SOURCE: “All in the Family,” in New Republic, No. 3649, December 24, 1984, pp. 36–9.
[In the following excerpt, Hulbert discusses the role of the family in several novels, including Phillips's Machine Dreams.]
In case all the babies don't make it clear, the babbling politicians do: the family is back in fashion. But Republicans, who prate about the family and freedom, and Democrats, who pontificate about the family and fairness, have it all wrong—as any baby or parent could tell them, given the words or the time. Fiction writers have both, and lately a striking number of them have been trying to write about what family life is really like. They don't evade the trammeled truth: that family relations are distinguished from most other ties precisely in being fundamentally unfree and all too often unfair. Yet this dark heart of domesticity doesn't depress these writers. Instead, they seem to be inspired by the household topography, the sticky surfaces and the fenced-off depths—more modest fictional terrain than the slippery expanse of society or the recesses of the self.
Of course, the bourgeois institution of the family has long occupied an important place in the bourgeois genre of the novel. But it has generally been a place of departure, or else a place of arrival, and rarely the central subject of patient, painstaking observation, as it is in these books. Here social aspirations and private, immoderate dreams play little or no part. These authors rarely move much beyond the confines of well-worn rooms and unwilled relations. Those aren't the highest themes, as George Eliot acknowledged in The Mill on the Floss, one of the great novels about the claims of kinship. Halfway into her story, she paused, fearing the tame start of her domestic drama might be trying her readers' patience. She was worried, she told them, that an
oppressive feeling may have weighed upon you in watching this old-fashioned family life on the banks of the Floss, which even sorrow hardly suffices to lift above the level of the tragic-comic. It is a sordid life, you say, this of the Tullivers and the Dodsons,—irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith,—moved by none of those wild, uncontrollable passions which create the dark shadows of misery and crime. … Here one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish,—surely the most prosaic form of human life: proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build, worldliness without side dishes.
A century later, Dwight Macdonald also remarked on the constricted canvas of family life in an essay about one classic American portrait, James Agee's A Death in the Family. The love that is the subject of the book, he noted,
is not sexual, not even romantic; it is domestic—between husband, wife, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents. This love is described tenderly, not in the tough, now-it-can-be-told style dominant in our fiction since Dreiser. The negative aspects are not passed over—Agee is, after all, a serious writer—but what he dwells on, what he “celebrates,” is the positive affection that Tolstoy presented in “Family Happiness” but that now is usually dealt with in the women's magazines. Very odd.
And it seems odder now, when even the women's magazines are apt to be impatient with old-fashioned family themes, that so many writers should unapologetically pick them up—so many that E. L. Doctorow, in a blurb for Jayne Anne Phillips's book [Machine Dreams ], suggested that “truly rendered family life may now be the presiding virtue of the American novel.” This year's family portraitists rank as “serious” authors; Jayne Anne...
(This entire section contains 2822 words.)
Phillips and Robb Forman Dew, both now on their second books, were highly praised for their first ones; and David Leavitt and Josephine Humphreys are following suit with unusually successful debuts. None of them ignores the negative aspects of family life, which have become more various and voguish than Eliot's Tullivers or Agee's Follets would have dreamed; they deal with affairs, fights, silences, drink, some drugs, separations, divorce, and death. Yet such struggles for personal liberation and enlightenment don't seem to be these authors' central interest. Instead, they are mainly preoccupied by the impossibility of any sort of final freedom from, or full understanding of, the bonds of blood.
It's not easy to dramatize the elusive yet inescapable power of family ties. For compared to our directed lives as individuals or citizens—where we're guided, and goaded, by rights and duties and choices—our experience as members of families is a muddled affair. The pull of blood and time prevails, and we swim along, from day to day and generation to generation, aspiring to endurance rather than transcendence. (Children, instead of immutable achievements, are the legacies that average families leave.) Sometimes the going is smooth, sometimes not, but always present is an awareness of the constant passage of time and the constraints on the will. That sense is humbling, as Leslie Farber, a psychoanalyst and social critic, explained in a rare essay on the distinctive feel of family life.
We want: to have lived honorably, to have mattered—to our time and to one another, to have had a meaning … we want, we want; meanwhile the potatoes are burning and the gas man is here to read the meter. What family life teaches us about time is that it goes—that what it brings or gives or permits, it also transforms or hardens or takes away. We learn that family life is a passionate daily traffic in perishables, and that what endures, in joy or grief, is seldom what we knew or chose.
In literature, those lessons don't always make for taut plots and commanding characters. These are humble books for the most part; there are no dramatic story lines and no driven heroes or heroines. Yet the authors do manage to build, and then sustain, the slow momentum suited to the shapeless stretches of time they chronicle; and their characters, though not outwardly engaged and energetic, are stubborn and unexpectedly resilient. Having abandoned romance, these writers at their best are ambitiously faithful to recalcitrant, prosaic reality.
Above all, they aim to address their imaginations to one invisible and invincible fact of existence, the passage of time—the fact to which their characters must accommodate their wills. Jayne Anne Phillips's Machine Dreams spans the longest stretch of years, more than four decades and three generations of a family. Opening with a mother's reminiscence to a daughter, the narrative then alternates among all four members of the family—Jean and Danner Hampson, the mother and daughter; Mitch and Billy, the husband and son. Some of their accounts are in the first person and sound like snippets of a slowly accumulating oral history of family life in small-town America, where jobs and marriages get ever less dependable. Others are presented in the third person and unroll like reels in a home movie that can capture the movements of minds and hearts as well as limbs.
All but two of the sections are labeled and limited by a date. Within the frozen frames, however, the emphasis is on the fluidity of days, years, generations. In this novel, as in the others, the sexes seem to navigate time's currents differently, and children don't escape its force for very long. The men are easily and radically disoriented by the “daily traffic in perishables”; the women seem to feel the rhythm of flux is less foreign, though still frightening. Both Jean and Danner are unnerved by the falling off from the past that their lives in Bellington bring. “Pointless, really, a lot of what happened,” Jean muses.
Didn't people have to do more than just endure? Didn't they have to be smart, as well, and know what things meant? Oh, she compared everyone to her mother: maybe that was what scared her. God, did she hate it—her mother's strength? It was what she loved most and what she hated.
Danner inherits the dilemma. But like her mother, who plans while Mitch founders and who finally divorces him when the kids go to college, Danner struggles to take her life in hand. And she tries to rally her brother Billy, whose inclination, not unlike his father's, is to be more fatalistic. After his concrete company fails, Mitch becomes obsessed by civil defense in the early 1960s, sure the end is near. For Billy, it's the prospect of the draft in the late 1960s that suspends his will; he drops out of college, explaining to his sister who urges him to see a draft counsellor, “You don't reason through these things. The best way to be lucky is to take what comes and not be a coward. … I'm going to go. It's in the cards.”
Billy, predictably, isn't lucky, and his family is devastated by proof that it is powerless against such intrusions of public history. Yet Danner's rage at what seems to be willful governmental negligence is the least successful part of Phillips's saga. Much more compelling is the sense of the family's inescapable, if far from all-powerful, presence in its members' lives. “If I hated my government, shouldn't I go and live in some other country?” Danner asks herself, sounding rhetorical and self-righteous. Her answer, however, clearly comes from the heart. “But my parents are my country, my divided country. … I'd never leave my country. I never will.” Phillips, moved by strong memories, has mapped that country down to its silent moments, making us hear, with Danner, “the house settle, a nearly inaudible creaking, ghostly clicking of the empty furnace pipes; her mother, her father, walking the halls in slippers.”
The political history that Phillips tries with mixed success to introduce into the foreground of her novel is barely even a background murmur in the other books. There's talk of nuclear danger in the Missouri town where Robb Forman Dew's The Time of Her Life is set, and softer mention of urban racial tensions in the Charleston of Josephine Humphreys's Dreams of Sleep. But the Parkses and the Reeses, the families portrayed in each, don't have the energy to worry about threats on that scale. The secure, stable lives they'd like to imagine for themselves are undermined by unnerving flux much closer to hand. The immediate source of disruption in both books (which have the uncanny resemblance sisters sometimes have) is a husband's affair.
The scope of these novels, compared to Machine Dreams, is small. Robb Forman Dew chronicles a fall and winter, whose slow passage is punctuated by two far from festive feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Josephine Humphreys's narrative centers on the precipitate end of a well-established affair. The focus is on couples more than whole clans (the daughter in Dew's novel is “loved … as the third one among the three of them,” a peripheral status that is essential to the plot). But marriage bonds seem to be almost as much a matter of fate as blood ties are; both Dew and Humphreys downplay the role of choice in linking husband and wife. Claudia and Avery Parks, who have known each other since their days in the sandbox, feel the instinctive sympathy of close siblings. “She had always been with Avery, and he with her. They would be orphans in the world without the other.” The link between Will and Alice Reese, also acquaintances from youth, has surprisingly similar roots in the past. Her mother made his mother's wedding dress and Alice wonders,
Was that coincidence, that their mothers came together then? Or when Elizabeth's steel scissors cut into the thick creamy satin for Marcella's gown, were forces set that would gather strength and eventually join the children of those two women?
Time has had a hand in tying both couples together, but it is also what tests the strength of their connection. As in Machine Dreams, the men here lose their temporal bearings more abruptly. Will, a gynecologist in his 30s and Humphreys's most fully imagined character,
had wanted a family. Unmarried and childless he was loose in time, fatherless, mother-threatened. After he got his family, his sense of orientation and stability improved, but at times now, and increasingly often, a new, dizzying suspicion grabs him and spins him: the suspicion that the stability is false; that he will round his corner one day and there will be no house; and worse, that he will be glad to see it gone.
Spooked by all the melancholy women around him—by his patients, who are past eagerly bearing babies and “starting to spot and clot, they're scared”; by the “old sad ghost of the thing that used to be” between him and his wife—he finds some solace in an affair with his assistant. Fighting similar fears, Avery Parks leaves home to escape what he perceives as his wife's “nihilism.” He turns to his daughter's drab but determined violin teacher, who helps shore up his sense that there can be purpose in his life and progress in his work.
The wives of these two men have succumbed to what Avery and Will are trying to escape: the aimless flow of time. In stark contrast to the energetic women in Phillips's novel, Claudia Parks and Alice Reese are eerie portraits in passivity. Daily they submit to the unfolding of minutes, hours, mornings, nights, with only a general, pessimistic sense of what lies ahead. As well as making an ironic comment on a particularly unhappy phase in the Parks's life, Dew's title simply states the preoccupation of Claudia's existence: the ticking away of time. “I do work hard at the days. I work hard to make the days go by,” Claudia thinks to herself, and Dew goes on to explain her outlook this way:
She really did believe it, too. She was quite certain that in her life there was a connection between the passing of time and her need for it to pass. During any of the days when the pall of Avery's rage or drunkenness hung over the hours, she had the stray notion in the back of her mind that all the dreary hours would pass them by. She had the idea that they were going through something and would one day get to something else. If she had not thought she could force the pace of the days along, sorrow would have caught her up for sure.
Throughout Avery's absence, she lapses into even greater lassitude, drifting around the house and her daughter Jane like a disembodied phantom: “she had not even settled into a state of waiting since Avery left; she was only being there until the time went by.”
Alice Reese is almost as lethargic. She is barely able to keep up the routine motions of motherhood around her two small daughters, much less the more urgent gestures of a wife in trouble. The best she can do is hire a baby-sitter to introduce a purposeful presence into her house, a girl
who moves the way Alice would like to move, for example, if she had a mind to win her husband back. If she really wanted to make the effort; but she does not. It would be too much trouble, it would take too much energy. She has none.
But beneath the hopelessness, she, like Claudia, does have a steady faith in the continuity of things.
In the end, the wives' fatalistic patience pays off. Their husbands return, the burdens of family life proving, finally, more a welcome anchor than a dead-weight. There's a touch of facile sentimentality at the close of both novels—all the more striking after the fastidious realism. Yet Dew and Humphreys don't let their characters off that easily. Everyone is not going to live happily ever after, and it's children—the Parks's 11-year-old daughter Jane and 17-year-old Iris Moon, the Reese's baby-sitter—who seem to have the most suffering in store. They're both disconcertingly ageless, unconventional girls, with a detached perspective on the ways and weight of family life—more adult in most ways than Alice and Claudia. Unlike the grown-ups who finally embrace the unromantic “family happiness” of Tolstoy's story and feel liberated by it, the girls have a sense of imprisonment. Alice mulls optimistically that “in the long run all this lassitude may prove to be peace in a kind of disguise, and all this despair turn out to be the purest shape that hope can take.” But Iris's future doesn't look so rosy; the Reeses may be on the mend, but she breaks down amid her own already shattered family—her mother had her at 15, and her father deserted them—and her dreams of an escape evaporate. And as Claudia and Avery Parks are rediscovering their indissoluble bond in the darkness of Christmas night, Jane is “heartbroken with the hopelessness of loving Avery and Claudia so much for all her life, the energy it would require, the fatigue it would cause.” …
Jayne Anne Phillips 1952–-
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Phillips's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 15 and 33.
Phillips garnered critical acclaim with the much-publicized appearance of her short-story collection Black Tickets (1979). She is hailed as a unique voice for the generation of Americans who grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War. Phillips is seen as an author whose strength lies in her ability to authentically capture a variety of voices, creating a landscape that is familiar and real.
Phillips was born in 1952 in Buckhannon, West Virginia, a small town in which she grew-up feeling isolated from her fellow townspeople. She retreated into reading stories about other people's lives and eventually writing stories of her own. In 1970, Phillips attended West Virginia University in Morgantown, where she studied writing. To support herself in school, she taught remedial writing and sold bath appliances door-to-door in mining camps. She spent her summers traveling, and these experiences influenced her use of drifter characters in later writings. Early in her career Phillips focused on poetry, but when she received a grant for prose writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, she turned her talents to short-story writing. Phillips parents divorced in 1972, an event she explored in her first short-story collection, Sweethearts (1976), which was published on her twenty-fourth birthday. Phillips continued to write short stories and began to teach at Humboldt State University in California. She won the St. Lawrence Award for fiction in 1978 for Counting, her second short-story collection. After the publication of Black Tickets, Phillips gained worldwide critical attention and obtained a teaching position at Radcliffe College in Boston. She then tackled the novel form with Machine Dreams (1984). Never comfortable with her role as a teacher, Phillips began writing full-time when financial success allowed her to do so.
While much of Phillip's fiction focuses on the American family and the ties that connect family members to each other, her stories are often populated with drifters and outcasts as well. Her landscapes also present a wide variety of settings; she employs the insular community of a small town in her stories in addition to featuring more global scenes. Her first major collection, Black Tickets, contains several longer pieces that explore family relationships, and also includes shorter pieces which typically delve into the darker side of the human condition. Fast Lanes (1984) focuses largely on outcast characters, as in “How Mickey Made It,” a story about an itinerant musician struggling with his unhappy childhood who makes unsuccessful attempts at living a normal adult life. Stories such as “Bluegill,” examine the family dynamic in a unique way, as the tale presents a monologue by a young pregnant woman talking to the unborn child in her womb. Machine Dreams and Shelter (1994) are each set in West Virginia, but the novels are very different in scope. Machine Dreams covers the course of a family's history through several generations. The story is recounted from four different perspectives: the father's and mother's, with their memories of World War II and coal mining; and their son's and daughter's, which relate a different set of experiences revolving around the Vietnam war and unemployment. The major underlying theme in Machine Dreams examines the power of family ties. Shelter recounts the events during several days at a summer camp in July of 1963. The plot is informed from the alternating perspectives of four different narrators: two sisters, an escaped convict on a mission from God, and a young boy. Filled with symbolic imagery, the novel focuses on a mythical struggle between good and evil.
