Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life
by Ann Beattie
In his 2010 manifesto, Reality Hunger, David Shields attacked realism in fiction, calling upon writers to give up the ideal of the purely imagined novel or short story. Too much fiction, he argued, is written as if modernism never happened, and remains bound to nineteenth-century narrative conventions of plot and characterization:
I love literature but not because I love stories, per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived and essentially purposeless… It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking +
The above words are Shields’, but much of his book is a collage of other writers’ unattributed quotations, lifted from a variety of sources, including novels, short stories, essays, reviews, and journalism. Urging writers to steal more boldly, Shields invited authors, novelists in particular, to consider the kind of autobiographical and “realistic” forms that modern readers gravitate toward — memoir, personal essay, lyric essay, narrative journalism — and to meld these forms with traditional techniques in order to create new hybrid works:
The books that most interest me sit on a frontier between genres. On one level, they confront the real world directly; on another level, they mediate and shape the world, as novels do. The writer is there as a palpable presence on the page, brooding over his society, daydreaming it into being, working his own brand of linguistic magic on it +
I bring up Shields because when I first began to read Ann Beattie’s most recent book, Mrs. Nixon, I thought I was encountering a hybrid book of the Shields variety. I was excited by this prospect, in part because I’m sympathetic to Shields’s argument, but also because Beattie was the last writer I would expect to challenge conventional forms. Long associated with The New Yorker magazine (so much so that her recent collection of stories is titled The New Yorker Stories), Beattie’s short stories are prime examples of the kind of quiet, faux-Chekhovian realism that many people think of, fairly or not, when they think of literary fiction. She is a master storyteller, but a traditional one, hiding her authorial presence and revealing herself only through the characters and situations she creates.
In Mrs. Nixon, Beattie seems, at first, to be lifting the veil at last. Subtitled “A Novelist Imagines a Life”, her new book is a collage of short stories, vignettes, essays, lists, letters, and ruminations, each providing a different view of Mrs. Nixon, to create an uncanny, splintered portrait. In an introductory note, Beattie informs readers that Mrs. Nixon is based on real people, real names, and real events. Throughout the book, Beattie quotes directly from the Nixons’ personal correspondence, newspaper and magazines articles, and numerous Nixon biographies, including Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s Pat Nixon: The Untold Story, as well as President Nixon’s own memoirs. Where there is dialogue, Beattie reports: “I do my best to write and think my characters would think and speak, based on what I’ve read about them. In some cases, factual events are used only as points of departure, which should become clear; those times I write fiction will be recognizable as such.” In other words, Beattie has taken pains not to manipulate Mrs. Nixon’s life story by shaping it into a fluid narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—and all the psychological motivations in between. Instead, Beattie attempts to write about what she can only reasonably guess about Mrs. Nixon. Where there are no reasonable guesses to be made, Beattie makes absurd ones, or indulges in bizarre creative writing exercises: a chapter written in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance. When all else fails, Beattie goes all meta and comments on the process of writing a book about Mrs. Nixon, and on fiction writing in general.
One would think that a veteran like Beattie would have many interesting things to say about writing, but these are easily the most tedious portions of Mrs. Nixon. Part of the problem is that Beattie is hesitant to disclose anything about herself or her writing process. She prefers to quote other writers, or to speak generally about “the fiction writer” and his peculiar habits. While these are sometimes amusing, they are often banal, pointing out, say, that fiction writers are preoccupied, or badly dressed. Occasionally her observations veer into the cryptic: “The fiction writer tends to look as high as a tree, or even a mountain, but often the sky seems too much”; or: “Writers are dolphins”.
Beattie also spends a lot of time analyzing the works of other writers, specifically realists, including classic authors like de Maupassant, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, as well as her New Yorker contemporaries. Her criticism, though, is not especially illuminating — again, because she reveals so little of herself. The only clues to her personal aesthetic are her occasional derisive remarks about the current “Age of Memoir” (capitalization is Beattie’s). She compares autobiographical asides to weeds growing up through cracks in the sidewalk, and approves of a friend’s pronunciation of memoir as “me-moir.” Relating a conversation with a magazine editor who wants to know how he can tell which autobiographical submissions are actually true, Beattie admits to a feeling of “terror in her heart”, not wanting “to get into a philosophical discussion” about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Insofar as Mrs. Nixonis that philosophical discussion, it’s clear that Beattie feels that fiction is the superior art form, and that non-fiction writers are telling a story that is less emotionally truthful.
And yet how much better Mrs. Nixon might have been if Beattie had indulged her inner memoirist! I realize that this is far from Beattie’s intention, and that my initial, perhaps wishful reading of Mrs. Nixon as a response to Shields’s Reality Hunger was false, not to mention chronologically impossible. (Beattie was well into her project when Shields’s manifesto was published, so it’s doubtful that it had any influence on her.) Still, Beattie drops a number of tantalizing autobiographical hints throughout Mrs. Nixon, enough to make me wish for a completely different kind of book. For instance, in an early chapter titled “The Writer’s Sky”, Beattie tells us that she is happy to find herself drawn to Mrs. Nixon as a subject, even though Patricia Nixon is “a person I would have done anything to avoid.” By way of explanation, Beattie goes on to describe Mrs. Nixon as:
A person of my mother’s generation, who also lived for years in the place where I grew up, Washington, DC, which was then such a different town (more Southern; less cosmopolitan; at best a shadow city of New York) +
It’s telling that Beattie refers to Mrs. Nixon’s generation as her mother’s, not her father’s, and it’s an identification Beattie suggests throughout Mrs. Nixon. At one point she writes: “Although there was a huge gap between my mother and Mrs. Nixon, I sensed that she was something my mother might have become, if not for fate.” In one of the book’s few entertaining episodes, Beattie describes an imaginary meeting between her mother and Mrs. Nixon, in which the two women chat while shoe-shopping, sharing a sentimental moment as they admire a pair of high heels. It’s a moment that Beattie undercuts in the next chapter, chiding the reader for enjoying such autobiographical manipulations. And yet, it’s one of the few places in the book where Mrs. Nixon seemed, for a moment, to be a flesh-and-blood human being.
Perhaps this is the real trouble with Mrs. Nixon: at bottom, Beattie is not really sympathetic to the woman. Perhaps I long for Beattie’s autobiography — for revelations about her mother, her childhood, her memories of the “shadow city” of Washington, DC — because I sense that deep down, Beattie is more interested in herself. Beattie clearly associates Mrs. Nixon with her own coming of age, admitting that “Mrs. Nixon’s prominence when I was a child and a teenager couldn’t help registering on me, even if what I saw dismayed me and made me want to stay far away from that world.” Much of this teenage disdain remains when Beattie describes Mrs. Nixon; she’s constantly harping on her blandness, her reticence, and her conservative image. Reflecting on Mrs. Nixon’s carefully coifed hairstyle, Beattie writes, “She appeared proper — always proper”, and then attempts to dig underneath this propriety by quoting President Nixon’s claims that his wife, given the choice, would prefer to walk on the beach “with the breeze in her hair”. But one senses that Beattie does not really believe in this version of Mrs. Nixon, despite her careful reporting. Even worse, one suspects that Beattie is rather bored with this analysis, and that if she were not so constrained by her principles — her strictly imposed line between fiction, memoir, and non-fiction — she could have discovered something much more interesting lurking beneath the surface of Mrs. Nixon’s stiff persona. If only she had.