Jacklighting

18/03/2023

   In ‘Jacklighting’, the narrator says, “Wynn is sure that he’s having a crisis and that it’s not the real thing with his student because he also has a crush on Penny.” Long before Sally Rooney gave us explorations of liminal relationships, Ann Beattie was there, a writer who knew that many of the old assumptions were no longer valid but wondered what had replaced them. While Updike, Roth and others were busy creating characters philandering their way out of marriages that weren't deemed necessary to living, Beattie’s characters were caught in vacillating worlds where feelings could come and go, people could do likewise, and where often a toke or something stronger would pass for a sense of stability. Updike reckoned Beattie was writing a new type of story, and what choice did she have when proving so alert to a society that had become fragile and frangible, when something had happened by the end of the sixties? 

   Writing on Beattie, William Deresiewicz believed, “no one had written about these kinds of lives before: children of the counterculture set down, with a thud, in adulthood. Self-involved stoners, serial wives, absentee parents, would-be hippies, women trapped not in domesticity but outside it—stunted, stunned, impulsive, lost; hungry for love but unable to give it. People without families, without contexts, without enduring relationships, without anything at all to hold them in place.” (Nation) In ‘Jacklighting’, it seems what was holding a small group of friends together was Nicholas but Nicholas is now dead. The story begins. “It is Nicholas’s birthday. Last year he was alive, and we took him presents; a spiral notebook he pulled the pages out of, unable to write but liking the sound of paper tearing; magazines he flipped through…” It turns out that Nicholas was alive but brain-damaged during that last visit, and halfway through the story we find out what killed him. “A drunk in a van, speeding, head-on. Nicholas out for a midnight ride without his helmet.” He lived without much sense of fear and would take others on the motorbike, sometimes letting them ride it themselves. “Psychologists have figured out that infants start to laugh when they’ve learned to be skeptical of danger” Nicholas would say, but it seems that the role he played in people’s lives was an alternative father figure, that the old verities of authority hadn’t quite been replaced but displaced. If in an Updike work the father was expected to live up to a tradition that he was hypocritically unable to sustain as he becomes adulterous, whether Harry Angstrom or Richard Maple, Nicholas is a father figure as peer authority. Someone who was around the same age as the other characters in the story but who would guide them to new and original experiences. As the narrator says: “He taught me to trust myself and not settle for seeing things the same way.”

     From a certain perspective, Beattie played this role in literature for her generation, even if she seemed the opposite of a guru and resisted the fame. “I don’t think any serious writer wants to be called the spokesperson for their generation… the whole Beattie generation idea wasn’t anything I had any control over. I couldn’t make it come, I couldn’t make it go. I was always philosophical about it.” (Paris Review) But she perhaps understood the need for role models after a societal shakeup that few would deny. Beattie published her first story in the spring of 1974, the exact time that Watergate was revealed, but there were plenty prior events that suggested a disillusioned America that has become now a montaged cliche: the Chicago Riots, Kent State, the My Lai Massacre; events that showed the police, the army and the government were far from benign. Readers may have been determined to latch onto Beattie as the figure to counter the traditional authority figures but her voice was never assertive like Bellow’s or Mailer’s; it never had the mind-bending conspiratorial irony of a Heller or a Pynchon. Commentators have noticed her fiction is often known for its ‘weak’ narration, for the feeling it is hardly narrated at all. As Deresiewicz says: “the sentences were short and spare—simple declaratives, subject-verb-object. The diction was plain, unobtrusive. Hemingway’s prose called attention to the fact that it didn’t call attention to itself. Beattie’s really didn’t call attention to itself. The sense was of an absent maker, characters abandoned to themselves.” (Nation)

      In ‘Jacklighting’ we know very little about the first person-narrator. She lives in New York and has long been visiting Nicholas and his brother Spence during the summer in Virginia. Each year she (if we assume it is a she) comes up with a friend Wynn, who borrows his mother’s car. Wynn is coming up thirty-two and we might guess all the characters are around the same age except for Pammy, Spence’s girlfriend, who Spence insists is twenty-one but this turns out to be a joke he can’t resist as Pammy looks so young. She’s lived as vividly as any of them even if we’re not quite sure how old she actually is. She tells the narrator that she was addicted to speed, slept with a stockbroker for money, and watched a lot of horror films. “The whole period’s a blur.’ She is now at medical school but might drop out. 

     The story tells us details about the others’ lives but leaves the narrator an intriguing blank. Spence lives in the Virginian house alone and is depressed; Wynn is a teacher in love with a student and going through a crisis. Nicholas is now dead but was a galvanising presence in everybody else’s life. He was someone so strong that, “it would really have taken something powerful to do him” in, and what it took was an accident. There is the suggestion it wouldn’t take much to do the other characters in, with Wynn’s crisis, Spence’s depression and Pammy’s recovery from addiction. But what about the narrator? Why are they there, who are they attached to especially? Was she Nicholas’s lover; is she Wynn’s partner, even if he is in love with a student and now decides he has a crush on Pammy? Here we have the complexity of contemporary relationships meeting the ambiguity of narration. At one moment, Spence says, after the narrator wonders why he didn’t tell anyone about Pammy: “Isn’t that something? What that tells you is that you matter, and Wynn matters, and Nicholas mattered, but I don’t even think to mention the person who’s supposedly my lover?”

       Nicholas, Wynn, Spence and the narrator have clearly known each other for years and the narrator is an important part of this group. Were they all college friends, political activists, or fellow drug takers? The closest we get to gleaning any of these possibilities rests on a remark about how Nicholas guided them through their acid trips. Nobody is married; none of them appears to have had kids and we might assume this becomes clear while other initial enigmas do not. Is the narrator working or unemployed, does Spence have a private income as well as living rent-free since he doesn’t seem to work? Are his parents dead as well as his brother?     

Partly what makes Beattie’s stories often so fascinating is that they do indeed have from a certain perspective poor narrators. We have plenty of information on the least significant character in the story as Pammy talks about her life earlier as if the narrator reverses Spence’s remark about speaking about the people who matter and ignoring the ones who should matter. But for us, Pammy is the interloper, the one who hasn’t built up a history with these others, and we might wish to know more about how Nicholas, Wynn, Spence and the narrator became friends. One of the first questions people often ask when they see a group of people who have known each other for years is how they all got to know each other. 

    However, Beattie’s ostensibly weak narration allows for a symptomatic strength: it offers a performative lassitude that says here are lives that do not themselves have a strong sense of narration, as if the purposelessness of their existence needs to be narrated in a manner that captures this state rather than insistently trying to tell a story. Even when the narrator discusses the details of Nicholas’s death they do so in a distracted manner. In the story’s longest paragraph, she talks about Nicholas riding without a helmet, tells us earlier that day he collected ‘a crazy nest of treasures’ in the helmet when he was babysitting a neighbour’s four-year-old daughter, and tells us too that while he was in hospital Nicholas’s fish tank had overheated and the black mollies died. Such information is interposed with the ugly scar after the accident, the brown curls that had been shaved away, and the fact Nicholas was going to die: “…it was clear that the thin intravenous tube was not dripping life back into him…” Imagine someone asking you what happened and the person you are talking to starts discussing what had been in the helmet: “dried chrysanthemums, half of a robin’s blue shell, a cat’s eye marble, yellow twine…”

   Fiction is not life; people narrate things differently there. Yet at the same time not just Updike noticed that Beattie was writing a new type of story; critics would talk of Beattieland and Beattie speak. Something new was happening and narrative authority gave way to narrational laxity, without at all weakening the form of the work. Speaking of critic Anatole Broyard’s remarks on her stories, Beattie said, “…maybe he was perceiving something to do with my ghostly presence in the work, orchestrating things but pretending to be nonexistent, as if the moments of the story were happening out of anyone’s control.” (Paris Review) It is partly what made Beattie’s work seem so modern and also why James Walton can criticise a contemporary writer Andrew Murray for not seeming contemporary enough. James Walton says in Murray’s work “a past experience has derailed them [his characters] so comprehensively that they’re stuck inside “some interminable aftermath”—unable to change what’s happened, of course; unable to forget it, however much they’d like to; unable to shake off the belief that if only they could turn it into a coherent story (which they can’t), their lives might return to how they were (which they can’t either).” Yet this is what Murray consistently does, Walton says: he makes the difficulties serve ready narrative, arriving in one instance at a “blizzard of happy endings.” (New York Review of Books) The impossible becomes the articulate; the inconclusive a clear conclusion. Beattie reckons “..for most of my stories, intellectually I could contrive a superior ending, but I try to resist that temptation. (Paris Review) If life is as messy as Beattie’s work proposes, if she insists on narrators who hover over the story rather than impose themselves upon it, then to end with narrational assertion would be to defy the integrity of the form the story takes. It might seem that the story is slack but the principle behind it is very strong indeed, and no doubt partly why Updike and others could see that she was writing a new type of story.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Jacklighting