Black Tickets met with worldwide critical praise for its poetic language and strong characterizations. Phillips's first novel, Machine Dreams, also received favorable acclaim. Most reviewers describe Phillips's greatest asset as her ability to intricately layer narrative details, an ability that draws readers into her stories. Critics have compared Phillips to other prominent writers such as Flannery O'Connor, with whom Phillips shares a strong sense of place and an affinity for populating stories with outcasts. Critics generally view Fast Lanes as inferior to Phillips's other work; however, a few stories from this collection have been singled out for praise, most notably “Bluegill.” Leslie Larson, discussing the assets that Fast Lanes shares with Phillips's other work, states that “[t]he narrative is riveted firmly in place by Phillips' assiduous attention to detail, by the incisiveness of her description and by her ability to realize a scene fully and on many levels at once—all plainly and directly, with seemingly little effort.” Shelter received a mixed response when released. Many reviewers praised its evocative language, but some lamented the heavy-handed symbolism in the novel. Commenting on Shelter, Deb Schwartz asserts, “[s]omehow the mythic quality of the story and the accumulation of heavily weighted symbols, of snakes, caves, angels and devils, seem a pesky shorthand and a detraction from Phillips's otherwise supple storytelling.” While recent offerings have not met with the overwhelming critical praise of her earlier work, Phillips's gifts as a storyteller are still noted and appreciated. David Remnick declares, “[i]n the best sense, Jayne Anne Phillips is a great American mimic. In her first book of stories, Black Tickets, her extraordinary post-Vietnam novel, Machine Dreams, and her new collection of stories, Fast Lanes, her keenest asset is her ear, her ability to make art of the desperate, nervous voices in the nether corners of America.”
SOURCE: “The Short Story of Jayne Anne Phillips,” in Esquire, Vol. 104, No. 6, December, 1985, pp. 107–12.
[In the following essay, Edelstein recounts how Phillips began her career and struggled to write her first novel, Machine Dreams.]
“Eudora Welty, Tillie Olsen, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, and James Agee.” Jayne Anne Phillips pronounces them evenly. “The great writers have a journeyer's wisdom. They have been somewhere limitless and come back. That's not necessarily what they are writing about, but you can feel that in the work.” You not only feel it in Phillips's work, but she's writing about it, and she's living it; and part of what's teasing in the pensive, almost skittish jacket photo from her novel, Machine Dreams, is that she's signaling it too: the look says, I'm far away. I've been somewhere limitless and come back.
She is from Appalachia but now lives in a high-toned suburb of Boston (Don't say which one), with a son less than a year old and a new husband, a physician she visited once, picked at random from a list. That's a good anecdote—he really won her heart and all—but she's nervous about it: It was a long time before we got together. He doesn't seduce his patients.
She's worried about this attention, you see, about what her serious friends will think. “People hate you for it,” she says.
“And please, you can mention my son, but not his name. A writer did once, and I felt funny about it.” Same for her dog, who just had a mastectomy: no names.
And don't talk to any relatives. When I ask about her brothers—what they do, where they live—she spaces out. “Two. One older, one younger.” Pause.
It seems silly, this evasion. There is, after all, a picture of her mother and father on the cover of her first short-story collection, Sweethearts(Don't mention that either), and scenes from their divorce in 1972 surface over and over. The relationship between her life and her writing is one of the more tantalizing aspects of her work. It seems so confessional—“in one respect it's not at all confessional. I don't think I've ever written about anything that's happened to me in a direct way. … That's the big advantage of doing it.”
Fortunately, clues about her life abound. Her modified Victorian house teems with objects, pathways to the past. The pictures on the wall: her parents after the wedding, her father in New Guinea during the war—she has stared at them so hard they almost glow. There's an empty birdcage, a hand-carved rocking horse, and tiny circus figures: clowns on unicorns, carrousels, elephants. Some toys are for her son, but others remind her of the carnival that passed through her town when she was a girl and was fascinated by transients. She accumulates junk. Her car, a Chevy Nova, has been on the verge of collapse for years, but she won't give it up: she seems to be trying to transform the material world into something sympathetic and magical, infused with her memories and affection.
Jayne Anne Phillips spent most of her childhood feeling isolated, alone. She grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone's business, and business was generally lousy—where she had to nurture a pocket of spiritual privacy to get by. She won't usually identify the town, but it's easy to find: Buckhannon, West Virginia; population 6,820.
This is the Mountain State, where the ground's too rocky for good farming, and where the steep, rounded hills come one after another like an upside-down egg carton. West Virginia split off from Virginia during the Civil War, and it's not bothered by many outside influences. The state motto is “Mountaineers are always free”—which could be because they're out of work.
Actually, the unemployment rate has dropped in the last few decades, because employable workers have left the state in astounding numbers—three quarters of a million between 1950 and 1970, when Phillips packed up for West Virginia University in Morgantown, a few miles south of Pennsylvania. That was three years after her father lost his business, Russ Concrete, but things had begun to fail years before. And no one talked about it. “I had a very closemouthed family,” says Phillips. “Nothing was ever said. People sort of knew. Things were never discussed, except on the level of gossip. So it was safe.”
Her first escape was reading. Good books, bad books, she made no distinction: anything that would take her away. “I discovered that language was a secret means of travel—a way to live beyond your own life.” It was natural to move on to actually telling stories, and Kate Oldacre, a friend since fifth grade, says Phillips would spin tale after tale at their slumber parties, all-night spellbinders in the playhouse in the Phillipses' backyard.
Telling stories empowered her; they became vehicles for her unusual and sometimes perverse imagination. Later she would immortalize those occasions in a story, “Blind Girls,” in which the boys, “come to watch them drunk on first wine,” try to scare the girls by screeching and moaning in the tall grass, and the storyteller drives her friend to catatonia with a nasty, escalating horror yarn. What power: to make people crazy.
In Buckhannon, Phillips lived a fairly normal life: parties at camps by the river, a serious boyfriend, front-seat anxiety at drive-in movies. But she didn't feel a part of it all—she spent too much time nursing that inner world, and soon she learned to tell her stories on paper: writing was one way to get out. She flew off as early as she could: in 1970 she chose to attend West Virginia University, nearly two hours away, instead of West Virginia Wesleyan, which is in Buckhannon.
Her mother, a strong-willed school-teacher, was gearing up for her divorce and no longer trusted fate: she made a furtive visit to Morgantown to see Judith Stitzel, then running a “writing laboratory” at WVU. Mrs. Phillips hadn't realized the lab was for remedial writing, but she stayed anyway and gave her pitch. “I think my daughter has a gift for writing,” Stitzel remembers her saying. “I don't want her to get lost.”
She needn't have worried. “What stunned me from the beginning,” Stitzel recalls, “was the wisdom and maturity and knowledge from so young a person. She was very beautiful, and it's hard for a person to be as striking as she was … this is not a sophisticated campus. But she knew how to use it. She was always aware of the pull between intellect and sensuality. Jayne Anne's only control,” says Stitzel, “was the ability to shape reality.”
Phillips read and wrote constantly. She wanted to be a poet then, and she published her first big efforts in the college literary supplement. To help pay her way through school she taught remedial reading and went door to door in mining camps selling home improvements and bathroom appliances. She also traveled every summer, a rehearsal for her big break at graduation, and began to explore what she terms adjacent realities—transcendent states, drugs, Eastern philosophy, Carl Jung, and Carlos Castaneda.
She was desperate to observe and study, to get into other people's heads, to be able to recreate their thinking. “She was always clear about the need not to stay in West Virginia,” says Stitzel. “She undertook a deliberate expansion of geographic space. She hitched a lot of rides, and she met a lot of weird people. She wasn't a self-destructive person. She just wouldn't curb her life out of fear—she's unshockable and very curious. And I think that helped her in writing about home, too: she was much more confident when she knew she wasn't being provincial.”
After college, with her dog and two friends, she drove west. The group settled in the black section of Oakland for what she'll only say was “a difficult period: there was no work in California, and I was going through a delayed adolescence and childhood, which I find American college graduates tend to have.” The encounters turn up, transmuted, in her short-story collection Black Tickets, but Phillips won't talk about what really happened, or where the weird voices come from. She treats it today like an initiation into the world, a black bloodsucking ritual. She would feed her work with the souls of others.
By 1975 she was in Colorado, contributing to small magazines, working as a waitress for rolls of quarters, and auditing a poetry course: getting around, getting known. There she met Annabel Levitt, who'd go on to start Vehicle Editions and publish two of Phillips's short books, Counting (1978) and Fast Lanes (1984). With a few other women, they formed their own workshop that met in Phillips's apartment, where she'd read quasi-narrative poems that would later evolve into disturbingly sensual stories such as “Lechery”—about a young girl exploited sexually by a grotesque older man. (The girl, however, uses her hold on him as a source of power.) Says Levitt: “She'd say things in her poetry that she would only say in intimate conversation.”
The Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa offered financial aid in prose but not poetry. That did it. Phillips began to experiment more seriously with narrative. She was granted the aid, packed up for Iowa, and on her twenty-fourth birthday Truck Press (a spin-off of Truck Magazine) brought out Sweethearts, twenty-four one-page prose-poetry pieces, in a first edition of four hundred copies. David Wilk, her publisher, was struck by “the specificity of her language, the closely controlled writing on emotion.” He organized a small-press distribution service, printed up some broadside posters, and orchestrated readings. “Charisma,” says Wilk of her appearances. “The word you use when you don't know what else to say. She could empower the work.”
The act—serious, outré, distracted without being spacy—was beginning to attract attention, but the writing spoke for itself. One of her pieces made it to the annual Pushcart Prize II, The Best of the Small Presses, and in 1977 she took a workshop with Frank Conroy in which she wrote some of the stories in Black Tickets. “Everyone knew she was the real thing,” remembers Conroy. “Even then she made metaphors that could stun you—on every page there would be two or three things, the frisson the French talk about. Writing is very hard and very mysterious, and most students want to know, ‘Am I gonna be good?’ Jayne Anne never seemed interested in that. She'd be too busy reading Faulkner, pointing at a paragraph and saying, ‘Look what he's doing here!’”
In 1978 Levitt published Counting, a series of brief haikulike fictions, about a writer and a dancer who live in New England broke and starving, while their relationship goes rancid. The small book won the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction in 1978, and it was at a conference for women writers at St. Lawrence University that Phillips took off after another Lawrence: Seymour Lawrence, then at Delacorte and publisher of Tillie Olsen, Katherine Anne Porter, J. P. Donleavy, and Kurt Vonnegut. “He's a wonderful Dickensian figure,” says Phillips, “an old-fashioned publisher. When he takes on a writer, he takes on a body of work.” No more floating for Jayne Anne Phillips: it was time to bust into the inner circle. She was living in many worlds at once—the world of her wild, almost schizy imagination, and a world very much here on earth. She wanted her work read, and she used whatever resources she had. She may have been embarrassed by her wiles, but she employed them.
Lawrence says she collared him and asked, “Do you publish short stories?”
“‘Not if I can help it,’ I said. ‘Why don't you write a novel?’ Well, she kept pursuing me. She wanted to be on the list.”
Phillips sent a batch of stories to Tillie Olsen, who thought they were—to borrow her blurb on the back of Black Tickets—“the unmistakable work of early genius.” Whatever, it worked. In a scene much too contrived for anything Phillips would write, her mother rushed out of the house in Buckhannon as she was pulling out of the driveway, bound for an assistant professorship at Humboldt State University in California. “Sam Lawrence wants to publish your book!”
While preparing Black Tickets for publication, she taught at Humboldt, on the northern coast of California, for a year. “She was the most exotic and fascinating creature in Humboldt County,” recalls a colleague. “She was living in this shanty-type house in Trinidad, just she and her dog, two free spirits. You could tell she took herself seriously. She had self-portraits all over her walls, very dramatic; and she could attract the best-looking young men in the county that no one had ever seen before. She brought in all her literary star friends: Tillie Olsen, Frank Conroy, Rosellen Brown. Already she knew how to play the literary success game: blurbs, conferences together, a whole network.”
She found few kindred spirits locally, and friends remember her complaints of isolation—the feeling she was just marking time. “It was gloomy and awful,” says Lawrence, who traveled to see her in a small plane that almost didn't find the runway. Phillips and Tillie Olsen were waiting for him, and when he landed he was so shaken that he drank himself into a stupor, nodding off behind Olsen while she read to the college from her work.
Black Tickets, published in 1979, has been labeled everything from genius to juvenilia. Sometimes the language is plain and eloquent, at other times it's dense to the point of gumminess. It is, obviously, a Phillips sampler, from wiggy half-page meditations on floating above the planet during sex to more conventionally moving mother-daughter encounters to jazzy syncopated numbers like the opening blast of the title story:
Jamaica Delilah, how I want you: your smell a clean yeast, a high white yogurt of the soul. Raymond would be happy to tell me you set me up. He'd say somebody had to lay down, somebody had to sail by, somebody had to do lock-up in this cadillac of castles, and I was the shit-bred pigeon. But Raymond never made it with you in the bathtub (What? you said, Raymond, that moody hunch?), bubbles and wavelets slapping the porcelain sides, soap flowers white on your high mongolian cheeks, your wide-open lavender eyes shadowed with the pale green of a young bruise, your lips mouthing a heavenly O of surprise.
Some of the voices seem affected, but you can see, in retrospect, how one voice feeds the other, how the tense, coiled atmosphere in the family stories might compel a young writer to go for broke—to churn out lavish, swooping tales of sexual obsession, black magic, incest, and depravity: a hippie rubbing cartilage together for fire. There is anger at her parents for their inability to connect with her, and remorse for that anger alongside it. If there's a thread to the book, it's isolation, seen through many different eyes—characters ramming themselves bloody against the walls of their own consciousness. Black Tickets ends with the dark side of transcendence, a monologue by a Son of Sam—style murderer; the mechanism that can save you from being swallowed by your milieu can also drive you mad. The writer, at least, seeks the big picture.
“I guess I see reality as something that appears to be a series of fragments but isn't,” says Phillips. “And trying to represent that is really the point of most of what I write.”
“Books of short stories weren't as accepted then,” says Lawrence. “So we sent proofs of Black Tickets out to an awful lot of people. The response was unbelievable.”
(“A crooked beauty … unlike any in our literature”—Raymond Carver. “An exquisite and terrible insight in the hands of one who fakes nothing—the best short story writer since Eudora Welty”—Nadine Gordimer.)
“We used the quotes,” Lawrence thunders. “And we did a simultaneous quality paperback and hard-cover printing: twenty-five thousand in paperback, 2,500 in hardcover. Jayne Anne's fortune was made. We sold it to twelve countries. In Europe they have an appetite for quality American fiction. This year it's Frank Conroy's book. Before that it was Jim Harrison.”
