Millennials in Beattieland

No word haunts discussions of Ann Beattie like the word generation. Once upon a time, back when novelists still had the luxury of holding their publicity at a ...

No word haunts discussions of Ann Beattie like the word generation. Once upon a time, back when novelists still had the luxury of holding their publicity at a skeptical distance—let’s call it the 1980s—the word came with a prepackaged irony: to be the “voice of a generation” sounded as uncool and pathos-drenched as to be a “talk show legend” or “star of stage and screen.” But that was what she was called, from 1976, with the publication of her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and story collection, Distortions. Her much-discussed sharp, flat style—banalities rubbed so hard that they reflected—was immediately identified as the prose equivalent of a post-OPEC-embargo, post-Watergate cohort. Beattie, of course, denied that she was her generation’s voice. After all, who would want to be such a thing—and of such a cohort? Yet, the term would be ritually reapplied with each new book. This is, you could say, because the entanglement of disavowal and dependence was one of her generation’s defining dances.

Many aspects of the 1980s have either remained, or returned as farce, but this skepticism about generations has receded. If the generational portrait could at one point only be written under the sign of self-negating irony—Douglas Coupland’s 1991 Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture being the primary example—now it is more likely to be taken up in earnest. Millennials, at least, seem to gladly self-identify. They write passionate accounts about the historical conjuncture that has produced them—Malcolm Harris’s 2017 Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials is a notably persuasive instance. In a less edifying vein, salvos in some kind of generational circular firing squad have proliferated.1

For all the reasons to be wary of the concept of generation—the arbitrariness of its boundaries, the strong whiff of confirmation bias in every bit of data, its proximity to marketing speak—it has different kinds of value still. A generation is at least a wide, if compromised, collectivity the culture lets you have. And while it can be reduced to fetishized ephemera, it can also become a theory: the postwar generational triad—Boomer, Gen X, Millennial—is, after all, as close to a demotic theory of late capitalism as we have, suggesting in its recognizable shorthand the different kinds of lives formed by postwar boom, slow neoliberal retrenchment, and the more violent austerities of the present century—or security, decline, and precarity.

Does this mean the generation novel can be written again, without disavowal? It so happens that Ann Beattie has tried—and by applying a style and shape honed more than 30 years ago to the generation that is now as old as her original late-Boomer protagonists. Her disavowal of the generational label seems to have vanished, because the target has shifted. A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is, weirdly enough, her Millennial novel, unapologetically and explicitly so: a biography of one’s 20s starting with 9/11, focused on a drifting male protagonist but loose enough to embrace a cohort of different genders, sexualities, and affiliations, a story of the vacuum that awaits after graduation, after institutions, after history’s revenge on the End of History.

The question it raises is if Beattie’s kind of “history-of-the-present realism,” developed under different circumstances, is adequate to the new task. Can it do something that newer forms, such as autofiction, or the theory-infused memoir, can’t quite manage? What kind of story might do this generation—unafraid of its own label, willing to use it as a weapon—any sort of justice?

Beattie’s particular dexterity was always centered on historical experiences, on how individuals understood themselves as situated within a kind of “moment.” Her characters knew themselves as caught, sometimes cosseted and sometimes confined, by the aura of a passing collective situation: its norms, its open possibilities, its ways of saying and seeing things. They want to talk or write it out; they are compulsive diarists.

They know it’s often a mediated consciousness, made up of hit songs, car models, new names for kinds of relationships, like the name “relationship.” (Her first published story in the New Yorker in 1974: “A Platonic Relationship.”) They think of this mediation often. Everyone moving, synchronized in ways they don’t quite control: “All over America, people were driving around hearing a song and remembering exactly where they were, who they loved, how they thought it would turn out.”2

The obsession with ambient soundtracks is one of Beattie’s signatures—she winks at it in A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, when a psychiatrist tells her protagonist, Ben, that he has “an amazing ability to recall what music was playing at a certain time”—but it operates as more than a reality effect. It has an anomic force: it expresses something of her characters’ sense of time moving quickly but not going anywhere. John Lennon to Elton John to Blondie, change without direction.

The realist details lock time into boxes whose meaninglessness would make one weep, if they didn’t seem too banal for tears. One Beattie story: a fragile couple vacationing in a California motel, only a few years ago. She tries to start the The Goldfinch; he is “watching Louis C.K. on his iPad mini.”3 Reading these details, you think: I’ve read that, watched that, listened to that. It was dumb. It was all dumb. That’s all it ever is.

