Although her parents died when she was in her teens, Pat Nixon was determined to get ahead. She went to work so she could attend college. She was fond of acting on the stage and met Richard M. Nixon in a Whittier Community Players production of The Dark Tower. They married in 1940; as a political wife, and eventual first lady, Pat was soft-spoken, dutiful and even tragic as her life fell in her husband’s shadow.
All of this can be gleaned from Ann Beattie’s book Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, but it is hardly at the center. Beattie begins by listing the 11 nicknames Pat, born Thelma, went by. “Names, nicknames, they’re fascinating,” Beattie explains. Surprisingly, she is not talking about the subject of her book, but about the process of writing. “Names, nicknames, they’re fascinating to writers, but they also cause anxiety because they’re so elusive, and because writers have to come up with so many of them.”
The name of this book is elusive to a fault. More appropriate titles might have been “A Novelist Writes About Writing, Using Mrs. Nixon as a Starting Point”, or “MFA in a Book: A Short Story Writer on Writing”. Those seeking a richly imagined life of a first lady, with emotions and details and a story that moves forward from chapter to chapter, should look elsewhere.
Beattie, who teaches at the University of Virginia, is one of the most acclaimed short story writers of her generation (she’s a baby boomer). She uses this book to impart her writing lessons, many of them in short, disconnected chapters. She provides close readings of major short story writers such as Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver and Guy de Maupassant; sometimes, but not always, they are connected to aspects of Pat Nixon’s history or persona.
Beattie has many creative insights, which directly address her writing process in general, and the writing of this book in particular. “Writing fiction about a real person tests my unexamined assumptions,” she writes, “letting me see if, in the character I create, my preconceptions are reflected, reverse, or obscured.”
Even louder than that voice of introspection is the voice of the professor, dispensing wisdom to ready recipients. “Fiction writers rely on dialogue to carry more meaning than the words themselves convey,” she writes, continuing, “if the writer relies too much on things happening suddenly, the reader is likely to become skeptical.” After imagining a conversation between Pat Nixon and Hillary Clinton making cookies together, she writes, “Mrs. Nixon baking cookies with Hillary Clinton is an example of an anachronism.” This is followed by short chapters with similar endnotes explaining how they’re examples of “irmus”, “epizeus” and “charentismus”, all relatively obscure rhetorical terms. Are you taking notes?
Yes, this travels far from the subject at hand, if it can be said that Pat Nixon is in fact the subject. Mrs. Nixon, who didn’t want her husband to return to politics after his 1960 loss of the presidential election to John F. Kennedy, faded into the background after Nixon became president in 1968. Her muted presence, maybe veiled by a self-effacing properness, left a canvas so blank that it provides Beattie with the greatest of challenges: a character who is so uninteresting as to barely be there. Can she make a story out of an enigma?
In only a few chapters does Beattie genuinely take up this challenge, imagining Mrs. Nixon moving through the world, giving her enough room on the page to think or feel. In one of the most powerful short sections, she illustrates Mrs. Nixon’s sad, anxious thoughts as the White House photographer gathers her family for some last pictures; her husband has resigned in disgrace.
It’s just good enough to make a reader wonder why there aren’t more passages like it.
As the book goes on, her husband intrudes. An intelligent, complex and deeply flawed man, he is more compelling than his wife as a character. His role as president, and the predominance of that in their lives, moves him further toward center stage. Yet while Beattie claims to have channeled his voice, it comes off not as empathetic but campy; he is better illuminated elsewhere. She makes one valuable connection, however: that Nixon, who ordered campaigns of fake letters to the editor supporting his views, was actually a practitioner of fiction, on a grand scale.
Beattie turns to literature over and over, doling out writing advice, making proclamations about how fiction functions, using it as the key to unlock real people. The book may not enlighten us at all about Mrs. Nixon, but it reveals the erudite workings of writer and educator Ann Beattie.
Beattie writes with total assurance, as if she is giving a lecture. For those unfamiliar with the subject of writing, this could be an interesting introduction to how writers write. But it is a dangerous one.
Because she leaves little room for inquiry and even less for deviation, the book becomes one long-winded speech. Where there might be exploration, there is pontification. What might be confidence starts to come across as careless blitheness. Her interpretations are sometimes strange — graffiti always says what it means, the glass animals in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie are a symbol for Laura’s hymen, the first novel was 1740’s Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson — and her thoughts on writing are individual, not truths that should be universally acknowledged.
More nurturing writing guides have come from the desk of Anne Lamott. And a fully imagined life of a first lady can be found in Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife (2008), a novel loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. Mrs. Nixon falls short on both counts.