Jayne Anne Phillips and Seymour Lawrence were “the witch and the wizard.” Newsweek did a big story, the alternative papers pricked up their ears, and, according to the independent-bookstore owners who sold Black Tickets, the word of mouth was remarkable. In the flush of her success, Phillips was offered a Bunting Institute fellowship at Radcliffe College. She moved to Boston, closer to civilization than Humboldt or Iowa but farther from the inferno than New York. Again, she taught.
But teaching has never interested her, and students weren't uniformly happy with her seminars. They say she was impersonal, that she went through their stories a page at a time, line by line; but the feedback most of them crave—the long drags on a cigarette followed by, “This is dynamite stuff, José. You're one helluva writer!”—wasn't there. It's not surprising: Phillips wasn't interested in helping anyone else—she was fiercely independent and loyal to her driven vision. Besides, she says, “when you teach, you have a lot of power, and you're honor-bound not to make predictions or form opinions.” Sometimes she's positively Keatsian: “Writers are formed by age eight; it's a primal development. They learn, There is a self that is stable. A soul that is stable. They're able to imagine being anyone. Or no one. The difficulty is that people throw up a roadblock to that. I tell them to give themselves permission to do things. Nothing is taboo except bad writing.”
That sounds lofty, but the rest she finds extraneous. “When you teach writing,” she says, a little wearily, “you're in the position of a psychiatrist. Nobody ever wants to say that. But if you're reading their work, you know a great deal, because you know what they're obsessed with.” Judith Stitzel agrees: “You really have to be interested in the process other people are going through as well as the product. You have to be patient. Jayne Anne would find it an intrusion.”
In any event, the launch had succeeded: Black Tickets had delivered her into the world. Expectation for her first novel was high, and Phillips knew she couldn't avoid it any longer: it had to be about Buckhannon—about her parents' marriage, her childhood, and the war that changed how people saw the world. She surveyed the fragments of Black Tickets and thought about pulling the pieces together, going back to West Virginia. But it was very difficult: a false start became a story, “Fast Lanes,” which could serve as a prelude to Black Tickets as well, since it's about the state of mind of an exhausted young woman after bopping around the country in the fast lanes, threatening to self-destruct, dreading the voyage home and needing it badly.
Published by Vehicle Editions and the Brooke Alexander Gallery, Fast Lanes is a beautiful object, with charcoal drawings by Yvonne Jacquette of the inside of the car and—beneath transparent vellum paper—the passing landscape in light, fast strokes. Two thousand copies have been printed, far fewer than Annabel Levitt would have liked but more than Phillips thought would be good to have floating around. Fast Lanes will be included in the next short-story collection, and she doesn't want the impact of that book diminished by this one.
Machine Dreams took four years—a slow, torturous write. She taught for part of that time, and she also had to cope with a difficult illness in her family. For a while, her colleagues say, she had an easier time with the dreams than the story—she was intrigued by the way dreams betray wishes and scramble time. Sam Lawrence brought in Frank Conroy to be her editor, a function Conroy describes as providing moral support. “You get nervous,” he says. “A short story reveals itself over a couple of months; the long form requires some faith. The danger was that if she got too tense she'd make the prose too dense, introduce too many complications. But that didn't happen.” Phillips had faith that if she followed the material (“being led by a whisper,” she has described it) and wasn't destroyed by what she found, the book would come together.
“She was scared to show it to her mother,” says Levitt. “There was a lot of trauma, but she finally did.”
Phillips: “My parents said, ‘But that's not what happened.’ Well, of course not. It's not supposed to be what happened.”
Sam Lawrence moved from Delacorte to Dutton, and Phillips stuck with him. When the witch finally finished, the wizard took over. “We did our work,” he says. “Advance buildup, a lot of proof copies to the regulars. I met with the marketing people and told them to make this a Literary Event. I went to the chains, but it was the mom-and-pop stores, the serious independent booksellers, that really made this.” Dutton printed fifty thousand in hard-cover, extraordinary for a first novel, and took out a huge ad in The New York Times.
And Phillips prepared for the worst. “After Black Tickets, people expected a language-oriented book that reflected the same obsessions. I expected to be trashed.”
Machine Dreams is both an oral history of life before World War II and a faithful account of growing up in Bellington/Buckhannon—a delicate weave of voices, letters, and dreams. The theme is transcendence. On occasion, mundane things begin to churn and whirl, and suddenly we're airborne, rising above the miserable West Virginia milieu and hurtling into myth. There's an astounding section in which Phillips relives what were surely her own sensations of childhood, conscious of how trapped her mother felt—the heat, the sighing, the solitude. A young girl lies in bed, frightened and free-associating, and out of her parents' loneliness springs her own sexual awakening:
The bedroom door is shut, a lock clicks. Danner lies drifting, hears the furtive sound of the moving bed, the brief mechanical squeak of springs, and no other sound at all but her father's breath, harsh, held back. All sounds stop then in the black funnel of sleep; Danner hears her mother, her father, lie silent in an emptiness so endless they could all hurtle through it like stones. Jean sighs and then she speaks: Oh, it's hot, she says to no one. Danner sinks deep, completely, finally, into a dream she will know all her life; the loneliness of her mother's voice, Oh, it's hot, rises in the dream like vapor. In the cloudy air, winged animals struggle and stand up; they are limbed and long-necked, their flanks and backs powerful; their equine eyes are lucent and their hooves cut the air, slicing the mist to pieces. The horses are dark like blood and gleam with a black sheen; the animals swim hard in the air to get higher and Danner aches to stay with them. She touches herself because that is where the pain is; she holds on, rigid, not breathing, and in the dream it is the horse pressed against her, the rhythmic pumping of the forelegs as the animal climbs, the lather and the smell; the smell that comes in waves and pounds inside her like a pulse.
But transcendence is also a tool of tragedy: the yearning to fly impels the brother in the book, Billy, to the jungles of Southeast Asia, where he finds himself raining bombs on people he can't see, for reasons he doesn't know, with weapons that put as much between him and his enemy as possible. (In the big wars of this century Jayne Anne Phillips's home state has lost more men in battle than any other.) Machine Dreams has been called “one of the wisest attempts of a generation to grapple with a war that maimed us all”; but at heart it's the story of a family that can't make contact. And the two strands—the political and the personal—connect. The novel ends with Billy's sister heading out into the world so that someday she might pull it all together, weave these disparate points of view into one great tapestry. And, as we know, she did.
“People who are writers live apart in some sense,” Phillips says. “It's a way of dealing with a kind of intense aloneness, of trying to break through the boundaries of your own personality. It's like wearing an asbestos suit: it allows a kind of descent into experience that you could never undertake as a personality.”
Jayne Anne Phillips is evasive, but she's not kidding anybody. Writers are jealous of their experience: it's their dowry, and much of their lives they spend sifting through it, eyeballing their jewels and working themselves up. A careful and sensitive reading of Black Tickets and Machine Dreams will tell you all you need to know about Phillips: the juicy dirt and the higher stuff too; more than she'd ever tell you in person, maybe more than she knows. After all, you know her obsessions.
Machine Dreams is her swing at the moon. The book garnered notices that, in the theater, are known as hats in the air. Pocket Books paid ＄100,000 for the paperback rights and there was a movie sale to Jessica Lange, who's adapting it with Sam Shepard. But, perhaps more important, at the Upshur County Library on the outskirts of Buckhannon, a librarian told me that out of five copies of the novel, one has only now, more than a year later, sat on a shelf. “Everyone loves it,” she said:
And Black Tickets?
Pause. “The reaction to that was … not good.”
“You mean because of the weird sex and the obscene stuff?”
Pause. “They say Jessica Lange is going to make Machine Dreams into a movie. Wouldn't that be something?”
They're proud of their “golden girl” down there. They weren't a few years ago—“She broke the rules,” someone told me—but they respect success, and Phillips has turned Buckhannon's story into America's story. Perhaps they'll never put a sign up on the highway like the one in Marion County, between Buckhannon and Morgantown: HOME OF MARY LOU RETTON, 1984 OLYMPIC CHAMPION. But Jayne Anne Phillips is around for the long haul.
Sweethearts (short stories) 1976
Counting (short stories) 1978
Black Tickets (short stories) 1979
How Mickey Made It (short stories) 1981
Fast Lanes (short stories) 1984
Machine Dreams (novel) 1984
Shelter (novel) 1994
SOURCE: A review of Fast Lanes, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, pp. 3, 11.
[In the following review, Eder praises the stories in Phillips's Fast Lanes.]
Even though her ear for numb and displaced American voices is as sharp as that of any of her fellow writers, Jayne Anne Phillips does not, like the cooler practitioners, turn her stories entirely over to them.
She has a middle distance. She doesn't rule her characters, as in older styles of short-story writing. But she doesn't leave them by themselves, either.
The reader senses a listener as well as a voice. It is a listener who seeks the voice out; one who is interested in the characters, feelings, fates and souls of a wide variety of lives operating at all manner of temperatures. The listener is silent, maybe only implicit; but, as Strindberg and Beckett have shown, a speech to a silent listener is the opposite of a monologue.
The first of the seven stories in Fast Lanes is an example. Mickey talks, compulsively, nakedly. Mickey is a struggling waif, a sporadically working rock musician who lives off the gritty pavement among other waifs; who falls, picks himself up, and goes on.
He talks one night to a woman he is with. He tells of his time in and out of a foster home and a state asylum. He tells of a year or two he spent in England, living with a woman and child and playing music; briefly free, in this unfamiliar world, from the perpetual burden of his street smarts, and able for a little while simply to live.
Mickey, hip and knowledgeable, could be a wilder, underprivileged version of a Jay McInerney or a Bret Easton Ellis narrator, except for one thing. Those voices address no one; they are dead ends. Mickey seeks a way out; instead of hugging his pain, he delivers it to the silent woman he is with, and in this lies all the difference.
To say “I hurt” to someone else is a beginning of self-compassion and, after that, a beginning of compassion. Hipness becomes a form of humanity instead of a substitute for it. We are moved, morally as well as emotionally, when Mickey laments a spaced-out girl he used to live with. When she burst dementedly into his room and tried to kill him, the police put a straightjacket on her.
“Have you ever seen someone you know in one?” Mickey asks. “She looked amputated, lopped off and exploding, her arms gone when I'd felt them holding me all that time before.”
In the title story, a young woman whose life has speeded up to the point of going out of control returns from the West to see her mother in West Virginia. She is brittle and burnt out; drugs, sex and a drifting communal life have lost the magic they once had, but they are all she knows.
The story, beautifully devised to fit image to emotion, is about her journey home. It is a gradual, painful slowing-down. She gets a ride from Thurman, a carpenter, musician and former Peace Corpsman, who owns a pickup truck. Sharing the driving, she has to learn for the first time how to use gears and regulate speeds. Life, Thurman begins to teach her, is something more complex than jamming the accelerator to the floor and staying in the fast lane.
There is no patness or condescension in the teaching or the story. It is told in hints, flashes and symptoms, on the level of the narrator's own throbbing chaos. She turns to Thurman, but he is no more than half a step ahead of her. They quarrel, pull apart, and come together as she approaches home, dreading it. Staying in the fast lane may be lethal; shifting off it can be almost as perilous.
“I'll tell you this about fast lanes,” Thurman says the night before he drops her off. “Don't close your eyes. Keep watching every minute. Watch in your sleep. If you're careful you can make it: the fast shift, the one right move. Sooner or later you'll see your chance.”
The story is the closing of the cycle that began over three decades ago with Kerouac's On the Road. It is the return trip, and Phillips gives it a full measure of pain, laced with tenderness.
The author's sympathy, her ability to imagine herself into the feelings of very different kinds of people, in no way lessens a precision that we are more used to finding at cooler temperatures.
In “Rayme,” the story of another drifting waif, who finally drifts off into madness, she writes.
“Rayme was like a telephone to another world. Her messages were syllables from an investigative dream, and her every movement was precise, like those of a driver unerringly steering an automobile by watching the road through the rear view mirror.”
In “Blue Moon,” a mother forbids her son to go out for football because she had a boyfriend who died of a heart attack playing it. The boy's father, though disagreeing, remains silent. In one phrase, Phillips captures the distance and the unhealed scars in a marriage.
“He allowed her this undisputed commandment as though he refused to validate her long-ago loss by arguing about it.”
The stories in Fast Lanes frequently hover on the edge of poetry. One or two—“Blue Moon” and “Bess”—are more heavily plotted than the others and seem to me less successful. Phillips gets all the movement she needs from her characters in the resilient struggling of their hearts against the eroding evidence of their senses.
SOURCE: “Without Commitment,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 11–17, 1987, p. 978.
[In the following review, Wiggins complains, “Unfortunately, in Fast Lanes, Phillips seems to have fallen victim to her own style.”]
All of the seven short stories in Jayne Anne Phillips's second collection, Fast Lanes, are told in the first-person singular—six of them by people who are variously described by their circumstances as girls or female adolescents, or young or old or middle-aged women, even though each sounds the same. “I had plans”, one of them says. “Maybe I was in training to become my mother, become that kind of … unfulfilled woman, vigilant and damaged.”
The character who says this is a teenager called Danner, but the way she speaks does not distinguish her from the old woman Bess, or the mother of Angela, or Kate, or any of the other narrators. Names, or their calculated absence, rather than words, distinguish characters in this collection. In one story, “Bluegill”, an unnamed mother addresses her unnamed, unborn child. In others, people crop up in modern West Virginia bearing the wildly improbable surnames Kato, Warwick, Shinner, Thurman, Barnes and Rayme. Of the latter, one of the indistinguishable female narrators says, “This story could be about any one of those people, but it is about Rayme and comes to no conclusions.”
Miss Phillips gives the reader no opinion, no commitment. People bleed, are bled, make love, go crazy under the influence of chemicals, in a state of numbness, painlessly. When, in the story “Blue Moon”, the book achieves its first and most violent moment, Phillips writes it thus:
When I came back she was standing in front of the mirror, the shower still running behind her. Someone had left a matte knife on the sink. Kato had the knife in her hand and she held one arm straight over her head. She watched herself in the mirror and traced a long ragged cut from her wrist to her armpit. She did it incredibly fast, with no expression, as though what she saw in the glass bore no connection to her.
Like her character Kato, Phillips is a brilliant technician, doing all that she intends with cool dispatch. Her writing glides sheer as a yacht which sails the horizon at a great distance. She watches her characters watching themselves, then sends their synopses to the reader.
Her first collection of stories, Black Tickets, and her novel, Machine Dreams, were both breathtaking examples of the heat that can generate under the minimalist's skin. Unfortunately, in Fast Lanes, Phillips seems to have fallen victim to her own style. She is best when she's writing about the near-distant, fugitive past—life in the great USA fifteen years ago. Vietnam, speed, drifters and dope are her best props. But the poses and postures of the people in Fast Lanes tend to read like yesterday's news: they are dated, but not dated enough.
Fast Lanes is apt as a title: Jayne Anne Phillips seems to be looking in a driving mirror at a vision of something she regrets she's overtaken. Like the people she writes about and the country she lives in, she's pulled out and passed her own history just for the thrill of forward momentum.
SOURCE: A review of Fast Lanes, in London Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 17, October 1, 1987, pp. 23–4.
