A Persistent Minimalism

Ann Beattie recently wrote in New York magazine about how at 17 she’d ride in a friend’s car and harass other drivers with a bullhorn. It’s a short piece, meant to be a light bit of space-filler in a “summer fun!” package. But MobyLives’ Dennis Johnson is troubled by the piece’s ending, in which Beattie admits her shenanigans led a driver to crash into a tree.

The obvious question, of course, is what did she get away with? One assumes not manslaughter, although causing a car to go “crazily out of control” and crash into a tree isn’t exactly comforting language in regards to that possibility, nor to the likelihood that passengers in that pre-airbag car were at the very least seriously injured. Equally astonishing is that rather than tell us that dreadful reality, and what she thinks now, years later, about her lack of compassion and why she left a crime scene, she resorts to the most unfortunate type of minimalism—the kind that withholds information for cheap effect.

It is a troubling scene—the only defense I can think to muster up is that the ending hints at the shame that attaches to adolescent hijinks, and that a tragedy, had one occurred, would have served the theme of the piece. (Though of course it wouldn’t be much of a “summer fun!” piece then. For what it’s worth, a Nexis search on Beattie’s name and “bullhorn” comes up empty.) Contra Johnson, her willfulness and lack of compassion come through loud and clear; what’s lacking is a sense of the consequences of those feelings (or lack of them).

But the sketch, as Johnson suggests, does promote the idea that minimalism has its limits, particularly in nonfiction. In the New York Review of Books, Meghan O’Rourke recently argues that Beattie’s style has evolved more than her critics give her credit for. The essay is an excellent introduction to Beattie’s style, and why its combination of detail and indirection are so seductive. But O’Rourke gives frustratingly little space to Beattie’s more recent work; she writes that “the work she has written over the past ten years conjures fleshier visions of domestic life and loneliness than she had previously allowed herself,” but the examples of this “fleshier” prose aren’t particularly convincing. On the evidence of the New York piece and her recent disappointing novella, Walks With Men, the differences between Beattie’s old minimalism and her new one can be hard to detect.

4 thoughts on “A Persistent Minimalism

  1. A person gets hurt and you’re remarking upon whether style has its limits. Sweet Jesus. Look into the mirror, Mr. Athitakis. Is that some poststructuralist pattern to detect within the stubble on your face or do you just need a shave? Or perhaps a decapitation!

    NOTES TO CLASS:
    1. Is Mr. Champion being sincere or poetic in suggesting that Mr. Athitakis have his head removed? Please discuss. Be sure to bring a scythe or a well-sharpened knife when you are making your presentation.
    2. When it comes to violence in prose, should we discuss the stylistic tics BEFORE the violence? Or does such a priority run the risk of inciting further violence?
    3. Has Mr. Athitakis permanently lost his sense of humor in his great yearning to be a Literary Critic for Our Times? Does he have even a remote shot of being Dwight MacDonald or Alfred Kazin? Would those two gentlemen have remarked on literature this way? Why do most of his blog posts remark upon the “disappointing” nature of prose rather than the stuff contained therein?
    4. Is Mr. Athitakis, by way of being a Literary Critic for Our Times, more of a Casey Anthony of the literary world? And who are the mavericks that will keep him in check?
    5. Please return to Question #1 and try answering again while gargling with cognac.

  2. 6. A critic is stalked by a misfit who (you learn after a short time Googling) fancies himself a “journalist” although clearly his work is for the most part self-published. You learn that the misfit enjoyed a little notoriety in the mid-’00s, when blogging was supposed to be the next big thing, and even published a very little bit in decent publications. This no longer happens. Are you surprised? Does it explain the stalking?

    7. Clearly the misfit is not good enough of a writer to make a living at it. How do you think he pays the bills?

    8. An individual long to a regarded as intelligent, and so often uses words he does not actually know. Is this likely to work for him? What are the odds? A very few gullible people will be impressed. Which do you laugh at more?

    9. A literary blogger with delusions of grandeur is a deeply unhappy and disturbed person. Should he begin a series of blog posts on reading the Top 100 Self-Help Books of All Time? Please give your response in the form of a soothing affirmation.

    10. Someone likes to claim that he is “feared” for his “courage,” though this seems to have involved behavior normally regarded as evidence of emotional disturbance. He repeatedly expresses envy in the comments section of a blog. Is this sad or laughable? (Please do not answer “both.” Pick one.)

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