Ann Beattie: “Starlight”

11/09/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 19, 2011.

I’m far too young (though less and less every day) to have known Nixon through anything other than, say, Frost/Nixon (which I’m hardly interested in), but I found myself loving the ultra-talented Ann Beattie’s “capturing” of what I imagine might be his voice, his character, in this piece. A series of sections with overt titles about what Mrs. Nixon is doing — in whose first-person voice this is imagined — this is more a mosaic than a story, but just as individual stars add up to constellations and galaxies, so too do “Mrs. Nixon’s Thoughts, Late-Night Walk, San Clemente” and “Brownie” coalesce into a resonant whole. (The work itself is excerpted from a longer imagining of Beattie’s, honestly entitled Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines A Life.) I’m also susceptible to historical fiction that approaches a memorable target in a sidelong, poetic fashion, as New Georges’ 2008 play stretch (a fantasia) did, in talking about Nixon through his loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods.

Beattie takes photos and features and other dead letters, and attempts to blow life into them, like some sort of Prometheus, breathing sparks of life into wooden kindling. What was artificially recorded, then, in real life, the author now hopes to naturally catch in fiction, and her opening section, about the final official photograph, is filled with memorable lines, positively filled with a natural, informative first-person wit: “I know that if I looked over my shoulder I’d see Dick smiling, seeming amused and in control, and, really, I couldn’t take that…. But what happens if you’re a Rockette and you have a cold? You go out there onstage and take your position, that’s what.” In Beattie’s interpretation, Pat is a ferociously intelligent woman who has somewhat regretfully suppressed herself for her husband’s needs: “And his wife, why isn’t she looking at the camera? Why isn’t she trying harder? She went mute long ago.” Her folksy-at-times insights are quite revealing, particularly because they show us the dimensions that a stilled photograph cannot: this picture, taken over a continental breakfast, a last meal if you will, now has Beattie-as-Pat’s annotations about the mood in the room: “Would he dare to pick up the lime and let people see his hand tremble?”

Whether observations about Nixon like the following are accurate or not, they’re revealing of a truth that exists somewhere, which only serves to remind me that fact alone is hardly useful: “It made him nervous to smile, so, once he started, he either kept that smile plastered on his face or erased it immediately. He mistrusted his body.” I’m sure that Beattie’s done at least the most basic of research for this project; I wonder how this “story” and the forthcoming novel will land with readers who actually knew the man. Given how much character I get out of the following snipped of dialogue from an older, lonelier Dick, what will those who know him think of Beattie’s imagineering?

“Is it wrong to have the dog in the house for this one night? well, maybe it is, but it isn’t right to let a dog go on its way when it might be killed. You look for a tag, or something. But nobody took the time to put a tag on this dog, and my point is, that tells you something. It could have been dumped here by some kids from the city, who got tired of it and drove it all the way out to the suburbs, just to get rid of it. They see these big houses, and they think, Oh, they’re a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals who’ll take in a dog on a cold night. Some people do that–invite street people in–and some of them end up killed. Cold out there. I’m going to fix a cup of tea. Would you like some?”

I don’t read presidential memoirs, let alone much non-fiction, particularly of the biographical sort (I prefer writings on science, technology, and business: think Gladwell). And the reason I don’t is because they seem so edited, so lifeless; what Beattie’s captured here in this bit of fiction is somehow more alive to me than anything else, a transcript that might just as well have happened, given what it tells us about humans, although not necessarily Nixon. Would Pat describe loneliness as “sea glass. It was attractive, sometimes. But it could also retain sharp edges.” Probably not. But that’s what we have authors for, no?

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