Acknowledged mistress of the cool, elegant -- don't forget clever -- prose, Ann Beattie is also a prankster. But you've got to be clever yourself to figure this out. Got to be quick to spot those sly little references to her past fiction in her current fiction. Or catch the nameplate on her friend's chic South End brownstone that is the same name as a (minor) character in her latest novel, ``Love Always.'' Ms. Beattie likes to put over a fast one to see who catches on. It's all part of a studied but casual literary modus operandi -- ``If writing wasn't fun I couldn't do it'' -- by this author, who has cut her career as one of the first chroniclers of the post-1960s generation. Beattie's six books -- ``Love Always'' is her third novel (the others are short-story collections) -- have been greeted as graceful if facile bulletins about the survivors of the Age of Aquarius.
In an age now teeming with minimalist writers, whose deadpan, d'egag'e prose proclaims reality not in a larger truth but in small, concrete sensations, Beattie still stands as the first.
It is not a label with which she concurs. ``I never did buy the media hype on myself. I just didn't,'' she says, shaking that triangular mane of hair that has become as much her signature as the flat, hip prose. ``What I'm writing about are the complicated things, the things I don't have answers for,'' she says.
In the decade or so she has been writing -- nearly all her work appears first in The New Yorker magazine -- Beattie has earned praise for her eye for detail and ear for dialogue. But she has been criticized for writing emotionally distant, icy prose. Her characters are notorious for being as aloof and bemused as their author.
Now, ``Love Always,'' Beattie's most comic -- indeed her first satiric -- work to date, is receiving mixed reviews. A tale of some hippies-cum-Yuppies who go rural chic in Vermont by running a countercultural magazine called Country Daze, ``Love Always'' has been faulted for its lack of ``passionately felt concerns.'' But it is mainly the novel's satiric tone that is arching critics' eyebrows. Beattie is accustomed to confronting her generation from a position of stoic detachment. But the satire of ``Lo ve Always'' inches her dangerously close to a literary cul-de-sac -- the satirist satirizing himself.
But Beattie is not easily cowed. ``I don't think I can write something that says, `It comes down to this,' '' she says. ``That just doesn't interest me. I don't think that's the purpose of fiction.''
What does interest Beattie, who unabashedly describes herself as ``a child of my time,'' is indeed her own generation. Curled up on her friend's couch during a recent publicity tour -- or as curled up as one can be in miniskirt, high heels, and pointy fuchsia fingernails -- Beattie looks much like her own characters might look: members of the post-Vietnam generation struggling to maintain their laid-back hipness in an era now defined by Yuppies and Madonna. ``The '60s at the time seemed a bit flashier a nd tended to have a bit more promise than this new conformity,'' she says.
According to Beattie, ``Love Always'' differs thematically, not topically, from her earlier work. ``I hadn't used that particular voice, that particular wit, before,'' she says. ``But I don't think I wrote a Marx Brothers routine or `Saturday Night Live Goes to Vermont.' It was much more complicated than that.''
Beattie insists her theme is serious: the lack of community. Belying the book's title, the narcissistic and unserious characters in ``Love Always'' professionally parody concern for others while personally retreating from commitments.
Lucy Spenser, Beattie's protagonist, writes a satirical advice column under the pen name Cindi Coeur. Lucy's editor and best friend, Hildon, is a handsome, vain man with a passion for videotaping himself. Lucy's niece, Nicole Nelson, is a 14-year-old soap opera star whose visit East turns ``Love Always'' into something of a soap opera itself. Others tangled in this web include Hildon's wife, Lucy's ex-boyfriend, Lucy's sister, Nicole's agent, a free-lance journalist, and some assorted and o mnipresent friends.
``What's going on in the novel to some extent is that I'm satirizing people who are making a profession of satirizing,'' Beattie says, adding that she ``couldn't have predicted that . . . the comedy would be as broad'' or that ``it would boomerang and become much more serious in the end.'' That ``seriousness'' has to do with Beattie's calculated detonation of the characters' idiosyncrasies.
Beattie is cautious when she explains that she wrote the novel (which takes place in Vermont in the summer of 1984) in Vermont in the summer of 1984.
Much of the book's authenticity derives from the accretion of felt detail -- a Beattie trademark. She captures 1984 Vermont with right-on references to Cyndi Lauper, Horchow catalogs, and ``pre-Cabbage Patch'' Coleco.
``When I'm writing a novel,'' she says, ``I'm more alert to everything,'' she says. ``The difficult thing is for it not to appear concocted.''
But Beattie is wary of what she sees as critical misperception of her craftsmanship. ``The notion that I could have thrown open my door on any given day and videotaped what was out there . . . [is] very condescending to me as an artist.''
It is no accident that film and videotaping figure prominently in ``Love Always. ``It's part of the theme of the book, of course, [that] nobody has any one identity . . . that no moment is just any one moment,'' Beattie says. ``Increasingly, technology is here because we want it here. . . . We pretend we want it for adventure, but we also want it for security.'' In the novel, Beattie phrases it as, ``Being a success meant being a personality.''
An only child who was raised in Washington, D.C., and eventually attended graduate school in Connecticut, Beattie says she never had to struggle to find her artistic voice. ``If I didn't absolutely know that, I would be lost. That's a given with me.'' She says she considered writing ``more and more fun'' as graduate school ``was less and less fun.''
Now back on home territory in Virginia after several years in New York City and with few vestiges of any ``normal life,'' as she puts it (she is divorced, with no children and no job other than her writing), Beattie is ``trying to pretend that I don't have to pretend what my next [writing] project is.''