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The Weight of Lightness : PICTURING WILL <i> by Ann Beattie (Random House: $18.95; 230 pp.) </i>

When Jody married her first husband, Wayne, she had a premonition of their future as she looked down at his hand curved around her waist:

“His fingers were perfectly placed but you could see how lightly their touch registered. Either the thing he touched was ephemeral, or his touch made it so; this many years later, she still wondered which. But in that instant, she had realized that she would slip through Wayne’s fingers.”

Ann Beattie’s new novel, her first in five years, takes up once more the lightness and hollowness that go with the narcissism of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Liberation from so many outside commands--of religion, duty, guilt, repression--leaves the body, free of its chains, in a state of weightlessness that is quite the opposite of flying.

In “Picturing Will,” much darker than her previous work, the lightness has a consequence much more tangible than brittle disquiet. In a scene of pure horror, a victim is produced: Jody and Wayne’s little boy, Will. A world freed of bonds falls apart, and the children fall through the cracks.

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The novel, loosely retrospective, looks back 25 years or so to Jody and Wayne’s brief marriage and the birth of Will, and samples some selected points along their lives since then. They begin as some sort of flower-children; they live briefly on a farm where she takes care of the horses and he reads, talks vaguely about going to college, and eventually walks out.

Jody, with a little help from her father, moves to Charlottesville, Va., gets a job in a camera shop, learns photography and makes a living taking wedding pictures. She meets Mel, a partner in a New York art gallery; they become lovers, and he urges her to marry him, move to New York and concentrate on serious photography.

Eventually she does. Mel gets her a show at one of New York’s hottest galleries, partly because her work is brilliant and partly as a trade-off with Haverford, the gallery’s ultra-trendy owner. Haverford wants Mel to work for him; Mel agrees. Artistic brilliance will make it in New York but you need angles as well.

Jody, a devoted if nervous small-town mother, takes to the New York scene as if she had been made for it. She becomes a star, with Haverford’s help. Will is all but forgotten. Mel, moving away from the world she is moving into, discovers his own vocation as a parent. He seizes upon it with a devotion that is genuine and well-meaning, but that is also as essentially narcissistic as Jody’s stardom.

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One of the book’s features is Mel’s parenting diary, containing his reflections about children and what they need. These are thoughtful but magazine-shallow; there is an uneasy leadenness to them. Instead of genuine discovery, the reflections are a mirror into which Mel can peer, hiding his own fears and unhappinesses by dressing up as a parent.

Wayne is a narcissist of another, rougher kind. He has settled in Florida where he works as a gardener, sits in bars and seduces women. He is married to his third wife, Corky--Jody was his second--and is thinking of leaving her because she wants a baby.

Wayne can stand nothing that will claim him. He can’t stand women’s exhaustion when they have babies. “It was numbing, like trudging through wet sand,” he reflects. Babies themselves frighten him with their helplessness. He cannot even think of himself--fearful as he is of claims--except in the third person.

For a while, we get only brief glimpses of Will. What we see is the hollowness that surrounds him: a flaky mother turned star, a flaky father turned near-psychopath, and a kindly, unctuous, role-playing stepfather.

The book’s central episode tells of the damage. When Mel drives Will to visit Wayne in Florida, Haverford volunteers to come along. He brings Spencer, the young son of one of his former artists, ostensibly to keep Will company.

If Jody, Wayne and even Mel are each monsters in their own way--a way not of deliberate evil but of an absence of necessary good--Haverford is the devil for our times. He is the ultimate evil of ultimate nonbeing. Jody, so dependent on him, can’t even remember his name properly; she calls him Haveabud.

Haverford-Haveabud is reptilian, powerful in his world and utterly bent upon his own pleasures. A figure out of a Warhol diary, he takes a particular pleasure in little boys.

In a Florida motel, Will witnesses sex between the art dealer and Spencer, his small protege. He is tentatively, not conclusively, drawn in, but the witnessing is horror enough. It marks him. It is a more-than-Gothic scene, brilliantly laid out. It tells of a child, as terribly abandoned as a Calcutta orphan in the plenty and indulgences of our fashionable world.

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There are other moments of great skill in the writing of “Picturing Will.” Beattie describes Jody picking up her Leica camera: “You suddenly felt more delicate but at the same time more connected to things, the way you felt when you slipped a ballet slipper on your foot.” She writes of the neo-formality of the trendy New York scene, where no one is called Steve or Ed any more, but Steven and Edward:

“Everyone was into high seriousness so that now even dogs were named Humphrey or Raphael.”

Her portrait of Haverford’s baleful rise in the art world is worthy of Tom Wolfe. He takes an overweight Brooklyn painter, renames him Luther, puts him on a diet, has his pores cleaned and invests in a $200 shirt which he repossesses after the opening.

The novel states clearly the evil of our lightness. But as a novel, it is not very successful. Jody, Mel and Wayne are hollow, to be sure, but hollowness prolonged becomes tedium. Mel’s almost-wise diary makes a point, but we are stuck with the almost.

Beattie, at her best, has been able to endow her brittle people with verve, wicked humor and a dazzling curve of flight. Here they flap along in a discouraged half-light. Even Will, his ordeal past, grows into an adult gray.


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