We gave it a B+
Many of Ann Beattie’s first person narrators speak in the lunchtime tone of a second wife downing her third drink. They endure just as much pointlessness and blind confusion as characters in most writing, but it’s often a slightly swanker weariness. They’re just as messed up, but instead of waiting on tables and getting shipped off to the drying out facility, they sell real estate and go to analysis.
Thus, in ”The Women of This World,” one of the 11 stories in Perfect Recall, a woman’s neurosis about her food processor gives way to anxiety about the ”passive aggressive” behavior of her stepfather in law during pre Thanksgiving dinner — all of which dissolves when, having left the house to cool off, she stumbles upon a neighbor dead at home and experiences an attack of vertigo: ”The room was quivering, as if the walls, themselves, were about to slope into italics.”
In her best work, Beattie swings lean declarative sentences like that one around and whips up delicious paragraphs, half clinical and half comical, and her comedy manages the trick of being both absurd and affecting. The title story, perhaps the best, is a loony family saga focusing on an eccentric uncle who gets celebrated as a landmark outsider artist for decorating old tires with kitschy trinkets.
Some of the stories clock in at about 50 pages, and it’s easy to imagine how — fleshed out fully, stripped of their sometimes tedious whimsy, and beefed up with Beattie’s dry wit — they’d be more successful as novellas. For Beattie the magic is in the spare details, and the short story is in the very shortness.