Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ann Beattie: "The Burning House" and "The Four-Night Fight"

Why do all the characters in "The Burning House" seem so callous?  This word occurred to me when I read the section in which Tucker gossips about his NYC scene, namecalling and making fun of the men in his social circles.  He mentions the opera singer, Maria Callas.  Ann Beattie's strength is in her selection of details that suggest so much more than they say.  The avocado pit.  The crock of mustard.  The goat mask.  The Wyeth painting called Christina's World.  The "beautiful old birdcage--solid brass."  By the time we start to put together what is happening in the story--that Amy suspects that her husband is in the middle of a marital infidelity, but that she is not innocent--she is involved in an affair, too--we reach a new section, a break from the evening scene, in which Amy explains how she met her lover.  And, at this point of the narrative, Beattie slings a zinger.  She invokes the old narrative form of the "fairy tale" with the retired English professor saying, "I believe all that wicked old fairy-tale crap: your heart will break, your house will burn."

Callous characters, I thought at that point of my reading, but at that point, the story hadn't broken my heart.  Not yet.  Into the once-magical bedroom ("twenty small glass prisms") of the disillusioned couple comes their son, a six years old, Mark.  He's regressed to sucking his thumb.  And Amy narrates how J.D. lost his own wife and son.  Then she tells a story about Tucker's obsessions and anxieties, and she reveals that Freddy is gay.  She says, "All those moments, and all they meant was that I was fooled into thinking I knew these people because I knew the small things, the personal things."

Is Beattie taunting us?  Tempting us to believe that we are going to "know" something about people and then saying that we have been fooled?  The ending of the story combines bleakness with surprise.  Tragic magic.  It tries to convince me that men are so different from women.  But does the story really mean it?  Maybe this is just Frank, getting back at his wife.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Donald Barthelme's "The School"

We were all out there this summer, you know, planting zucchini and sunflowers, when it happened, we fell in love.  Not with each other, I don't think.  I could be confused.  There was a helicopter flying overhead, it was loud, I remember, and you looked up with that face you have, the one where you wrinkle your nose.  There were eggplants, too, and Brandywine tomatoes.  It was a full house, you would say.  We didn't wear sunscreen, and that night, and many nights, our shoulders and noses ached from all the strong light.  Had any of us ever seen beans sprout from the ground?  How they seem so ugly at first, and then they unfold, little green bean cotyledons?  Did you see their amazing wings?