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The State We’re In: Maine Stories, Ann Beattie’s first collection of stories in a decade, was well worth waiting for. She has pushed the genre envelope and produced a work that isn’t quite a novel disguised as short stories — although they often feel like that — but a wide-ranging, quiet meditation on relationships in the 21st century.
The common thread is Jocelyn, a teenaged girl who, on introduction, seems a garden-variety disaffected child who has been parked at her aunt and uncle’s home for a summer school regimen of writing. In the very first sentence of the first story, “What Magic Realism Would Be,” she bemoans “the fucking fucking summer school third paper of ten, and if you didn’t get at least a C on the first nine, you had to write eleven.”
Jocelyn doesn’t appear in every story, and even when she does, the reader’s not sure she actually is the same character. When she does show up, however, Beattie adroitly pins down the behavior of such teens (as well as their behavior later, as adults). In the first story, for example, Jocelyn asks to borrow her uncle’s car: “Can I borrow the car for an hour? Some of the kids from the summer program are getting together down at the beach at low tide. There’s no drugs, alcohol, or sex. We’re all too depressed to bother.”
Some stories in this collection are too quiet and, frankly, minor for my taste — “The Fledgling,” a tiny sketch of an unidentified woman who finds a bird splashing around in spillage in her recycling bin — but when Beattie hits her stride, she’s very good. In a mid-volume story, Jocelyn confronts Raleigh, her uncle, about his life’s course: “How did you go from your big important job to selling cars?” She continues pressing Raleigh, whom she actually likes, about her father’s drinking and about her uncle’s marriage to a woman who has survived a cancer scare and become an obese, avid overeater: “But, so, I don’t get it about you and Aunt Bettina. She doesn’t seem anything like you.” Raleigh’s reply demonstrates Beattie’s ability to pin down a relationship at a given point in time: “At this age, people are nothing but their differences.”
The ordinary, then the strange
Handling strangeness is another of Beattie’s skills. While many episodes in this collection involve “ordinary,” if determinedly modern, action — there are several gay and lesbian couples, alleged or missed gay flirtations, Michael Douglas’s portrayal of Liberace, Facebook, and ancient people referring to the “women’s liberation front” — sometimes the writer is genuinely surprising. In “Yancey,” an IRS auditor improbably shows up in person to verify that a poet’s home office is, in fact, only used as a work space. Naturally, the poet, a 77-year-old woman, asks him to move in with her. And although the IRS man has already been disarmed enough to admit that his wife is an alcoholic, he politely refuses. The aging poet laments, “My daughter and her wife drive me crazy, and you would have been good protection.”
As the book’s dust jacket reminds the reader, Beattie was included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century by John Updike, probably the all-time master of precise description. Updike surely would have approved of some of Beattie’s inventions in her new book, both her pitch-perfect dialogue and her descriptions of the things we all define our existences by. The reader is here directed to “Elvis Is Ahead of Us,” particularly the description of the upper floor of an "abandoned” house broken into by teens and the reaction of the mother of the teen who confesses to the breaking and entering.
What, When, Where
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie. Scribner, 2015. Available at Amazon.
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