A Close Read

What makes good writing good

"The candles were cinnamon-scented and made my throat feel constricted. She lit them at the beginning of the meal, and by the end she seemed to have forgotten about talking about my father. She mentioned a book she'd been reading about Arizona. She offered to show me some pictures, but they, too, were forgotten. We watched a movie about a dying ballerina. As she died, she imagined herself doing a pas de deux with an obviously gay actor. We ate M&M's, which my mother has always maintained are not really candy, and went to bed early." —from "Find and Replace," in Follies and New Stories, by Ann Beattie (Scribner)

Ann Beattie's short sentences and simple syntax hold the reader at a distance. Here are the facts, Beattie seems to say, setting each point neatly, squarely, against the one that precedes it. Make of them what you will. But of course she's not disinterested, and in her best passages, like this one (in which an adult daughter and her mother meet for dinner to remember the father and husband who has recently died), her clean, restrained style forms a still surface through which her underlying meaning can be clearly discerned.

In these lines Beattie effaces much of the evidence of the writer at work. She uses adjectives and adverbs sparingly, metaphors not at all, and hardly varies the cadence. Her repetition of the most basic sentence structure—subject, verb, object—beats steady time, but unlike writers who elevate concision and simplicity to such an extreme that they end up with stilted chop, she doesn't eschew conjunctions, and so her sentences read naturally. By artfully making her art recede, Beattie lets the few details that anchor the passage convey her story. With each cool sentence the daughter undercuts her mother's grieving. The "devotional" candles the mother has chosen make the daughter's throat constrict with allergy rather than emotion. The mother forgets and forgets again. The movie renders love ridiculous. Earlier in the story the mother has announced her intention to move in with a man, and herein lies the true source of the daughter's anger. With the final sentence the daughter exposes her mother as a fool, and her criticism is all the harsher for its indirection. Deluding oneself into a romantic attachment may be evidence of loneliness or practicality, but maintaining that M&M's are not candy can be nothing here but self-indulgence (although in another context it might be charming). And how much we learn about the daughter, who makes no attempt to prompt conversation about her father and who—like, I daresay, most of the rest of us—has long since given up arguing with her mother about things like M&M's.

Beattie's stories sometimes topple when her vivid imagination couples with her penchant for neutral delivery of sequential facts to produce a heap heavy with material and light on meaning. Here, though, Beattie's style works brilliantly—as, seeming only to report the events of an evening, she reveals the essence of her tale.