Ann Beattie’s novels and short stories are the literary antecedents of television’s thirtysomething.
With a spare style and a seemingly relentless attention to which songs were playing on the radio, Beattie has chronicled the children of the Sixties, grown and grappling with lost love, thwarted ambition and alienation. For many readers, the stories strike a resonant chord, although there have always been grumblings from reviewers about the bleakness—and flatness—of Beattie’s vision. Her new novel, however, is more finely tuned and ultimately affecting than such previous works as Chilly Scenes of Winter and The Burning House. Picturing Will is not so much about the children of the Sixties as it is about their children. The book is an acute portrayal of one contemporary child’s vulnerability to reconstituted family life, confused adults and hard-edged environments. But, more than that, it is a portrait of survival.
Will is a 5V2-year-old living with his mother, Jody, in Charlottesville, Va. Jody is a sociological statistic—a single mother. Her husband and Will’s father, Wayne, walked out when Will was a baby. Jody makes her living as a wedding photographer, a job in which “you were part shrink, part philosopher, part stand-up comic.” Her real aim is to take serious pictures. Jody’s profession and her art, photography, provides the central theme for the novel. In a series of chapters told from different points of view, the major characters—the adults whose lives are all linked because of Will—emerge like pictures slowly developing, blurry around the edges and then suddenly filled in with a sharp clarity.
There is a chilling aspect to all the characters as they come into focus. Jody has some quirky edges. While she is not on warm terms with Will’s father, she periodically dumps the
paper artifacts of her domestic life with her son—drugstore receipts, old photos, notes from his teacher—into a brown manila envelope and mails it without comment to her exhusband. She is also career-obsessed. When her best friend has a car accident and kills a deer, Jody arrives on the scene and, instead of comforting her, coolly shoots a roll of film.
She is being courted by Mel, a seemingly perfect modern man, a New Yorker who eventually persuades her to move to Manhattan and marry him and pursue her career there. As Jody becomes a success in the art world, Mel has his own emotional agenda—a need to be the perfect parent. He becomes Will’s surrogate father and, in some ways, his mother, the one who remembers to double-knot his shoelaces so he will not trip.
With the novel’s move to New York from Virginia, the tempo changes. It crackles. Beattie is knowing and funny about trendy urban life, with a great ear for absurd details. During a pivotal meeting between Jody and the man
who will make her a star, a decadent art-gallery owner who is drinking a margarita, they become transfixed when the waitress asks him “if he would like his salt rim freshened.”
The mood changes again when Will is sent to Florida for a visit with his father, a drifter who seems to exist in a nihilist nightmare—a land of great sunsets and no tomorrows. While his father is off seducing other women and his father’s third wife is pining for a child of her own, Will wanders through that rough emotional landscape barely escaping harm. In one harrowing passage, he witnesses and almost becomes embroiled in a sexual entanglement between a young boy—a friend of his—and a grown man.
Picturing Will is a brilliant meditation on the paradoxical aspects of the parent-child relationship: the need to have children, the desire not to, the compulsion to protect them—and the ultimate failure of most adults to do so. As one wry line puts it, “There can hardly be a more serious test of a person’s sanity than surviving childhood.” That aside and others are contained in several chapters interspersed throughout the book that, almost in a parody of “parenting” literature, anonymously offer advice about the care and emotional feeding of children. It is not until the end of the novel that the reader discovers who the author of all the advice is, along with—for Beattie—a uncharacteristically optimistic message: while some children do not survive their childhood, others do, even those brought up by this domestically upended generation.
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