[In the following excerpt, Someif lauds the stories in Fast Lanes, saying, “… Jayne Anne Phillips moves with assurance and charm.”]
Fast Lanes inspired in me the same sort of feeling that I imagine Iran must have aroused in Diane Johnson. This is a foreign land, a land where people have names like Danner, Thurman and Kato, where, in the normal course of things, they take mescaline and coke, share houses with TM instructors and have lovers who have dropped out of Harvard Law School to become carpenters. And yet, is it so strange after all? It's still a land where men get lost at sea, where women talk to their unborn babies, where brothers and sisters love each other as only brothers and sisters can and where people are, on the whole, out of communication. The first story in the collection is an unremitting monologue: Mickey, the young, aspiring rockstar-cum-gigolo talks non-stop while his older lover contents herself with very occasional asides to the audience describing his appearance and his actions. From the rockspeak of ‘How Mickey Made It’ to the elegiac Fin-de-Siècle ‘Bess’ to the surrealistic ‘Bluegill’, Jayne Anne Phillips moves with assurance and charm. She creates haunting landscapes out of snow, summer woods, a girls' changing-room and, occasionally, the odd, arresting image: ‘something dead was out there, yellowed like the dust and lacy with vanishing.’ Deborah Moggach's world is made sad by betrayal. What is it that makes Jayne Anne Phillips's world so sad? Maybe it's because there, the enemy is not marriage or men or the Shah or any particular person or thing, but the same old Empedoclean ennui—as Shinner Black in ‘Blue Moon’ says, ‘people can't live in this world.’
SOURCE: “Variations on Vietnam: Women's Innovative Interpretations of the Vietnam War Experience,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 170–83.
[In the following excerpt, Carter discusses Phillips's break from realistic fiction in her presentation of the Vietnam War in Machine Dreams.]
As the Vietnam War literary genre continued to evolve, writers of both genders have experimented with literary expression in search of the most representative interpretation possible for a war that still begs for definition, where absolutes appear to be missing and reality remains obscure. Of all literary expression, innovation offers the greatest freedom to explore such an elusive war in every conceivable direction. Although they are a minority, several women writers of the Vietnam War experience have broken with the tradition of realism predominant in women's war writings to express their impressions of the Vietnam War experience with more innovative variations in both form and content.
… Foremost among these writers is Jayne Anne Phillips, whose novel Machine Dreams spans two wars and represents an experimentation in form. Former Vietnam War nurse Elizabeth Ann Scarborough has written an essentially factual memoir of her war experience in The Healer's War, excepting part two of three in the novel, which is a flight of fantasy that contrasts sharply with the realism controlling most of the narrative. Karen Joy Fowler's short story “Letters From Home” is one woman's fantasy of the war experience from the perspectives of both an imaginary combat soldier and a civilian longing to know the truth of the experience. Ursula Le Guin depicts a recurrence of the Vietnam War on another planet in a future century in her science fiction novella “The Word for World is Forest.” Both Susan Casper in “Covenant With a Dragon” and Karen Joy Fowler in “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” have also chosen the science fiction genre to illustrate their short-story interpretations of the postwar readjustments of Vietnam War veterans. Kate Wilhelm uses speculative fiction to depict a reenactment of the My Lai Massacre on American soil in her short story “The Village.” Emily Prager experiments with postmodern satire in her bizarre short story “The Lincoln-Pruitt Anti-Rape Device,” offering a solution to the war as absurd as the war itself. Although their paths of deviation from the norm of realism may differ, all of these women offer individual interpretations of war entirely appropriate for a war as nebulous and incomprehensible as Vietnam.
Machine Dreams, an experimental novel in form, spans four decades and covers the history of an American family and the service of a father and son in World War II and Vietnam. The novel is a compendium of letters, journal entries, flashbacks, personal narratives, and flows of stream of consciousness, all given voice by four family members. The only real continuity in the novel comes from the dual motif of dreams and machines that loosely hold it together. Machine Dreams “captures the way the war seemed to shatter all the given values, rendering all the customary things unstable,” through a series of childhood images of dreams and machines that are fanciful and intriguing in youth, but acquire sinister proportions in the hands of adults who wield their power in a new form of lethal weaponry. Billy—the drifter, the pretender, the make-believe airplane pilot—becomes another MIA in Vietnam, shattering whatever continuity was left in the Hampson family's divided household. His sister, Danner, who continually relives their childhood fantasies in a desperate attempt to keep Billy's image alive, becomes an embittered, isolated victim of the war, unable to cope with the present because she is so emotionally burdened by the past. Danner, too, could be considered “missing in action” as she floats in a time warp of unreality in a futile search for the only close human tie left in her life, now only a phantom of her imaginative play. Critic Susan Wolf characterizes Machine Dreams as a “meditation on loss, the unresolvable loss of unfulfilled lives, of a family amputated by a loss that cannot be named.” The discontinuous narrative style of Machine Dreams is an innovative break with the continuity of most realistic fiction. In the novel, Phillips does not attempt to simulate reality, only to catch glimpses of it from four different perspectives—veteran and civilian—of a family suffering its own internal conflicts as well as those imposed by war. Instead of clear definitions, the novel offers blurred impressions. The sustained, hazy, dreamlike tone of magical but ominous fantasy gives readers the sensation of floating through the novel's lyrical prose. By interacting with the novel's four voices, readers give the narrative whatever realistic cohesiveness seems necessary. …
SOURCE: “Hopes and Nightmares of the Young,” in Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women, edited by Susan Hardy Aiken, Adele Marie Barker, Maya Koreneva, and Ekaterina Stetsenko, Duke University Press: Durham, NC, 1994, pp. 266–78.
[In the following essay, Koreneva discusses what Phillips and Elena Makarova reveal about the human condition in their short stories “Home” and “Needlefish,” respectively.]
Both Jayne Anne Phillips and Elena Makarova started writing in the 1970s, a decade which, unlike the previous ones, aroused little hope in either the Soviet Union or the United States. Yet it was not a period of great social tensions or catastrophes. In the USSR, after a short-lived “thaw,” a time began which later came to be known as “the period of stagnation.” In the United States, the end of the infamous Vietnam war was followed by the Watergate revelations and ensuing scandal. Both countries witnessed the political manipulation of ideals and spiritual values by members of the establishment who exploited their positions to advance their own immediate interests. These circumstances aggravated the general atmosphere of disappointment and disillusionment: in both countries, individuals felt ever more acute alienation from societies that had chosen unrighteous ways to achieve unrighteous goals. Earlier concern with social issues gave way to a desire to shut oneself up in one's own individual world, to guard it against society's aggression, and to turn it into a shelter where one could hide from social storms.
This fatigue in public consciousness was manifest not only in the pervasive desire for withdrawal into a private world but also in notions about the nature of that world. Where spiritual values were distorted, disgraced, or discredited, the whole sphere of the mind and spirit fell under suspicion, coming to be regarded as totally unreliable, deceptive as quicksand. The only thing one apparently could still trust was one's own senses, which seemed to restore the lost connection with the world from which man had been severed in all other respects. Reliance on the senses let one believe in the reality of one's own existence. Hence the search for moral and spiritual values gave way to a search for personal satisfaction, which became a sort of motto of a whole generation during the seventies. The odyssey to achieve self-knowledge through sexual intercourse or drugs became the individual equivalent of the space odyssey to conquer the unexplored expanses of the universe. Where spiritual bonds do not exist, people remain atoms moving haphazardly in space, their contacts momentary and inconsequential. Rootless emotions, receiving insufficient sustenance, cannot develop into genuine feelings, and the physical sensations that dominate existence continually demand greater and greater stimuli. Sex and drugs, the strongest of these, seem attractive if only because they allow one momentarily to forget one's loneliness. But the forgetfulness is an illusion, the pursuit of which ultimately drives people further apart rather than building human ties.
This escapist reliance on sex and drugs seems to govern the world created in Black Tickets, the short story collection that brought Phillips wide literary recognition. But her depiction of this sordid world aims not simply to shock her readers into the recognition of grim reality. Rather, by combining the disinterestedness and objectivity of a scientist with the imagination of a poet, she seeks to explore the malaise of a society that had disintegrated into what sociologist David Riesman called “the lonely crowd.”
Like many other characters in the book, the protagonist of “Home” suffers from extremes of loneliness. “Out of money” and feeling like a misfit in a world where she finds neither love nor comfort, she takes her mother's advice and comes home to heal her wounds. Because she is young, her defeat seems temporary. But she does not find what she seeks in the familiar situation in which she immerses herself. This time it is home, traditionally man's last refuge from the encroachments of society, that fails her. What it once represented no longer exists. Its former foundation, the family, is irreparably broken. Her parents are divorced and still harbor feelings of mutual ill will, and the absence of inner, spiritual ties that characterized the world the young woman has left behind is now replicated in her relationship with her mother.
Phillips symbolizes this emptiness through the mother's favorite pastimes—watching television, knitting afghans—both stupefyingly monotonous, meaningless occupations. Since the story never even hints at how the afghans will be used, they merely suggest an endlessly repetitive action, a woman's version of Sisyphean labors. The daughter notices the same qualities in the TV programs, so artistically weak that the primitive devices employed to manipulate the audience—especially the “repetition of certain professional laughters”—are glaringly obvious.
Phillips presents the invasion of home by television as something dangerous, even sinister. This symbol of the omnipotence of modern technology violates the sacred privacy of the domestic world, destroying all human ties. It tears the mother away from those around her, locking her into a one-dimensional electronic space. The young woman's attempts to rescue her mother from this McLuhanesque desert are futile. Ironically, the means of salvation the daughter chooses are representative of earlier, traditional family activities—reading and going together to the movies—that once were aimed at cementing the ties of kinship through the collective involvement of the family unit. That the mother rejects her daughter's proposals to subscribe to informative magazines or to replace television with books signifies the surrender of the older generation to the new technology, the loss of both traditional ways of life and the moral values inherent in them.
Obviously, the conflict between mother and daughter can be attributed to the generation gap: each is a product of her own era, sharing all its truths and delusions. The mother grew up during World War II, her ideas of the future shaped by global events. Like millions of others, she survived the difficulties of wartime, but also endured other, more personal burdens, nursing her sick, bedridden mother for years. She uses her claim that she had done her duty as a form of didactic reproach, justifying her superior, moralistic attitude toward her daughter, whose integrity she constantly questions. But her moral stance contains irritating overtones of self-satisfaction, pride, and complacency. She assumes that in a similar situation, which is more than just a possibility, her daughter would neglect to do “everything she could” for her.
Nonetheless, the mother's absolute conviction of her own righteousness, though it accords with the circumstances described in the story, appears less well founded when examined in detail. If her hasty marriage, just two weeks after first meeting her fiancé, does not refute her words, it nevertheless throws a shadow of doubt on past events. Was the wedding an unconscious attempt to flee a difficult situation, an irreproachable kind of psychological, as well as literal, escape from that duty of which she is so proud? Seeking to explain her action to her daughter, she can say nothing but that “he was older. … He had a job and a car. And mother was so sick.” No word of feelings—no hint of the romantic infatuation or sudden blaze of passion commonly associated with elopements. Though she is reluctant to recognize the fact, it seems clear that circumstances rather than feeling precipitated her decision. Her unwillingness or inability to face the truth about herself makes her once again insist on “doing her duty,” which becomes for her a kind of psychological mask for all occasions.
For the characters in this story the truth is too painful to bear. It must be concealed because it makes them vulnerable in their relations with the outside world. What began in one generation continues in the next, growing in proportion. The most dramatic symbol of this pervasive flight from reality is Daniel's refusal to take off his shirt, even during his most intimate moments. The daughter's lost true love, Daniel trusts neither her nor his own feelings. Fearing that a view of his napalm-seared back will shock love literally to death, he chooses concealment. Thus the generations, estranged from and averse to each other, become ironically united through their similar approaches to life's dilemmas.
Phillips's portrayal of the old and young generations is remarkably precise, though her characters act and speak as individuals. The daughter feels the mother's implied reproach but does not rush to justify herself in her mother's eyes. She bursts with indignation, but in the spirit of her generation she refuses altogether to acknowledge an a priori power of moral obligation over herself or anyone else, and she dismisses the guilt required by her mother's ethical code: “No one has to be guilty.” But her words are bravado, aimed not to reveal but to conceal her true impulses, her true self.
One of the fundamental principles of Phillips's poetics manifests itself in such delineations of character. Phillips conceives the individual as a multifaceted, even multidimensional entity, composed of many unrelated elements. She constructs her characters by revealing the interaction of these elements—words, actions, a general orientation to life, subconscious impulses, involuntary emotional bursts—with large gaps between them, which become an essential part of the modern fragmented consciousness.
One of these gaps is evident in the relation of mother and daughter. The unyielding stubbornness of the daughter springs from the authoritarian stubbornness of the mother, whom the daughter feels bound to defy. Yet beneath defiance and confrontation lurks their mutual love. They seem almost ashamed of it, for they never speak of their feelings, assuming that to mention them would be a tactless display, demeaning for both of them—a kind of emotional nakedness, like the physical nakedness that embarrasses the mother, prompting the daughter to buy a stranger's old bathrobe at a sale in order to avoid an uncomfortable situation. Here, as everywhere else in the story, the truth—particularly the truth concerning one's own feelings—remains concealed and thus works to further separate and isolate the characters.
Only once does Phillips make the reader aware of the true nature of the daughter's feeling for her mother. Characteristically, they are revealed not through words or descriptions, but through a simple physical action: helping her mother take a shower. Yet even here Phillips, bringing together all the lines of the stories, presents the daughter's tenderness, care, and affection for her mother in conjunction with her sense of nakedness as embarrassing and nauseating. Even the most innocent touch becomes unbearable for modern man, threatening his (or her) very existence.
As a result, life comes to mean exclusion, not inclusion, loss rather than enrichment through a meeting with the other. Intolerance turns the mother and daughter into irreconcilable opponents. This is obvious in the young woman's attitude toward her parents' relations, her outrage that her mother could not separate from her father for so long, and perhaps even that she married him in the first place. In a series of flashbacks Phillips reveals the heroine's consciousness as that of a damaged child who grew up in a house without love and understanding. In the narrative, presented from the daughter's point of view, the father appears as a coarse and unfeeling person who withdraws into himself, caring not at all what happens to his wife and daughter. He has lost all emotional ties with his family, with whom his relations are reduced to primitive demands for service.
Yet the young woman's memory includes something besides this crude, depressing picture which for her overshadows everything that precedes it. Although inclined to see her father as a villain, she describes him in terms that create rather a portrait of a luckless man, unhealthy and unsuccessful in business. Significantly, Phillips uses illness, which marks all three generations presented in the story, as the central motif of “Home,” both an indication of the sickness of the modern psyche and a metaphor for the illness of a society past its prime.
The atmosphere in the house is poisoned by the mutual hostility resulting from a lack of understanding on all sides. So strong was the evil feeling pervading the family that the girl recalls staying awake for hours, fearing that her father “would strangle her mother, then walk upstairs and strangle her.” However, next to this picture of the father as monster Phillips places the daughter's unexpected confession, which allows us to see the family drama in a new light, suggesting that all three of its players were in fact also its victims: “I believed we were guilty: we had done something terrible to him.”
