A Vintage Thunderbird

11/04/2024

Looking at the opening paragraph of Ann Beattie’s 'A Vintage Thunderbird', the reader may find themselves playing catch me up with the characters’ predicaments, as though we had strayed into the characters’ lives rather than following an author narrating them for us. Nick and Karen 'have just driven back from Virginia, where they have been visiting Stephanie and Sammy, and Nick was a bit surprised that Karen agreed to the trip with him since she had been dating another man." Are Nick and Karen a couple; is she cheating on him openly and is he accepting this? While the narrator does tell us Nick and Karen are friends of Stephanie and Sammy, we’re not initially told that Nick and Karen are friends too. As the story unfolds we discover that, though Nick is besotted by Karen, Karen isn't interested in Nick. We also find out that Karen is gorgeous enough for men to stop her in the street with the slightest hint of predicament on Karen’s part, and that she has beautiful eyes that would look “startlingly blue’ with a tan. Nick has bad teeth and is reported to be a lousy lover. It was never going to be an even match. 

    What Beattie offers us is an initially packed paragraph, one quite different from the sort that would usually premise a story. When we look at a classical tale by Maupassant or Dickens, we usually find a focalised character who comes across a new situation or problem. It will be this character, and this problem, that will be elaborated upon in the telling. They open with a lean paragraph all the better to pique our interest in how the story will unfold. In Beattie’s work, her opening paragraphs frequently leave us trying to find the story within it, as if several stories could come out of it. We often find is that no story quite develops nor quite concludes, with the fiction in a state of flux that reflects well the characters who are often indecisive, drifting, floating. Beattie says “I could do something that was more helpful to the reader I could do something that, as a piece of individual writing, would make the writing shine more than it shines. I distrust all of that.” (Columbia) This doesn’t mean the stories are as random as life often happens to be or at least could appear to be in the seventies when relationships were freer, marriages less reliably ensconced and beliefs tethered from given moral coordinates. It just means that the technical skills of traditional storytelling are updated for a different age. Beattie’s opening paragraphs often reflect this. In ‘Wanda’s’, the opening says that May’s mother has gone looking for her father and she is being looked after by the aunt of the title, who isn’t actually her aunt, and who owns a boarding house, which isn’t really a boarding house since Wanda has had only one tenant for years. This is not the first time the mother has gone off looking for the father, which was for two weeks, and she left May on another occasion too when she was hung over, disappearing for two days. In 'Wolf Dreams', Cynthia was seventeen when she first married, got divorced, remarried but divorced again, and she is now going to marry for a third time as we are informed in this lengthy first paragraph that she got Ds at school, didn’t like her first job and was happy to escape all that by marrying while not yet eighteen. These are both packed opening paragraphs, and we might wonder if when many critics were commenting on the newness of Beattie’s approach, it rested partly on this aspect.  

     Such dense openings could initially seem like the absence of technique but this depends on what the story is trying to do, a point Beattie addresses when she says “I would say that, to my way of thinking, these things [details] don’t hugely convey meaning. Even the early stories, something like 'Vermont,' stories that are absolutely filled with detail. So little happened, plot-wise. So much happened off the page. That mood seems so omnipresent, to me, that the details seem interchangeable.” (Columbia) In a traditional story, details are telling, even if Roland Barthes could note in works by Flaubert and others that there would be occasional things that weren’t. This led to what Barthes called ‘the reality effect’, small details that contributed to a work’s realism without being of importance to the plot. As Barthes says, such details “... seem inevitable: every narrative, at least every Western narrative of the ordinary sort nowadays, possesses a certain number.” (The Rustle of Language) They could go without harming the foundations of the story in the way telling detail could not be erased, and in much fiction of the 19th- century we can distinguish between reality effects and telling details. It might be a letter, a vase of flowers and a table clock, but only the letter becomes active in the story. We know it has been sent by the wife’s lover, the wife realises where she has left it and wonders if she can retrieve it before her husband notices the letter as he sits reading in the dining room. The writer might start by telling us these three items are on the sideboard, before informing us why the letter is important. The other details fade from narrative focus but it could have been different: the clock might have been important as the husband will soon arrive and the lover is not yet dressed; or the flowers, with the lover’s flat key hidden there and the husband decides the flowers are dying and takes them out of the vase and notices the key. If Beattie is right when she says the details are interchangeable, this suggests they are all on the same level of import; there are no telling details in the typical narrative sense.

