Pushcart XL: Ann Beattie, “The Cloud” from Salmagundi #184

Back in the town where she’d graduated from the university five years before, Candace waited at the inn to be picked up by Uncle Sterling. This was a business trip, paid for by her company in D.C., and they were amenable to putting her somewhere other than the DoubleTree out on the highway. Sterling was able to drive his car again, after finishing the last round of chemo three weeks earlier. The prognosis was good, but Candace’s mother Claire still wept about it on the phone, and Candace was worried, herself. Sterling was her favorite relative, even if he did maintain contact with her father. For sure he understood that Hank was an untrustworthy liar, but the two former brothers-in-law still occasionally golfed together, belonged to the same gym – not that Sterling had been seeing much of that place lately.

The last Ann Beattie story I read was “The Indian Uprising” in BASS 2014. I had to make a chart of characters so I could keep track of who was who and the general significance of the interactions.

This story seems more than anything like a rewrite of that one. No, not a rewrite; a transplant. Most of the major elements are very similar: the young woman visiting a terminally ill older man who’s been something of a role model, lots of ancillary characters, a trip for a meal that gets a little weird, and… footwear. In this case, $500 boots. Though a quick look at Neiman Marcus tells me $500 is actually pretty low-end for designer boots, I’m so far removed from things like this I can’t even get my mind around it. I agonized for weeks before deciding to invest $90 in my LLBeans a few years ago, figuring it would be the last pair of boots I’d ever have to buy. But $500? And they’re not even the kind of boots that help you navigate snowbanks or slush puddles.

In fact, Candace spends so much energy she could be spending on her favorite uncle worrying about whether something on her boot is a scratch or mere dirt, I wonder why we let ourselves get enslaved to things like boots that require such concern. I suspect it’s better than contemplating the impending death of a favorite uncle. While it’s not up to me to judge fictional characters for how to spend their fictional money, it is up to me to notice, and wonder what it means.

Another similarity to the older story is the use of a title that comes from the story. I was much more on board with the technique this time around, possibly because the tableau was so familiar in so many ways: a writer losing work due to computer failure, and the always-amusing conversation between the tech-savvy and the not.

“Uncle Sterling, she didn’t have it backed up in any way she could retrieve it? Do you mean the hard drive crashed, or – ”
“The one thing ‘I know, I convinced her to keep the machine, to print the story every time she had a new part. She didn’t have a printer before. Anyway, this guy was teaching the course told us that for very little money, she could have everything backed up and it could go to heaven.”
“What?”
“A service you pay for, where everything you write – ”
“Automatic backup?” It goes to the cloud?”
“That’s it! I told you, up in the sky, like a moonbeam bouncing back! Goes to the clouds.”
“Cloud,” she corrected. “It’s an absraction, but – ”
“Buckets of moonbeams, buckets of tears!”
She looked at him, confused. It was like having a conversation with a crazy person.

I happen to span the period between Bob Dylan and the cloud. For some reason, that makes me feel smug, even though just a few years ago I had to ask someone exactly what “the cloud” was. I was quite disappointed to find out it was just an exotic name for modernized off-site storage. I’d expected something far more mystical – as does Uncle Sterling, when he responds to Candace’s request to go somewhere quiet for a beer: “A perfect place, complete salvation…. A cloud.” Now you’re talkin’. Even his whimsy is death-focused, while hers is boot-focused. Head in the clouds vs feet on the ground.

I didn’t put anywhere near as much effort into this as I did last time, maybe because I’m cranky with the heat, maybe because I just didn’t find it that interesting a story. Maybe because I’d read it before.

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BASS 2014: Ann Beattie, “The Indian Uprising” from Granta #126

Tina Modatti: "Telephone Wires, Mexico" [modified] (1925)

Tina Modatti: “Telephone Wires, Mexico” [modified] (1925)

‘There’s no copyright on titles,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something “Death of a Salesman”, but you could do it.’
‘I wanted to see the play, but it was sold out. Tickets were going for $1,500 at the end of the run. I did get to New York and go to the Met, though, and paid my two dollars to get in.’
‘Two dollars is nicer than one dollar,’ he said.
‘Ah! So you do care what people think!’
‘Don’t talk like you’re using exclamation points,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t suit people who are intelligent. You’ve been fighting your intelligence for a long time, but exclaiming is the coward’s way of undercutting yourself.’
‘Cynicism’s better?’
‘I wonder why I’ve created so many adversaries,’ he said, then did a good Randy Travis imitation. ‘I got friends in . . . high places . . .’
‘Maker’s Mark interests you more than anyone, every time. We used to come see you and we have a burning desire to talk to you, to pick your brain, find out what to read, make you smile, but by the end of every evening, it’s clear who’s your best friend.’
‘But pity me: I have to pay for that best friend. We don’t have an unlimited calling plan.’

