Ann Beattie might be best known for an early novel Chilly Scenes of Winter, a dialogue-driven account of central character Charles' relationship chiefly with his mother, step-father, best friend and sister (all the while yearning for his ex-girlfriend), and a book that was filmed four years after its publication. It was also the novel that made her famous enough for people to recognise her on the streets of New York. But instead of focusing on her great success, let us start with the short story 'Janus'. Here the central character Andrea works in real-estate and takes with her to many of the houses she is trying to sell a bowl that, no matter if it might go unnoticed at a craft fair, somehow possesses a very strong presence when carefully placed in the homes she wants people to purchase. Usually, she puts it on the table and occasionally elsewhere and never finds a more appropriate location than when "once placed on a cherry table beneath a Bonnard still life..." The bowl has the capacity Andrea notes to be both subtle and noticeable, and she sees in the object the possibilities of paradox, "people who liked country furniture always commented on the bowl, but then it turned out that people who felt comfortable with Biedermeier loved it just as much." Over the course of the narrative, the bowl keeps on gaining properties of feeling without the tale quite becoming surreal, subjective or magical - without quite indicating that the story is a dream, the central character a little crazy or the object capable of coming to life. 'Janus' keeps these possibilities at bay while nevertheless giving to the object the force of a character in the story, even at moments giving the bowl the status of a subject. Her closeness to the bowl makes her wonder "how the situation would end. As with a lover, there was no exact scenario of how matters would come to a close. Anxiety became the operative force. It would be irrelevant if the lover rushed into someone else's arms, or wrote her a note and departed to another city. The horror was the possibility of the disappearance. That was what mattered."
Usually and understandably one assumes that an object can be ours and a subject always autonomous: we can own things but not people, even if the history of the human race has often included a notion of people as things for the purposes of ownership, evident in the long history of slavery. But even when slavery was common it could still be seen as wrong; few would assume that owning an object is morally suspect even if owning an enormous number of them might be. But to own one slave is no different from owning a thousand: it is not a question of number but of autonomy. No human has a given right over another. We could very quickly find ourselves disappearing down a philosophical rabbit hole on this question but all we want to indicate is that sometimes fiction has the capacity to call into question the dividing line between subject and object, including works by Proust, Kawabata and perhaps Fitzgerald. But this can be best comprehended through the work of Gaston Bachelard when he says "it is reasonable to speak of a phenomenology of the soul...a consciousness associated with the soul is more relaxed, less intentionalised than a consciousness associated with the phenomena of the mind." (Poetics of Space)
If someone who still believed in slavery would surely appear incredibly hard-minded, then might we say even people who have an overly practical relationship with objects are a little hardened too? This is a provocation of course, but central to the evolution of consciousness as a moral system rests on what we choose to give subjectivity to, even if that subjectivity can only be in a strict sense an assumption. Since we do not have access to other minds, how can we know what is in one, no matter neuro-scientific discoveries? The neuro-scientist can say what is going on in someone's brain, just as a heart surgeon can tell us what is going on in someone's heart. Yet they are both mechanics of the body; they are not phenomenologists of the soul. The surgeon can remain hard-headed but someone who wishes to comprehend the hidden life of all things we might say is mild-headed: they are interested in taking the inevitably limited position that is their perpetual being in the world and yet tries to expand it outwards even if this expansion can only be suppositional. If that happens to be so, how far would this mild-headed person wish to go in understanding the secret life of others, and might this even go so far as to that of objects?
At another point in Poetics of Space, Bachelard says "...why should the actions of the imagination not be as real as those of perception?" but put another way we might note that why should the objects of our perception be different from the subjects of our perception? Many of us offer our imagination to the thoughts, motives and actions of other people and understandably assume that objects do not invite such imaginative co-feeling except in instances of artworks, objects that many a theorist on art (including Richard Wollheim) see as intentional acts - acts produced by consciousness and turned into artworks. As William Gass puts it, "for Wollheim, painting is an intentional activity, which means that it is governed by some of the "thoughts" that go on in the painter's head; and our understanding of the painter's actions will be correct when we can formulate from those actions his action's aims." ('New York Review of Books') The artwork is not thus only an object but an object of consciousness, and it is the person's consciousness, finally, that is being examined.
