Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like the placid pleasure of reading those exquisitely crafted short stories in The New Yorker. Regardless of what they’re about they always put me at ease with the world.
62-year-old US writer Ann Beattie is one of the best at this particular genre. The typical Beattie story is set out in the country and involves relationships between spouses and old friends who, in the course of the narrative, reveal that they don’t like each other all that much after all.
Case in point: Weekend from Beattie’s 1978 collection Secrets and Surprises. The heroine Lenore lives with her children and a partner George, a former university professor denied tenure with a low regard for her own intelligence and a keen interest in a regular stream of mostly female, visiting ex-students.
None of these young woman have husbands; when they bring a man with them at all they bring a lover, and they seem happy not to be married. Lenore, too, is happy to be single — not out of conviction that marriage is wrong but because it would be wrong to be married to George if he thinks she is simple.
If you think it sounds like these two need to have an open chat, you’re thinking right.
But if you think that’s coming in the story, you’re sadly mistaken.
He can weasle out of any corner. At best she can mildly fluster him, and later he will only blame it on the Scotch. Of course she might ask why he has all these women come to visit, why he devotes so little time to her or the children. To that he would say it was the quality of the time they spent together that mattered, not the quantity. He has already said that, in fact, without being asked.
Good realistic dialogue makes characters reveal most about themselves while they’re trying to say nothing, and that’s precisely what Beattie achieves here.
Written as they were more than 30 years ago, Weekend and the other stories in this collection play themselves out in the blur of drunkenness and the haze of marijuana smoke. But Beattie is a good enough writer to know people still have individual traits when buzzed.
Lenore, for instance, is not stupidly blind to her husband’s infidelity. And her husband, as some accidentally discovered evidence suggests, isn’t the happy-go-lucky philanderer he tries so hard to be.
They are pictures that Lenore found in his darkroom last summer; they were left out by mistake, no doubt...They are high-contrast photographs of George’s face. In all of them he looks very serious and very sad; in some his eyes seem to be narrowed in pain. In one, his mouth is open. It is an excellent photograph of a man in agony, a man about to scream.
George, it turns out, have never gotten over being denied tenure.
A lot of writing from the ‘60s and ‘70s about semi-hippies living out in the middle of the woods is very dated. Beattie’s isn’t – because she’s such a fine, low-key observer of other people’s rituals of bonding and betrayal.
And the fact that there are people like here serenely watching over this often maddening world somehow strangely makes me feel a bit better about it.