Short stories that catch moments seen with an affectionate eye
Where You'll Find Me, and Other Stories, by Ann Beattie. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. 191 pp. $14.95. First published by The New Yorker, included in an annual collection of best short stories, and now in this newest collection of stories, ``Janus'' is considered one of the best stories Ann Beatie has written. It is the story of a real-estate agent's attachment to a strangely beautiful bowl. The woman begins to place it, successfully, in homes she wants to sell. Given to her by a lover she spurned, it becomes to her a symbol that ``she was always too slow to learn what she really loved.'' I think ``Janus'' is one of the weaker, certainly the most belabored, of the stories in ``Where You'll Find Me.'' It lacks the quicksilver dash that marks the best of Beattie -- as if she had been browbeaten by her editor into finishing every last thought, to draw out every last inference.
That belabored quality separates ``Janus'' from the other stories in this collection. There is a wildness to the rest of them, an odd just-rightness in the way the stories turn, as if she took the lid off and let go. She says she starts with a visual image and then, ``Something comes in and takes over.'' What happens is magical and exhilarating. Beattie writes so well that the strains of sadness in these stories are not burdensome. There are grace notes of weary sweetness, even lyricism. And best of all, there are recognizable virtues, like loyalty, fortitude, and patience.
This can be seen in the first story of the collection, ``In the White Night.''
A long-married couple returns home from a dinner party. Vernon falls asleep on the sofa with his wife's jacket over his head. Carol doesn't want to wake him by curling up with him, but she doesn't want to go to bed alone. So she stretches out on the floor next to the couch and pulls his camel's-hair coat over her for warmth. ``Ready to sleep in this peculiar double-decker fashion, in the largest, coldest room of all,'' Carol asks the inevitable, ``What would anyone think?''
She thinks of the hard times she and Vernon have had since their daughter, Sharon, died. Carol resolves that ``anyone who was a friend would understand exactly. In time, both of them had learned to stop passing judgment on how they coped with the inevitable sadness that set in, always unexpectedly, but so real it was met with the instant acceptance one gave to a snowfall. In the white night world outside, their daughter might be drifting past like an angel, and she would see this tableau, for the second that she hovered, as a necessary small adjustment.''
In a recently published interview, Beattie said she was fascinated by ``reflective people in a mess.'' But for all the messes they get into, few of her characters are reflective.
These stories depend so much on the apt detail, the careful phrasing, and not paragraphs of explanation and analysis. Much has been written about this, as if Beattie were using a yuppie code of brand names to tell her stories.
Actually, something far more powerful is at work. She has gathered material with a rapt and affectionate eye, and she has refined it as only a very fine writer can.
And it is too easy to think that contemporary references, like Kleenex, Tropicana, and Tide, date and trivialize a story. But it is a problem that even Jane Austen worried about. When ``Northanger Abbey'' was published 13 years after it was written, Austen included a forenote apologizing that ``during that period places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.''
If there is a fault in Ann Beattie's new book, it is this: Her stories hardly seem to be stories. It is moments that she catches and catches so beautifully: the sudden lightness of a car as it goes into a skid, the ``Tide-scented steam'' outside a laundry, the couple sleeping in ``double-decker fashion'' on a snowy night. They can be moving moments because we feel them as the characters feel them, and we are drawn in. But they are fragments, nonetheless.
To Beattie and, it seems, to her readers, this is not a fault at all. It is closer to how we are, to what we feel and remember. As a woman tells the story of a failed affair in the story, ``Snow,'' Beattie writes, ``Who expects small things to survive when even the largest get lost? People forget years and remember moments. Seconds and symbols are left to sum things up.'' This Beattie does admirably.