Sunday, August 28, 2016
Ann Beattie explores lifestyles of the young, urban, and sexually active in this chilly story of the summertime of life. They are all in their late 20s or 30s. The fact that it's a little dated helps to blunt the assault, but not by much. It's appalling the way these friends treat each other. That's the point, of course, and it works. It's strong medicine, in fact. Nick is in love with Karen, who is a few years older, with whom he's had a poorly defined sexual relationship for seven years. "Open" seems to cover it, but nothing so blatant is ever discussed. Now she mostly sees older men and does a bit of treasure hunting. Nick is seeing a woman named Petra but they don't appear to like one another. But Petra gets mad, understandably, when Karen lures Nick away from one of their dates. A married couple, Sammy and Stephanie, have relocated to Virginia, but their disagreements about having a child moved with them. Suddenly Stephanie is pregnant, an accident. She's going to keep the child. Then she isn't. She needs to come up to New York to see Nick. It's a sad parade. These people can't sustain long-term friendships, and they tend to want instead to sexualize them. What they don't have is what they must have. What they do have is devalued by their having it. Everything is always a mess in their lives, though they are privileged enough that necessities of survival rarely impinge on their fugue states. They can throw fits of pique and disappear to the Bahamas for a week or two. At one point Nick tells Karen she is his oldest friend, which shocks her because they've only known each other seven years. So it goes. Even with total inabilities to make commitments, the people in this story are continually making commitments, usually to others they don't know well. They fail. They fail again. They keep trying because it's easier than trying to understand their own self-sabotage. They are not friends to one another so much as witnesses, who wish very much that they didn't have to look. It's dated, but as I say that's also a mercy.
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff