More MS news articles for February 2001

For These Fictional Characters, Life Is As Strange As The Real Thing

http://chicagotribune.com/leisure/books/article/0,2669,SAV-0102240010,FF.html

By Gina Frangello. Gina Frangello is the associate editor of Other Voices, an all-fiction literary journal based in...
February 25, 2001
PERFECT RECALL

By Ann Beattie

Scribner, 347 pages, $25

In "The Famous Poet, Amid Bougainvillea," the final story in Ann Beattie's new collection, "Perfect Recall," an actual poet appears only briefly, at a distance and hopelessly out of tune with the reality surrounding him. This story really belongs to Hopper, former gofer for a famous artist, now seen lounging at his employer's home deteriorating from multiple sclerosis.

Hopper--not any celebrity--is the quintessential "Perfect Recall" protagonist. Three of these 11 stories deal with middle-age men living lives of servitude to famous male employers, subjugating their own identities and relationships for the good life of vicarious wealth. In each odd couple, the employer is gay, while his assistant is ostensibly straight; unexpected illness further complicates each bond between boss and boy Friday.

Hopper is the most compelling, as he, rather than his aged employer, is the one to take ill, but in each instance, while money initially prompts self-serving desire on the part of he who lacks, it does not preclude the growth of genuine love. Hopper's employer continues to support him, simply hiring other assistants hand-picked by Hopper to care for them both. Money, in the world Beattie weaves, is light for those who possess it; refreshingly, she does not use wealth as a synonym for evil, but allows for the healing power of generosity even amidst envy and aspirations of coattail-riding. There is something poignant in her portraits of ordinary people pursuing petty brushes with greatness yet ultimately coming to long most for real connection--for a simple lack of desertion--which, with occasionally staggering beauty, they actually achieve.

"Perfect Recall" is a collection of the old--well, the old contemporary--school: a welcome rebellion against the novel-in-stories so trendy these days. Beattie exercises variations on only a few plots and themes here; many characters from different stories might have easily been snipped and cut to become one another. But her decision to keep each piece distinct underscores the small nuances of difference--sudden divergences--that delightfully separate story collections from novels. Besides effeminate-but-straight male assistants (each of whom speaks with the theatrical, stridently sardonic wit straight men exhibit only on the TV show "Frasier"), the collection sees several other personas revisited in different forms. One is the old lady oracle (always someone's aunt), who reveals who secretly loves whom so that the protagonists do not have to analyze their own psyches and can remain starkly drawn, even in crisis mode, as is Beattie's trademark. These revelations of unrequited love are amusingly beside the point; in all these pieces, friends fare better than lovers, and frustrated love does not get anybody all that worked up. Romance takes a back seat to random acts of weirdness--the discovery of a voodoo doll of one's daughter, finding one's husband and one's would-be-lover with a drunken bimbo propped between them--so the old women's words seem more ironic than revelatory. Life, especially at its most ordinary, is too strange to fall into place because of an elderly aunt's wishful thinking--or even what might be her malice.

Beattie's settings serve as protagonists alongside her characters in this Key West-and-Maine-divided collection, where nobody lives anywhere year-round. Key West, especially, is a force all its own. Though Beattie could not have anticipated it, Florida ("the big pee-pee . . . of the United States") seems an almost perversely loaded symbol, in the post-2000 election climate, of American compromise. As Beattie's characters--and readers--have aged and left the earnest artist lofts of youth, we find ourselves amidst the uniquely American kitsch that is Key West (or a presidential election), half-reluctantly devouring its easy spectacle. "Cat People" especially pays homage to this refuge where Baby Boomers cling to childish antics, "pulling other adults in wagons on the sidewalk" or sideswiping cyclists for fun. Residents who once led more meaningful--or at least more decadent--lives now watch the weather for thrills, taking "comfort in hearing how cold it was elsewhere." In fact, while Beattie's characters are quirky, smart and troubled (usually by an inability to feel deeply enough, or by that product of the '60s, helplessness in organizing their adult lives), they are far more fluid than their locations. Which character's perspective we are in changes on a dime; rarely does one character own a story as fully as does its locale, even when that piece, such as the brilliant title story, is narrated in first person.

Beattie's realism is as messy as life, with linear events often appearing chaotically unrelated until a hidden nugget from the past surfaces to bind everything into a circle at the end, casting a sudden, unifying specter. Interestingly, though "Perfect Recall" is set in a late-20th-Century landscape, the '60s often serve as that unifier--that force driving characters' psyches as, whether by Vietnam or by pot-hazed hippie flats, they are haunted by a generation lost, by old guilt bearing on present relationships.

Yet while Beattie is a master of form, less even are the voices with which these stories are told. Her strength lies in female protagonists; "The Women of This World" and "The Infamous Fall of Howell the Clown" are back-to-back gems tackling violence against women, female friendships, sisterhood and transcendent moments in the subtle-yet-powerful way only Beattie can. Her men, though, often end up sounding like women, or at least a woman's idea of how a man's interior monologue runs. These guys use too many words to convey a thought, try too hard to be witty, analyze other men to their faces (" `It always shocks me when you say something plaintive' ") and tend to sound inappropriately British.

This has detrimental effects in what is otherwise one of the best stories in this or any of Beattie's collections, "The Big-Breasted Pilgrim," in which a former Marine becomes (again) the assistant to a famous, gay chef, finds himself living loveless in the lap of luxury, and ends up on the receiving end of several freaky and heartbreaking phone calls from George Stephanopoulos and President Bill Clinton.

This is the perfect story for the (recently) post-Clinton era, set back when Whitewater was the scandal loyalists feared would mar Clinton's presidency (" `No mention of Whitewater!' " the narrator is commanded.) "Pilgrim" portrays Stephanopoulos and Clinton as a wistful, melancholy pair, missing the good times they'd be having fishing and hanging out if they did not have to fly around dining with famous chefs and engaging in the pomp of presidency. The sincerity of both, behind all their requisite schmoozing, evokes a nostalgia that could not have been fully realized when Beattie wrote this story during Clinton's administration. When, in the end, the narrator's employer becomes disabled and he stands to lose the life of privilege--the shallow love games, cruel friendships, androgynous bonds and, ultimately, sense of belonging and family--that came with his employ, his sense of loss is double-edged. He mourns something beautiful if somewhat corrupt, echoing America's loss of an era gone by as Clinton the president also recedes into the story realm of history.

This may be Beattie's finest work in years, an end-of-the-century ode whose resonance grows greater at the dawn of the century ahead.