‘The State We’re In’ by Ann Beattie (2015) – 206 pages
I remember reading Beattie’s first novel, ‘Chilly Scenes of Winter’, nearly forty years ago. At that point the new trend of literary minimalism best exemplified by Raymond Carver was just becoming fashionable. I had read several collections of minimalist stories by various authors but had not yet read an entire minimalist novel. ‘Chilly Scenes of Winter’ was the first, and I was totally charmed by it. Here was a writer who could deal with life as it is lived in the moment. Ann Beattie is best known for her short stories, but ‘Chilly’ is one novel not to be missed.
In her most recent story collection ‘The State We’re In’, Ann Beattie is still describing the people around her with a freshness that is devastating and entertaining. Each of these stories is a slice of life which takes place in the state of Maine. Several of the stories are told from the point of view of teenager Jocelyn who is staying with her aunt and uncle in Maine for the summer. Perhaps this is the ideal view of Maine through the eyes of a young person who is only staying for the summer.
The dialogue in these stories is mighty fine.
“But, so, I don’t get it about you and Aunt Bettina. She doesn’t seem anything like you.”
“At this age, people are nothing but their differences.”
Beattie doesn’t spell out everything and allows the readers to make their own connections. That is one thing I like about her writing.
“Etta Rae always made me laugh. It makes me sound superficial, but I don’t like to hear other people’s problems, though I’ll tolerate most anything if they take me aback and make me laugh. Etta Mae was the perfect storm in that way. “
One long-standing hallmark of Ann Beattie’s fiction is the mention of brand names and pop culture references: Advil Liqui-Gels, Louis CK, ‘The Goldfinch’, People magazine, Beyonce, Tanqueray Ten.
In the story “The Little Hutchinsons”, a couple refuses a request from their neighbors to use their backyard for a wedding party, because the prospective groom as a boy had deliberately mowed over a turtle in their yard. This is a moral question for today.
Interspersed within the stories is some commentary on fiction today. In the first story called “What Magical Realism Would Be”, Jocelyn complains that “You had to write Magical Realism in which no doubt the seagull could recite Latin proverbs while it was being philosophical about the flowers not being fish.”
Along the way the collection contains some good writerly advice.
“I almost had a first draft, and as any writer knows, once you have that, the going gets easier. There is just editing: adjusting, adding the better word here and there, finding the perfect phrase, the enlightening metaphor, taking away the drift of words that have become too plentiful on the snowy white page.”
“Everyone likes to read about peculiar actions. Especially ones that aren’t hugely significant. Ones that don’t sum everything up, I mean. Things that just happened because they happened.”
This story collection has got it all as far as I’m concerned but may be too quirky for some.