The problem goes away because we are back to subjects rather than objects. But a grown woman who still sleeps with her doll every night, perhaps even talks to her, the grown man who lays his late wife's night-gown on the bed every evening, is having a different relationship with objects than with that of an object of intentional consciousness. We may insist that these have become fetish objects or conclude that the people have gone a little mad, but what interests us is the frisson that surrounds an object treated as subject - the final failure of the object to be a subject, evident in the narrator's remark: "the bowl was a mystery, even to her. It was frustrating because her involvement with the bowl contained a steady sense of unrequited good fortune; it would have been easier to respond if some sort of demand were made in return. But that only happened in fairy tales." It is the tension between subject and object that the story wants to register, as though the 'Janus' of the title is the ambiguity of the object, turning its face both towards objectivity and subjectivity. By the end of the story we find out the bowl was a gift from an ex-lover, someone who wanted her to commit to her feelings instead of remaining "two-faced" (caught between him and her husband), but unlike any of the other gifts he gave her it couldn't become merely an object of someone's affection towards her, it carries a further quality, one that seems to bring out in her a failure of reason, a breach in the perceptual faculties. "Could it be that she had some deeper connection with the bowl a relationship of some kind? She corrected her thinking: how could she imagine such a thing, when she was a human being and it was a bowl? It was ridiculous. Just think of how people lived together and loved together and loved each other...But was that always so clear, always a relationship?"
Frequently in Beattie's work, she is drawn to the examination of relationships, break-ups and divorces, new lovers and past affairs haunting the newer situation, and often within the context of a comfortably off milieu. "The nuclear family has broken down", she says, "so there are a different set of realities." (Contemporary Review) In Paris Review, the interviewer says, "I read some reviews criticizing you for only talking about upper-middle-class people, but they seem to ignore a number of your characters throughout the years, but the assumption is that the wealthy predominate and certainly breaks ups and yearning for past lovers are everywhere. In 'When Can I See You Again?', wondering whether she might be in love with her new young boyfriend Arnie, Tony comes to mind and a comparison made: "unlike Tony, who overintellectualized everything when cornered, Arnie would admit vulnerability by making a self-deprecating joke." The two men exist in her mind as opposites but they simultaneously occupy her mind nevertheless. In 'Coney Island', Drew is going to meet his ex Charlotte and wonders what they will talk about. "How do people make small talk when they've shared a world? And if you say something real, it always seems too sudden...she really loved him and married someone else." In Chilly Scenes of Winter, the entire novel is made up of the main character Charles moping around trying to get his ex-lover out of his mind after she returns to her husband, but the effort is minimal and the need to conjure up her image just as strong as his desire to contact her. The comfortable materialist life is also frequent. In 'Summer People' the opening sentence goes "the first weekend at their summer house in Vermont..." In 'Cards' a couple of female friends frequently eat in an upmarket restaurant where they meet for lunch. But while most of these stories and Chilly Scenes of Winter are finely delineated explorations of social milieux in a plausible world of break-ups, 'Janus' (a little like 'Summer People' which hints at chaos but retreats from it) manages to give a very strong sense in which the self disintegrates not necessarily because it is going mad but that it sees the capacity of objects to contain more feeling than humans, evident in the claim about living together and loving each other as she wonders if such things are always a relationship.
Interestingly, Beattie doesn't much care for 'Janus'. "I had turned a bit against it, only because I see how schematic it is. I've been forced to read questions about it at the end of readers' guides and things like that. It's too contrived." Beattie doesn't go into why she finds it so, and it isn't for us to indicate why she might have thought it happened to be, but we can note a couple of things. One is that the story can be read very schematically, evidenced by claims that include the story addresses "the issue of adultery. In addition, the author offers the idea that success in career and life doesn't not make a person happy" and that "the bowl represents her lost love" and that by the end of the story, her love like the bowl was perfect but that "her guilt overwhelms her with her affair and for the secret that she has kept from him [her husband.]" (Enotes) In a much more complex reading of the story, Marina Ludwigs nevertheless makes great play of the title, invoking, of course, the Roman God, "the God of beginnings, endings, gateways, passages, and transitions. He is depicted as having two faces - each facing away from the other: one looking into the future, another into the past." ('What Propels Narrative Forward?')
