Jayne Anne Phillips Critical Essays

Jayne Anne Phillips American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The long list of awards with which Phillips has been honored indicates how favorable the critics have been from the onset of her career. Black Tickets was released with advance praise from nine writers emblazoned on the back cover, a prophesy of what was to come, even from well-known critics, such as popular contemporary novelist John Irving. Irving noted that Phillips is “especially effective with sex and drugs.”

Black Tickets contains three distinct subgenres: brief (as short as a single paragraph) literary exercises, more developed interior monologues of desperate or deranged individuals, and fully developed short stories about ordinary people struggling with family relationships. Irving, along with the majority of Phillips’s critics, believed that, although her shocking shorter pieces and interior monologues were evidence of Phillips’s extraordinary talent, her best work was done in the longer stories that explored the nature of the modern American family.

Phillips’s preoccupation with generations of families and changing gender roles emerged as major themes in her first novel, Machine Dreams. This work displayed her talent at giving a range of characters unique and believable voices, which matured appropriately as the characters lost their youthful innocence and their world changed around them, inexplicably, yet permanently. During another interview, Phillips explained that her source for such honest, first-person prose “has to do with ear, with listening in a particular way to how people talk and being able to expand on fragments of heard talk, staying with the sound and then enlarging it.”

Because her main subject matter has been either social outcasts or the decay of American societal values, Phillips could not have avoided planting political messages within her fiction. Her concern with the differences between the 1960’s and the successive decades remains evident in her work. She has contrasted the community-oriented 1960’s with the 1970’s, when young people no longer rallied around unifying causes such as civil rights and lacked national heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr. During an interview, she capsulized her perspective on changes between two decades in this example: “Kids dropping acid [in the 1970’s] did it to obliterate themselves, not to have a religious experience.” In a technologically advanced, mechanized world, Phillips has witnessed a decline in the richness of life. With more mechanization having pervaded Americans’ lives during the 1980’s, Phillips does not predict improvement over time. In the same interview, she continued: “In the ’70’s there was still enough security so that people felt they could be floaters. Now things are too shaky for that.”

Phillips’s ominous perspective on modern times accounts for the shocking images of sexual deviation and drug abuse that she portrays in much of her short fiction. “Gemcrack,” for example, is about a mass murderer, and even the title of “Lechery” indicates its unsavoriness. This focus on the most negative aspects of contemporary society contrasts sharply with Phillips’s loving portrayal of a nostalgic past in Machine Dreams, complete with drive-in hamburger joints and the post-World War II American love affair with luxurious automobiles.

Phillips has been classed as a regional writer after the fashion of distinguished southern storytellers Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, whom she has claimed as two of her influences. While Phillips has objected to the term “regional,” claiming that she, as well as her role models, have far more universal appeal than the classification “regional writer” would indicate, she has accepted the high praise of being grouped with these masters of fiction.


First published: 1975 (collected in Black Tickets, 1979)

Type of work: Short story

A young woman’s return home makes her divorced mother confront her daughter’s and her own sexuality.

Phillips’s only story in the Black Tickets collection with any degree of humor, “Home” was considered by many critics to be the best work in the book. In reference to “Home,” John Irving noted that Phillips “shows us the good instinct to tell stories in which something that matters takes place.”

What matters to Irving, then, is telling the story of the ordinary American family. “Home” has all the typical elements of one of three distinct story types appearing in Black Tickets. It is of conventional short-story length, and the plot depicts the tragedies that occur in ordinary family relationships. There is the typical protagonist in her middle twenties, a divorced...

(The entire section is 1957 words.)