As in other stories from Black Tickets, Phillips does not explicitly point out the reasons behind the drama in “Home,” leaving them entirely to the reader's imagination. This refusal to comment is part of the author's strategy, aimed at engaging the reader by presenting a cluster of emotionally charged images as ambiguous as life itself. Imperceptibly, though, she dissuades the reader from believing that there is only one solution, implying not so much a multitude of answers as a multitude of circumstances, each contributing to the sorrowful outcome of the story.
The girl's immature consciousness has reacted defensively to a painful situation. Forced to choose between her parents, she condemns her father, oversimplifying a set of extremely complicated relationships. Yet the young woman does not feel that her mother, with whom she has sided, is completely right either. The daughter's consciousness is torn by contradictions that underscore the ambivalence inherent in the situation. As if in retaliation for her unhappy childhood, she sentences her mother to carry the burden of family chores alone.
It appears, however, that her condemnation of her mother has another explanation of which the young woman is unaware. Phillips's portrayal of the protagonist's relations with her parents has obvious Freudian implications. These appear most obviously in the young woman's retelling of the dream, itself a reflection of subconscious drives, in which her father comes to her bed, half naked and sexually aroused, urging her to engage in sex. The dream shows that the threat she felt from him as a child is still present, with sexual assault substituting for her former fear of strangulation. But we can also interpret her animosity toward her father as an expression of suppressed desire, thwarted by the prevailing cultural code of her society, whose moral authority she unconsciously recognizes while revolting against it on the level of consciousness and behavior.
The latter interpretation is supported by her erotic fantasies, inspired by the story she reads before going to sleep, which in turn inspires the dream of her father. With the use of the story-within-the-story device, Phillips touches upon important moral and cultural issues directly related to sexual behavior. In her imagination the young woman transforms the simple, even simplistic and didactic story from Reader's Digest, with its cheap dramatic effects, into a humorously obscene anecdote. There is a marked parallelism between dream and story—both deal with violations of ancient taboos—but while the rendering of the dream treats the theme seriously, the story-within-a-story provides an ironic commentary on its subject. Its central episode, the abduction of a teenage girl by a bear, is a travesty of ancient plots such as the rape of Europa or the tale of “Beauty and the Beast,” enhanced by biblical allusions (“Sharon, his rose”). This juxtaposition of diverse elements from classical Western traditions helps draw the cultural boundaries of a modern civilization, vacillating between remnants of veneration for traditional values on the one hand and parody and ridicule on the other.
At the same time, by introducing an irony not present in the original into the heroine's musings over the “love story of a bear,” Phillips indirectly exposes the mechanism by which sanctimonious conventional morality exercises its controls. As the description of the girl in the love story shows (“a good student loved by her parents, an honest girl loved by her boyfriend”), by making some superficial concessions to changing public mores, the story evades more profound transformations.
The norms of traditional morality have lost all spiritual meaning for the heroine of “Home”; they are nothing but standards of conformity society imposes on the individual. Rejecting them as false and restrictive, yet equally distrustful of the whole sphere of the spirit, she seems to find solace only in the physical side of love. Even her mother deems her a lighthearted seeker of amorous adventures and an advocate of free sex. But though her behavior and manner of speaking do indeed give the impression that the young woman is uninterested in anything but sex, Phillips delineates her inner drama as a function less of sexual dissatisfaction than of the historical traumas inflicted upon the social consciousness of the era which continue to victimize the younger generation.
The major instance of these traumatic events is Vietnam. In introducing this theme, still painful for America in 1979, Phillips carefully avoids inflated rhetoric about the atrocities and consequences of the war, instead using her heroine to convey how damaging the experience was for the nation. It is obvious that both the young woman's lovers are war victims: Jason, her first teenage love, goes insane from fear after his brother is killed in Vietnam; Daniel, wounded and badly burned in combat, has for years gone from one hospital to the next, a living embodiment of the physical and spiritual suffering the war caused. Though the young woman never speaks, like her mother, about “doing her duty,” mentioning only in passing how she took care of Daniel in the hospital, she too has every right to be proud. Yet unlike her mother, she has gained neither satisfaction nor peace of mind from the experience—another mark of the difference between the generations. The sight of Daniel's suffering does not destroy her love for him, but it does paralyze her physically, making impossible the healthy and joyful relations of which she dreams, the harmony of the physical and the spiritual. Sharing the fragmentation to which modern man is doomed, she comes to believe that in the contemporary world there are on the one hand love and spiritual communion and on the other physical intimacy, and that the two are now irreconcilable. She settles for the latter, hoping to find in it oblivion, although she fully realizes that she actually needs something quite different; as she admits to her mother, “I can't be physical, not really.”
The picture that unfolds in “Home,” as in others of Phillips's stories, is grim and hopeless. Here is a world of endless evil and vice, dominated by dark desires and vile passions, a world beyond redemption, stretching from the infinite past into the infinite future, from the fall to complete disintegration. Here, virtually everyone is doomed. If there are exceptions, they are rare, and the hope is not so much to escape the common lot as perhaps to retard its process and, if only for a moment, to experience the closeness of the other.
“Home” ends with one of these rare moments. The women stand close together, the daughter holding her mother. The image could serve as a metaphor for Phillips's understanding of modern man's predicament. The words the women say, born of anger and frustration, continue to hurt, suggesting the failure of language as a means of communication. But the estranging effect of words is countered by a gesture, bringing through touch the saving grace of love.
It should be emphasized that Phillips's style is characterized by the absence of even the slightest trace of didacticism. She does not make judgments or preach but rather delves into the essence of the phenomena she chooses to represent in her artistic world. She strives for an emotional, psychological effect, founded on a combination of narrative objectivity and a remarkable ability to immerse herself in her subject. This paradoxical effect accounts for the unique double focus of her writings. The characters are drawn from both within and without, with an immediacy and spontaneity marked by the whimsical interplay of fleeting impulses, unexpected bursts, and sharp swings of emotion.
The closing scene of “Home” may serve as an example. This episode brings together in counterpoint words, actions, and emotions. The kitchen where the mother and daughter find themselves is literally full of “the sound and the fury”—the steam, the noise of hot water, the clatter of dishes, and above all the bitter words the two exchange. By contrast, when the theme of love is introduced, it is characterized by silence. Through understatement, Phillips makes her characters and the situation as a whole absolutely convincing, achieving artistic mastery rare in a writer of her age.
Artistic principles similar in many ways to Phillips's form the basis of Elena Makarova's fiction. Makarova too tries to achieve maximum effect by combining narrative objectivity with an accurate recreation of the internal states of her characters. “Needlefish,” which appeared in her collection of stories and novellas Overfilled Days (Perepolnennye dni, 1982), is a striking example. Although the story is told in the third person, unlike the first-person narration of “Home,” it is written from the point of view of the teenage protagonist, Alka. This device allows Makarova to narrow her focus, concentrating on the emotions and insights of an adolescent, without necessarily feeling compelled to narrow the range of issues the story deals with.
Alka's views are permeated with typical adolescent extremism, and as a result she is merciless. There is no denying her powers of observation, yet she is incapable of understanding much of what she sees around her. Nevertheless, she condemns everything and everybody, separating herself from them. This attitude is felt in the intonation of the opening sentence. The action of the scene unfolds on a dance floor, where, forbidden by her mother to appear, Alka can watch the dancers only in secret. Hurt by being treated as a child, she observes them with scorn; the dance floor becomes an “open-air cage” where dancers did not dance but only “jerked, shook, tossed loose hair.”
As the opening passage makes clear, Alka feels powerless and dependent, estranged from the world and the people around her. Yet though adults deprive her of freedom, she believes that she alone is really free. Her bondage is that of the body, her freedom that of the spirit. With the people around her, on the contrary, the body is free but the spirit is in bondage. Taking her revenge on them, she mentally encloses them in a cage.
Her only means of doing so is through language. Alka is not interested in words as a means of communication. Like the characters in Phillips's stories, she feels the failure of language to effect communion with others. Rather, as the episode with the deaf-mute later in the story shows, Alka trusts the nonverbal communication of eyes and gestures—the movements and poses, colors, lines, and sounds that her imagination has revealed to her. What attracts her is the invocatory power of the word, and her greatest joy comes in using language in this way.
One of the most striking instances of this tendency is her use of imagery. Just as the dichotomy of body and spirit is basic for the story, so the imagery of the body is essential for conveying narrative meaning. In relating to those she regards as antagonists, Alka verbally exaggerates the physical aspects of their appearances and behaviors, representing them as grotesquely deformed. Like the young woman of “Home,” she is least lenient with her own relatives. Watching the dancers, she looks critically on her sister Inka. Paired with “some glossy guy,” Inka becomes a “clod,” a “cow,” “clumsily shifting from one foot to another.” A wave of nausea sweeps over Alka when, lying in bed, she imagines her sister returning home, preparing for bed, her “fat, unbridled flesh” fully exposed.
Alka has similar feelings toward her mother, whom she condemns, like her sister, for maintaining artificial relationships with men—first with Inka's father, then with her own, whose place has now been taken by a new lover. Neither woman, Alka believes, follows her genuine feelings—the sister because, accepting philistine morality, she exchanges real emotion for the “titillation” of the flesh while awaiting marriage; the mother because her change of partners is, from her adolescent daughter's point of view, proof of “false” feelings.
Like the central character in “Home,” Alka has grown up in a family where traditional ties based on love, care, and understanding have been broken. The family itself no longer exists, and an anonymous lover has usurped the father's position. The girl easily reconstructs the course of events in her life as she observes her sister's daily ritual of returning from the dance as well as the changes in the family situation. But what gives these events meaning and color are Alka's hurt feelings, envy, and resentment. From her surroundings she perceives only hostile signals, to which she reacts with a concomitant hostility, regarding whatever adults do as an encroachment on her rights and freedoms—on her very identity. Trying to defend herself from the aggressive world she rejects, Alka escapes from reality into an imaginary world. There she feels not only safe, but superior to those who in real life, she believes, force her into submission. Thus, in her imagination she dances better than her sister, better even than all the adults on the dance floor. She alone understands the secret meaning of events invisible to others, burdened as they are by petty daily worries. She sees and hears what others do not. With all her being she feels the invisible pulse of life, while they, it seems to her, have long ago grown internally paralyzed.
In her childish egoism Alka places herself in the center of the world, omnipotent. There she observes from a distance the actions of adults, which seem to her no more than trivial bustle. But in fact, this egoism, together with inexperience, prevents her from penetrating below the surface of reality. Her wild imagination helps her to fill the vacuum of understanding in accordance with her own moods and emotions. But this pattern only intensifies her feeling of alienation from those around her.
Estrangement, then, dominates Alka's relations to her mother and sister, but perhaps most revealing in this regard are her relations with the deaf-mute whom she sets out to draw. She is attracted by his picturesqueness, the very coarseness and primitivism that seem to her a sign of an authenticity which her mother and sister lack. This perception in a way establishes some kind of inner connection between her and the deaf-mute, allowing him to enter her ordinarily closed-off world. But in becoming part of this private world, he seemingly takes upon himself, in Alka's mind, the obligation to break his ties with the ordinary world. When she goes to see him for the second time to capture his authenticity on paper, she realizes that he has seen his wife, who now has a lover. She takes this event quite literally as a betrayal, regarding his feelings towards his wife as a breach of the secret agreement that has tacitly existed between him and Alka since their first meeting. From this instant she banishes the deaf-mute from her world of chosen people. He returns to the contemptible world of everyday life, and she loses all interest in him.
If Alka's imagination only aggravates her feeling of alienation from others, it helps her overcome that estrangement in the world of nature. Makarova endows her heroine with the imagination of an artist. The natural world is no longer simply an environment for her; it comes to life, gaining the authenticity people irreparably lack. Entering this world, she feels herself transformed, changed first into a tree, then into a needlefish cutting through the resistant water, then into a line in the air that has caught the fleeting movement. Makarova is remarkably expressive when, with masterful impressionistic touches, she depicts Alka's immersion in the world of elements which makes the girl feel herself a part of infinite, immortal nature. In some of the most powerful descriptions in the story, Alka dissolves into the world of color and sound, which break out of their earthly shell and become something unknown and fantastic, like a three-dimensional abstract painting, its fourth dimension a symphony of sounds. All these effects—sounds, colors, and lines, conglomerations of life's overflowing energy—stir the girl to rapture.
The creative energy so strongly awakened in Alka is the symbol as well of the awakening woman in her. But her new feelings leave her confused and fearful. She reacts so enviously to the “feminine” nature in her mother and sister precisely because she herself is, for the first time, discovering and displaying her own. Her desire for self-affirmation leads her to a kind of annihilation of the feminine in other women—sister, mother, deaf-mute's wife. Frustrated at her inequality with the grown women who continue to treat her as a child, she takes imaginative revenge on them, thereby, as she believes, restoring justice. In her mind they exchange places: Alka is the only true woman, who has grasped the mystery of love. All the rest become grotesque figures, governed by repulsive, “inauthentic” feelings: Inka with her lusty movements on the dance floor and her philistine calculations about getting married; her mother, smiling in the same way, taking in the different men who come to possess her body, which, lacking the redemptive grace of love, is dehumanized, leaving “a seal's silhouette in space.”
As all these events make clear, “Needlefish” is an initiation story. On the brink of discovering the world, Alka confronts her feminine nature, her artistic nature, and the possibility of self-affirmation in an adult world in which she will be an equal member. Because of the alienation governing this world, however, self-affirmation proves impossible. And her experience of her feminine and artistic identities only increases her feelings of estrangement, widening the abyss between her and her family.
In this context the concluding episode in the forest acquires a special meaning. Erast, who is also an artist, has already “captured” Alka, not only because she has fallen in love with him but, more importantly, because in drawing her he has grasped that inner self the secret of which she believes she alone possesses. The image of the forest symbolically reinforces the theme of initiation. At first everything appears rather innocent: Alka and Erast pick berries, walking through velvety moss. But even here the imagery prefigures sexual consummation, particularly the stains of red berry juice on their bodies, with its evocation of the bloodshed inevitably associated with the initiation process. The further they go into the woods, the more sensual the description becomes. Sexual images come to the foreground, occupying an important place in the story's structure: Alka and Erast “swam into moss,” and the references to scarlet juices occur repeatedly. Finally, the needlefish which Alka has earlier imagined herself to be, and which gives its name to the story, “entered her body,” “tore through her.” But its meaning has changed. Moving away from a representation of Alka's freedom and power, imaginary though they may be, it now signifies the sexual power of the other over her. In a broader sense, the association of sexual initiation with pain (“tore through her”) turns the event into a symbol for any traumatic transition experience.
Makarova's associative style corresponds to the perceptions of the heroine whose point of view the story adopts, allowing the author to present accurately and with a certain delicacy the inner world of a teenage girl whose lack of sexual knowledge necessarily makes her transform sexual experience into metaphor. The style of narration also accords with Makarova's presentation of Alka as an artist for whom metaphoric, associative thinking is a natural element. Not least important, the indirection of metaphor allows Makarova to avoid an explicitly naturalistic description of Alka's and Erast's relationship, especially in the scene in the wood—description that at the time would have made publishing the story difficult. The literary mores in the former Soviet Union did not condone an interest in private matters, to say nothing of sex, even in the most liberal times. Moreover, the episode in the forest contains one of the most delicate moments in the story. Erast is much older than Alka; she thinks of him as “a man.” Thus, according to Soviet mores, a realistic description of the scene would have required of the author a more direct expression of moral indignation than Makarova, who did her best to avoid didacticism, desired to provide.
