On the second page of Ann Beattie’s new collection of short stories, “The Accomplished Guest,” a character asks, “Is this the point where I try to convince you seventy isn’t old?” For the past 40 years, Beattie has been stylishly chronicling the disaffected voices of her generation, children of the ’60s weathering the ’70s and ’80s. This time out, the 60s, 70s and 80s mark age groups, not decades.

Recognizable cultural detritus of the way we live now — absurd, witty, sometimes disturbing — floats through these stories: Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy; cloud computing; a mass shooting in California. But Beattie is less interested in the times they are a-changin’ than in time running out.

As I interpret the enigmatic Emily Dickinson poem that inspires the book’s title, the “accomplished guest” that comes to call on every human habitation is Death. In most of these 13 stories there’s a knock on the door: triple bypass and diabetes, drunken drowning by heart attack, testicular cancer, medical malpractice, or just the inundating “huge wave” of mortality that rushes over 80-something Mrs. Edward R. as she wheelchairs into the Duncans’ annual Christmas party, “her finger … the remaining claw of the crab that had already been pecked apart by seagulls.” “Was it true that if you went under for the third time, that was it?” she muses.

That annual Christmas party exemplifies another recurring aspect of Beattie’s “guest” metaphor: the ritualistic social occasion, with its random interplay of personalities, social selves in full plumage and the enticing possibility of bad manners.

In the opening story, “The Indian Uprising,” a creative-writing alum takes her declining mentor out for witty banter at a Mexican restaurant; in “The Astonished Woodchopper,” bickering siblings meet up at the family summer home for one’s later-life wedding; “The Caterer” works a “Bernie Madoff sentencing party” for a disgraced stockbroker; three frat brothers from the ’60s go on a Christmas bender in Fort Lauderdale (“The Debt”).

Beattie’s dialogue zings, deadpans, meanders and sizzles. If it’s sometimes exhausting to follow, it’s never dull.

I read these stories hoping that someone would make it to solid ground, or at least do a sustainable job of treading water. Not really. The most reassuring things on offer in this fictional world turn out to be a dog (“flexible, intelligent and empathetic”) and a gorgeous pair of pricey leather ankle boots (“she looked at her foot, elegant and riveting” ). But there can also be the exhilarating uplift of Beattie’s gorgeous prose, “this odd limbo moment, this bend-backwards-and-shimmy-under-the-pole limbo moment, with porch lights glowing and solar spotlights allowing the stamens of flowers to puncture the night like so many silent tongues.”

 

Diana Postlethwaite is a professor of English at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

The Accomplished Guest
By: Ann Beattie.
Publisher: Scribner, 270 pages, $26.