WHEN I LEFT COLLEGE to study abroad in Paris in 2001, I packed a 1975 issue of the New Yorker, which featured Ann Beattie’s story “Snakes’ Shoes.” I figured Beattie would punctuate my planned Gallic immersion into Maupassant, Sarraute, Colette, Duras, Proust, and Flaubert with a dose of American wry. In the story, five characters sit together on a rock at the edge of a pond: Alice, a divorcee, her daughter, her 10-month-old baby, her ex-husband Richard, and his brother Sam. Like figures in a Greek chorus, Alice’s children are left unnamed: they are the little girl and the baby. The little girl, outdoors and adrift between adults, longs for attachment or signs of permanence. She’s happiest when slung over her Uncle Sam’s shoulders and delighted when he explains that snakes wear tiny shoes on tiny feet they shed in the summer. Although the atmosphere at the pond is loving, the afternoon’s Eden is slightly out of whack. Watchful crows hover in the treetops. Spindly insects cluster on the surface of the pond. The makeshift family’s fate is not directly spelled out, but evoked by the katydids that hover on the surface of the pond and by the disappearing prints made by the miniature shoes of Sam’s fictive snake in the forest dirt. The family’s communion, despite the little girl’s hopes, is destined to dissipate.
By 1975, Beattie, 28, had achieved literary fame with a cavalcade of stories in The New Yorker and a growing reputation as the “voice of her generation.” The sparseness of her style seemed a counterbalance to the upheaval of the era. In her hands, the reverberations of second-wave feminism and the disintegration of the family unit were documented with cold, clean detachment, as if she surveyed the familial bands in her stories much like the crows watching Alice’s entourage in “Snakes’ Shoes.” Beattie allowed the dramatic action that propelled her stories to exist offstage and narrowed in on the ways in which her characters attempted to distract themselves from monumental heartbreaks as well as from the minor catastrophes of the everyday. Her ability to pristinely arrange objects and instants so as to speak to the psychological truth at the core of a story suited the upheaval of the moment.
By the mid-1980s — amid the Reagan-era escalation of the war on drugs and clamping down on values and behavior outside the heteronormative — Beattie’s popularity flagged. Critics began to dismiss her reliance on telling ephemera as stale and empty. A New York Times review of her fifth collection, Where You’ll Find Me, found her work terse and diagrammatic, with “few venturings beyond a rather buttoned-down obliquity and economy of means.” She was pointedly excluded from every annual edition of The Best American Short Stories in that decade despite an abundance of pieces published in The New Yorker.
Still, across more than 200 stories, nine novels, and five decades, Beattie has unswervingly stuck with her subject and style. Her female characters, invariably white and middle-class — divorcees, lone strays, estranged daughters, women separated from their husbands and surrounded by harmless suitors, women paralyzed by tight domestic routines but wanting to flee, drifters, stoners, stoics — tend toward waywardness.
Mothers are often absenting themselves. They’ve left their daughters in the care of others in search of a steady paycheck or a full-blown adventure. They’ve gone out to get a haircut because a haircut equals a minor escape from taking care of children for an hour or two. Their phones are busy; they’ve taken them off the hook so no one can get through. They’re divorced and are not there to argue when an ex-husband who rarely makes childcare payments wants to take his daughter to a French restaurant for escargot. They sit beside their daughter on a rock overlooking a pond but are so consumed with their own hopes that they may as well sit on another planet. Or they haven’t had children under the guise of leading a life more original — more daring and less defined by others — though they tend to wind up as entrapped by their desires as anyone else.
If the little girl in “Snakes’ Shoes” grew up, she might be Jocelyn, the dazed teenager at the center of The State We’re In, Beattie’s new collection of interconnected stories — her first in a decade. Jocelyn is vacationing with her diabetic aunt, Bettina, and encouraging uncle, Raleigh, in Maine. The book begins in second person from Jocelyn’s point of view, and she remains a presence throughout the collection though she appears in a mere three stories out of 15. As Jocelyn attempts to write an essay about magical realism that will earn a passing grade and spare her a teacher’s look of disapproval, one in which she is “wadding up her big fat lips so they looked like a carnation,” her thoughts drift off to her uncle’s limping gait, her aunt’s unfortunate initials (BLT), and the summer’s inevitable wane, before coming back to some pink lilies carried at the beach “where summer brides who were way too old to get married came out onto the lawn and stuff blew all around them, their veils, their hair, their bouquets, everything airborne,” just as the collection itself will drift away and return to Jocelyn. The collection’s start, center, and end are comprised by her triptych.
The effect of Jocelyn’s opening rumination is of freewheeling expansiveness, but its arrangement is, in classic Beattie fashion, meticulous. Pink lips, off-kilter relatives, and flowers both wild and domestic will reappear throughout The State We’re In, along with a chorus of details that loosely outline the world Jocelyn inhabits for the summer (as well as Beattie’s own place of residence of late, the state of Maine): garage sale bric-a-brac, crustaceans, Adirondack chairs, champagne, rutted roads, off-leash dogs, wind chimes, and all manner of shoes from sparkly Toms to spiky stilettos, platform sandals and perforated garden clogs to the Swedish clogs that appear in some Toile de Jouy wallpaper. Leitmotifs are also made of ill-timed marriages and unwieldy relationships.
