Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Yes, you should definitely read Ann Beattie's story collection What Was Mine

Cover of my copy of What Was Mine by Ann Beatie

It has been about a year since I first picked up Ann Beattie's short story collection What Was Mine (1991). I can't remember where I bought it, and the bookmark that fell out of it is from a bookstore in a town I've never been to. Regardless, I'm glad that I own it and that I pursued the stories over all of this time. I've never read Ann Beattie before, so it's a lovely surprise to learn how much I love her writing and that, luckily, there is much else by her to be explored. 

I finished the last story of the collection this evening. The collection holds twelve stories, and each follows a character often reflecting on his or her life and the unpredictable pathways that, jutting this way and that, have somehow led to where he or she sits now--divorced, married but restless, in strained parent-child relationships, and the like. 

These are people who, having followed the given scripts of life, now find themselves in an ongoing lull in the script--a sort of blank on-goingness; life continues, taking them with it, regardless of how fulfilled they or their partners, neighbors, or friends are. The stories remind me of Carol Shields writing in tone and subject, and I'm also reminded of this particular poem by Daniel Halpern, "Argument" (of the same time period) in which the voice of the poem is surprised to discover that his wife has become damaged because of her playing of the role of wife. 

In Ann Beattie's story "Home to Marie," a man watches a caterer carry food into his house for a party his wife is throwing, only to find out that there is no party--never was a party--and that his wife is leaving him. The premise of the party was so that he could finally feel as she has for so many years--waiting for him to show up. 

In another story, "Horatio's Trick," a divorcee plays marbles on the kitchen floor with the chocolates her ex-husband's wife has sent--mentally noting the new wife's handwriting and that the previous year the family gift had been in his handwriting; meanwhile, their college-aged son is upstairs on the phone with his girlfriend--the girlfriend went to her own home for Christmas but her dog is in the backyard. The woman feels alone and left out, and every moment of possible connection--whether at a holiday party or in opening presents with her son--ends up in awkward disconnection. She wakes up on Christmas night or early morning to headlights staring into her living room, only to find a car wreck. One driver is drunk, and the other driver's car is caught on her fence; she can tell that there's no way the car can reverse itself out of the accident--despite the intoxicated driver calling out directions to free the car. She thinks of recounting the story to her son in the morning.

My favorite of the stories is "You Know What" in which a man, Stefan, finds himself raising his daughter, working from a home office, and doubting the monogamy of his financially successful wife. He feels constant dread and still is unsure that his wife would have married him if not for becoming pregnant. There's much about her he feels helpless to understand, though he continues to wonder--following the possible causal paths that could help him but don't. Meanwhile, his daughter's classroom rabbit dies, and the teacher has them write goodbye letters to it. Then the school janitor's brother dies, and the teacher has the students write him sympathy cards.

At a parent-teacher conference, Stefan learns that his daughter tells many long-winded stories at school, and that the teacher is concerned--wondering what might lie beneath the stories--some darker truth or inner concerns. Stefan thinks it's a habit from her mother, even though he clearly is the giver of this habit. The teacher shows Stefan the replacement rabbit and says she puts the rabbit in the children's coat closet overnight because the janitor worried about the lights shining in at night and making sleep hard for the rabbit. The teacher assures Stefan, though he has no concern, that she always remembers to bring the rabbit out of the closet in the morning. 

Later in the story, Stefan and his wife become close during a playful date, and he feels momentarily balanced in the relationship. When Stefan receives a phone call that their daughter's teacher has died unexpectedly, he starts to dwell on the classroom rabbit left in the closet overnight, and now all day since no children would be in the classroom. He contacts the janitor. The story ends in the daughter's classroom at night with the janitor and Stefan checking on the rabbit. The rabbit is fine. The janitor removes love letters from the teacher's desk drawer, admitting an affair. There in the dark classroom, in a style reminiscent of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie has Stefan confess to the janitor that his whole life has felt like a series of accidents:

"McKee," Stefan says, walking beside him, "all my life I've felt like I was just making things up, improvising as I went along. I don't mean telling lies, I mean inventing a life. It's something I've never wanted to admit."

The janitor assures Stefan that he knows what Stefan means. And that's the story. 

I love it. 

I love the unpredictably reasonable turns that the story takes. 

I love the rabbit left in a dark closet and the letters that the teacher has her students write to the dead rabbit. That the teacher's affair with the janitor is the actual impetus for her having the students write sympathy cards--this assignment as love gesture to him through her students' notes.

The story beneath the story.  

The myriad ways to tunnel back into the story once you've read the whole thing.

What I appreciate about Beattie's stories is her care in writing them (nothing is dashed off), the well-put details, the seriousness she allows her characters to have when examining their lives, and how, by the ends, the stories require time to linger and dissipate before readers can step into the next story and world. Any one of the stories want to be lived in. For a while. 

There is humor, darkness, surprisingly methodical turns in the stories. I'm so glad to have read them and to add her to the growing list of writers that I love. I think you will, too.


Allegory Books and Music, the bookmark in my copy of What Was Mine