Cover of book: The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard

Jo Ann Beard
The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard

Jo Ann Beard has a loose grip on genre. She describes her stories as essays and her essays as stories. This isn’t feckless rule-breaking: it’s art. In 2022, Beard received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. She is one of the most influential writers in the United States. The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard brings together two of her previous books: Festival Days (2021) and The Boys of My Youth (1998). Housed together, themes of family, friendship and death coalesce. Her work carries dark undercurrents, yet is awash with moments of a bright, salty humour.

Stylistically the collection is a feast. Beard’s audacious approach to structure infuses each piece with a spontaneous verve. She resists the linear, so time dilates, contracts, splinters – not just scene by scene, but sentence by sentence. We enter perspectives through great leaps of imagination: a man wakes up in a burning building; a coyote walks through a vast desert; a woman travels to be euthanised; a gunman walks through a college campus. Placing “human experiences and emotions” at the centre of each piece ensures their integrity.

Beard believes there is “transcendence” to be found in “observation and detail”. But she also believes in continuity: “Every moment of your life brings you to the moment you’re experiencing now.” Everything matters. Everything is worthy of close examination.

How Beard observes the world is wondrous. The beginnings of an electrical fire (“a sprig of cloth-wrapped wire sizzled and then opened, like a blossom”). A woman waking after a mastectomy (“her breast is gone, melted into a long weeping wound across her chest”). Camping (“the walls of the tent press down like skin, the ground presses up like bone”). In between are plain, workaday truths (“Lunch tastes better when you’ve been writing”).

As a creative writing teacher, Beard’s approach is intimate and cerebral. In the essay “Close”, Beard argues: “Writing school isn’t any easier than med school; it’s just shorter.” In a course outline for the master of fine arts program at Sarah Lawrence College, she tells prospective students: “we’ll practice the art of thinking – which is harder than we might, well, think it is. It involves silence and separation from distraction and the hard work of developing a relationship with one’s own intellect.”

Beard’s sentences flex and arch with the “work of thinking”. Fans of Helen Garner and Anne Enright will relish this collection. 

Allen & Unwin, 448pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard".

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Cover of book: The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard

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