When Jocelyn takes a breather from homework in “What Magical Realism Would Be” to meet friends at the beach, she learns that her summer crush, T.G., has attempted suicide and been admitted into the psychiatric unit at a nearby hospital. Too self-conscious to admit the depth of her concern to her friends, she cruises past the hospital on her way to pick up a pizza for Bettina. Jocelyn ends up finishing her essay with a bit about the stars in the sky having fallen at everyone’s feet in a detritus — a word she worries may be not quite right or else too big to use, a sign that she doesn’t yet possess the vocabulary for the mess of lives in which she’s found herself.
Jocelyn doesn’t long to shut herself off from the world or to set herself apart in it — those ambitions belong to her mother, and, on a larger scale, to the generation Beattie documented at the outset of her career. Jocelyn might agree with Holden Caulfield when he proclaims: “Mothers are all slightly insane.” Still, Jocelyn’s no nihilist. It is her mother who “would be happy if her own life was a constant time-out — she wouldn’t consider such a thing a punishment if she could sit in a chair and not speak and not move and, most of all, not check her phone. She loved turning it off.”
By contrast Jocelyn is a creature who longs for contact but can’t figure out how to leap beyond the gulf she feels surrounding her; she continually finds potential lines of communication severed. First and foremost there is her mother, who — under the guise of recuperating from a hysterectomy and from other vague symptoms that may indicate Lyme disease but point more convincingly to a general malaise — has shipped her to her relatives and instituted a no texting policy. Now, T.G., Jocelyn’s one intimate attachment, is incarcerated in an institution that won’t let her speak to him, even on the telephone.
In “Endless Rain into a Paper Cup,” Jocelyn finds herself in an optometrist’s office for an exam only to have the doctor ignore her to call an ambulance for a sweating, jittery Bettina, who has succumbed to a diabetic fit. The girl nabs a ride home from one of the nurses, who drives like a speed demon, entertaining Jocelyn by blowing up a rubber glove to resemble a cow’s udder and reassuring her that “everything’s okay” with her aunt. These offhand maternal gestures foment a chain of thoughts in Jocelyn about her mother and soon, though she’s nodding along to the nurse’s chatty diatribe, she’s convinced she may never see her mother again — “that was the unformed thought that she’d kept in her head like a headache for hours, though now it exploded like a jack-in-the-box.”
In lieu of mothers, aunts are often the present forces in Beattie’s work. When Aunt Bettina first appears in The State We’re In, Beattie gives her an apron embroidered with a chicken face — emblem of the pecking and prodding that will distinguish her. Bettina goads Jocelyn about grades, curfews, eyesight, driving, drinking, friends, grammar. Fresh off a round of cancer treatment and driven in the first two stories by undiagnosed diabetic surges, Bettina acts increasingly erratic and needy. She orders Neutrogena soap off of Amazon Prime at midnight on a whim, demands immediate pizza, and is perturbed by minor changes in the Girl Scout cookie–selling process. Following her diabetic episode in the optometrist’s office and subsequent treatment, Bettina softens in the third and final story, “The Repurposed Barn,” enough to suggest an outing to an auction to distract Jocelyn from the recent development that her mother, while recuperating from a hysterectomy, has fallen in love with a recovered drug addict who’s moved in with her.
A different spin on the aunt figure is portrayed by the eponymous character in the collection’s third story, “Aunt Sophie Renaldo Brown.” In contrast to Jocelyn’s vision of Bettina, whose fashion sense ends at “an underwire bra” and whose purse was “nothing but a bag of disappointments,” Sophie Renaldo is considered by her niece a daring fashion plate.
“Aunt Sophie Renaldo Brown” is the unnamed niece’s remembrance of a garden party she’d attended with her aunt back when she imagined that if she ever got married, she’d “just ask Sophie to pick out absolutely everything I’d wear on my wedding day.” Sophie herself is twice divorced. She walks a cat on a leash, has a thing for rosé, and wears a tight lavender blouse with shorts and sling-back heels to the party. For a laugh, and in direct contrast to Bettina’s lame underwire bra, Sophie stuffs her own push-up in the kitchen of the party with “two metal wire champagne cork baskets to suggest hugely protruding nipples” — a formidably searing image. Sophie has just informed her niece that a recently discovered lump has her thinking darkly. Before the niece can react, Sophie diverts her attention to a man peeing against a tree in the yard. “I’ll write about it in my diary: that it was an omen,” Sophie says. “Fate was pissing on me.”
Mothers, aunts, and fate are inextricable. Sophie sees fate as pissing on her. Jocelyn’s mother “often talked about the Hand of Fate, which was even more ridiculous than believing in God.” Once Bettina and Jocelyn are settled inside the auction house, it’s the Hand of Fate that will step in to narrate Jocelyn’s secret. She’s seven weeks pregnant: “Here’s what the Hand of Fate wrote: Jocelyn had to go forward, she couldn’t look back. Not even at the indentation in the sand where they’d had sex.”
By the collection’s conclusion, Jocelyn’s protective shell has been upturned, and her connection to the world, though not what she expected it to be, has been irrevocably established. If her transition to adulthood is mundane in that it is age-old, it is also breathtaking. She sees in the world she observes around her at the auction “a sad affair, and all the time she sat there, she had a feeling that she knew what was wrong. Not just what was wrong with her but was wrong all around her, with people bantering and wasting time, sitting passively in a converted barn that denatured everyone who entered, because it wasn’t a working barn.” In a brief expansive instant, Jocelyn’s intuition will illuminate the empty crevices within her that neither she nor we have managed to crack open.