“Minimalism,” the tag often attached to Beattie, is a ruse, somehow both too broad and too specific for her style. Hers is instead a realism of stasis: the feel of a culture hitting a wall, finding itself purposeless. There is a plenitude of detail and ample space for rumination but of a balked, circular kind. Even her novels, where plot should have some sway, read like elongated short stories, and are all the better for it; rather than a dense network of coincidence and causality, they are ensemble explorations of a situation that seems potentially interminable—and certainly irresolvable. Beattie’s work offers a strange, hypnotic inconsequence. It is the realism for a culture going nowhere fast. You can feel the car still moving, but the empty landscape out the window hardly changes.

Even when Beattie’s settings moved from the stagflationary world of Chilly Scenes to the more upmarket neighborhoods of her work in the 1980s and 1990s, that sharp, disconsolate, meandering tone remained, if with a bit of sly metafiction poking in, more and more aware of its own stasis. This was, all disclaimers aside, generational. But what generation? Her affinities seemed with deflated late Boomers—in Victoria Williams’s words, those too young to be hippies, who missed out on the love. Or in Elizabeth Hardwick’s, on the tonality of the 1970s: “Fatigue and recession, cold winters and expensive heat, resignations and disgrace … accommodation, docility, depression of spirit.”4 Children of postwar plenty, the first young adults of neoliberalism, with one foot in both eras, watching as their culture got shinier, flimsier, duller.

In literary terms, her cohort is best understood as the Vintage Contemporaries Generation, Gary Fisketjon’s establishment-cool 1980s series featuring highly skilled, usually deadpan, mostly white realists. As fêted generations go, the Vintage Contemporaries—think Charles Portis, Thomas McGuane, Joy Williams, Susanna Kaysen, Richard Ford, Anita Brookner, Jay McInerney—fared better than most as they aged; there were only a few crack-ups or dramatic self-destructions. Some got movie deals, became oenophiles, grew into the celebrities of the colleges where they taught. Enough wealth sloshed around their culture that some of it lapped up onto their lawns. It was their generational luck that they never felt obliged to tweet or do a round of podcasts. A few—Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Denis Johnson, Harold Brodkey—were elevated into different kinds of fame. Wised-up craftspeople mapping national decline: in this their transatlantic cousins are mid-20th-century British comic novelists rather than the postmodernists with whom they were often sorted. It is a generational constellation of considerable importance, and still very much with us.5 The question is if its mode, as exemplified in the melodrama-allergic precision of Beattie, can capture neoliberalism’s grandchildren.

The novel has the mesmeric quality of remembering late youth, its chaos and loose ends, the sweet taste of being free to make bad decisions, the astringency of their potential consequences.

Like many of her novels, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is a story of imperfect elective parentage. Sensitive and unfocused Ben goes to school at Bailey Academy, a New Hampshire school for the rich and troubled, where he finds himself part of a coterie around Pierre LaVerdere, the kind of subversive teacher who introduces his charges to Dostoevsky, Robert Altman, and Spalding Gray. Beattie gives us two long, shaggy vignettes from the early fall of 2001, Ben’s senior year, centered on his febrile, erratic friendships and attractions—to Jasper Cabot, whose mortally ill mother has been abandoned by his father, and LouLou Sils, the sexually precocious adventurer who lures him on an abortive escape from school premises. Then 9/11 happens, watched on TV by LaVerdere’s group. Jasper’s father dies, having chosen that day to visit his divorce lawyer in the North Tower.

Trauma and graduation stunt the group’s relationships and plans, and the novel then dips with increasingly wide intervals into Ben’s early 20s drift: odd jobs for a year, Cornell, postgrad life in New York shifting from art-world servitude to outsourced coding gigs, the death of his father from cancer, an operatically messy breakup with a college girlfriend, and relocation and retreat to the Hudson Valley. LouLou reappears, asking him to be a sperm donor for her and her partner. Wary of fatherhood, Ben resists, after which LouLou reveals that her backup plan is LaVerdere, who, LouLou further explains, had had an affair with Ben’s stepmother before his father’s death. Eventually, LaVerdere himself appears, diminished and apologetic, to tell Ben that he is HIV-positive and to ask him to break the news to his stepmother. By his late 20s, Ben is both literally and conceptually orphaned, living in a slowly crumbling house in a rapidly gentrifying country town.

Plot summary like this does the novel a particular disservice. Instead of plot, it has an entropic deflation of events: things threaten to happen but never quite do, cooling weakly into fragmented memories. Take Sentimental Education and eliminate 1848; take The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and eliminate fascism. The Big Chill potential of the LouLou plot fritters away when she breaks up with her partner. LaVerdere is not revealed to be predatory so much as pathetic. An affair with a neighbor’s wife looms but is averted when they relocate. Even that which persists—Ben has held on to the hat of Jasper’s father, an accidental souvenir from right before 9/11—is by the novel’s end relinquished: he gives it to the barista at the independent bookstore where he starts working after quitting his coding job. The novel has the mesmeric quality of remembering late youth, its chaos and loose ends, the sweet taste of being free to make bad decisions, the astringency of their potential consequences. But not much of consequence actually happens.