    We might wish to argue with her on this, feeling in 'A Vintage Thunderbird' that the car of the title couldn’t be interchangeably exchanged but that would be to misconstrue plot for theme, or what Beattie calls atmosphere. What she wishes to do is build up a world that convinces us of its existence more than that this existence is a backdrop to a plot. Even in Barthes’ ‘reality effect’ there is a strong story that can incorporate the irrelevant- but it won’t swamp it. Beattie’s stories flirt with that risk; even insist on it. As I. D. Ohara says, “traditionally the novel has relied on action spun out and woven into a plot, complete with beginning and end. Little in our own lives corresponds to this orderliness, and our own sensibilities are seldom so goal‐oriented, except in supermarkets. Beattie understands and dramatizes our formlessness. (New York Times)

   It is looking at her packed opening paragraphs and at the general absence of telling details, that we begin to understand the Beattie ‘style’. But it also rests on deflecting what might seem an important aspect of the story: the sort of galvanizing incident in another writer’s work. In 'A Vintage Thunderbird', Nick isn’t attacked once but twice — the first time a year earlier when visiting an ex-girlfriend and he leaves her flat and gets mugged, handing over his wallet. The second time happens in the present of the story when he is leaving a bar early, he ends up floored and sees “two men picking at him like vultures, pushing him, rummaging through his jacket and his pockets.” Beattie’s life in New York in the 70s could be difficult, with her saying “I became disenchanted with New York when I realized that I felt as if I had accomplished something when I picked up the laundry and got the Times and a quart of milk” (Paris Review). But that would have been all the more so with criminality a constant presence. However, Beattie makes little of the attacks in 'A Vintage Thunderbird' narratively, as though they serve less dramatic focus than atmospheric chaos. They are just all part of a bad day, and part of the character’s feelings rather than important to their actions. Nick was off to see Karen before the mugging, which is why he left the bar early, but he is too embarrassed even to call her. There will be no hint of revenge, only a retreat into impotence and shame. What matters is Karen's perception of him. 

  That seems a typically Beattie-esque misplaced sense of priorities; that Nick’s ineptitude is matched by Beattie’s: that she doesn’t know where the story should be. But such an assumption is based on a prejudice, and a petty one at that. It isn’t so much that writers no longer tell stories, but that the reality effect has become much more present as writers often seem to search out symptoms over signs: details over telling details. What is a sign in this sense? Here are some that could have been telling in Beattie’s work. The narrator receiving a phone call from an apparent lover while entertaining her husband and his friends in 'The Burning House'; then there is the ex-husband’s lover’s illness in 'The Cinderella Waltz', the husband leaving in 'Vermont', the father disappearing in 'Wanda’s'. A writer could then offer a sign that shows the narrative is being set in motion. The phone which keeps ringing and yet nobody picks up, with both husband and wife afraid their lover is calling, the father’s suitcase no longer in the closet, the husband’s electric toothbrush gone, the persistent cough. Many contemporary writers will still emphasise the telling detail even if stories are often more dispersed than they were a hundred years ago, and genre fiction will be full of them. But Beattie more than most wants to democratise detail, to say that one thing needn’t take precedence over another. As she says, “there were always very specific details in my stories—a guy who works at an ax-handle factory and smokes dope all day whose deepest emotional tie is to his dog—but by the way, they’re interchangeable with other very specific details.” (Paris Review)

