This summer, discriminating lovers of short stories can stuff their beach bags and backpacks with any number of excellent collections including Rebecca Makkai's "Music for Wartime" and Lisa Gornick's "Louise Meets Bear." But it's Ann Beattie's "The State We're In" that outshines them all.
Long considered a short story master, Beattie, in this Maine-centric collection of interconnected stories, has created characters and situations that are edgy, funny and dark. She immerses us in her characters' memories and thought processes as they make decisions good and bad.
Although these tales are all in some way linked, three stories, including the first and the last, center on the wisecracking teenage Jocelyn, forced to spend a summer with her Uncle Raleigh and Aunt Bettina while her mother, supposedly, is recovering from surgery. Jocelyn's interactions with her aunt and uncle shed bright light on the modern state of matrimony, a topic Beattie deftly inserts into many of these stories.
"Endless Rain Into a Paper Cup" — the title is taken from the Beatles song "Across the Universe" — is the story midway through the collection that features Jocelyn. In it she ruminates on her aunt and uncle's seemingly odd marriage and wonders, "Did any marriage make sense, or was he right about what he told her weeks ago, and there was some sort of use-by-date stamped on them with an invisible watermark?"
The Beatles aren't the only pop culture icons that riff through these stories. Characters are reading Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch," listening to NPR and marveling over tacky Elvis Presley lamps. But it's Beattie's unerring dialogue that exposes each story's truths.
In "Silent Prayer," a couple's bickering hides their true feelings for each other, and in "The Stroke" a husband tells his vain wife, "I think it's absolutely ridiculous that you've got a scarf coiled around your throat even when you're in your nightgown. As if I care about the tightness of the skin on your neck," to which she replies, "You wear lifts in your shoes."
In "Duff's Done Enough," a fledgling author mulls the source of writers' greatest inspiration. One can't help but think he's speaking for Beattie when he considers that "every writer will tell you the same thing: It's next to impossible to find the inevitable story, because so many needles appear in so many haystacks. Most writers spend their entire careers — those who are lucky enough to have them — considering endless piles of hay, praying, just praying that a needle will prick their finger."
The effortless grace of these stories proves Beattie has had her finger pricked numerous times.
Carol Memmott also reviews books for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.