This story makes absolutely no sense for the first page or so; that’s what happens when you start a story in the middle of a phone conversation with nothing but barest hints of dialog tags. It continues to resist making sense for some time, though things gradually come into slightly better focus when the phone conversation ends and some kind of physical setting is evident. But it takes about two-thirds of the story to get enough context and backstory to understand what’s happening; before that, it’s all fragments blowing around in the wind. I was ready to just say, “Who knows,” and throw it away; but that’s why I blog these stories, I’m forced to come up with something to say, and I can’t come up with something unless I at least can nail down why I can’t make heads nor tails of the story.

A funny thing happened while I was trying to document my annoyance at the lack of sense: it started to make sense. Of course, that’s partly because the text itself starts to make more sense as the context and backstory becomes clearer. But a lot of it is just being willing to tolerate confusion, see what happens, and read it again, sentence by sentence.

I started out making a list of the basics (see sidebar) – who are the characters, where and when does it take place, what happens in the story – and kept coming across very interesting little touches. Took me a couple of hours to go through a fairly short (6 page-turns) story. Just figuring out who the main characters were, what their relationship is, took a while. I suspect that’s because they don’t really know what their relationship is, either. In fact, I think that’s the whole story, right there.

“I’d studied him for so long, almost nothing surprised me anymore, however small the gesture. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps part of the reason I’d stopped writing was that I studied him, instead. But now I was also noticing little lapses, which made everything different for both of us.”

It’s a variation and development of the crusty curmudgeon holding the world at arm’s length, while the underachieving protégé comes to terms with the approaching loss of her mentor over a last lunch. Several touches add drama to this to this, one being the reader’s confusion of who’s who reflecting the character’s own confusion. “She was once his student; were they also lovers?” the reader wonders; “Did I love him, do I love him, did he love me, does he love me, do I love my boyfriend?” the character wonders. You don’t typically get into a photobooth with someone you have no personal feeling for, but he repeats several times he was never in love with her. Then again, it’s pretty clear from some of his confabulations that he says things for the shock value.

Then there’s the Magical Waiter, who moves a chair no one could move, plays domestic spy, and, in a wonderfully visual moment, even mimics a magic trick: “…I’d dropped my napkin. As I bent to pick it up, the waiter appeared, unfurling a fresh one like a magician who’d come out of nowhere. I half expected a white bird to fly up.”

“Take a bite of your burrito,” I said, and instantly felt like a mother talking to her child. The expression on his face told me he thought I was worse than that. He said nothing and finished his wine. There was a conspicuous silence.

Beattie explained her first line in a contributor note in Granta: “…dialogue that I hope establishes tone; an allusion to Death of a Salesman that might take on more thematic meaning as the story proceeds. When I invoked that play, I didn’t consciously know that. If it hadn’t become necessary to the story, I would have taken it out.” I have to say, her notes seem as cryptic as the opening of the story, but it is a piece about death. I also see titles running through the piece – Cinderella, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the title of the story, which was also the title of a 1952 film, a Western, and a 1965 Barthelme story. In the story, the title comes from a remark the cook at the restaurant makes.

I love some of the moments, in addition to the magic trick. The Professor tells an anecdote clearly designed to refer to the subject of a poem he’d published, and is pleased that she picks up on the reference. “Paper is so sad. Every sheet, a thin little tombstone”: that line has particular poignancy when delivered by a writer in poor health, fully aware time is growing short. The change in their relationship is startling; he was the Professor, she the Student, and now, she’s putting his Velcro-fastened shoes (instead of a glass slipper, to begin the magical Lunch instead of a Ball) on his diabetic feet, worrying about how far he can walk.

