Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life

Free Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life by Ann Beattie

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Authors: Ann Beattie
quite what she seems. She won’t change. Things are working fine for her.
    As readers, we increasingly see through the characters, yet there is no moment when they acquire insight and act on it to change their lives. What is said to Mathilde clarifies, but the clarification itself is a kind of punishment that cannot undo what has happened.
    Those who think of this as an old-fashioned story would probably point to the revelation at the end that implies a lesson learned. Yes—but it’s a lesson that, once revealed, won’t do anyone any good. Did the Bad Guy (Mathilde) learn a lesson? Ten years are very real, and when time passes, it has passed. The last sentence, with its revelation that instantly interjects irony, rings hollowly, and nothing follows: “Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste!It was worth at most only five hundred francs.” It so rarely happens in life but so often in stories: someone suddenly announces a stunning fact, and is heard with crystal clarity, because a train does not clatter by at just that moment, muffling the final words. Nor does the character who is directly addressed make some rejoinder. In stories, people get their perfect moment, no matter how painful that moment is. It’s allowed to be undisturbed, frozen for all time amid white space. The subject of “The Necklace” is power, and the story concludes with someone asserting power. The ending establishes the author’s power, as well.
    What might Mrs. Nixon have thought of the story? That it was about people in situations that brought forth one’s worst imaginings? That a fairy tale, or a story with elements of one, has always been popular as a way for writers to take readers back to childhood, with the grown-up children just as eager to credulously experience the ride? Perhaps she prided herself on her common sense, confident that she would never face ten years of secret shame for a terrible mistake, a failed secret.
    What if Maupassant had written a story about a woman who, perhaps against her better judgment, marries a man who promises to go places but who has a secret flaw, a sense of wounded pride. She is aware of his tendency to overthink things, to think of people as potential enemies, to speak in ways that may seem authoritative initially, but that often depend on devious strategies of entrapment. Yet she stands by him as he weathers a series of setbacks at the hands of those he comes to identify as his implacable foes, people he must undermine and destroy in order to survive. As his machinations become more obvious, she wonders whether he has always been defined by his own demons. He triumphs, but in battling his perceived enemies, he does something shameful, and harbors a terrible secret, one she sees, or wants to see, only in herperipheral vision. After his downfall, they remain in limbo, trying to repay the debt he barely admits owing. Might such a story have had experiential force, registered as a warning, or is fiction just fiction, a made-up tale? (Nixon’s personal physician during his exile in San Clemente, Dr. John C. Lungren, writes: “Nixon’s growing self-awareness would later deepen into dreadful self-recognition that would reach a catharsis of confidence during the seminal David Frost interviews of March 1977. As he confronted his own actions, the consequences flowing from his own fallibility would fill Nixon with great sorrow and deep contrition.”) The moral—in both Maupassant’s story and Mrs. Nixon’s life—is undermined by the fact that awareness comes too late, that both women have spent their lives with men who will never learn the right lessons, will never change.
    Short stories could hardly exist without the way power shifts within them. This is often, but not always, subtle, and balances are tipped incrementally. (In James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy, a complicated and hubristic man, comes to understand that his wife is, and has been, a person independent from him; he

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