"The State We're In," Ann Beattie's ninth book of short fiction, is a work of double meanings, beginning with that title: The 15 stories here take place in Maine, where the author spends part of each year, but it is also a reference to a more existential state.
Who are we? How do we navigate the world or each other? These have long been Beattie's signature concerns. Her early efforts — the novels "Chilly Scenes of Winter" and "Falling in Place," the collections "Distortions" and "Secrets and Surprises" — revolve around people for whom the freedom to do anything has morphed into the freedom to do nothing. Elliptical, resistant to resolution, they are portraits of conditional characters, trying to make sense of a conditional time.
Beattie was among the first fiction writers to evoke the rootlessness of post-1960s America, and yet if this once seemed emblematic, it feels a bit more nuanced now. What I mean is that her characters continue to be feckless, but they are no longer part of what the Paris Review has called the "Beattie generation"; they lack even that much certainty.
"The State We're In" offers a case in point. Moving fluidly between adolescents and septuagenarians, it leaves us with the sense that uncertainty, disconnection, is not a matter of chronology but rather of being alive. As Beattie explains in "Duff's Done Enough": "The whole world's full of stories. I never doubted that. Every writer will tell you the same thing: It's next to impossible to find the inevitable story, because so many needles appear in so many haystacks."
Think, then, of "The State We're In" as 15 needles, 15 slices of life. Some are sharper, more pointed, than others, but all share a sense that meaning, or engagement, remains slightly out of reach. Take Jocelyn, the teenager who centers three of the collection's stories, shipped out to her aunt and uncle while her mother recovers from surgery. She is in summer school, learning about magical realism when all she wants is to be seen for who she is.
"Now was the hour," Beattie writes in the opening story, "What Magical Realism Would Be": "Uncle Raleigh would look at what she'd written and offer advice and encouragement, while she mentally corkscrewed her finger outside her ear and pitied him because he had no job, and he limped, and he was a nice man, but also sort of an idiot."
Jocelyn has no desire to become like the adults around her, all of whom appear to have given up. What she doesn't — can't — understand is that their longings are as powerful as hers. "I wanted to be that smoke," the narrator of "Aunt Sophie Renaldo Brown" muses as she watches a man have a cigarette. "To disappear."
To highlight such a sensibility, Beattie develops her stories incrementally, almost anecdotally, as if their structure were a function of voice, or character. "Aunt Sophie Renaldo Brown," for instance, turns on the announcement that the narrator's aunt has cancer, a revelation made off-handedly, conversationally, as they enter a party.
"Now I have to tell the rest of the story another way," Beattie writes, "because I can't pretend that what happened didn't happen." What she is saying is that the narratives we share with one another often glide over the most important parts. Who is to know how we are feeling, what we want, the burden of our loss, our obligation, if we cannot share these things?
This is where literature comes in, or storytelling. (There is a difference between art and anecdote, after all.) And the better part of Beattie's artistry comes in the way she weaves this into the very substance of her fiction. These are stories, in other words, that are aware of themselves as stories — indeed that awareness only deepens their reality.
"Reality" is a key word because Beattie is no metafictionalist. Her subjects are people, bound by love and by ambition, wondering about the paths they took to where they are. "How had she ended up here?" Beattie asks of the protagonist of "Missed Calls," a 73-year-old widow who once met Truman Capote and is now being interviewed for a book.
That she doesn't have much to say about him doesn't matter; her interlocutor has arrived in the company of his college-age goddaughter, who is having a breakdown. "If she had it to do over again," the story ends, "would she?" — and we are unsure, in that moment, whether Beattie is referring to the older or the younger character.
Something similar takes place in "Silent Prayer," which records the conversation between a wife and husband as he prepares for a business trip: banal, a mix of gossip and conjecture, until he leaves and the life they share, the life they take for granted, is cast in sharp relief. "Please let the plane not crash, she thought, going weak in the knees," Beattie writes. "… This was a habitual thought. More or less like a prayer."
Finally, it is this "The State We're In" most fully highlights — how we feel in the in-between moments, those that could go either way. "Our flipping thumb runs out of space and time," the narrator of "The Little Hutchinsons" insists. "We can only raise our first finger in the universal sign: a lesson must be learned.... Having learned it, I pass it on."
That's a telling statement, not just in terms of the character but also in regard to Beattie herself. "I certainly wouldn't have known how to write the story of that summer," she tells us in "Adirondack Chairs," another story of widowhood. "Tracy and Bea and Alex and I were at those points in our lives when everything made sense in not making sense, you know?"
We do know, we've always known, which is the strength of these stories: their ability — no, insistence — not to rely on easy closure or false epiphany.
The State We're In: Maine Stories
Atlantic Monthly Press: 206 pp., $25