The Working Girl by Ann Beattie, 1991
The magic trick:
Providing hypothetical characteristics for characters and various possible backstories
This is the fourth Ann Beattie story I’ve read for the blog, and I can tell you I did begin the first page with much optimism. “Greenwich Time,” “Weekend,” and ugh especially “Janus” (I have nightmares about “Janus”) struck me as stiff, little well-crafted stories about a world I simply have no interest in – the marital foibles of the rich and intellectual. Yuck.
Let me skip to the point: I love “The Working Girl.” It’s almost as if Beattie was having the same feelings I was about her previous stories when she sat down to write this one. Good lord, am I really writing another story about the rich and unfaithful?
Yes, yes she was. But the cool thing is she breaks down the writer’s wall and shows the reader the process. She offers up hypothetical characteristics for characters, possible plotlines or backstories. It’s hilarious and incredibly effective. The story remains in tact. She doesn’t compromise or disrespect the narrative. She enlarges the scope to make it feel more like real life (even if the real life she writes about is still pretentiously distant to me). And that’s quite a trick on Beattie’s part.
Where is the wife?
In North Dakota or Memphis or Paris, let’s say. Let’s say she’s out of the picture even if she isn’t out of the picture.
No no no. Too expedient. The wife has to be there: a presence, even if she’s gone off somewhere. There has to be a wife, and she has to be either determined and brave, vile and addicted, or so ordinary that with a mere sentence of description, the reader instantly knows that she is a prototypical wife.
There is a wife. She is a pretty, dark-haired girl who married young, and who won a trip to Paris and is therefore out of town.
She won a beauty contest.
But she can’t be beautiful. She has to be ordinary.
It suddenly becomes apparent that she is extraordinary. She’s quite beautiful, and she’s in Paris, and although there’s no reason to bring this up, the people who sponsored the contest do not know that she’s married.
If this is what the wife is like, she’ll be more interesting than the subject of the story.
Not if the working girl is believable, and the wife’s exit has been made credible.
But we know how that story will end.
How will it end?