Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Motherlode

If you like short stories, you probably can't do any better than Ann Beattie, the New Yorker's doyenne of short fiction. This massive collection puts together over forty-five of her short stories, spanning from 1974 to 2006.

Beattie is not a short story writer like Shepard, whose stories flit around the globe, from era to era, from topic to topic. Instead, Beattie writes small, extremely compact little stories that focus with laser-like intensity upon the domestic arrangements of a small cast of characters, each one of whom is named.

Most of her stories begin with the name of the protagonist: "Milo and Bradley are creatures of habit," "Freddy Fox was in the kitchen with me," "When Ellen was hired as the new music teacher," "Nick and Karen had driven from Virginia to New York," and so on. The vast majority of her stories focus on marriages, most of them ended or in the process of dissolving, and her characters are almost always twice or three times remarried. Infidelity, emotional distance, abandonment, and anger are the major themes of her work, although she avoids the overt violence and brutality that permeates Joyce Carol Oates' fiction. Most of Beattie's stories take place in New York City or in and around Washington, or both. They're also often full of people escaping from the city to the countryside, or vice versa.

It's undeniable that Beattie is a master of the short-story form, although some readers may chafe at the sameness of her stories, and if you try to sit down and read this collection straight through, as I did, the stories will become one big muddle in your head.

However, Beattie occupies an iconic place in the short story form, much like T.C. Boyle, and this collection is a fantastic sampling of her work.

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