The State We’re In by Ann Beattie (Scribner 2015)
Reviewed by Anthony Correale
Three stories in particular constitute the emotional core of Beattie’s loosely linked story collection. Each takes as its main character seventeen-year old Jocelyn and carries forward the same narrative. They are arranged in the collection like a frame: a Jocelyn story opens the collection, another is located like a support beam in its middle, and a third closes the collection. The middle story, “Endless Rain into a Paper Cup,” is, arguably, the high-point of the collection. The story’s stutter-step progression mimics its content; Jocelyn’s aunt suffers a mental breakdown and Jocelyn herself, though capable of perceiving her aunt’s bizarre behavior, only has a partial read on the situation and quickly becomes irrelevant to the adults around her. The disjointed fragmentation that hobbles some of the stories, is employed to great effect here, reflecting Jocelyn’s internal thoughts. Beattie can be masterful with dialogue, and while the dialogue in other stories is subject to the same needlessly digressive tendencies that plague the collection as a whole, the dialogue in “Endless Rain into a Paper Cup” is Beattie at her best. In the scene following the aunt’s break, Jocelyn nervously chatters at the adults around her in an attempt to reestablish normalcy; the dialogue, with discomfiting precision, conjures all of the grasping and fumbling of her displacement and awkwardness.
Other stories, like “Aunt Sophie Renaldo Brown,” are less successful, showcasing the best and the worst of the collection. The story begins with two images, one is an oddly irrelevant feint, while the other is an image of the titular character carousing at a party with two champagne wire baskets stuffed into her shirt like gigantic nipples. The story frustratingly refuses to resolve, riven with pointless exposition and superfluous detail—why a 1 ½ page meditation on shoes in the front-end of a story that has already had several false starts? But the story that eventually emerges is of an intelligent teenaged girl observing her indomitable and wry aunt, willingly following where the older woman leads, taking comfort in her self-assuredness. Near the end of the story the aunt springs on her niece the fact that she has breast cancer. The young narrator allows the revelation to pass by uncommented upon, only able to understand its implications in oblique ways. But the revelation casts the story in a different light. When, at the end, we revisit the image of the aunt carefree at a party in impossibly high heels, champagne baskets in her shirt, it has become freighted with meaning, not just for the reader, but for the young narrator. Yet, the narrator’s attempts to unpack that meaning are lacking. The collection presents several moments like this: the half-baked epiphanies of youth, intuiting some truth but incapable of articulating it.
The most frustrating aspect of the collection is its rambling narrative focus. The cumulative effect is a fracturing, as of a story told with frequent pauses, eyes flicking skyward while some other thought intrudes. At their most effective, the asides leaven the stories, imbuing them with a pleasant sense of expansiveness that is rare in the compressed short story. At the worst, the stories can feel like heaps of splintered glass—catching the light in potentially beautiful ways, but jagged and brittle and without structure. Still, The State We’re In is best understood not to refer to the state of Maine, to which all of the stories are somehow connected, but to the state of adolescence; in portraying adolescent characters, the fractiousness can feel satisfyingly mimetic.
Perhaps the most illuminating observation about the state of Beattie’s adolescent and near-adolescent characters comes at the end of “Adirondack Chairs” when the narrator, a young aspiring writer, says, “I certainly wouldn’t know how to write the story of that summer. [We] were at those points in our lives when everything made sense in not making sense, you know? You do know. Who hasn’t been twenty-one? Who hasn’t sat outdoors on a summer night and known—known without questioning it—that through the impenetrable black sky, someone or something is looking down at you? The stars just glitter to draw your attention” (41). At its most powerful, the collection presents a sympathetic portrait of that life stage and its fragmentary understanding, the contradictory limitations of its gangly, newfound perspicacity, the way it tries to chart its course by those unseen bodies just beyond the impenetrable black.