In 'Jacklighting', the narrator says, "Wynn is sure that he's having a crisis and that it's not the real thing with his student because he also has a crush on Penny." Long before Sally Rooney gave us explorations of liminal relationships, Ann Beattie was there, a writer who knew that many of the old assumptions were no longer valid but wondered what had replaced them. While Updike, Roth and others were busy creating characters philandering their way out of marriages that weren't deemed necessary to living, Beattie's characters were caught in vacillating worlds where feelings could come and go, people could do likewise, and where often a toke or something stronger would pass for a sense of stability. Updike reckoned Beattie was writing a new type of story, and what choice did she have when proving so alert to a society that had become fragile and frangible, when something had happened by the end of the sixties?

Writing on Beattie, William Deresiewicz believed, "no one had written about these kinds of lives before: children of the counterculture set down, with a thud, in adulthood. Self-involved stoners, serial wives, absentee parents, would-be hippies, women trapped not in domesticity but outside itstunted, stunned, impulsive, lost; hungry for love but unable to give it. People without families, without contexts, without enduring relationships, without anything at all to hold them in place." (Nation) In 'Jacklighting', it seems what was holding a small group of friends together was Nicholas but Nicholas is now dead. The story begins. "It is Nicholas's birthday. Last year he was alive, and we took him presents; a spiral notebook he pulled the pages out of, unable to write but liking the sound of paper tearing; magazines he flipped through..." It turns out that Nicholas was alive but brain-damaged during that last visit, and halfway through the story we find out what killed him. "A drunk in a van, speeding, head-on. Nicholas out for a midnight ride without his helmet." He lived without much sense of fear and would take others on the motorbike, sometimes letting them ride it themselves. "Psychologists have figured out that infants start to laugh when they've learned to be skeptical of danger" Nicholas would say, but it seems that the role he played in people's lives was an alternative father figure, that the old verities of authority hadn't quite been replaced but displaced. If in an Updike work the father was expected to live up to a tradition that he was hypocritically unable to sustain as he becomes adulterous, whether Harry Angstrom or Richard Maple, Nicholas is a father figure as peer authority. Someone who was around the same age as the other characters in the story but who would guide them to new and original experiences. As the narrator says: "He taught me to trust myself and not settle for seeing things the same way."

From a certain perspective, Beattie played this role in literature for her generation, even if she seemed the opposite of a guru and resisted the fame. "I don't think any serious writer wants to be called the spokesperson for their generation... the whole Beattie generation idea wasn't anything I had any control over. I couldn't make it come, I couldn't make it go. I was always philosophical about it." (Paris Review) But she perhaps understood the need for role models after a societal shakeup that few would deny. Beattie published her first story in the spring of 1974, the exact time that Watergate was revealed, but there were plenty prior events that suggested a disillusioned America that has become now a montaged cliche: the Chicago Riots, Kent State, the My Lai Massacre; events that showed the police, the army and the government were far from benign. Readers may have been determined to latch onto Beattie as the figure to counter the traditional authority figures but her voice was never assertive like Bellow's or Mailer's; it never had the mind-bending conspiratorial irony of a Heller or a Pynchon. Commentators have noticed her fiction is often known for its 'weak' narration, for the feeling it is hardly narrated at all. As Deresiewicz says: "the sentences were short and sparesimple declaratives, subject-verb-object. The diction was plain, unobtrusive. Hemingway's prose called attention to the fact that it didn't call attention to itself. Beattie's really didn't call attention to itself. The sense was of an absent maker, characters abandoned to themselves." (Nation)

In 'Jacklighting' we know very little about the first person-narrator. She lives in New York and has long been visiting Nicholas and his brother Spence during the summer in Virginia. Each year she (if we assume it is a she) comes up with a friend Wynn, who borrows his mother's car. Wynn is coming up thirty-two and we might guess all the characters are around the same age except for Pammy, Spence's girlfriend, who Spence insists is twenty-one but this turns out to be a joke he can't resist as Pammy looks so young. She's lived as vividly as any of them even if we're not quite sure how old she actually is. She tells the narrator that she was addicted to speed, slept with a stockbroker for money, and watched a lot of horror films. "The whole period's a blur.' She is now at medical school but might drop out.

