Friday, November 18, 2011

Deep Disappointment Tempered by Whatever's Next

In the September 19 issue of "The New Yorker", I read a short story by Ann Beattie called Starlight, which was an excerpt from her then-forthcoming book, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life. The excerpt, involving the taking of the final family photograph before the Nixons leave the White House was so fascinating to me because it considered what Pat Nixon might have been going through during that time, though there is no clear record of that. Beattie had apparently done a lot of research and thought about Pat Nixon's feelings, and written about the event from her perspective.

I was riveted and not only pre-ordered the book on Amazon, I also ordered Chilly Scenes of Winter, her first novel; Distortions, her first book of short stories; and The New Yorker Stories, a vast compilation of the short stories she wrote for "The New Yorker" over 30+ years.

I received Mrs. Nixon on Wednesday, and immediately dived into it, hoping that what I had found in "The New Yorker" would be spread throughout the 267 pages of this book with that purpose. I didn't.

The title alone holds more promise than Beattie, a masterful writer otherwise, produces. In her essays (which feel more like the lectures she likely gives at the University of Virginia, and I don't recall signing up for any college courses), she asks many questions about events in Pat Nixon's life, about those details that have never been known and can't possibly be known, mulling over them at length.

Instead of fully imagining various events from Pat Nixon's perspective, she lectures. And lectures. And lectures. She talks about other writers; she talks about the fiction writer's approach to writing fiction, but why do that at the expense of a potentially fascinating approach?

The feeling I get is that Beattie did all this research about Pat Nixon, read a lot of books about the Nixons in order to learn about her, wrote all the short fiction she could think of, came up short, and decided to fill out the rest of the book with these consistently annoying asides.

If Beattie wants to write a memoir ("Is what you've been reading fiction or nonfiction? Or is it my memoir, which appears--like certain weeds, I can't resist saying--only in the cracks?"), then she should, but should have stuck to what she's best at in much of her justifiably celebrated fiction. This feels like a lost opportunity, highly disappointing, and it's why out of everything in my life, I'm happiest that I will never run out of anything to read. Because I'm deeply disappointed about this book. I had hoped for what it seemed like I would be given based on that New Yorker excerpt and from the title. I wanted to see a different approach to what's usually written about public figures. What was so wrong with, say, a 10-page introduction, explaining the origins of the project, her interest in Pat Nixon, her intent, and perhaps either a brief historical blurb before each short story, giving it more context, or an appendix in the back with more information? Beattie seems so wrapped up in herself in this book that it's at times hard to find Pat Nixon.

I don't grind my teeth, but I've been feeling that for the past half an hour. Beattie could have easily made this into yet another great read, as her other books are. Does she not realize that college students aren't necessarily going to be the only ones who read this? There was a chance to do something really interesting with this, and it felt like she blew it.

Nevertheless, I must move on. I received in the mail yesterday Annie Lennox: The Biography, and though the writing seems iffy to me in the preface, I'm going to hang on because I'm a huge fan. But I'm going to move on with Here's Johnny! by Ed McMahon, owing to my newfound interest in Johnny Carson in the past year, watching and studying his skits, his monologues, and having Mom order me the Johnny Carson 2012 desk calendar when she ordered the rest of the calendars for the household (One for her, one for Dad, one for Meridith, one for the fridge). I could use a glimpse of a man who never got so wrapped up in himself.

I just hope Beattie either writes her memoir or writes another novel or set of short stories that returns her to the prestige that's been well-deserved all these years. Quickly.