    This leads us to wonder what makes her stories, stories at all? If Chekhov revolutionised the story form by creating tales that wouldn’t have hooks or twists, something to pull us in or a conclusion that plays with our expectations, there was still the presence of import. When Beattie speaks about the idea that some believe a story must be written when a character is at the end of their rope, this would be true of Chekhov as death, impoverishment and failed ambition all give the story weight, without relying on those twists and hooks. However, Beattie says: “The end of the rope—very often we can see that, but characters cannot see it. Writers are not necessarily trying to come in at that inherently dramatic moment.” (Columbia) Chekhov’s moments aren’t always so dramatic either — but they are seen as significant, while Beattie absorbs most events that could be important without the narrative seeing them as especially important. This doesn’t mean they aren’t, it means that we infer what is important as part of the texture of people’s lives rather than significant in terms of plot. Hence, symptoms more than signs. “When you can put it right there, and be so subtle about it, that it goes right by people…If somebody reads [Beattie’s novel] Τhe Doctor's House and doesn't understand that incest figures in it hugely, they really are not that keen a reader,” Beattie says. “I don't know what else to say, as a reader and as a former teacher. It's right there. Yes, you have to decipher it, but you have repeated opportunities to decipher it. I don't know how people get through life if they don't see these things. What do they think is happening in front of their eyes?” (Columbia

  Beattie is saying there are repeated inferences, but this suggests we don’t follow the story, we involve ourselves in peoples’ lives and out of this involvement the story reveals to us aspects that make it clear certain events are happening, or have happened. We try to understand the characters and infer a story. In 'A Vintage Thunderbird', Karen isn’t villainous but she is self-absorbed, insensitive and perhaps narcissistic, while Nick is opportunistic, pusillanimous and messy. Yet Karen is a generous cook, neat and direct; Nick, sensitive, reliable and considerate. They aren’t always these things but there is enough in the story to say this is how we can understand their characters. Karen’s cookbooks are clean but this is partly because she looks at the recipe and then improvises. Nick can’t detour from the recipe and no doubt has the book to hand as the sauce lands on them. 

     A simple way of describing Beattie’s stories is that they are life-like. Yet if that begs a few questions then this is ok — we can find ways to answer them while wondering why so much of fiction isn’t life-like. It might rest on the reality effects that always remain in the background, the foregrounding of narrative focal points over the interacting messiness of various characters that often give Beattie’s opening paragraphs their density, and the sense in which information isn't readily discernible as narratives progress. Beattie eschews the telling detail of missing jewellery in a detective story, the missing slipper in a fairy tale, the object in a horror that no one seems to have moved but is no longer where it was. These are all telling details and vital to the story; nobody will miss them. Beattie’s are instead stories full of missable details, but their accumulation is what gives her work its own, odd significance. 

 

 

 

           

 

  

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

A Vintage Thunderbird

Looking at the opening paragraph of Ann Beattie's 'A Vintage Thunderbird', the reader may find themselves playing catch me up with the characters' predicaments, as though we had strayed into the characters' lives rather than following an author narrating them for us. Nick and Karen 'have just driven back from Virginia, where they have been visiting Stephanie and Sammy, and Nick was a bit surprised that Karen agreed to the trip with him since she had been dating another man. Are Nick and Karen a couple; is she cheating on him openly and is he accepting this? While the narrator does tell us Nick and Karen are friends of Stephanie and Sammy, we're not initially told that Nick and Karen are friends too. As the story unfolds we discover that, though Nick is besotted by Karen, Karen isn't interested in Nick. We also find out that Karen is gorgeous enough for men to stop her in the street with the slightest hint of predicament on Karen's part, and that she has beautiful eyes that would look "startlingly blue' with a tan. Nick has bad teeth and is reported to be a lousy lover. It was never going to be an even match.

What Beattie offers us is an initially packed paragraph, one quite different from the sort that would usually premise a story. When we look at a classical tale by Maupassant or Dickens, we usually find a focalised character who comes across a new situation or problem. It will be this character, and this problem, that will be elaborated upon in the telling. They open with a lean paragraph all the better to pique our interest in how the story will unfold. In Beattie's work, her opening paragraphs frequently leave us trying to find the story within it, as if several stories could come out of it. We often find is that no story quite develops nor quite concludes, with the fiction in a state of flux that reflects well the characters who are often indecisive, drifting, floating. Beattie says "I could do something that was more helpful to the reader I could do something that, as a piece of individual writing, would make the writing shine more than it shines. I distrust all of that." (Columbia) This doesn't mean the stories are as random as life often happens to be or at least could appear to be in the seventies when relationships were freer, marriages less reliably ensconced and beliefs tethered from given moral coordinates. It just means that the technical skills of traditional storytelling are updated for a different age. Beattie's opening paragraphs often reflect this. In 'Wanda's', the opening says that May's mother has gone looking for her father and she is being looked after by the aunt of the title, who isn't actually her aunt, and who owns a boarding house, which isn't really a boarding house since Wanda has had only one tenant for years. This is not the first time the mother has gone off looking for the father, which was for two weeks, and she left May on another occasion too when she was hung over, disappearing for two days. In 'Wolf Dreams', Cynthia was seventeen when she first married, got divorced, remarried but divorced again, and she is now going to marry for a third time as we are informed in this lengthy first paragraph that she got Ds at school, didn't like her first job and was happy to escape all that by marrying while not yet eighteen. These are both packed opening paragraphs, and we might wonder if when many critics were commenting on the newness of Beattie's approach, it rested partly on this aspect.

