Ann Beattie arrived on the literary scene in the early 1970s, publishing the first of her carefully understated short stories in the New Yorker and becoming something of a legend for the speed with which she worked--22 stories in a year, and a complete draft of her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in three weeks. Time has not slowed Beattie down--her fifth collection, Park City, follows hard on the heels of her fifth novel, My Life, Starring Dara Falcon, providing a kind of symmetry to her output. Lest you think Beattie is some kind of perpetual writing machine, however, be forewarned that only 8 of the 36 stories in this collection have not been previously published in book form; the rest are selected from earlier collections, thus offering an interesting survey of how the writer has changed--and how she hasn't.
From the start of her career, Beattie has been compared to Cheever and Updike, chroniclers of the chilly middle classes, and also to Raymond Carver, master practitioner of that school of literature known as minimalism. Beattie's stories seem smaller than life in some ways, depending as they do on an accretion of detail to round out her characters' lives. In her world, as in our own, there are no grand epiphanies, no moments of blinding realization. Instead, her characters muddle through their days in a series of small events that culminate in a whisper instead of a bang. In "Going Home with Uccello," for example, a woman on holiday with her lover in Italy watches him interact with a woman in a museum gift shop and realizes his true purpose for the trip is not to convince her to make a commitment to him, but rather to "persuade himself that he loved her so much that no one else could be a distraction--that no other woman could come between them." In "What Was Mine" another nameless narrator--male, this time--claims his inheritance from the man who had been his widowed mother's lover and the only father figure he'd ever known:
There was sheet music inside: six Billie Holiday songs that I recognized immediately as Herb's favorites for ending the last set of the evening. There were several notes, which I suppose you could call love notes, from my mother. There was a tracing, on a food-stained Merry Mariner place mat, of a cherry, complete with stem, and a fancy pencil-drawn frame around it that I vaguely remembered Herb having drawn one night. There was also a white envelope that contained the two pictures of one of the soldiers on Guam; one of a handsome young man looking impassively at a sleeping young baby. I knew the second I saw it that he was my father. Understanding, such as it is, comes in the quiet moments, in the exchange of glances in a gift shop, or the transposed captions on a couple of photographs.
Over the years, Beattie has continued to map the psychological and emotional territory of the urban, the educated, the neurotic middle class. On those occasions when her stories are set outside of New York--Vermont, Park City, Utah, Italy--her characters are generally from there, or at least from another large city such as Los Angeles. Beattie's prose has always been crisp, smart with just a touch of the smart aleck to it--on occasion she can be remarkably funny. But there's a chilliness in her stories that discourages the reader from getting too close, or investing too much. Her often nameless narrators tell their tales in the modulated tones of well-brought-up people for whom not wearing one's heart on one's sleeve is a religion. And yet in their spare revelations of loss and disappointment, their timid essays to the borderlands of hope, more often than not these characters do get under your skin. Depending on your tolerance for ambiguity, they can either irritate or captivate. Beattie's work tends to play to the intellect rather than the gut. For readers looking for a shot to the cerebellum, she satisfies; for those who prefer their fiction warm-blooded, Park City might be a trifle too cool. --Alix Wilber