The narrative style based on implication rather than on direct statement and straightforward description permits Makarova once again to separate Alka from the world around her. For the heroine, her own imagination and the world of others are juxtaposed as high and low, and any transition from one to the other seems impossible. At the end she becomes even more convinced of her superiority to those around her. They are ordinary, she is “extraordinary.” She dismisses the remarks of her mother, who has noticed a change in her, as insignificant and annoying, something that could issue only from small-mindedness. Alka feels no need to be near any of her family; she no more seeks to be understood by them than she seeks to understand them, for she is sure that she can reach heights of which ordinary people dare not even dream. Her notions are confirmed by the image of flight with which the story ends, a symbol which also signifies her transcendence of the fear and confusion caused by sexual awakening.
In effect, the introduction of the flight image makes the story's conclusion resonate with optimism. Flight represents the young girl's soaring hopes, but it reflects the author's views as well. In fact, there is here virtually no distance between Makarova and her heroine. Since Makarova fails, or does not wish, to maintain the distance between them, she tends to romanticize and glamorize sex as a liberating force. As a result, her portrayal of the heroine and the situation is, in both substance and tone, opposite to that in the stories of Phillips, with whom Makarova has otherwise much in common. Her optimistic, affirmative ending, like her use of the sexual theme, challenges the prevailing modes of Soviet literary expression.
“Needlefish” does not contain explicit social overtones; its impact depends entirely on the accuracy of psychological nuances. But what in one cultural situation may be taken as a given can in another stand for artistic innovation or political comment. Indeed, Makarova's very failure to introduce a social context had in itself a certain political resonance at the time the story was written. She openly challenges the conventional notions associated with the dogmas of Socialist Realism. This doctrine, prescriptive by its very nature, claimed that there could be only one ideologically correct interpretation of reality, conveyable by ideologically correct artistic devices. Everything outside these prescriptions was labeled subversive, and those found guilty of violation could suffer the most serious consequences.
As her subject matter and artistic form suggest, Makarova chose artistic freedom. She was not, of course, the first to do so. But each period dictates its own conditions and finds its own ways of establishing the independence of artistic individuality. Perhaps it was her understanding of the significance of the artist's task that made Makarova represent the protagonist of her story as an artist. In any case, the concentration on the psychological, intimate, erotic experiences of her characters, which she shares with Phillips, was the form of rebellion Makarova chose in order to affirm her creative freedom. In this sense, both women have been able to disclose certain crucial truths about human experience.
SOURCE: “A Summer of Transformations,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 4, 1994, pp. 3, 5.
[In the following review, Eder asserts that the strength of Phillips's prose in Shelter practically transforms the reader into a preadolescent in the West Virginia woods.]
“The forest is all around us and we're like a country inside it,” Alma Swenson writes home from her Girl Guides summer in the West Virginia mountains [in Shelter]. Her older sister, Lenny, tells herself: “Nothing from home belonged here; home would take it all away.”
Camp Shelter is, among other things, a camp. It has ramshackle wooden cabins and canvas tents, morning river-fogs and stupefying noonday heat, mosquitoes and no-see-ums, campfires, hikes, swimming in a muddy pond, lectures from the director about the Communist threat and the importance of table conversation, and reassuringly glutinous meals. It is a place of homesickness and emancipation from home; of docile little girls with nighttime fears, and itchy adolescents whose fears are indistinguishable from their inchoate desires.
Jayne Anne Phillips' powerful novel, set in the early 1960s, gets these things absolutely right, in a prose so pungent and particular that a reader feels the heat, fogs and insect bites, as well as a summer camp's mix of sensory fullness and lonely voids. It wins our presence—it all but makes us a vulnerable 12 years old—and it needs to, because it will ask a great deal more.
Essentially, Phillips' theme is the transition between childhood and adolescence. She writes it as a legendary quest; a passage of exploits through dragons, demons and dangerous enchantments, both within and without. Camp is J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth: the place of questing. It is where children, like Arthurian knights, leave the protection and constraint of what is crowded and familiar to embark on what is solitary and strange.
The questing children in Shelter, who range from 12 to 16, are beset by outsized forces in the persons of two deranged men: one a devil and the other a kind of angel. The children's involvement in the pair's deadly struggle wins for them a quest's transformation. It is a somber ordeal but—unlike the muffled traumas of childhood—an active one. By the end of the book they will begin to be free, in different ways, from their subjection to the dreams and nightmares they have brought, dangerously bottled up, from their homes.
Shelter moves, sometimes bewilderingly, between a lyrically perceptive psychological realism and a gothic primal savagery. It is set out as individual voices that converge. There are Lenny and her best friend, Cap, seniors in their mid-teens and lodged in a tent at the top of the hill. The camp is a visible progression: the older the campers, the higher up they are, the farthest from camp control and protection, and the greater the rigors they put up with. Here as elsewhere, Phillips sets up a powerful symbolism that works so well that we sense but barely see it.
Lenny, the central figure and the one who will be at greatest risk, is quick, nervy and eager—still unconsciously—for life. She will get a preliminary taste of it in a midnight encounter at the pond with a young lifeguard, an erotic passage that is both encouraged and cut short by Cap, who uses Lenny as a surrogate for her own hesitant urges. The relationship between the two girls, a partly sensual comradeship before the mysteries that lie ahead, is drawn subtly and fiercely.
The other pair of campers is Alma, Lenny's younger sister, and her best friend, Delia. At 12, a girl is still easily a hero—a general, a president, a great medical pioneer—and Alma has a heroic mission. It is to protect Delia, heavily traumatized by the recent drowning of her father. The death is ambiguous—he drove off a bridge—and it leads back to the shadows of home that all four girls will, in the course of the book, struggle away from.
Cap bears the dry solitude of a rich child whose parents live apart and in mutual contempt. Alma's and Lenny's mother was having an affair with Delia's father, and she used and abused Alma as her confidante. Lenny is shadowed by ambiguous images of a different kind of abuse by her father. The ambiguity though it is a refusal to simplify and though it contributes to the hallucinatory force of Lenny's quest, has its drawbacks. An author doing something as difficult as Phillips does and mostly brilliantly, balances depth against movement. The deep folds of Lenny's consciousness lead to moments of stasis—dispelled in the book's choking climax—and puzzlement for the reader.
Into the camp setting, so poignantly rendered on its underside and so beautifully drawn in its lively externals—Mrs. Thompson-Warner, camp director and vigilant sentinel against communism and low manners, is the cartoon bubble that an intense book needs for oxygen relief—the dragons enter. They exude the flames of the darkest and most contorted characters of William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.
One is Carmody, a violent, vacant degenerate who has come out of jail to prey upon his sturdy wife, the camp cook. She takes his abuse as if it were simply another cross; she is a woman both religious and open, with a bent for lightness and the provision of comfort. For the campers this translates as prodigiously comforting meals; for her elfin 10-year-old, Buddy, it is an instilled openness to the magical possibilities of the woods and fields he roams, Puck-like. A tutelary figure, whose significance grows steadily, he is untouched by the loathsome sexual acts his father requires him to perform. He may, however, perish from them.
But a primal drama requires an angel as well as a devil. It is risky enough for Phillips to introduce such a drama into the lives of her campers, and astonishing that she succeeds in getting it to work convincingly upon them. Even riskier is the angelic figure she chooses.
Parson, a former cellmate of Carmody's who follows him to Camp Shelter, is a man possessed. He sees ghosts, preaches visions, does snake magic and fights titanic battles against the devil and those he believes the devil owns. His internal monologues are violent memories and mystical diatribes and, as he spies on the campers, Phillips leads us to believe he is another monster. When he encounters Lenny alone, and we hear of her lying motionless on the ground afterward, we are certain it is another horror. Instead—Phillips's purposeful but difficult ambiguity is in play—it is some kind of redemption.
In fact, in a mode that blurs the hallucinatory with the supernatural, Parson has come to prevent horrors. He will end up saving Buddy from Carmody and empowering the campers to fight Carmody for Lenny. It would not be right to reveal the details of the battles; they manage to be both mythical and endearingly natural. After the final battle, Lenny, Cap, Alma and Delia and the other campers who help them, will be transformed by what they have been through.
Transformation, for Phillips, is the terror, magic and ordeal of what happens year by year as we grow out of childhood. She has set her remarkable novel at the mysterious crossroads where old safety, with its unexplained shadows, becomes more lethal than new danger, with its fearsome ventures.
SOURCE: “Look Homeward, Angels,” in Nation, November 14, 1994, pp. 585–88.
[In the following review, Schwartz expresses disappointment with the ending of Phillips's Shelter and complains, “Somehow the mythic quality of the story and the accumulation of heavily weighted symbols, of snakes, caves, angels and devils, seem a pesky shorthand and detraction from Phillips's otherwise supple storytelling.”]
For Jayne Anne Phillips, tragedy and loss are endemic to American families, as persistent and insidious as cancer and as ordinary as groceries. She stalks generations of small-town West Virginia families through wars, affairs, economic crises and abuse and finds inside their heads a loose weave of memory, dreams and sensations periodically torn asunder by horror and death. Her fiction is keenly observed, her details razor-sharp, her dreams triple-cream rich; even if her dazzling skills fade in the reader's memory, a sense of melancholy lingers. Children grow, generations fall away, and underneath the passage of time she finds an organic, fundamental sorrow. Jean, the mother in Phillips's first novel, Machine Dreams, exists in a hazy state where the days run together unless they are punctuated by pain: “Anniversaries: Maybe she just remembered death instead of life. That was bad. But death wouldn't let you forget, would it? Life did; life let you go on for long weeks and never think at all. You just lived, nothing was wrong; those weren't bad times.”
Children aren't spared as witnesses to loss and isolation. Phillips's children seem closely related to Carson McCullers's Mick in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Frankie in The Member of the Wedding: confused, lonely, struggling to temper a barrage of information and emotions with only the crudest of skills. They are slightly grotesque, clumsily chasing their half-formed desires and attempting to outrun their fears. Like McCullers, Phillips goes straight and true into their hearts and illuminates how children make sense of what they can.
Phillips is occasionally plugged as a descendant of the Southern literary royals Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. She does share their strong sense of place and textured language, and especially O'Connor's love of outcasts, if not her acidity. But Phillips is decidedly contemporary, and notable among her peers because she pairs her realism with such thick sensory detail, in a tightly controlled investigation of the power of memory and dreams to replace what the years steal away.
Her first book, a short-story collection titled Black Tickets, supplied a brilliant, if occasionally overwrought, catalogue of characters: young junkies, a prostitute with a fondness for high school boys, a young man caring for his dying sugar daddy. Lots of lines. “Jamaica Delila, how I want you; your smell a clean yeast, a high white yogurt of the soul.” Teenage couples leaving a movie-theater balcony after the show: “Mouths swollen and ripe, they drifted down like a sigh of steam.”
In Machine Dreams, Phillips captured with great sensitivity the losses of three generations of a family living in a small West Virginia town as they move through two wars and the dissolution of a marriage. It sounds like a pulpy epic saga, yet the book is not “about” its own events, but rather what sorrow slips between or filters down from generation to generation, what happens to the experiences and memories that cannot be passed along. Beginning in the 1930s and running through the Vietnam War, Phillips establishes the country's thrill in progress and the price it exacts on its citizens. The red Pegasus logo at the local gas station is a recurrent image, magical, winged, riderless:
Danner and Billy are walking in the deep dark forest. Billy makes airplane sounds. Danner, oblivious to her brother's play, is stalking the magic horse. There are no cloven tracks, but the dust on the path is disturbed and the horse seems to be circling. Occasionally Danner looks over her shoulder and sees the animal watching them through thick leaves. The mare's eyes are large and certain. Certain of what? Billy pays no attention and seems to have followed his sister here almost accidentally. They walk on, and finally it is so dark that Danner can't see Billy at all. She can only hear him, farther and farther behind her, imitating with a careful and private energy the engine sounds of a plane that is going down. War-movie sounds. Eeee-yoww, ach-ack-ack. So gentle it sounds like a song, and the song goes on softly as the plane falls, year after year, to earth.
Many of the details of family life and pieces of characters established in Machine Dreams are carried over into Shelter, Phillips's latest novel. Geographically the two take place very close to one another; but while Machine Dreams situated itself firmly in the reality of day-today small-town life, Shelter unfolds in the murky dreamworld of an isolated girls camp tucked in the mountains. Phillips takes the realism of Machine Dreams wider afield, to explore the momentarily contained lives of four young girls (Lenny, Cap, Alma and Delia), a little boy and a religious fanatic. She seals her characters off from the outside world, effectively creating a pressure cooker, and lets us listen to what roars in their heads. Inside the minds of these children, family secrets curl in the heat, while outside, and close by, evil becomes embodied in the green mountains and cold waterways of their new home. Danger in Machine Dreams hovers in the form of war and disease; in Shelter it comes quite literally in the form of the devil.
Set in July 1963 at Camp Shelter, the story spins out slowly and suspensefully, at an almost dangerously languid pace. The prologue plunges us into the summer: “The quarters wavering in bottled heat, cots lined up in the big dark rooms that are pitch black if you walk in out of the sun. Black, quiet, empty, and the screen door banging shut three times behind you.”
Phillips dips us alternately into the minds of her young characters, full of secrets they have never shared. We meet four Girl Guide campers: Lenny, age 14, is pestered by haunting memories of loneliness and molestation she can barely bring to a focus. Her best friend, Cap, a funny, sassy rich girl neglected by her father and abandoned by her mother, clings to Lenny and pushes her, quite literally, to realize her sexual awakening. Alma, a bookwormy 11-year-old, comes to camp weighted with the knowledge of her mother's affair with the father of her best friend, Delia, and ruled by the urge to protect Delia from this knowledge as she stumbles through the day and sleepwalks through the night in the wake of her father's suicide. And then there's 8-year-old Buddy, son of the camp cook and Carmody, who is a cruel ex-con. Phillips is especially good at evoking the cocooned feeling of youth:
Mam had sayings she'd taught him [Buddy] … sing-songs, she called them, and he liked the one about the woods that had trees, and a lot of soft dark with nothing but wind, because he thought the words at night when he was safe, or he was safe when Mam told him the words: Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen. Rushy glen was like the name of a town or a road, a fork of some road that twisted back through the country, and Arey's Feed Store was the big wooden store near the train tracks in Gaither.
Running scared from the book's beginning, Buddy seeks sanctuary in the woods he knows by heart, or he tags along with Lenny and Cap. Slowly and horribly we learn what this shining, no-see-'um boy must escape: the sadistic taunts and abuse of his alcoholic father.
From the start this hot sleepiness is foreboding, evocative of both the jungles of Vietnam and the overripe heat that signals Southern Gothicism Ahead. (It's just before escalation in Vietnam, and though the war is never mentioned, you can feel it lurking.) The girls marching down trails in their rumpled cotton uniforms seem vulnerable to just about everything. While the camp forces them to focus on schedules, clipboards, flag formations and the dangers of Communism, dark family memories boil over. Bats flap, half-seen, through the night. “The shadows rose higher and took form, scraps of black paper, shaken angrily, gaining the air in spasms,” and the forest itself teems with unseen life and secrets. “The dew-slick windings that were the trails from Highest were a jungle unto themselves and smelled of melons and snakes.”