Such dense openings could initially seem like the absence of technique but this depends on what the story is trying to do, a point Beattie addresses when she says "I would say that, to my way of thinking, these things [details] don't hugely convey meaning. Even the early stories, something like 'Vermont,' stories that are absolutely filled with detail. So little happened, plot-wise. So much happened off the page. That mood seems so omnipresent, to me, that the details seem interchangeable." (Columbia) In a traditional story, details are telling, even if Roland Barthes could note in works by Flaubert and others that there would be occasional things that weren't. This led to what Barthes called 'the reality effect', small details that contributed to a work's realism without being of importance to the plot. As Barthes says, such details "... seem inevitable: every narrative, at least every Western narrative of the ordinary sort nowadays, possesses a certain number." (The Rustle of Language) They could go without harming the foundations of the story in the way telling detail could not be erased, and in much fiction of the 19th- century we can distinguish between reality effects and telling details. It might be a letter, a vase of flowers and a table clock, but only the letter becomes active in the story. We know it has been sent by the wife's lover, the wife realises where she has left it and wonders if she can retrieve it before her husband notices the letter as he sits reading in the dining room. The writer might start by telling us these three items are on the sideboard, before informing us why the letter is important. The other details fade from narrative focus but it could have been different: the clock might have been important as the husband will soon arrive and the lover is not yet dressed; or the flowers, with the lover's flat key hidden there and the husband decides the flowers are dying and takes them out of the vase and notices the key. If Beattie is right when she says the details are interchangeable, this suggests they are all on the same level of import; there are no telling details in the typical narrative sense.

We might wish to argue with her on this, feeling in 'A Vintage Thunderbird' that the car of the title couldn't be interchangeably exchanged but that would be to misconstrue plot for theme, or what Beattie calls atmosphere. What she wishes to do is build up a world that convinces us of its existence more than that this existence is a backdrop to a plot. Even in Barthes' 'reality effect' there is a strong story that can incorporate the irrelevant- but it won't swamp it. Beattie's stories flirt with that risk; even insist on it. As I. D. Ohara says, "traditionally the novel has relied on action spun out and woven into a plot, complete with beginning and end. Little in our own lives corresponds to this orderliness, and our own sensibilities are seldom so goal‐oriented, except in supermarkets. Beattie understands and dramatizes our formlessness. (New York Times)

It is looking at her packed opening paragraphs and at the general absence of telling details, that we begin to understand the Beattie 'style'. But it also rests on deflecting what might seem an important aspect of the story: the sort of galvanizing incident in another writer's work. In 'A Vintage Thunderbird', Nick isn't attacked once but twice the first time a year earlier when visiting an ex-girlfriend and he leaves her flat and gets mugged, handing over his wallet. The second time happens in the present of the story when he is leaving a bar early, he ends up floored and sees "two men picking at him like vultures, pushing him, rummaging through his jacket and his pockets." Beattie's life in New York in the 70s could be difficult, with her saying "I became disenchanted with New York when I realized that I felt as if I had accomplished something when I picked up the laundry and got the Times and a quart of milk" (Paris Review). But that would have been all the more so with criminality a constant presence. However, Beattie makes little of the attacks in 'A Vintage Thunderbird' narratively, as though they serve less dramatic focus than atmospheric chaos. They are just all part of a bad day, and part of the character's feelings rather than important to their actions. Nick was off to see Karen before the mugging, which is why he left the bar early, but he is too embarrassed even to call her. There will be no hint of revenge, only a retreat into impotence and shame. What matters is Karen's perception of him.

