Some short story collections are made up of disparate pieces of fiction which authors have written over time and gathered together. Such was the case with Rose Tremain’s book “The American Lover” published last year. When I was at a reading Tremain gave I asked the question of how she chose what stories to include and how to order them; I was shocked to be told that this was mostly her editor’s work and she had little to do with it. It felt to me the movement from the beginning to end of the book took the reader on a distinct emotional journey. Clever editor.
Other short story collections are put together with a particular theme in mind or interrelate in ways which directly inform each other. It feels like “The State We’re In” is firmly a part of this later methodology, although I have no insight into how Ann Beattie composed this collection. The stories within form an arc of experience for the character of Jocelyn who appears throughout several (including the opening and closing story.) She’s been sent to stay with an aunt and uncle in Maine while attending summer school where she’s given the task of writing a story/essay using elements of magical realism. Jocelyn dreads writing this assignment, but by the book’s end she’s found a strategy to compose it. Yet, we’re made to wonder what the mechanism of story-telling means and how the telling interacts with living. In between we’re given the stories of distinctive personalities mostly set in Maine which include a collection of voices full of neighbouring gossip and local struggles. Jocelyn feels that “real life – you couldn’t write.” But that’s just what Beattie goes on to do.
There is a sense of being suspended in a physical place, but also in an emotional state. Some characters are established and content like a 77 year old woman who writes poetry, but it’s the accomplishments in her life which provide a counterpoint to poets past. Other characters are extremely anxious like a woman whose been asked to provide her back garden for a friend’s wedding when she despises the groom. Still others are trapped in an insolvable emotional mess like the character Moira in ‘Road Movie’ who is the lover of a married man. The configuration of their arrangement won’t change and the fact they are caught enacting clichés doesn’t make the emotional stress of the situation any less painful. This self-conscious awareness shown throughout the stories demonstrates how people can continuously narrate their lives while being unable to prevent themselves from becoming characters within them.
In some ways I felt a lot of the details in these stories washing over me as if I were listening to a gossipy neighbour I met in supermarket who won’t stop talking. Tales of terminal illness or a boy’s suicide attempt might come surprisingly in the middle of a speculations about what to have for dinner. There are details which surprise and delight, but I frequently wondered why am I being told this? It’s observed at one point that “The whole world’s full of stories. I never doubted 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 needle will prick their finger.” The experience of reading this collection is like doing this sort of sifting. But I did feel like I was startled to attention several times because sometimes a point of view struck me as so disarmingly true it was like being pierced.
I can’t help having a personal connection to this book since it is set in Maine and that is actually the state I grew up in. Many of the characters felt very familiar and it’s a social landscape I really recognized. In many ways, Maine is a very insulated place which lives by its own rules separate from the rest of the country. But at the same time it reflects the country where longstanding poverty uncomfortably rests against a small section of affluence. Beattie excellently captures the flavour of Maine with all its idiosyncrasies from pie making to barn auctions. This is a quietly unsettling and beautiful book of stories which is probably best read in order from start to finish.