Of course, if fruits and snakes are about, the devil cannot be far behind. No sooner is evil introduced than we meet Parson, a drifter and seer who works near the camp, his head swollen with the fire-and-brimstone visions of fundamentalist Christianity. “Parson felt himself empowered as a warrior of the Lord, free to suck at the marrow of the Devil's sated bones.” Escaped from prison, this raving angel has come to Camp Shelter in search of grace and bent on beating the devil that lives within his old cellmate Carmody. Parson's visions are captivating, if sometimes a little inscrutable, and his memories of a miserable childhood spent shuttling between foster homes round out the cast of characters as all somehow damaged goods who know too much about their surroundings and caretakers and too little about paths of escape.
While it's inevitable from the start that the four girls and Buddy are headed for a terrible collision with the two lunatic men, the story unfolds with sinister slowness. An omniscient narrator looks out from four points of view, those of Alma, Lenny, Buddy and Parson; progress is further checked by the lushness of Phillips's language, which you can't help but sink into as if it were a field of poppies. “Buddy can taste the night in his mouth like a wish, a night so big, so warm and wet and full of air, falling away forever like the sky falls with its stars.”
The book builds to a fever pitch and its climax is visceral and terrifying. That aside, though, it's hard to know what to take from Shelter. While the book is full of characters with histories long and complex enough to make them seem solid, by its end such specificity is subsumed in the larger fable quality, by the big, plot-y issues of the war between good and evil and the girls' (cringe) fall from innocence. Somehow the mythic quality of the story and the accumulation of heavily weighted symbols, of snakes, caves, angels and devils, seem a pesky shorthand and a detraction from Phillips's otherwise supple storytelling.
So much is at work and works well outside of these tropes that it's hard to know why it was traded away for a horror movie/fairy tale ending—it's almost as if the girls have stumbled into the wrong story, out of something open-ended and into something pat. When the drama has died down, it's clear that the campers have learned something more subtle than the plot lets on, something about storytelling itself: the cost of shared knowledge, the pitfalls of using language to record memory, the way stories can shackle us in time. Their shock at the new knowledge is conveyed by Phillips's characteristic grace and ear for teen-speak. “‘It's over now,’ Lenny said slowly, evenly. ‘But if we tell someone, it'll never be over. We'll have to tell it and tell it. We'll never be able to stop telling it. Nothing else will matter anymore, ever.’” But after the denouement, we scarcely see the girls before the last page is turned. The narrative tidily establishes them as safe from evil (Buddy even gets postcards from Lenny and Cap), and we are thrust out of the dreamworld and sent blinking into the light of day.
Yet, I wanted an extraordinary ending from this rapturous writer, a myth of her own making. A coming of age can be made to swell in the reader's mind by imbuing it with a mythic quality, but once it's structured and named as such (as this one certainly is), the import of the journey is heavily freighted. What happens to people once the plot spins out, once the battle between good and evil has been waged? Phillips seems to be searching here for something outside of time and place, the usual anchors of her work, investigating the possibility of universal forces that shoot through people and nature. Her fiction has long been concerned with timeless qualities, of course—sorrow, love and loss—but always as molded by very specific historical, personal and political forces. One hopes that this is as far away from her lodestar as she will stray, that she will continue to remind us, as she does when at her best, that there is no “shelter” in life. Or, as she says for Lenny, “The world would not be as it was. She saw that there was no world but this one now, full blown and dense with shifting air; they were born into it, mourning.”
SOURCE: A review of Shelter, in New Republic, Vol. 211, No. 26, December 26, 1994, pp. 39–40.
[In the following review, Delbanco discusses childhood memories and the themes of good and evil in Phillips's Shelter.]
Long before Jayne Anne Phillips conceived of Shelter as a full-scale novel, she composed a short passage that eventually became its opening paragraph. It was an account of a young girl seeking respite from the “heat of noon” in the bunkhouse of a girls' camp during a West Virginian summer. “I think I wrote Shelter,” Phillips says, “in order to understand that paragraph.” Standing alone as a kind of epigraph in front of the narrative proper, it draws the reader into an archetypal American experience, the world of campfires and chill morning swims and nighttime whispering within the protective sound-screen of the crickets. It asks us to “concede the heat of noon in summer camps” and to recall the embarrassment of going to the counselors to plead faintness, then the relief of finding sanctuary within “the rough wooden walls exuding shade.” It invites us to feel how the heat has come over you, settled in from above and sucked your insides until you must lie down to sleep in the empty cabin while the rest are at hiking or canoes or archery … in your mind, you see the bodies lying there, each in its own future. You are frightened because it is you here with the future.
Relinquishing this slightly imperious second-person singular, the novel quickly settles into a third-person voice for telling its several tangent stories—beginning with the family memories of 15-year-old Lenny Swenson and her younger sister, Alma, a few cabins away. One of Phillips's gifts is an ability to build coherent fictions out of a range of voices. Ever since the early stories of Black Tickets (1979) and Fast Lanes (1987), she has been able to write in the idiom of the trailer-park Mama as comfortably as in that of the bookish dreamer. In Shelter, where each chapter amounts to an interior monologue belonging to a different consciousness, her virtuosity is on full display.
The result is a novel that has the quality of an extended eavesdrop. We overhear Lenny telling her friend Catherine (Cap) Briarley about the night she came downstairs late and saw her mother pressed against the kitchen counter by a man who was biting and kissing her. The memory of that sight is enfolded within the memory of her confiding it to Cap a few weeks later, and of Cap's excited emulation as she listens, “grabbing Lenny, lying on her, sucking at her shoulder to make a warm, soft bruise.” Afterward, Lenny remembers, they coiled “together like eels in the wide tub,” then wrapped themselves naked in the old rabbit coats Cap's mother stored in the closet. The skins were torn, the silk linings soiled; Cap would turn the coats inside out and the girls pulled them on like bathrobes. At first the fur was so cool and shivery it made the hairs on Lenny's arms stand up, but it warmed and was so soft she had to rub herself against it.
The groping figure whom Lenny sees in the kitchen “sucking her [mother's] neck, like a vampire” turns out to be the father of Alma's friend Delia Campbell—a man who, parched by his own marriage and shamed by his adultery, kills himself by driving off a bridge. Months later at camp, haunted by the memory of seeing his corpse in its casket, Alma lies on a cot in the dissipating heat of evening, trying to blot out the image of this man who had loved her mother, his cold skin dusted with rouge as he lay in his coffin like “a long stone doll with paints on its face.”
These are the kinds of damaging and irrepressible memories of which Shelter, is composed. The girls spend their nights whispering them aloud in a sort of exorcism-chant, as if searching for “a way to make things that had really happened seem as though they never had.” Seeing their parents' past as a premonitory glimpse of their own future, they try to talk it away. For all of them—Lenny, Cap, Alma, Delia—camp is a chance to screen out the hints of adult anguish that have come filtering through to them in daily life at home. Camp is an exquisite relief—“like being asleep, like a long, long dream. … Time was big here and Alma wanted oceans of it, more and more, so that her past seemed a smaller and smaller island barely discernible as the sailor looks back from the sea.”
As Phillips closes in on the inner lives of these children whose bodies are ripening, she reduces the public world of outward events to a dispensable frame—a decision that gives Shelter a different scale and proportion from that of her sprawling first novel, Machine Dreams (1984). Stretching over decades, Machine Dreams was an expansive book in which multiple perspectives were used to follow a small-town family from the Depression to the Vietnam War. Shelter is a tighter, smaller book, limited to a few voices and a few days; but what it loses in scope, it gains in intensity.
The date of the action—it is summer, 1963—may be inferred from a remark made by the camp directress, Mrs. Thompson-Warner (“you may remember just last fall, when Castro and the Russians were ready to attack us”), in one of the current-events classes that she requires of her girls. As “regional secretary of the Daughters of the American Revolution,” she rants about Khrushchev (that “short, fat, bald man with a swollen hairless face”), calling him “Lucifer in the flesh” and “Beelzebub.” Insisting that “people have to be educated to recognize evil,” she seems to have learned her pedagogical technique—chiefly innuendo—from the likes of Joe McCarthy: “The furnace of the Russian embassy,” she darkly hints, “burns at temperatures hot enough to cremate human bones. …” Despite her efforts to alert them to the world emergency into which they have been born (“Mrs. Thompson-Warner told them numerous stories and facts about Communism; Alma jotted down details that seemed related”), the girls are unmoved. They exist out of time, in a kind of aphrodisiac rain forest where they ramble through “the tall grass flying, [with its] wet, cut smell” and breathe “the warm loamy smell of something old, folded in for eons” arising from the fecund earth.
But if Shelter is an exceptionally sensual book, it is also a study of how sexual need can become coercive and violently destructive. Such is the nature of desire in the fallen world just outside the perimeter of the girls' Eden—where a desperate alcoholic named Carmody shares a shack with his wife and her 8-year-old son, Buddy. Each morning, when she trudges to camp to cook for the girls, he forces Buddy to run ice cubes over his nipples and croon to him “like a girl” while he strokes himself to orgasm. Carmody is a creature of prison, where he was sexually abused and from where he emerges as a half-whimpering, half-snarling brute. He is something of a gothic cliché—evil incarnate—sniffing out the possibilities like an animal awakened by the scent of prey. Phillips builds suspense by teasing us with the horrific possibility that he will get within range of the girls.
While Carmody paces and circles, another ex-con intervenes—an itinerant religious fanatic known only as Parson, who knew Carmody in prison and has become obsessed with him as “a pit the devil had filled.” Having come a long way in search of him, Parson takes a job with the local road crew and sticks close. Like Mrs. Townsend-Warner, he speaks fluently about the devil: Having known it, he spoke of smelling its approach and described the smell, he spoke of the Devil's fragrant oils and the swollen itch of the Devil's hunger, of stanching the flow of the Devil's bloody need, for that need was a mortal wound at the ravaged breast of Jesus, who took no woman and no man and was loved by God. Parson smells evil especially in the spillages of the body—in menstrual flow, in semen—and believes that he “must spill his seed on barren ground, never in the house or in his bed, seduced by pleasure, he must cleanse himself kneeling alone where the earth was hard, or in the cold of the river.” At first he is weirdly compelling in his compulsive need to purify himself, but after a while he starts to sound like a hillbilly cousin of Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, the lunatic general who is obsessed with his bodily fluids.
As these emblematic characters line up along a spectrum of fixed moral meanings, one hears the creaking of allegorical machinery. Carmody is the slithering serpent. Mrs. Townsend-Warner (who sees evil exclusively as an external threat) is prudish self-righteousness. Parson is the embodiment of guilt. Wandering through the woods with a none-too-subtle symbol in his hand (“the snake he held was like a long muscle, its flat head hidden in his fist, its tongue flicking out through his fingers …”), he is obsessed with his own pollution, and feels “most free when he had seen the Devil in some vulnerable guise and subdued him.” His pursuit of Carmody is an act of self-mortification. But it is not quite clear whether he will overcome his own rising desire as he spies the girls swimming, their “breasts … like white apples … not the large breasts men slept in, but breasts men mouthed and tasted, nearly tore with their teeth.”
“I wanted to think about evil,” Phillips has explained about her methods and motives in Shelter, “about whether evil really exists or if it is just a function of damage, the fact that when people are damaged, they damage others.” The trouble with this theory as it works itself out in the novel is that Carmody and Parson are not so much fully conceived persons as they are ambulatory symbols, representations of wounded males who turn savage. It is as if they have wandered in from a Flannery O'Connor story. As exemplars of the “damage” theory of evil—a favorite platitude in our culture—they are not sufficiently compelling.
The other problem with the theory of “damage” is that everyone in Shelter has been hurt in one way or another (Lenny harbors half-conscious memories of her father touching her belly and thighs; Delia sleepwalks as she tries to cope with memories of her father's death), and Phillips is too good a writer to commit herself to any formula by which the consequences of childhood pain can be calculated. How is one to explain why one suffering child grows up demented, reviling the world, while another lives to love and save the innocent? How is one to explain why some people see evil only outside themselves, while others sense it welling up as the “frantic … focus” of their own sexuality—as a kind of carnal solipsism?
In the end, Phillips's novel listens to its own contradictions, and declines to solve its own riddles. As theology, it runs the risk of offering a facile response to the problem of evil; but as fiction it has the tact to refrain from answers while persuading its readers of the mystery of the question.
SOURCE: “K-Mart Realist Goes to Summer Camp,” in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 152, No. 6, February 5, 1995, p. 28.
[In the following review, Brownrigg asserts that Phillips exhibits her talent for presenting the dark side of life in Shelter.]
It was 1982, and the cool girl I knew had a series of books on her shelf—Of Grammatology, the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens,The Bluest Eye, and Jayne Anne Phillips's Black Tickets. These together seemed like tickets to a life as a tough and critical American reader.
When I read Black Tickets, I understood why it had made the cut. Phillips may have been counted among the ranks of the “K-Mart realists” (as Tom Wolfe dubbed that era's writers) because she wasn't doing magic realism and she wasn't trading purely on her age, though she wrote Black Tickets in her twenties. But those extraordinary short fictions—of an edged life in El Paso, of keen adolescent lust, of night roads and rituals—produced in the reader a strange hunger, a restlessness. Black Tickets shocked one out of the milky stupor that so much eighties fiction—even Raymond Carver's brilliant stories—lulled one into, numb in the knowledge that feelings were dull and life duller.
This intensity that powers all of Phillips's work immediately ignites her new novel. “Concede the heat of noon in summer camps,” urges the first line, drawing the reader into the stifling, planned universe that is Camp Shelter, a girl-guide camp, in 1963 West Virginia. Machine Dreams sprawled across the chaotic landscapes of Americans at home and at battle in the second world war and Vietnam. Shelter creates a contained and eerily regimented setting against which other dramas of American violence and loss of innocence can be played out.
By day the girls are a large, bright army, uniformed and kept busy by a severe patriotic widow who in “heritage class” drills them on the evil of communists and the value of American freedom. “Mrs T” wants to instil in the girls a terror of spies and secrecy, and of the Russians, who in their US embassy have a fiery hell-like furnace. For the protagonists of the story—sisters Lenny, 15, and Alma, 11, and their two best friends—the secrets that terrorise them are the mistakes and battles of their left-behind parents: the adultery, suicide, alcoholism and disappointments that have sunk their families into coldness and pain.
By night the girls discover the other secrets of adulthood, sex and death, in the dark, alive woods and waterways around Camp Shelter. Here they meet the boys and men who live or work near the camp—Frank, the lone teenage bugler; the strange elfin boy Buddy, who seems a benign wood-sprite; religious loner Parson, who lives out in a shack and has more than a touch of Boo Radley about him; and Carmody, Buddy's father, a vicious ex-con, who is quite simply the devil.
