The first sentence of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ann Beattie’s first novel in eight years, is a fragment.
“LaVerdere’s Leading Lights, a.k.a. The Honor Society,” Beattie writes. Then she leaves you stranded in what feels like the middle of a paragraph, the middle of a story, as though you should already know all the characters she unceremoniously drops onto the page, and where they are, and why.
The result is a book that reads like a years-long montage, skittering from moment to moment and only ever lingering on a given scene long enough for a fleeting impression. Beattie’s prose is characteristically limpid, smooth and clear enough to keep a reader hurtling along without issue — but the plot is opaque, because Beattie keeps veering around vital information. If you want to figure out what’s happening in this book, you have to look at what’s not being said.
To a certain extent, that’s just how Ann Beattie rolls. Beattie is a novelist and short-story writer who so effectively captured the experience of disillusioned counterculturalists entering adulthood in the 1970s that critics at the time used to talk about “the Beattie generation,” and her thing is being spare and difficult to parse.
As William Deresiewicz wrote for the Nation in 2011, “Beattie is an artist of silence, of the things we don’t say or can’t, the things that find expression anyway. She is an artist of the space between the words — of commas and dashes and periods; of section breaks, blank spaces that her characters seem to hit as if running into a wall.”
But in A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Beattie takes those silences to new extremes. This is a book in which all the meat has been carved away, and we are left with only the bones.
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is supposed to do for millennials what Beattie’s earlier stories did for boomers
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is the story of Ben, who is a member of LaVerdere’s Leading Lights — a.k.a., as we learned in that first sentence fragment, the honor society. He’s a senior at Bailey, a boarding school for smart and troubled kids, and he’s a favored pet of Mr. LaVerdere, the charismatic teacher whose area of expertise never quite becomes clear (… philosophy … maybe?), and who runs the school’s honor society. When the novel opens, it’s a few weeks before 9/11.
Ben is well-liked at school, but nonetheless he’s a careful, unsure kid, always fumbling his way through interactions with peers and adults, searching desperately for the correct way to behave. He trains himself not to say “cool,” because it’s improper; when he makes small talk, he asks about people’s interests because asking about their professions is gauche; he lets himself get scammed by a sketchy guy at a gas station because he doesn’t want to be rude.
“Manners,” Beattie informs us of Ben early on, “were All Important. He got that.”
Ben’s insecurity feels extremely teenage, extremely “kid groping to perform as an adult,” but it doesn’t go away as he grows up.
Over the course of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ben graduates from Bailey. He goes to college. He moves to New York, then to a small town in the Hudson Valley. He works a string of okay jobs. He has a string of casual flings and dysfunctional relationships.
But he never quite loses the adolescent sense that there is a specific and correct way to behave, one that remains always just out of his reach. And the title, which references a Dalai Lama quote about never getting what you want, suggests he never will.
In part, the book suggests, that’s because he’s part of the 9/11 generation, the kids who came of age during a time of national tragedy, and as a result associate adulthood with uncertainty and instability.
And more insidiously, that’s because of LaVerdere, who encourages his students to mold themselves in his image and who looms large over Ben’s subconscious as an adult. LaVerdere, Ben thinks, “could analyze anything and transform its clarity into ambiguity.” Ben hates that habit — but he can’t stop repeating it himself, over and over again, as he grows up.
Manners and social graces, Ben analyzes until they become so ambiguous as to defy comprehension. (He should bring wine on a date. No, mineral water, because wine is such a cliché. No, the water is a terrible idea, now she’ll think he’s an alcoholic.)
But the things that he truly cares about, Ben avoids putting into the narration of the book at all. His friends’ issues with their parents take place in the margins, while Ben’s issues with his father get only the most glancing of references. We learn that he is in love with his neighbor only when other characters mention it; Ben himself tells us mostly about his neighbor’s husband, with whom he is friendly.
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is an intellectually rich book with a razor-sharp sense of irony. But it’s also a cold book. The narration is so deliberately withholding that it becomes difficult to care about any of the characters, because they’re all avoiding emotional connections with absolutely everyone around them, and that includes the reader.
Still, this cold book is mesmerizingly elegant. It may not leave you feeling much, but it is always beautiful to read.