…[E]ven if I don’t believe there’s a poem in anything anymore, maybe I’ll write a story. A lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love. It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.

I tried looking at this story in terms of some of the themes I’ve been reading about in Charles May’s book on the short story. A touch of the supernatural (Cinderella and flying reindeer in addition to the Magical Waiter); the conflict between union and separation: perhaps these two people have connected on some sub-level of these events. Did communion happen between checking for the wedding ring on the hand of the woman her ex-husband is with, and her discovery of the blood? Is just the visit enough? “I wasn’t in love with you, but now it seems like I should have been, because where are they now? Who keeps in touch? I never hear, even when a poem is published. It was just a job, apparently.” A wail of loneliness, from the crusty curmudgeon to the former acolyte, both devoted to union and separation in equal measure, both unable to move either forward or back.

That crystallized something for me: it’s the anti-story to “Dancing After Hours,” the Andre Dubus story May cites in his introduction: a couple have a magical moment of connection after hours in a seedy bar. This couple, Professor Chadwick and Maude, maybe wanted to have that magical moment, but they never got there. Where Dubus tells of a successful connection in one evening, this story is of a failed connection, after years of trying.

That clarifies the story for me. I may be completely on the wrong track, but it’s my track. If it doesn’t work for you, find your own, and tell me about it.

Ann Beattie: “Starlight” in The New Yorker 09/19/2011

New Yorker Art: Photo by Hank Walker, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

But what happens if you’re a Rockette and you have a cold? You go out there onstage and take your position, that’s what. A bit of medicine to bolster you would make sense. But, medicine or not, out you go. Out we go, indeed! When have we not rushed ahead, despite any protests made to Dick? You smile the family smile, and you try to get through the minutes, the seconds, until the helicopter takes off, and if people want to photograph that, which they no doubt will, they’ll see nothing but a machine, rising, flying, becoming smaller, disappearing. They’ll read a lot into that.

They might have. But the vicious double peace sign made everything else insignificant.

I’m a complete sucker for innocent-bystander stories, and Pat Nixon was an innocent bystander if ever there was one. This book excerpt (you can read it online) gives us vignettes of her (fictionalized, of course) thoughts at crucial and private moments: the last photograph in the White House, the release of Nixon’s memoirs, the acquisition of a stray dog, a late night walk through San Clemente close to the end of his life. At the time, I always thought Clemente sounded like clemency, and that both comforted (because we all need clemency sometimes) and annoyed (because some things should not be forgiven). From the vantage point of 2011 – the outrage of the 70s seems almost quaint.

Anyway, the story. (isn’t it interesting how a story about Pat Nixon turns into a rant about Nixon? I think that’s the point – one of the points – of the book) Which is not a story, it’s a collection of sections from the forthcoming book, “Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life.” It is perhaps as much a book about Ann Beattie as it is about Mrs. Nixon. In fact, the Book Bench interview is just as interesting as the story.

On her use of varying POVs and distances:

…words weren’t enough. I wanted to act like a person who really could move, the way a person moves a camera. I wanted to see through her sometimes, like an x-ray, but at other times I wanted to see around her—to see her as others might have seen her. There are many perspectives on Mrs. Nixon in my book, and I can’t say that I was “right” when I took the long view or when I came in close.

On the use of a historical personage, blending fact with fiction:

Well, the facts grounded me in reality. I’m as appreciative as anyone else to be informed and enlightened, but facts are only facts and I’m not sure we live by facts. I interspersed some of those facts with whatever my instincts and intuition led me to…

On her unusual choice to include herself in the work of fiction:

And perhaps because it was I decided to admit that and to appear in the text myself. I decided to analyze why I was interested in Mrs. Nixon’s story, what strategies were available to me to reveal her, or anyone, in fiction. I admitted to my games, showed my cards, only to question (sincerely) whether I had found my subject and discovered something about her essence: whether I’d drawn the ace I needed in order to put down my cards and depart. Mrs. Nixon is not the only one who walks away at the end of the book, seemingly sure of a few minor things, but also a bit lost in the universe.

It’s clear to me now that the purpose of including these excerpts is to increase interest in the book, and ultimately to increase book sales. It’s also clear to me that it works. It’s an interesting approach to a book, to a story, to a character, and Beattie makes interesting choices throughout.