- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

By Ann Beattie
Scribner, $24, 279 pages

It's not easy for most writers at the outset of their careers to get the kind of attention that will help establish them. Coming onto the literary scene in the 1970s, Ann Beattie was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. For some reason, the small, hard pebbles of socio-cultural details embedded in her laconic prose made quite a splash and her spare short stories, dubbed "minimalist," became, for a time, a staple of the New Yorker magazine.
As one of the first writers whose fiction reflected the unanchored quality of a certain kind of American life in the wake of the 1960s, the author was hailed as the chronicler of her generation. But whether her fiction has actually illuminated a generation and a way of life or merely reflected the look and style of its surfaces remains a moot point. Her latest book, "The Doctor's House," seems to promise an in-depth exploration of the unseen ties that entangle the members of one particular dysfunctional family, but fails to deliver the expected insights.
"The Doctor's House" is a triptych: a three-paneled novel, each section narrated by a different dysfunctional family member. Given its structure, the book cannot collapse into a completely flat, one-dimensional performance, but despite the three perspectives that are provided we still gain surprisingly little sense of depth.
We first hear from Nina, a freelance copy editor leading a quiet existence in Cambridge, Mass. Nina's brief marriage to a medical student named Mac the only time in her life when she ventured out of her shell ended all too abruptly with his death in a car accident. Now, years later, she still eschews the dating scene and isn't even very eager to take a job that might involve her in the complications of working outside her home.
The main person in her life seems to be her brother Andrew, who pursues women, one after another, then invents reasons for dumping them, sometimes even dropping the same woman twice in a row. At this point, Nina is getting a little tired of her role as confidante, not only to her self-involved brother, but to his various hapless girlfriends who fill her in on the unsavory details of her brother's heartless antics.
The second section is narrated by Nina and Andrew's mother, a self-centered alcoholic neglected by her equally self-centered, womanizing husband (the eponymous doctor). Insofar as Mommy Dearest is capable of human attachments, she has glommed on to her handsome son Andrew, whom she considers "sensitive." She has always done her best to ignore her daughter Nina, whom she considers "cold." Mostly, however, she has decided that the children do a fine job of looking after themselves, leaving her free to retreat into the bottle feeling sorry for herself because her husband is such a monster.
In the third section, brother Andrew provides his version of events. One might say that he tries to justify his rotten behavior, except that his rationalizations are so lame and inept they scarcely merit the appellation. He grouses a bit at Nina for what he sees as her withdrawal from life, contrasting it unfavorably with his own "involvement" (as if taking up with women then ditching them constituted involvement), but his main complaints are against Daddy Dearest, the doctor. (Not surprisingly, since he was her special pet, Mommy gets off relatively lightly.)
One problem with "The Doctor's House" is that we hear from only three viewpoints in a story that actually involve four central characters (perhaps even five if we were to include Nina's deceased husband, Mac). In any case, it's missing the central one: Frank, the doctor, father, and ogre. If Nina is a recluse because her parents neglected her, if her mother is a drunk because her husband was such a tyrant and philanderer, and if Andrew is a compulsive womanizer because his father was sarcastic and demeaning, why shouldn't we learn how this particular Dad got to be so bad?
Not that the author has done such a convincing job in the other three cases, pinning everyone's problems on the domineering paterfamilias. (Back in the 1950s, social and psychosexual problems were usually blamed on the mother. Nowadays, it's more popular to blame the father.) But although what we are told about him is certainly off-putting, the doctor doesn't sound nearly as terrible as his family or the author seem to consider him.
Yes, he does talk about himself in the third person and is chilly, sardonic, and a trifle paranoid, but he is hardly a full-fledged monster. Here, for instance, is a swatch from Andrew's recollection of a supposedly devastating exchange between father and son after the former found the latter smoking marijuana:
"'You probably think that because your mother drinks, it's all right to smoke marijuana,' he said. 'Actually, marijuana itself is not so bad. It's useful for glaucoma patients. For relief of nausea, with some illnesses. There's even the suggestion that it should be legalized… .Your mother tells me that you and your sister enjoy Playboy … . Isn't that an unusual magazine to be looking at with your sister? You know, I had wanted to keep my magazines hidden from Mom.'
"'We were looking at the cartoons,' I said.
"'Is that right? Is that what the doctor should believe?' He went right on, not waiting for an answer. He said: 'Your mother drinking, you smoking marijuana… .A doctor, with two people abusing substances in his own house. What does your sister do, if I may ask? I would presume that she does exactly what her brother does, since he is the only person who exists in her world.'
"I looked at the floor.
"'I'm glad you're not continuing to lie to me. I do take note of that,' he said… ."
Sarcasm may be hard for a teenaged boy to handle, but it's hardly what most people would consider outrageous cruelty. One almost begins to feel sorry for the doctor here. Clearly, it's no more fun for him to be living in "the doctor's house" than it is for the rest of his family.
The novel proceeds with an air of mounting tension, as if some important revelation were about to unfold, some mystery to be resolved, or at very least, some clarifying insight to be provided. But nothing like that happens. Nor can the reader who may be content to remain mystified about the characters' motivations find other forms of excitement, pleasure, or satisfaction. The characters are opaque, colorless, and lifeless, the dialogue is leaden, and there is little sense, either of their immediate milieu or of the larger world surrounding it.
When one reads a novel like this, one begins to understand why many readers have come to prefer biographies or memoirs, which, at least, have the virtue of being about actual people. Quite often, to be sure, biographers and memoirists brilliantly illuminate their subjects, but even when they do little more than rehearse the facts, at least the readers feel they are being informed.
Novels owe their superior status in the realm of literature to the novelist's ability to do a great deal more than that: to plumb motives, find patterns, explore ideas, evoke atmosphere, portray, question, or affirm the social order, examine manners and morals, transport us to another time and place, or show us our own in a different light. Thanks to Gustave Flaubert's skills as novelist, the banal Madame Bovary becomes fascinating. The characters in "The Doctor's House," not all that enticing on first glance, actually seem to grow even less interesting the more one reads about them.

Merle Rubin is a writer and editor living in Pasadena, Calif.

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