Review: Ann Beattie's Mrs. Nixon

When I think of useful literary devices, Pat Nixon is not the first thing that comes to mind. To be honest, I don’t have one single thing that comes to mind when I think “Pat Nixon” other than, of course, her husband. I know nothing about her.

I don’t know that Ann Beattie knows much about her, either—but she manages to imagine a lot. In doing so, she transforms the former first lady into an extremely useful literary device that allows Beattie to mediate on the nature of writing (and fiction writing in particular). Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life is one of the most wonderfully bizarre writing books I’ve ever read. 

“In stories, there are two components: what the story is, and how or why it is being told,” Beattie says. “Those things often create the friction in what we’re reading.” She could just as well be describing her own book, which is a crazy amalgamation of biography, commentary, and master class on craft.

“Mrs. Nixon is a fictional character, only to the extent we all are, having both public and private selves,” Beattie says. Her book examines those selves, public and private, factual and truthful, real and imagined. Mrs. Nixon uses snapshot after snapshot from Mrs. Nixon’s life, springboarding from those moments into speculation—imagining Mrs. Nixon’s voice and point of view, the backstory of each situation, the texture of each moment. “If not entitled to invent out of whole cloth, the writer can still imagine,” she says.

That process of imaging, and the balance between fact and truth that results, becomes the territory of rich exploration for Beattie. “What ways of treating a recognizable person are fair game when you’re writing fiction?” she asks. Her reflections on that question make an excellent media ethics case study.

Beattie doesn’t limit her musings and observations just to fiction writing, either. “Journalism may be more effective than fiction in offering a new perspective on a public figure because when facts are informative or telling, they automatically redefine,” she suggests.

While Beattie bases Mrs. Nixon on research, she makes up a lot of stuff, too. The book does bill itself, after all, as a novelist imagining a life. But as a product of imagination, is it fiction? Creative nonfiction? As someone who has tread the murky borderlands between the two genres (not to mention my journalism background), I found these questions particularly interesting.

“I do my best to write as I think my characters would think and speak, based on what I’ve read about them,” she explains in a preface note. “In some cases, factual events are used only as points of departure, which should become clear; those times I write fiction will be recognizable as such.”

As an example, she has a section titled “Quirky Moments from Mrs. Nixon’s life,” which she then follows with a section she called “Moments of Mrs. Nixon’s Life I’ve Invented (on the theory that facts can provide only so much information, and fiction has similar limitations).” In other sections, she adopts Pat Nixon’s first-person voice.

The book also offers plenty of imaginings about Mr. Nixon, who has a way of dominating the story even when his wife is the central character. “[S]uch drift seems endemic to writing about the quietly loyal and enigmatic Mrs. Nixon,” Beattie explains.

Beattie’s fascination with Mrs. Nixon becomes a character of a sort in the book, too. Women of different generations and political leanings, they don’t seem like a natural match. “I am very happy to find myself paired with Mrs. Nixon, a person I would have done anything to avoid,” Beattie admits. “As a writer, though, she interests me.”

The resultant postmodern portrait/imagining/fictionalization/biography is multifaceted and fascinating—and one of the most entertaining love letters to the art of writing a writer could imagine.

3 replies »

  1. Had enough of Pat when Dick was president. Creative non-fiction is confusing enough without Ann Beattie, despite her talents, adding to it.

  2. Nice piece, Chris. I’ll have to go find the book. And it’s given me an idea for a writing exercise to use in my workshop later this summer. Thanks!