Mrs. Nixon

What happened here? In this unruly book, her eighteenth, Ann Beattie fictionalizes former First Lady Patricia Nixon, investigates the process of fictionalizing the lives of real people, and — at its most meta — fictionalizes the process of investigating fictionalization. Beattie doesn’t say if Mrs. Nixon was always intended to be a mix of short stories interspersed with essays on the craft of fiction, or if this book is a salvage job on a failed novel. All she’ll say of its  genesis is that Mrs. Nixon chose her and that she was helpless to respond: “I am very happy to find myself paired with Mrs. Nixon, a person I would have done anything to avoid,” she writes, as if she just happened to be seated next to her at a dinner party.

Or on a roller coaster. The pleasure of Mrs. Nixon — and regardless of its provenance it’s a fun, risky, thoughtful book, all the better for being so openly jumbled — is watching Beattie move in many directions to give depth to a public figure who actively repelled such scrutiny. Publicly, Pat Nixon was often a function of her husband: She was the woman who outwardly held it together during Watergate and who wore the “respectable Republican cloth coat” in the 1952 Checkers speech. Beattie looks for the details that upend that received wisdom: Nixon was also an aspiring actress, a First Lady eager to escape the White House and stroll D.C. sidewalks unnoticed, a stroke survivor, and a wife who urged her husband to destroy the tapes.

These are minimal scraps to work with, but Beattie knows from minimalism. Her fine brief fictional sketches suggest a woman whose emotional acuity grew over time, albeit with painful slowness. In “Approximately Twenty Milk Shakes,” Beattie imagines Nixon fattening up her husband for the cameras during the 1960 televised debates with John F. Kennedy, and she’s untouched by notions of self-actualization. (“A man doesn’t mind a chocolate milk shake, let me tell you!”) In “Mrs. Nixon on Short Stories,” Beattie figures Nixon would care little for contemporary fiction: “Stories are meant to transport us, but we should never let ourselves be overwhelmed with a writer’s sad view of life and think we can’t do anything to change our own lives.”

But toward the book’s end, a melancholy kind of self-awareness shadows her. In one scene set during the Nixons’ retirement years, Dick finds a stray dog and wants to keep it, batting away her attempts to reason with him; their dialogue runs on diverging train tracks. Later, her isolation deepens: “She was exhausted, and there was no beach outside, so she only rested her hands on top of the covers. It weighed on you and exhausted you. The strokes contributed, but really the problem was loneliness.”

There’s a lingering sense that Beattie couldn’t find quite enough within Pat Nixon to generate a full cycle of short stories or a novel. But if a full-blown fiction was too difficult for her, Beattie’s discussion of the difficulty of fictionalizing a life is no less fascinating for that. In “My Meeting with Mrs. Nixon,” she recalls spotting her as a child in a D.C. department store, then confesses she made up the experience to explore how authors can steer readers’ emotions.

Beattie revisits a dozen or so of her favorite stories and plays — The Glass Menagerie, J.D. Salinger’s “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” and James Joyce’s “The Dead” among them — to discuss dialogue and character, and scrutinizes books like Nixon’s 1962 memoir, Six Crises, to show how flattened Pat Nixon’s persona was in prose. Studying Richard’s high-flown oratory about “cathedrals of the spirit,” Beattie can’t help but consult Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and find Tricky Dick lacking; Carver cared for the resonances of the word cathedral, while Nixon couldn’t have cared less: “It just sounded good, and he was a man who liked formality and for things to be substantial.”

To the extent that Mrs. Nixon has a thesis, that’s it: Political rhetoric is divorced from the emotion and intellect that good fiction can provide. That disconnection is particularly unfortunate in Pat Nixon’s case because it doomed her to be a cipher, a victim of bad writing as much as conservative confinement. The book isn’t so programmatic that it explicitly makes that point, though. “Is what you’ve been reading fiction or nonfiction?” Beattie asks. “Or is it my memoir, which appears — like certain weeds, I can’t resist saying — only in the cracks?” Yes, yes, and yes. It’s all of them, exposing in three genres how a care for words can obscure and reveal.