What does ensue is a not wholly unpleasant, dulled feeling of detachment. The novel ends—the Beattie touch—in a car: Ben driving LouLou’s former partner, Dale, down the West Side Highway. No music this time; Ben and Dale circle around the topic of LouLou, who has relocated to Europe. Past Ground Zero they go, and Ben thinks of LouLou, who “floated in his mind as delicately as ash, and sank in his heart as heavily as a stone.” It’s a jarring figure, seeming at first a little obscene, a clumsy embrace between History and Self. But of course what binds the figure is a shared distance: 9/11 and LouLou, both names for the loss of something that one never really knew anyway, for missing the nothing that happened.

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The Post-Apocalyptic Present

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So the ride goes on: Millennial Ben, not headed anywhere in particular, without even an antagonism to sharpen his impulses, but careful to drive common speed. A reader of Beattie will find this familiar, if even a bit bleaker than usual. But pretty and poignant as the last scene is, it feels as if history, where Beattie was always at her sharpest and most disillusioned, is starting to soften into myth, as if American Youth has descended from the empyrean in its eternal cruiser to take another aimless spin. Not that there aren’t Millennial specificities: the parent lost to 9/11, the friend who worked at Lehman in 2008, the gig labor, the inexplicable and ruthless gentrification. This isn’t a quibble about detail—even if, I think, there is not enough politics or money in daily talk, too little of life online, and altogether too many phone calls here. But it isn’t my generation either, so who am I to say?

There is no general artistic obligation to be up to date, yet Beattie’s art always thrived on its disenchanted kind of currency. In A Wonderful Stroke, however, the entire tonality of the novel seems anachronistic in relation to its material. It is on the one hand too insistent on alienation; Ben’s nostalgia for his school community is too gentle and intermittent to lead him to reimagine community anywhere else, and he resists taking any leaps—into ideology or passion—that would give some logic to his life. Such perfect diffidence is neither complicit nor rebellious, and it is hard to believe it would be recognizable to anyone who actually did grow up in the events of the early 2000s.

But on the other hand, there is another of Beattie’s familiar tones, which gives the anomie its gentleness: a sense that if the world is static, it is at least durably so. Diffidence, after all, tends to stand on solid ground. Ben’s Hudson Valley house is decaying, compared to the renovations around him, but it will be a while before it collapses. Disaster doesn’t threaten so much as slow soft decline. That has always been Beattie’s note: the sheer reliability of the world’s ordinariness, alternately disheartening and comforting, so resistant to melodrama. She does it justice better than almost anyone else in her generation; it’s at the core of her realism. But a later generation likely will find it hard to credit. What if, instead, absolutely everything feels unstable, rickety, in a terminal state of emergency? What if decline and its moods no longer suit?

In what critics used to call Beattieland, culture unraveled slowly and in aleatory ways. The kind of character who noted that adopted a certain kind of irony to adjust to it. This was what her prose captured so well: the dissociative lives of late imperial America’s young. A Wonderful Stroke of Luck brings that mindset into the present, and the result feels dissonant. Even the dissonance, though, performs a service. It helps remind you how self-protective, and also protected, that dissociation was. It’s all harder to come by now. A story like Ben’s requires a tolerance for stresses, in the individual and the infrastructure of their world, that may not be appropriate for a Millennial bildungsroman. Through Ben’s immediate post-9/11 thoughts, Beattie provides an excellent motto for the years he ends up gliding through: “Things had turned out so very badly, anyway.” But if there’s a generation gap Beattie hasn’t quite crossed, it’s between the past tense of that phrase and the very urgent present continuous, in which it might be put instead. icon

  1. From the past two years alone: Bruce Gibney’s A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (Hachette, 2017) and Matthew Hennessey’s Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America from Millennials (Encounter, 2018).
  2. Ann Beattie, Love Always (Vintage, 1985), p. 25.
  3. Ann Beattie, “Road Movie,” The State We’re In: Maine Stories (Scribner, 2015), p. 124.
  4. Elizabeth Hardwick, “Domestic Manners,” Daedalus, vol. 107, no. 1 (1978), p. 4.
  5. And even with Ben in A Wonderful Stroke: McGuane himself makes a cameo appearance in another character’s backstory, while he has brushes with two other celebrated novelists of the 1970s and 1980s, William Kennedy and Russell Banks. In a novel about a later generation, Beattie can’t resist a nod to her own generation’s social luck.
Featured image: Night Light, Hudson, NY (2018). Photograph by Levi Desantis / Unsplash