"Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it," says a character in Ann Beattie's short story, "Snow." And two paragraphs later, "People forget years and remember moments."
These two statements are clues to Beattie's program in "Where You'll Find Me," her seventh book of fiction and fourth collection of stories since "Distortions" was published 10 years ago.
These 15 stories represent a scaling down of situations and lives recognizable from Beattie's earlier work. There are families who "argued with each other and made pronouncements instead of having conversations." There are lovers who don't connect--exhausted city women and lonely, touchy men--and a woman who is embarrassed to learn that she's fallen in love with her husband at the same time he was beginning to have an affair.
Passengers in cars listen to the Eurythmics and Hall & Oates. Reference is made to the recent films, "Agnes of God" and "Paris, Texas." (As a shortcut to establishing mood and signaling an audience, or as a means to place a story in the moment, this device dates a story.)
Now hitting 40, those who flowered in the '60s still smoke the occasional joint; now it helps them transform the baseboards of a Victorian house into faux marbre .
Social behavior is simplified--"If people did not argue in front of their friends, they were not having problems . . . " thinks a character in "In the White Night." Or behavior remains as baffling as ever--"How do people make small talk when they've shared a world?"
Many of the characters here are interchangeable with those of Beattie's early New Yorker stories. The names are new, but it's still Drew and Kyle and Cammy and Renee and why their lives are falling apart.
At a deeper level, "In the White Night" shows a husband and wife making the "necessary small adjustments" to their daughter's death from leukemia. The father in "Summer People" sees menace to his vacationing family from an envious, inquisitive salesman and from the woman next door. In fundamental ways, he feels himself excluded from the workings of his own family.
The title story is the best in the book. A woman of 38, her arm a "broken wing," out of work and unsure of her standing with her lover, visits her brother and his family at Christmas. With charm, range and insight, Beattie gives us intimacy and uneasy confessions, and a wonderfully sardonic 11-year-old girl.
As before, when Beattie's characters say something, it is not dialogue, but speech --the way people really sound. And, as in all of her work, there are precise images and associations. The woman who broke her arm had first slipped on ice after trying to stop a bus by "shaking (her) shopping bags like maracas in the air."
In "High School," a woman observes her dinner partner: "He eats only raw food, and has brought his own. He crunches a bud of cauliflower. If a certain kind of pain had sound, the noise of teeth crunching through cauliflower might represent it."
"Janus" is a fable-like story about a Realtor who attributes her success in selling houses to a cream-colored bowl that she places in each house before she shows it. This is new territory for Beattie, who is on more familiar ground in "Coney Island" and "Cards," where she writes about the complexity of friendship.
"Cards," first published in Esquire, is two savvy women at lunch. They note the flirtation of a man at the next table as Josie reveals an awkward development--her lover has become friends with the ex-lover of her luncheon companion (one thing these stories have plenty of is lovers ). Difficult to explain, Josie says, but she would be traitorous not to try.
Drew, in "Coney Island," visits his friend Chester hours before going to meet an old girlfriend, now married. With Chester's wife in the hospital for exploratory surgery (she can't get pregnant), Drew rhapsodizes about his former lover. "Charlotte's elbows were pointy, like a hard lemon. I used to hold onto her elbows when I made love to her," he tells his friend. "What a thing to be sitting here remembering."
If these remarks have so far leaned heavily on quotes from the stories, it is the same mechanism by which we forget years and remember moments.
There are memorable lines in "Where You'll Find Me," but for memorable stories , a better choice is Beattie's peak performance, "The Burning House." In those remarkable stories, the perfect, shivery endings called for a decent interval before going on to the next. In this new collection, more often than not, all that happens when you finish reading a story is--you finish reading a story.