“No day failed to contain the unexpected,” says it all about this book. Sometimes situations in real life never really resolve themselves; they just keep on going, with no end in sight. Or the unexpected happens and another situation intercedes and takes over without the first one seeing closure. Much can be said of life and is reflected beautifully in a new book by Ann Beattie.
In her new collection of short stories entitled The State We’re In, Maine Stories, she continues her ambitious career as a writer of enormous talent and voice. Having produced a literary output of nine novels and ten story collections, she continues to gain an audience worldwide with her rapt sense of life situations and the people that are connected, and many times dis-connected, from the experience. This is her first collection in over ten years.
Using quirky situations, she adeptly conjures scenes and conversations from every day life while capably moving the story forward. The times change and certainly the characters do as well, but in many of the stories there is a sense of constancy that seeps from page to page. Some of these situations are, without doubt, from Beattie’s own memory and life moments, remembered and laid down in a somewhat re-arranged fashion, to fit the mood and the time. The characters in these stories appear as being drawn to the state of Maine or being “of it,” much as the very granite that lies at the feet of its inhabitants.
The fifteen stories are somewhat interconnected, with voices and characters unexpectedly showing up from time to time and from story to story. Jocelyn, a character that appears in three of the stories, starts out as a serious but rebellious “want to be” writer who blossoms with maturity as a young woman cast out and away to find life in her own way. Whether it’s a summer spent with a naïve uncle and a warden like aunt, or with a long lost mother now back with a new boyfriend, trying to make amends, she and her development as a person is flawless, yet still flawed, much the way life is.
In the story, “Adirondack Chairs,” what is done sometimes in a secret code, only to be understood between family members, is revealed by the exact positioning and posturing of two very uncomfortable summer chairs. The unforeseen nuance of this at the end of the story leads the reader back, as it did me, to read it again to see if any signs were missed to signal this particular ending. Good writing will do that sometimes.
“Foundling” is a snapshot of an unexpected find amongst the trash, an injured baby bird, and a realization that life, though unpredictable, is still life, and needs to be shown respect and taken care of.
And in a personal favorite, “Yancey,” the dialogue of an old writer and an IRS agent there to determine if one room, an office, is appropriate for a tax deduction, reveals the collection’s theme: moments are always unexpected. After the two read a poem together, the following exchange is a perfect example of this theme.
“Is that really a poem?” the agent finally said.“What else would it be?” the writer responds.
“I’ve never heard anything like that. The last line comes out of nowhere.”
“I don’t think so, the writer replies, “The poet could have said that from the beginning, but he gave us the scene so that we’d be seduced, the way he’d been. And then changed the game on us — on himself — at the last moment.”
Ann Beattie and her husband of 27 years, artist Lincoln Perry, split their time between their farmhouse in York, Maine, and a home in Key West. The two mentor each other while sharing their life and work, forming an alliance of sorts. She has been quoted as saying, “Lincoln’s talent is visual and mine is with words, but we’re very in sync because when he looks at something, he sees automatically the complexity of it. He does either group figure compositions or multi-panel paintings—many takes of the same scene—and that, I think, is very analogous to what I’m trying to do in writing.”
These stories are bright and funny, sometimes tragic and often tinged with nostalgia, which is an element in her writing that shows up quite often even when the situations are a little offbeat. And there is one final thing that also can be said after reading this collection; that is, life for all of us certainly can be unpredictable, and perhaps sometimes, a little weird. Isn’t that the truth?
Scribner, 2015 Hardcover, $25.00