Write What You Don’t Know

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Ann Beattie’s collagist new novel, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, questions the inherent value of fiction.

Had you not read much of Ann Beattie’s fiction—which is the case with me, just a few of The New Yorker stories—and Mrs. Nixon was your introduction to this writer, you’d think, How astonishing: she’s a collagist, an experimenter, formally fearless, analytically daring, animating with this book the most notoriously prudish of all the presidents’ wives, Thelma Catherine Pat Ryan Nixon (1912-1993), wife to Richard, vice-president under Eisenhower in the 1950s and president from 1969 until his ordering the Watergate break-in forced him to resign in 1974. “I am very happy to find myself paired with Mrs. Nixon,” Beattie announces, “a person I would have done anything to avoid—to the extent she was even part of my consciousness. As a writer, though, she interests me. My curiosity is based on how little we share in terms of personality, or upbringing, or what fate has dealt us.” Write what you don’t know.

And how much of you don’t know is here! Tantalizing, too, with Mrs. Nixon a blurred-genre hybrid—novelistic essay, imaginative nonfiction, montage fiction. Career-wise, Beattie’s a fictionalist: seven novels and seven story collections, and virtually no nonfiction, a few articles and talks, and now this venture. In its extended uncertainty about itself and its subject, we get some made-up parts—Dick stories transferred to Pat’s point of view. But more we hear the author scrutinizing herself, her writing, her literary friendships, her extensive reading, her teaching style. Of the subtitle, “novelist” invites craft talk; “imagines” promises fiction; and a “life” of a first lady, who, Beattie says, “internalized the expectations of her time and enacted them meticulously,” suggests biography. It’s all that but, I fear, the phrase is too, um, pat. I’d offer the much less shapely, Ann Beattie: A Novelist Analyzes Herself Via the Kaleidoscopic Image of Mrs. Nixon.

The book is doused with confession, the author owning up to something, its self-telling focus saying it all. Beattie needs the Pacific Ocean of nonfiction, in contrast to the Lake Superior of fiction, to set sail. Another Ann-Beattie-like novel won’t cut it: Those fictions simmer a familiar stew—the precious scenes, the yuppie protagonists, the frosty intimacy. What is revealed to her bemused characters is too great a burden or annoyance to elicit any change. Typically, her figures are left stunned by the tale’s enigma and flee its embarrassing truth.

Here: enigmas are found and unfled from. Mrs. Nixon feels free, careening, even loopy. It wobbles as much on Pat and Dick as it does on Beattie with its range of snarky tweets and dense digressions about fiction’s métier. Who knew how many pieces into which the Humpty-Dumpty of one fictional persona might break. There are the omniscient re-imaginings of classic episodes, Dick’s Checkers speech and his morbid farewell. There are the cartoon-like speech balloons in Mrs. Nixon’s parodic voice. There are several amusements with Pat the Stepford Wife, penned like a Hallmark thank-you note. There are a few first-person reflections, intriguingly dangerous, by a Pat-Ann amalgam. And there are Beattie’s professorial volleys into the nature of story and truth, comprising roughly half the book and aggravated by her subject’s impenetrable nature. A few of these activate the inner hell of what (we knew) was happening to Nixon’s family as his presidency soured, a realm neither TV media nor Dick’s devoted could probe.

One of Beattie’s inspired ways into the famous person’s persona is to apply the short story’s insight into its vexed characters, in this case, to the Nixons. During their prewar courtship, Pat gave Dick two books: one by Karl Marx, the other, stories by Guy de Maupassant. Beattie assigns her subjects “The Necklace,” a story about a woman, a commoner who, to make her husband look good, borrows what she believes is an expensive necklace for an elegant party, loses it, buys a replacement whose price indebts her and her husband for ten years only to learn in the end that the original was a cheap knockoff. Beattie wonders whether the pair discussed the story and registered its effect.

