The title of Ann Beattie’s new book, “Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life,” suggests that the author might be trying to channel Pat Nixon or conjure up her life with Dick, much the way Curtis Sittenfeld channeled a Laura Bush-like first lady in her 2008 novel, “American Wife.”It turns out, however, that Ms. Beattie isn’t really much interested in Mrs. Nixon or her life in the White House or her more than five-decade-long marriage. Rather, she’s interested in deconstructing this famously opaque former first lady as a sort of literary exercise — to test her own skills as a writer, and to find an excuse to blather on (and on and on) about her own ideas about fiction writing, about women and about the interface between life and art.
The result, like Wayne Koestenbaum’s annoying 1995 book about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (“Jackie Under My Skin”), is the sort of pretentious volume that makes people hate academics. In this case, a narcissistic, self-indulgent, hot-air-filled tome that condescends to its ostensible subject, Mrs. Nixon, and that wastes the reader’s time making ridiculous comparisons between, say, the Nixons and the characters in the Raymond Carver story “Cathedral,” or between the Nixons and the characters in the Chekhov story “The Lady With the Little Dog.” There are silly creative-writing-class exercises, like replacing every noun in Mr. Nixon’s famous Checkers speech with the seventh noun below it in the dictionary; and imagining some incidental events in Mrs. Nixon’s life (like taking a bubble bath or drawing sea creatures in the beach sand with her big toe). The chapter titled “Mrs. Nixon Has Thoughts on the War’s Escalation” consists of this one inane sentence: “You and Henry ordering the ‘Christmas Bombing’ was pesky!”
So why turn Mrs. Nixon into a “Literary Lego Person”? Although Ms. Beattie says she “would have done anything to avoid” Pat Nixon in real life, she says that she was interested, as a writer, in a subject with whom she had so little in common “in terms of personality, or upbringing, or what fate has dealt us.” She notes that Mrs. Nixon was “a person of my mother’s generation, who also lived for years in the place where I grew up, Washington, D.C.”
“Writing fiction about a real person,” Ms. Beattie says, “tests my unexamined assumptions, letting me see if, in the character I create, my preconceptions are reflected, reversed or obscured. It’s an area in which I have a little (only a little) power — to animate a character against a stage set believable enough to transcend its artifice; to play out scenarios from outside my experience, limning someone dissimilar from me with whom I nevertheless empathize.”When Ms. Beattie sticks closely to the known facts of Mrs. Nixon’s life or gently extrapolates from them, she does give us some plausible glimpses of this composed, self-reliant woman, who grew up poor on a small farm in California and who was orphaned as a teenager; a woman who wanted her husband to leave politics but stood by him through his campaigns for office, through his presidency, through Watergate — quiet, self-contained, “proper and invisible at the same time.”
Mrs. Nixon’s early life had informed her that there were no guarantees,” Ms. Beattie writes. “She didn’t have romantic notions about what life could bring her. She was determined to experience life, though, even if she did not subscribe to extreme behavior: domestic life versus flapper.”All too often, however, Ms. Beattie spreads a gluey gloss of speculation over Pat Nixon, much of it patronizing, stupid or insulting. For example, she writes that Mrs. Nixon thought for herself, but did so “well within cultural conditioning” and “didn’t think metaphorically.”
In one of her efforts to impersonate Mrs. Nixon, Ms. Beattie assumes an icky, Mrs. Cleaver-like voice, talking about making milkshakes to fatten up her husband so he’ll look better on TV in the next debate against John F. Kennedy. (“It’s festive, pretty and full of calories.”) Worse, much of this book feels like a lecture about creative writing — the author, best known for her early, elliptical short stories in The New Yorker, is a professor at the University of Virginia — in which Ms. Beattie weirdly grafts her ideas about literature onto Mrs. Nixon’s life. Sometimes Ms. Beattie simply complains about the difficulties of writing about real people, or capturing their speech rhythms. Sometimes she struggles to discuss possible parallels (or lack of parallels, as the case may be) between Pat Nixon’s life and those of characters in a variety of short stories or plays.
For instance, with Tennessee Williams’s play “The Glass Menagerie” — which she says Mrs. Nixon once read to her daughter Julie — Ms. Beattie tries to explicate the differences and similarities between the character of the mother in that play, Amanda, and Pat Nixon:“She had obvious intellect, skills and talent, and nothing in Williams’s play suggests Amanda Wingfield had those attributes. Amanda is passive, and believes in the fairy tale; Mrs. Nixon was active, and believed in working hard to create her own scenario. Both had an impenetrability, though. Both retained information that conflicted with their ideals.”Such arbitrary, unilluminating comparisons could be drawn between any real person and any number of fictional characters. In fact, many of Ms. Beattie’s observations about Mrs. Nixon could apply to just about anyone. Of Pat’s marriage to Richard Nixon and his fall from grace during Watergate, Ms. Beattie writes:
“What seemed mysterious was that a specific person had determined her fate — and how often does that happen?” And of the overall arc of her life: “The past was always catching up with Mrs. Nixon,” as if that were not true of every single human being.“When she had freedom, it was in the past,” Ms. Beattie goes on. “When she married a politician, her freedom was curtailed. Things were decided for her. She was summarized in the words of other people. Whether she had a proclivity for silence or merely decided upon it as adaptive behavior for survival, she was often silent, and that silence was unquestioned by the family. Publicly, she did not discuss politics but instead made innocuous remarks.”“Summarized in the words of other people”: no one is guiltier of doing this to Mrs. Nixon than Ann Beattie in this preposterous book, which manages the reductive feat of turning a human being into a paper doll, dressed up in the author’s own condescending imaginings.