In such interpretive work we can see how the story can seem contrived and we will come back to this. But another thing we can note is that the story is completely absent of dialogue, while Beattie's work is often respected for the surfeit of it the way in which narration becomes absorbed into conversation. As Angelica Baker says "at one time [Beattie was] so identified with that style that terms like Beattieland or Beattiespeak soon came to dominate the critical conversation." (Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art) Beattie invokes Hemingway and Carver: "The interplay between character and external world is something that realist writers always dealt with conscientiously, and it started to drop out with minimalism. Hemingway dropped it out, too, but even in his stories there tends to be a volley going on between the environment and the character." Beattie adds, "Carver won't say what the volley is. None of us will. I guess you might say that minimalism resides in certain omissions, in trusting, la Beckett, that if you give the sparest sort of contexttwo people in a trash can, a road at nightit will be like a dreamscape for people's projections." (Paris Review) From a certain perspective 'Janus' can seem overdetermined easily symbolic and based on the interior thoughts of the character rather than her external behaviour. But if we resist the symbolic and admire the interior it is because the bowl isn't interesting in that it represents infidelity, lost love and whatever, and thus, as a consequence, Andrea is revealed to us. It is more that no matter the abstract properties of the bowl and the access we have to Andrea's thoughts, the mystery of both the bowl and Andrea remains beyond our ken, and her indecisiveness over her feelings towards her husband and her ex-lover seem now curiously unimportant next to the space that has opened up within her. The story isn't about an adulterous woman (with all its moral connotations) but perhaps about what happens when feelings become so divided that they can find no resting place and instead open up nothing less than a void inside oneself and in the world. At the end of the narrative, looking yet again at the bowl, Andrea thinks: "near the rim, even in dim light, the eye moved toward one small flash of blue, a vanishing point on the horizon." Most of the time we see what is in front of our eyes as part of what is in front of our lives: the immediacy of an existence that needn't thrust upon us a question that we call to mind and which then preys on that mind, the haunting indecision of being. But for Andrea, that place is one she finds herself occupying and that Beattie registers in the bowl that is pre-occupying her thoughts. It isn't that the bowl symbolises anything, more that it manages to galvanise the nothing, allow Beattie to find in an image, in an object, the means by which to tell and not tell her story. While Ludwigs does see that "we can interpret the bowl as a symbolic receptacle of her suppressed regret", more interesting is her analysis of stories more generally moving in two directions simultaneously. Ludwigs note that "the ambiguity of narrative desire amounts to a tugging in two directions, insofar as we both desire and resist the ending." `She says this paradox is plausibly contained because the more we consume the narrative so at the same time the more knowledge we accumulate. What we sacrifice in desire we gain in knowing. We might believe that the difference between killing time and earning time narratively is the degree to which the desire is led by this knowledge, rather than just dissipated desire leaving us with no more narrative left but not very much knowledge either. But at the far end of this desire/knowledge problematic we have works that use their desire to indicate the void that the text contains, leaving us feeling by the end of the story not that we 'know' more but that we are aware of what we cannot know - a limit point the work insists upon rather than a revelation that concludes desire and gives us the information we have been seeking.
Such a position doesn't seem generally to interest Beattie, and perhaps one reason why she refuses to see 'Janus' as one of her more interesting works, but as we've noted, she is famous for her approach to conversation, even if quite a number of the stories for example in Where You'll Find Me (covering work during the mid-eighties) are reliant on narration as much as dialogue. Coming to them after Chilly Scenes of Winter, after reading page after page in the novel with line after line of dialogue interrupted by little more than "Charles says", "Susan says" etc., the stories can come as a bit of a surprise and 'Janus' as a major one. Speaking of the title story in the collection, 'Where You'll Find Me', Beattie says, speaking of "New York City people, of a certain social class. There can be a terrifying veneer; people can exchange words but actually not talk much. What some of my stories demonstrate is not much different from theater of the absurd plays in which people don't communicate - they're Pinteresque point and counterpoint, or something like that." ('Contemporary Literature')
Janus is the opposite of the Pinteresque as it explores an interior rather external void, as if Pinter pushed further into the Hemingwayesque taciturnity by indicating not the exhausted pointlessness of language (the degree to which most words are superfluous) but the terrifying emptiness of language. If words can so often mean so little how can we ever hope to make them mean so much? Chilly Scenes of Winter is full of conversations that, from a certain point of view, needn't really take place. In an exchange in the novel Charles and his sister Susan are discussing their mother and her partner. "Living with her depresses him." Susan says. 'He ought to get out', Charles says. 'Don't wish that on her', Susan says. 'What would she do?' 'Plug in the heating pads, drink, read movie magazines. What she does now. I can't believe she loves him.' 'It's hard to tell how she feels,' Susan says. 'I know. I don't know. I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for everybody." The irony here is that Charles reckons his mother's lover will leave but would do anything to get his own married lover back. But, above all, the dialogue conveys the deflated sense that words often just lead us round in circles: nothing gets done by them and no feelings are really expressed - hence the absurdity.
But though Beattie does use dialogue very well we don't feel that it leads to the absorption of the self but instead explores self-absorption. If in Paris Review the interviewer notes that people would talk of the Beattie generation that may have been because she captured very well this low-key egotism. But in such instances the ego is still intact, fragile, futile and faint-hearted no doubt but far from falling into a proper despair. 'Janus' goes beyond the sociological precision evident in so many of her stories that made her famous, and hints at an anonymity of self which if pursued might have turned her into a very different writer indeed. Though she often has reservations about the Minimalist American movement she was seen to be part of (Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frederick Barthelme), those reservations seem not a question of approach, more that of pigeonholing. She may note that "I only have a certain bag of tricks" (Paris Review) but we can see in 'Janus' that there is a hole in the bag too, and that is where things get interesting.
© Tony McKibbin