Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

In Fast Lanes , as in her earlier fiction, Phillips depicts the dislocations in contemporary American life. She examines in minute detail the impermanence of human relationships and the resulting destruction of individuals. Confronted with an impersonal society and disintegrating families which supply no enduring values, Phillips's characters can rely...

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  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Analysis
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In Fast Lanes, as in her earlier fiction, Phillips depicts the dislocations in contemporary American life. She examines in minute detail the impermanence of human relationships and the resulting destruction of individuals. Confronted with an impersonal society and disintegrating families which supply no enduring values, Phillips's characters can rely only on their own limited inner strength for support in their inevitable personal crises. Generally they have experienced — or are experiencing — either actual losses or omens of such losses. While the forms of their reactions vary, Phillips's people recognize the frailty of their psychological balance and use emotional detachment to shield themselves from further pain.

Thus handicapped, Phillips's characters sometimes try to establish bonds with others, but such attempts seem always doomed to failure. Rayme, the title character of her story, has moved back and forth among communal houses and the homes of relatives but she carries with her the isolation resulting from her parents' divorces and her mother's suicide. Thus, she remains the perennial outsider. Mickey, in "How Mickey Made It," describes the women he has lived with, most of whom are older than he; yet none of these women can compensate for his rejection by his adoptive mother. Five years after her divorce, Kay regards her marriage and her children as "Something That Happened"; just as her physical pain was eliminated when half her stomach was removed, so she has recovered her emotional equilibrium by withdrawing from the lives of her husband and children. At the same time, Angela, the youngest daughter, has adopted values more conventional than Kay's; she too is detached from other people, however, especially her parents and siblings.

Most of Phillips's families are dysfunctional, but inescapable. Unable to cope with the difficult twelve-year-old who had been abused, Mickey's adoptive parents made him a ward of the state and so, in his words, shipped him off to a correctional facility. Yet Mickey remains bound to them by an obsessive hatred, and he constantly disparages his entire family. In "Fast Lanes," both of the principal characters are alienated from their families. The narrator feels compelled to return home to visit her ailing father, but she dreads the moment of her arrival and knows she will soon leave again. Thurman, her companion, sporadically visits his mentally confused father and alcoholic mother in the decaying family home. Thurman is still trying, unsuccessfully, to find meaning in his family's losses; so, despite his assertion that he should stay away, he continues to hold his home together, physically and emotionally.

Likewise, while trying to understand her family's painful past, Danner Hampson of "Blue Moon" provides a psychological anchor, not only for her emotionally aloof parents, but also for her brother and his unstable girlfriend. "Bess" tells of a sister and brother, as they first understand the types of love, the meaning of death, and the extent of their mutual dependence. Born just thirteen months apart, the two youngest in a family of twelve children, Bess and her brother Warwick grow up as twins; the age gap sets them apart from their older siblings and their aging parents, and their primary loyalty is to each other. Except for Bess's brief marriage, which Warwick refuses to acknowledge, the two remain together until Warwick's death forces the sale of the farm and scatters the remaining family.

In "Bluegill," another account of obsessive love, a pregnant woman addresses her unborn child, whose father she does not name or acknowledge. Living among strangers, this narrator is cut off from her past, and her world consists of only herself and the fetus she thinks of as an almost mythical sea creature. Although she receives monthly checks from her baby's father, he is indistinguishable from the other men in her past and less real to her than some local fishermen who have been shipwrecked and presumed drowned.

Phillips's choice of "Fast Lanes" as the title story suggests that these stories, taken together, serve as a commentary on sanity as a precarious balance between reality and illusion. At one extreme, Rayme has chosen delusion, rejecting all forms of conventional reality. To a lesser degree, Mickey's prospective music career represents a triumph of self-delusion, as does the pregnant woman's belief that she and her child will be able to live in a dream world that unites them and excludes all others. Likewise, Angela and Kay in "Something That Happened" irrationally and whimsically pursue the interrelationship of the emotions and the body systems.

It is Danner Hampson, however, who consciously considers the question of reality and illusion, as a central character in "Blue Moon" and "Fast Lanes" and perhaps the anonymous narrator of "Rayme." Danner sees the destructive effects of illusion in the parallel cases of her mother's devotion to a long-dead fiancé and Kato's obsession with Billy. Equally damaging is the illusory wife/ mother whom Warwick invents to perpetuate the fiction of his emotionally incestuous relationship with Bess. By allowing Warwick to claim Mitch Hampson as his son, Bess forces Mitch to deal with the double rejection of Warwick's coldness and abandonment by his supposed mother.

Danner's self-delusion involves her attempts to escape the reality of her family's failures and losses, to lose her past and herself through ceaseless wandering, moving in the Fast Lanes. She envies earlier generations, who seemed to see reality clearly and to accept their lot, but she wonders if her view of such people is only another illusion. Thurman, who claims to have left the Fast Lanes, reassures her that his grandfather possessed a sense of certainty and that acceptance is difficult but still possible; both Thurman's incessant travels and Bess's concluding story of Warwick, however, undercut this assertion, suggesting that life is, at best, an equilibrium of reality and necessary illusions.

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