawyerly way that the kids’ discoveries are their own parents’ concern. On the other hand, thinks the wife-narrator, what else would he say, given that he “lives to refute her.”
In any event, Mr. Husband-Attorney proves himself untrue to his own ruling when he, no less curious than she, follows the teens into the house on the night of their last, hit-the-jackpot trespass. Also, his efforts to cover up for their break and entry the next day, that’s not very letter-of-the-lawish either. Indeed, once involved in the teen’s snooping escapade, Mr. Husband-Attorney puts aside every sort of conventional juridical analysis of the teens’ transgressions until the next day when suddenly he is overcome by the nagging perception that something that one of the boys said during the adventure might have suggested a stereotypical understanding of gay people. That was cause for concern, should it have been the case. Though “he was not put here to offer guidance to the young,” the lawyer thought the possibility of a stereotype warrant for his calling the boy (or his parents, it’s not clear) and pursuing the matter. Oh, the strange moral universe this Maine lawyer’s wife contemporarily finds herself in.
Most seriously out-of-joint among Beattie’s Mainers, however, is Jocelyn, the teen protagonist of three of these stories — the teen she calls her “Everywoman.” A Connecticut only child shunted off to Maine for a summer school English class by a divorced mom who wants her out of the way while she (mom) has a hysterectomy, and, later, while she (mom) pursues a new romance, Jocelyn falls in depressive love while in Maine with a boy, who, days after their first encounter, “puts down a bottle of Ambien” and is hospitalized.
Jocelyn’s other problem is Ms. Nementhal, her Maine summer school teacher. The hyper-literal teen has little use for her lesbian teacher’s Magical Realist prose advocacies. Admittedly, essays in general are for the high schooler “retarded,” but to be told by her teacher that “your paper was supposed to go on forever, like the writer [Márquez]. Then have the clouds howl, or something,” that was to make of the assignment, in the teen’s hyperbolic estimate, a “fucking fucking summer school third paper of ten,” which, “if you didn’t get at least a C on the first time, you had to write eleven papers, the fucking teacher wadding up her big fat lips so they looked like a carnation, her lips that she used to pout at your inadequacy,” etc. As I say, hyperbolic, teen estimate; still, one day Jocelyn is in the local pizzeria when outside in the parking lot Ms. Nementhal is hit by a hail of bottles flying out of a passing car’s windows. Had the bottles been thrown at her lesbian teacher deliberately? Jocelyn wonders, and, thus, we know she is not incapable of empathy, not blind to the coming-of-age life lessons that Maine might have on offer for her while there in exile.
On the other hand, if we’re interested in getting at Beattie’s mindset in this book, the teen’s aesthetic differences with her teacher ought not be bypassed. Specifically, we need to ask, from whence comes Ms. Nementhal’s insistence that the teen’s essays are too bound up in the actual, too little given to magical realist flights of invention? And, more importantly, from whence comes Jocelyn’s sense of her teacher’s pouting at her inadequacy? The answer, of course, is that they come from the same place that the on-again, off-again legalism of the gainsaying lawyer-husband of “Elvis Is Ahead of Us” comes. And they come, too, from the same place that the IRS’s skepticism about the poet’s tax filing in “Yancey” comes — namely, from author Beattie’s sense that her day’s (our day’s) various cultural authorities have for a long time been pouting at her supposed inadequacy, have been pushing her in directions alien to her vision, and have, too, pigeon-holed and periodized her for having done so well at so early an age what she still does quite well, namely, write in her own peculiarly postmodernist, realist fashion about the layered intricacies of American heterosexual relationships in the long, long post-60s, post-feminism, post-no-fault-divorce, post-Nixon/Dylan/Beatles/Perrier/Chernobyl and John Hinkley, Jr. era.