That seems a typically Beattie-esque misplaced sense of priorities; that Nick's ineptitude is matched by Beattie's: that she doesn't know where the story should be. But such an assumption is based on a prejudice, and a petty one at that. It isn't so much that writers no longer tell stories, but that the reality effect has become much more present as writers often seem to search out symptoms over signs: details over telling details. What is a sign in this sense? Here are some that could have been telling in Beattie's work. The narrator receiving a phone call from an apparent lover while entertaining her husband and his friends in 'The Burning House'; then there is the ex-husband's lover's illness in 'The Cinderella Waltz', the husband leaving in 'Vermont', the father disappearing in 'Wanda's'. A writer could then offer a sign that shows the narrative is being set in motion. The phone which keeps ringing and yet nobody picks up, with both husband and wife afraid their lover is calling, the father's suitcase no longer in the closet, the husband's electric toothbrush gone, the persistent cough. Many contemporary writers will still emphasise the telling detail even if stories are often more dispersed than they were a hundred years ago, and genre fiction will be full of them. But Beattie more than most wants to democratise detail, to say that one thing needn't take precedence over another. As she says, "there were always very specific details in my storiesa guy who works at an ax-handle factory and smokes dope all day whose deepest emotional tie is to his dogbut by the way, they're interchangeable with other very specific details." (Paris Review)

This leads us to wonder what makes her stories, stories at all? If Chekhov revolutionised the story form by creating tales that wouldn't have hooks or twists, something to pull us in or a conclusion that plays with our expectations, there was still the presence of import. When Beattie speaks about the idea that some believe a story must be written when a character is at the end of their rope, this would be true of Chekhov as death, impoverishment and failed ambition all give the story weight, without relying on those twists and hooks. However, Beattie says: "The end of the ropevery often we can see that, but characters cannot see it. Writers are not necessarily trying to come in at that inherently dramatic moment." (Columbia) Chekhov's moments aren't always so dramatic either but they are seen as significant, while Beattie absorbs most events that could be important without the narrative seeing them as especially important. This doesn't mean they aren't, it means that we infer what is important as part of the texture of people's lives rather than significant in terms of plot. Hence, symptoms more than signs. "When you can put it right there, and be so subtle about it, that it goes right by people...If somebody reads [Beattie's novel] he Doctor's House and doesn't understand that incest figures in it hugely, they really are not that keen a reader," Beattie says. "I don't know what else to say, as a reader and as a former teacher. It's right there. Yes, you have to decipher it, but you have repeated opportunities to decipher it. I don't know how people get through life if they don't see these things. What do they think is happening in front of their eyes?" (Columbia)

Beattie is saying there are repeated inferences, but this suggests we don't follow the story, we involve ourselves in peoples' lives and out of this involvement the story reveals to us aspects that make it clear certain events are happening, or have happened. We try to understand the characters and infer a story. In 'A Vintage Thunderbird', Karen isn't villainous but she is self-absorbed, insensitive and perhaps narcissistic, while Nick is opportunistic, pusillanimous and messy. Yet Karen is a generous cook, neat and direct; Nick, sensitive, reliable and considerate. They aren't always these things but there is enough in the story to say this is how we can understand their characters. Karen's cookbooks are clean but this is partly because she looks at the recipe and then improvises. Nick can't detour from the recipe and no doubt has the book to hand as the sauce lands on them.

A simple way of describing Beattie's stories is that they are life-like. Yet if that begs a few questions then this is ok we can find ways to answer them while wondering why so much of fiction isn't life-like. It might rest on the reality effects that always remain in the background, the foregrounding of narrative focal points over the interacting messiness of various characters that often give Beattie's opening paragraphs their density, and the sense in which information isn't readily discernible as narratives progress. Beattie eschews the telling detail of missing jewellery in a detective story, the missing slipper in a fairy tale, the object in a horror that no one seems to have moved but is no longer where it was. These are all telling details and vital to the story; nobody will miss them. Beattie's are instead stories full of missable details, but their accumulation is what gives her work its own, odd significance.


© Tony McKibbin