Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "The New Yorker and the World"
|[a] Platonic RF|
You will soon notice that there is nothing chronological about these posts. I write about authors as I think of them. Every one of these first dozen (or so) posts for our "The New Yorker and the World" series will cover writers who changed the magazine in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. You will notice that the 1970s dominate here, and that has only a little bit to do with my own personal history. I first started reading The New Yorker in the spring of 1974, when my high school English teacher, Mr. Fox, assigned short stories from current editions of The New Yorker in our classes at Northfield (Minnesota) High School. It was another year before I actually had a subscription of my own, and Ann Beattie's first story in the magazine falls in that "liminal" period between first hearing about The New Yorker and starting my own subscription. Whole bunches of stuff happened in that year, including the initial fictions of many writers who did not at all "fit" the stereotypical New Yorker story.
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Ann Beattie was one of these, and I read her first piece in the magazine. Many more would follow.
Mr. Fox was responsible for my introduction to Ann Beattie. He assigned "A Platonic Relationship" in the spring of 1974, and I was more than a little bit intrigued. I recognized a "voice" that was far more involved in the story than those that were familiar to me. We'll deal soon enough with stories from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I am not one to condemn them—not at all, in fact (fiction). They are beautiful, and some of those 1950s and 1960s authors (Updike, Roth, Cheever, and others) kept on developing and publishing for years and years and years. None of that could change the excitement that Ann Beattie created. She burst onto the pages of The New Yorker and she never really left. As Ben Yagoda has noted, she has imitators all over the country...and the world. Very few of them ever saw the pages of America's most famous magazine, but Beattie just kept cranking away, and today a volume sits on the bookshelves called The New Yorker Stories. It has all of 'em.
She is one of the most prolific authors in the last third-century, and this is her first New Yorker story. By chance—dumb luck—I was there when it happened.
A Platonic Relationship (1974)
When Ellen was told that she would be hired as a music teacher at the high
school, she decided that it did not mean that she would have to look like the
other people on the faculty. She would tuck her hair neatly behind her ears,
instead of letting it fall free, schoolgirlishly. She had met some of the teachers
when she went for her interview, and they all seemed to look like what she
was trying to get away from—suburbanites at a shopping center. Casual and
airy, the fashion magazines would call it. At least, that's what they would have
called it back when she still read them, when she lived in Chevy Chase and
wore her hair long, falling free, the way it had fallen in her high-school
graduation picture. "Your lovely face," her mother used to say, "and all covered
by hair." Her graduation picture was still on display in her parents' house, next
to a picture of her on her first birthday.
It didn't matter how Ellen looked now; the students laughed at her behind her
back. They laughed behind all the teachers' backs. They don't like me, Ellen
thought, and she didn't want to go to school. She forced herself to to, because
she needed the job. She had worked hard to get away from her lawyer
husband and almost-paid-for house. She had doggedly taken night classes
at Georgetown University for two years, leaving the dishes after dinner and
always expecting a fight. Her husband loaded them into the dishwasher—no
fight. Finally, when she was ready to leave, she had to start the fight herself.
There is a better world, she told him. "Teaching at a high school?" he asked.
In the end, though, he had helped her find a place to live—an older house, on
a side street off Florida Avenue, with splintery floors that had to be covered
with rugs, and walls that needed to be repapered but that she never repapered.
He hadn't made trouble for her. Instead, he made her look silly. He made her
say that teaching high school was a better world. She saw the foolishness of
her statement, however, and after she left him she began to read great numbers
of newspapers and magazines. She had dinner with her husband several months
after she left him, at their old house. During dinner, she stated several ideas of
importance, without citing her source. He listened carefully, crossing his knees
and nodding attentively—the pose he always assumed with his clients. The only
time during the evening she had thought he might start a fight was when she told
him she was living with a man—a student, twelve years younger than she. An
odd expression came across his face. In retrospect, she realized that he must
have been truly puzzled. She quickly told him that the relationship was platonic.
That's Ann Beattie. She wove fictions about changing American families, and never let easy solutions seep into her narratives. She just kept deepening and widening the swath of her fictional command. Beattie is one of those rare authors who make a splash when young...and just keep on producing into middle age...and beyond.
|[c] Platon RF|
 Ben Yagoda, About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made (New York: Scribner, 2000), 384-385.
 Ann Beattie, “A Platonic Relationship,” The New Yorker, April 8, 1974, 42-46.