The story tells us details about the others' lives but leaves the narrator an intriguing blank. Spence lives in the Virginian house alone and is depressed; Wynn is a teacher in love with a student and going through a crisis. Nicholas is now dead but was a galvanising presence in everybody else's life. He was someone so strong that, "it would really have taken something powerful to do him" in, and what it took was an accident. There is the suggestion it wouldn't take much to do the other characters in, with Wynn's crisis, Spence's depression and Pammy's recovery from addiction. But what about the narrator? Why are they there, who are they attached to especially? Was she Nicholas's lover; is she Wynn's partner, even if he is in love with a student and now decides he has a crush on Pammy? Here we have the complexity of contemporary relationships meeting the ambiguity of narration. At one moment, Spence says, after the narrator wonders why he didn't tell anyone about Pammy: "Isn't that something? What that tells you is that you matter, and Wynn matters, and Nicholas mattered, but I don't even think to mention the person who's supposedly my lover?"

Nicholas, Wynn, Spence and the narrator have clearly known each other for years and the narrator is an important part of this group. Were they all college friends, political activists, or fellow drug takers? The closest we get to gleaning any of these possibilities rests on a remark about how Nicholas guided them through their acid trips. Nobody is married; none of them appears to have had kids and we might assume this becomes clear while other initial enigmas do not. Is the narrator working or unemployed, does Spence have a private income as well as living rent-free since he doesn't seem to work? Are his parents dead as well as his brother?

Partly what makes Beattie's stories often so fascinating is that they do indeed have from a certain perspective poor narrators. We have plenty of information on the least significant character in the story as Pammy talks about her life earlier as if the narrator reverses Spence's remark about speaking about the people who matter and ignoring the ones who should matter. But for us, Pammy is the interloper, the one who hasn't built up a history with these others, and we might wish to know more about how Nicholas, Wynn, Spence and the narrator became friends. One of the first questions people often ask when they see a group of people who have known each other for years is how they all got to know each other.

However, Beattie's ostensibly weak narration allows for a symptomatic strength: it offers a performative lassitude that says here are lives that do not themselves have a strong sense of narration, as if the purposelessness of their existence needs to be narrated in a manner that captures this state rather than insistently trying to tell a story. Even when the narrator discusses the details of Nicholas's death they do so in a distracted manner. In the story's longest paragraph, she talks about Nicholas riding without a helmet, tells us earlier that day he collected 'a crazy nest of treasures' in the helmet when he was babysitting a neighbour's four-year-old daughter, and tells us too that while he was in hospital Nicholas's fish tank had overheated and the black mollies died. Such information is interposed with the ugly scar after the accident, the brown curls that had been shaved away, and the fact Nicholas was going to die: "...it was clear that the thin intravenous tube was not dripping life back into him..." Imagine someone asking you what happened and the person you are talking to starts discussing what had been in the helmet: "dried chrysanthemums, half of a robin's blue shell, a cat's eye marble, yellow twine..."

Fiction is not life; people narrate things differently there. Yet at the same time not just Updike noticed that Beattie was writing a new type of story; critics would talk of Beattieland and Beattie speak. Something new was happening and narrative authority gave way to narrational laxity, without at all weakening the form of the work. Speaking of critic Anatole Broyard's remarks on her stories, Beattie said, "...maybe he was perceiving something to do with my ghostly presence in the work, orchestrating things but pretending to be nonexistent, as if the moments of the story were happening out of anyone's control." (Paris Review) It is partly what made Beattie's work seem so modern and also why James Walton can criticise a contemporary writer Andrew Murray for not seeming contemporary enough. James Walton says in Murray's work "a past experience has derailed them [his characters] so comprehensively that they're stuck inside "some interminable aftermath"unable to change what's happened, of course; unable to forget it, however much they'd like to; unable to shake off the belief that if only they could turn it into a coherent story (which they can't), their lives might return to how they were (which they can't either)." Yet this is what Murray consistently does, Walton says: he makes the difficulties serve ready narrative, arriving in one instance at a "blizzard of happy endings." (New York Review of Books) The impossible becomes the articulate; the inconclusive a clear conclusion. Beattie reckons "..for most of my stories, intellectually I could contrive a superior ending, but I try to resist that temptation. (Paris Review) If life is as messy as Beattie's work proposes, if she insists on narrators who hover over the story rather than impose themselves upon it, then to end with narrational assertion would be to defy the integrity of the form the story takes. It might seem that the story is slack but the principle behind it is very strong indeed, and no doubt partly why Updike and others could see that she was writing a new type of story.


© Tony McKibbin