“Might such a story have had experiential force, registered as a warning, or is fiction just fiction, a made-up tale? . . . The moral—in both Maupassant’s story and Mrs. Nixon’s life—is undermined by the fact that awareness comes too late, that both women have spent their lives with men who will never learn the right lessons, will never change.”

Throughout, almost punishingly, Beattie inserts her authoress self into the psychological vacuum of a woman whose epic disinterestedness was true because her kin and her handlers believed it. Such Pat Nixon selflessness is history’s myth. So deeply ingrained was her piety that Pat’s daughter, nee Julie Nixon Eisenhower, wrote a memoir about her mother, subtitled “The Untold Story,” in which what was told was how fully all those years Julie had bought the script. Of the self-silencing Pat waged, no one cared, least of all Pat, to examine. She thought, apparently, such meekness was her calling, to be a 1950s wife, a Tammy Wynette who in cement shoes stood by her husband and despised him. Everyone felt it was a ploy. But did she? Beattie argues that the vinegary look, the strict posture, the priggish dress do not lie. Indeed, the author’s prowess as a fabulist, on behalf of those sunken souls relegated to the wings, insures a kind of richness of motive to Mrs. Nixon few of us can imagine.

In a collaged text, it’s tough to achieve a book-length emotional rhythm. With scenic story, with grand biography, with redemptive memoir, such patterns of growth come with the territory. But with Beattie the unfolding of Pat’s liberation, especially for her, remains unrealized. Only late in the book and only briefly do Pat’s insights about herself (in Beattie’s mirror) emerge while prior to her awakening we endure too many spitball-like vignettes that keep Pat’s true self ducking. A freed Mrs. Nixon had the option to grow up in Beattie’s sculpting. Only problem was she didn’t. She got waylaid, fitted too strongly by Beattie’s overpowering dressage. How easy, how wise, it would have been to give Pat some gloves to fight with.

Other elements do work. One is Beattie’s commingling a literary persona out of author and subject. It may be a bookish self that emerges but Pat, paired with Ann, is spry, capable, a touch wacky, yanked away from a man, at least temporarily, she felt she must marry. I want to stress this idea, namely, that remaking the image of the famous by way of a self-nagging investigatory author epitomizes one literary channel of our age. At the core is a great attraction to life-writing and a parallel distrust of biographical and autobiographical conceits. Authors seek to represent the force of the past in the present, which requires the writer’s perspective be the shared subject of the work. Such is the relational art of authors Nicholson Baker and Geoff Dyer, of filmmakers Todd Haynes and Errol Morris, who blow up the proverbial portraiture of American and British idols via personal uncertainty and technological play.

Perhaps more germane, Mrs. Nixon’s tack challenges the epistemology of Beattie’s own fiction. This book explodes her stock in trade—the short story’s usefulness, its expressivity. Why does the short story persist? It may resemble landscape painting, the vision of another era still practiced into our own. I sense Beattie is dissatisfied with fiction’s truth claims, something David Foster Wallace and his continental drift among fiction and fact engaged on a Very Big Level. Having felt the earth move, she flags the tremor early in the book: “Let’s say the writer has a character who is based on a well-known figure—a situation increasingly common, as fiction writers struggle to remain standing in the Age of Memoir.”

Finally, when I think about the recent commercial surge of political autobiography and insider memoir, where the author impersonates or revises himself, blazes a career-path or widens his platform (think of the opportunists Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich), I remember how well our creative nonfiction writers expose, parody, upend, and demystify the franchising of these self-adoring selves. Some of the best, new nonfiction relies on muddied points-of-view, unreliable narrators, and discontinuous time to de-maze the hive mind and the cubicles we live in. I’m most heartened to see Beattie challenging her own fictional clout and joining these new voyagers who are sacrificing form for function.

Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." His previous book, The Memoir and the Memoirist, is in its third printing. He's also a journalist for The San Diego Reader. More from this author →