Subject Matters

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I’m long overdue in submitting a book review of Ann Beattie’s New Yorker Stories to a very patient literary editor but now that the Fall semester is over, I’m preparing to take on Beattie's tome by reading the reviews of her recent Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a LifeThe Nation calls it a genre-defying work, “a kind of Cubist portrait-cum-metafictional excursus” (the Wall Street Journal, less kindly, dismisses it as a “hodgepodge of genres”). My interest in the book comes mostly from a craft perspective—since Beattie’s short stories are about aimless, drifting 1960’s-era young people. Mrs. Nixon represents a revisitation of that era through an opposing viewpoint.

Pat Nixon is generally regarded as little more than a quiet, generic housewife. In Mrs. Nixon, Beattie pulls her into the forefront, speculating about her marriage, offering, for example, a playful scene where she bakes cookies with Hillary Clinton and nine ideas as to Mrs. Nixon’s possible thoughts while standing in an elevator: i.e., “I may very well have forgotten to turn off the bathwater.”  

Most reviewers agree that Mrs. Nixon fails in its goal of giving the subject real dimension; that Beattie does not examine Pat Nixon’s inner life earnestly enough and that “her subject often seems a pretext, something just to get the conversation going.” In an interview with New York Magazine, Beattie admitted, “I think she was limited. I think the things that allowed her to get out of dirt-poor poverty and to put herself forward, and to work extremely hard, didn’t necessarily serve her very well in terms of looking at things from a distance, and ever saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute.”

But back to craft. I haven’t yet read Mrs. Nixon, but am fascinated by the idea of an author engrossing herself in subject matter she once found, “very much not interested in—militantly not interested in.” The reviews indicate that by engaging with such an unappealing, cardboard-cutout of a subject, Beattie was forcing herself to consider an alternative view on her generation, yet ultimately found her own original take much more compelling.