This strikingly original book isn't really a biography of Pat Nixon. But then, short-story scribe Ann Beattie might argue that straight biographies aren't relevant anymore. ''Memoirs now are usually about people no one would have heard of until they read the book,'' she writes, ''while novels increasingly invoke historical figures.'' Indeed, Curtis Sittenfeld's recent Laura Bush-based novel American Wife stirred up more debate than any memoir from a First Lady ever could. So what Beattie offers in Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life is both timely and unique: a postmodern take on Nixon's life that blurs fact and fiction. Some chapters find her imagining Nixon's reactions to real-life events (getting spat upon during a diplomatic trip to Venezuela) or made-up situations (baking cookies with Hillary Clinton). Other chapters take the form of lists (''Mrs. Nixon's Nicknames, Including Her Code Name as First Lady'') or letters (in ''My Anticipated Mail,'' Beattie predicts the angry responses she'll get from Nixon fans). Yet the most compelling sections read like literary criticism, as Beattie compares Nixon to the protagonists in The Great Gatsby and The Glass Menagerie, interpreting her story as if it were somebody's Great American Tragedy which, in some ways, it was.
At times, the real insights about Nixon get lost in too much cleverness, with the First Lady feeling like a prop in a writing exercise. But the bookish analysis mostly works: As Beattie says, ''Mrs. Nixon is a fictional character, only to the extent we all are, having both public and private selves.'' It's a very of-the-moment view of celebrity and an appropriate one for a woman who was wrapped up in one story or another, from the Checkers speech to Watergate. B+