I will not recall here the whole of Beattie’s remarkable career from wunderkind New Yorker contributor and K-Mart Realist ringleader in the late 1970s through four subsequent decades of steady, substantial publication, of fading notoriety, and of, perhaps, premature memorialization by way of the publication in 2010 of her omnibus collection, Ann Beattie: The New Yorker Stories. It’s enough to point out that already, in 1980, Joyce Maynard was asking Beattie about her reputation as the premier chronicler of a 60s counterculture idling and washing out in the 70s, and that already Beattie was answering that question with a confession of hostility for that sort of critical brush stroking: “I’ve gotten very hostile to that response to my work.” Also, it’s helpful to recall that in 1984 both Benjamin DeMott and Pico Iyer came forward with summations of the author that did more to freeze and package Beattie than to invite her further unpacking. Said DeMott, Beattie belonged to a generation of writers “bent on telling one and only one story, the changeless theme of which is human unresponsiveness.” Said Iyer, Beattie’s characters’ “main activity [was] refining inactivity.” “Unsituated, they are unstimulated and driven to seek not answer but anesthetics — therapy, TV, valium, joints.” Her “characters do not sink or swim, they float, or — as the modish phrase has it — they go with the flow.” And so on, until 2001, when New York Times critic Jennifer Schuessler, looking to sum up Beattie’s vexed reputation to that millennial point, added to the writer’s supposed signature limitations the notion that she had written about the wrong people, about, that is, “the narcissistic and disconnected, [the] educated white upper-middle-class East Coast tribe that has drifted over the years from group houses in Vermont to haphazardly furnished Manhattan apartments to stolid colonials in Connecticut, held together by loose and loosening romantic bonds that are rarely called by the name love.” Shades of summaries suffered by James, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Waugh and V. Woolf!
Thus, in this late, modest collection Beattie gets back at what she perceives to be the persnickety know-it-all-ness of literary fashion. She does so in her unflattering rendering of Ms. Nementhal. Also, she does so in the two stories in which she does indeed a-characteristically affect a garciamarquezian vision of her north of Newburyport world. (See the bird storm in “The Fledgling” and the groom borne away by the wind in “The Little Hutchinsons.”)
Pique, in short, is a strong authorial force in In the State We’re In, and pique is, as we know, no great helmsman of art or of vision — in most cases. However, in this case, Beattie’s discontent causes her to take a stand that at the very least deserves our consideration for its brave cultural contrariety. Specifically, as I say, she expresses here her firm opposition to those political forces in contemporary literary culture which would urge her to write about same-sex romantic desire and which would reprove her for, as they say, “confirming the heterosexual normative” by focusing exclusively on heterosexual relationships. To date, perhaps because her 80s Chelsea stories often included gay characters (if not featured them), this pervasive contemporary literary critique has not yet been brought to bear in print against Beattie’s work. Still, in the stories I recount here one feels her sense of cultural duress coming from this specific direction in the fact that from her protagonists’ perspectives the stories’ coercive forces emanate in each and every case from gay or gay-aligned quarters. Is it happenstance that Ms. Nementhal and the widow poet’s controlling daughter are lesbian? That the only civilizational scruple still alive in the husband-attorney’s conscience is the one that says gays shall not be spoken about in stereotypical ways? Hardly. Also, in other of the stories, one feels Beattie’s opposition to the day’s sexual politics in her re-working of the classic sexual awakening story. Whereas in the genre’s classic version a protagonist’s innocence is harshly dispelled by her sudden awareness of heterosexual desire’s dangerous, a-chivalric agency in the adult world, in Beattie’s Maine stories, the heterosexual protagonist’s naiveté is smashed by her sudden awareness of same-sex desire’s liberally self-governed operations. See, for example, the Maine picnic story “Aunt Sophie Renaldo Brown,” whose teen protagonist loses no small portion of her innocence with this realization: “Was Aunt Sophie serious in what she was suddenly saying about Bryce and Nathaniel intending to hook up with the man who’d been peeing against a tree?”
Beattie’s sympathies in the culture conflicts that surround issues of sexual orientation are, then, fairly clear in the whole of her Maine Stories. However, she saves for her collection’s knockout last scene the moving articulation of her reason for standing firmly where she stands. I will not spoil her book’s ending by recounting here the scene and its oracular aftermath, save to say, as I already have, that they urge this compelling existential observation: that the homosexual and heterosexual acts are not equivalent; only the latter is the terrifying, potentially co-creative, real thing. Also, as I say, Beattie says in her book’s last pages that she, one of literature’s most accomplished documenters of contemporary American heterosexual relationships, won’t anytime soon be writing a story about same-sex desire. Doing so she would only make the heterosexual mistake that the gay friend Etch of Beattie’s prior fiction Walks with Men warned the coming-of-age female protagonist against in that novella’s spiraled denouement: “Straight people always romanticize the romantic potential of queers,” said Etch. In any event, were she to write such a story, Beattie’s critics would likely only give her the grade that Mrs. Nementhal ultimately gives to Jocelyn’s paper — a B. And Ann Beattie doesn’t want or need a B.
John Cussen teaches at Edinboro University.