Phillips's happiest medium has always been darkness, but for the first time in her work she canvasses a specifically girl darkness along with the more masculine darkness of alcohol and prison and violence that she has also marked out in earlier fiction. (Her command over this territory enabled her to be one of the rare women let in to Granta's club of macho writers.) Here in these night passages Phillips's prose gasps to life: “Sometimes there was a point of heat in the back of Lenny's throat, like a hunger. The hunger waited, an old, jagged part of her. Being with Cap reminded Lenny of hunger and noise, of aching.” The sex cries that punctuate the novel like the “silent screams” of the midnight bats seem similarly like night creatures, making a sound “like something maimed and alive”.
In the scheme of this vivid, enclosed world it soon becomes clear that the good and evil will confront each other in some climactic encounter. When the scene arrives, in a pre-established biblical setting at the redemptive waters of Turtle Pond, there is a curious inertness in the meeting, even in its bloody conclusion. The inertness comes from the fact that Angel and Devil characters have arrived early. Carmody is a collection of American ills: he's drunk and mean, he abuses kids and rapes his wife. But the girls have no relation to this evil except to meet it in their night adventures, to suffer the “rite of passage” of its violent vanquishing.
The novel rattles with all its potential meanings, biblical and political; the last section is tagged “November 1963”; that date when, in the common mythology, America permanently lost its innocence. Still, the conclusion of the story is that there are secrets and there are bad men, and if your timing is right a dark angel may save you from them; for a novel of this great scope and depth, this idea somehow does not seem enough.
SOURCE: “To Bury the Violence,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, p. 11.
[In the following review, Schwartz praises Phillips's Shelter and calls the character of Carmody “[t]he one weakness in the book.”]
Jayne Anne Phillips's stunning new novel, Shelter, is a rich blend of sensuous symbolism, lush natural description, and dreamy water imagery that successfully weaves four separate narratives into a single compelling story. Within the secluded world of a West Virginia girls' summer camp, Phillips brilliantly captures the private world of adolescence, the kingdom of nature, and the deep bonds of sisterhood and friendship. Camp Shelter in the summer of 1963 is the setting for five children's loss of innocence and a surprising act of violence. The narrative moves seamlessly between its main characters: 15-years-old Lenny Swenson, a poised and curious adolescent on the brink of maturity; Alma, her pensive, secretive younger sister; Buddy Carmody, a young local boy; and Parson, an otherworldly drifter working near the camp.
The outside world penetrates Camp Shelter only in the thoughts and memories of the characters. To the Swenson sisters, the outside world is a treacherous one: their parents are alternately distant and close—abusively close. The sisters lead very separate lives at home: each allied with a different parent, and keeping their secrets locked deep in their hearts. Yet the sisterly bond is stronger than they realize: when Lenny and other girls are physically threatened by a violent neighbor, she instinctively cries out to Alma to run from the danger.
Protection by sisters and friends is one of the novel's predominant themes. Cap has been Lenny's best friend since they were 10 years old; they are as close as sisters. Jealous Cap even gently scolds Lenny when Lenny reveals that she has dreamed about Alma—not Cap. Twelve-year-old Alma is very protective of her best friend, Delia, since Delia's father recently drowned in a probable suicide. Alma is so watchful of Delia that she sneaks into Delia's bed at night to prevent her from sleepwalking. Despite these close friendships, each sister keeps an important secret: Lenny does not tell Cap of the strange memories of her father that surface along with her growing sexual curiosity, nor does Alma confess to anyone that she knew their mother was having an affair with Delia's father.
In Lenny and Cap's relationship, Phillips frankly depicts the sexual inquisitiveness of adolescence. When the two encounter the camp's male bugler fishing at Turtle Hole, a pivotal nearby pond, their sexual curiosity reaches its peak in an astonishing scene: Lenny and the bugler explore each other while Cap swims in the water, “touching them both, circling round them, her mouth on his neck, his ears, as though she were whispering.” Unbeknownst to them, Parson is watching from his shack and he becomes intrigued by Lenny. Later, they too will feel the magnetic pull of sensuality at the water's edge.
The woods, streams, and mountains in and around Camp Shelter are a strong and immutable presence in the book, and nature ultimately provides the children with the protection they need most. Phillips has an unerring touch in describing natural scenes: one can almost feel the noonday heat and hear the summer rainstorms: “The night is truly dark but awash in shadows even through the rain; there's no moonlight, no lightning, no thunder, only the sky split open, falling down driven and polished.” Phillips uses water imagery to evoke the heavy summer atmosphere of Appalachia, as well as the thoughts and visions of the characters. They often dream of swimming and floating: Parson dreams nightly of a fish-girl and believes he has found her in Lenny.
Buddy and Parson balance the duos of female friends. Quiet, watchful Buddy takes a simple joy in nature and shows an assurance of his place in it: “Now when he was bounding down the mountain, taking the steep grades so fast he didn't have to think where to put his feet, how to grab branches and direct his slide … he flew and the earth fell away beneath him.” He and Parson are linked together by their mutual hatred of Buddy's brutish stepfather, Carmody, home from prison, who gets drunk, forces himself on his wife, and emotionally and sexually abuses Buddy. Parson, Carmody's former prison cellmate, has followed Carmody to West Virginia, believing him to be an evil—“a pit the Devil had filled, a pit to drown whatever touched him”—that must be stopped. Parson's attempts to shield Buddy from Carmody mirror the protective friendships of the girls.
The one weakness in the book is Carmody. He embodies sheer devilry; there is no explanation (other than his briefly described terrible childhood) for what moves him to hurt others in fulfillment of his desires. The simplicity of his baseness stands in stark comparison to the richness of the other characters, and to the book's minute examinations of events and memories. It conveys the idea that evil is simple and unmotivated, an unsophisticated concept that mars the complex moral universe of trust and protection Phillips has created. Carmody's trespasses at Turtle Hole are the fulcrum of the plot; this is too great a load for a shallow character to bear in such a dense, psychological novel.
The climactic event at Turtle Hole, with its shocking violence, brings a welcome emotional catharsis. Phillips meshes watery imagery with her themes of protection from abuse and danger, the bonds of sisterhood and friendship, and the power of nature. The characters come to Turtle Hole for different reasons, but amidst its waters they jointly discover danger, death, and finally, release. The entire book glows with an astounding lyricism and a penetrating wisdom into the world of childhood, a place commonly associated with innocence and trust, but one that is rife with unspoken longing and secret wisdom. Phillips draws a layer of protection around her characters: the shelter of the title becomes real as five children draw together to bury the violence they have unwittingly been drawn into.
“A Window on the Underworld,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 7, April, 1995, p. 5.
[In the following review, Larson discusses the characterization and themes of Phillips's Shelter.]
Machine Dreams, Jayne Anne Phillips' first novel, was one of those books that changed my life. The coming-of-age story of a rural West Virginia girl named Danner, the narrative is interwoven with the stories of Danner's parents and of her brother, who is killed in Vietnam. Perhaps the book struck such a chord in me because I read it at a time when I was just beginning to realize how much the unresolved conflicts of my parents' lives carried over into my own. Or maybe it was Phillips' style: she jumped from first to third person, shifted between the perspectives of the different characters, told much of the story through letters, all with an assurance that took your breath away—especially for a first-time novelist. It could have been her voice: intimate, intelligent and oddly familiar. The immediacy and complexity of the lives Phillips portrayed, the originality and depth of her voice combined to stunning effect. Machine Dreams portrays the dissolution of a family and the beginning of the disillusionment of our country. Published in 1984, it ends on an ominous note during the Vietnam era, poised at the end of our innocence as a nation, at the dawn of our present age.
As soon as I finished Machine Dreams, I read Black Tickets, Phillips' first volume of short stories, published in 1975. When Fast Lanes, her second volume of stories, came out in 1987, I read that too. As with Machine Dreams, the focus of most of Phillips' stories is narrow, the tone is quiet, the subjects are everyday and the action unremarkable. The narrative is riveted firmly in place by Phillips' assiduous attention to detail, by the incisiveness of her description and by her ability to realize a scene fully and on many levels at once—all plainly and directly, with seemingly little effort, as in this passage from “El Paso”:
Sluggish trains changed cars in the hard-baked yard. Beside her on the shingled heat, I smelled her salt skin and she laughed, pulled my face to her throat. We rolled, hot shingles pressed to my back, and later the shower was cold. We drank iced whiskey in jelly glasses and she danced up the hall dripping, throwing water off her hair.
(Black Tickets, p. 87)
The sensuality of the passage is startling. The shingled heat, the sluggish trains, the hard-baked yard evoke the oppressiveness of the poverty in which the characters are living, the drudgery of their jobs and the squalor of their surroundings, as well as the suffocating aspects of their passion for each other. In contrast, the iced whiskey, the cold shower, the water dripping from the woman's body offer such an image of refreshment, of rejuvenation, that we understand why the man returns to her again and again.
In these stories and Phillips' first novel, the action unfolds very much in the visible world. Yet something moves beneath the surface, a motivating force that is inexplicit, unseen, buried. Its presence is discernible only as a shape around which characters move: it is the unnamed force that causes them to leave home, quit jobs, stay drunk, keep moving, drive fast, or watch too much TV. It's a sadness or anxiety or fear that exists as a precondition of the story, part of the characters' makeup, something that happened before the narration opens. Characters experience this condition as an inarticulate feeling, like the first-person narrator of the title story in Fast Lanes who says, “Sometimes it's hard to breathe, like living under blankets. … Hot, but cold too. Shaking.”
This world beneath the known, visible world is sometimes invoked explicitly, as in the story “Rayme,” from Fast Lanes:
All of us were consulting a series of maps bearing no relation to any physical geography, and Rayme was like a telephone to another world. Her messages were syllables from an investigative dream, and her every movement was precise, like those of a driver unerringly steering an automobile by watching the road through the rear-view mirror.
This shadow beneath the action is usually experienced only as feelings and urges—as panics or depressions, the sensation of being lost, the compulsion for movement or sex or oblivion. Generally it is confined to the edges of the story, rarely glimpsed, bleeding through only in the thin places. But with Shelter Phillips enters a whole new realm. She plunges below the surface action, “breaking through” to this other world, which moves from the edges of the story to the very center.
It is a world of violence, primal desire, of evil, transcendence, memory and hunger. It is the world before and after our brief flash of conscious life. By bringing to life this “other side,” by attempting to articulate what has previously only been hinted at, Phillips adds a depth and resonance to the surface action of Shelter that was not as apparent in her other work. The leviathan that has been lurking in the depths suddenly leaps, breaking the surface, exposing its immensity.
Phillips sets the action of her novel at Camp Shelter, a Girl Guides camp in rural Appalachia. Here the natural world acts as a bridge to the world beneath the world: the air palpitates with spirits, the darkness is alive, water is a window to a subterranean realm and the trees, rocks and wind have a voice and memory of their own. Away from their families and the routines and preoccupations of home and town life—the fragile barrier of civilization—the characters begin to catch glimpses of this other world. Memories stir, sexuality kindles, dreams flourish. Without parental authority and protection, things that wouldn't normally happen, do.
The core characters are a pair of adolescent girls, Lenny and Cap, who are best friends, and Lenny's younger sister Alma and her best friend, Delia. The narrative reaches back into the girls' past, into the intertwined lives of their families. Alma has witnessed her mother's affair with Delia's father; in the quiet of Camp Shelter she works and reworks this secret in her mind, mulling over her sense of betrayal and trying to make sense of the lingering impression of her mother's unhappiness. The two older girls are on the threshold of sexual awakening. Their sexual curiosity is the catalyst for much of the plot.
These four girls could have stepped from the pages of Phillips' previous work. Like Danner from Machine Dreams, Lenny and Alma are the children of a troubled marriage, living in a small town in West Virginia. Their thoughts and preoccupations are similar, their inner narrative sounds much the same. But with eight-year-old Buddy Carmody and the evangelist ex-con called Parson, Phillips brings to life a type of character she has never created before and takes her work to another level. These two give the novel its force; they bring to it an atmosphere of spiritual turmoil and apocalyptic urgency.
Buddy is the son of Hilda, the camp cook, a woman of massive and imposing physical presence who is a memorable character in her own right. The power of her body and the goodness of her personality and her love for Buddy are so strong that she emanates a force field of comfort, safety and order, one that—unfortunately for Buddy—extends only a few yards from her person.
Outside it, the world is a dangerous place. Survival is dependent on a combination of animal cunning, strict adherence to a system of ritualized behavior, magic spells and protective amulets, and a state of constant watchfulness.
The great danger is from Buddy's stepfather, Carmody. Released from prison, he returns to terrorize Buddy and Hilda. Sadistic and lascivious, the product of a childhood of violence and cruelty, Carmody is an incarnation of evil: “What was in him roared like a cyclone, a hurricane; it was the sound that ate Carmody and turned him loose. … What raged inside him was a thing, a possession.” Buddy is Carmody's prey; while his mother works at the camp during the day, Buddy must use everything in his power to evade Carmody's menace. He lives by his wits, on the edge of survival, in constant fear. The forest is his sanctuary; he is one of its creatures.
The climactic scene of the novel comes when Carmody unleashes his fury, his lust, on Lenny. Buddy and the four girls' response to this violence brings about the resolution of the story, is at the heart of the transformation of their lives. This exposure to the evil that exists both within and without, that no adult can protect them from, and the knowledge that beneath the life of home and family this other world exists—always threatening to break through—is the loss of innocence the children experience. “The world would not be as it was,” Lenny thinks. “She saw that there was no world but this one now, full blown and dense with shifting air; they were born into it, mourning.”
The crowning achievement of Shelter is Phillips' creation of Parson, an orphan, ex-con and evangelical preacher who is in constant communication with the world of spirits and demons, who could just as easily be a mass murderer or an angel. Parson's fundamentalism is the only language big enough to address the powers of the unknown that torment him; his incantations are a way of keeping those spirits at bay. The forces of evil are alive to him, palpable in the material world:
Now Parson could hear the Devil walk near the shack at night, stalking spirits in the vaporous air. The devil made a scrunching sound in the grasses and leaves and loose dirt, a sound like a creature with tiny feet, and there was the airy, slick whish of the Devil's probing tongue, tasting and wanting, just on the other side of the thin board wall.
Parson's cellmate was Carmody; his destiny is to follow him, to play his part in the drama that unfolds. He comes to the camp as a laborer; he lives in a chicken coop near Turtle Hole, the spiritual center of the book, the “eye” to the world below. Lenny is sexually drawn to him; he and Buddy are linked, both spiritually and materially, for Parson acts as Buddy's protector from Carmody. He is both menacing and pure; this ambiguity is part of what gives him such stature as a character.
Some hint of Faulkner permeates the book. Carmody and Popeye; Shelter and Sanctuary; with the dark complexion that always marks him as Other, his abandonment as an infant by his mother and childhood abuse by a fire-and-brimstone foster-father, Parson is the literary descendent of Light in August's Joe Christmas. In the snatches of past dimly remembered, in Parson's return, again and again, to images whose meaning—as it becomes clearer—illuminates the novel as a whole, there is the same kind of method, a widening of the narrative in concentric circles to envelope more and more, to move the story forward in a line that spirals, doubling over on itself. (Phillips used this technique in Machine Dreams, handing off the narrative from character to character, retelling the same scene from different perspectives.) This slow unfolding is especially powerful in the pivotal scene, where the reader has the sensation of watching the cataclysm take place in a series of slow-motion instant replays, each photographed from a different angle.
“It's strange what you don't forget,” Machine Dreams begins. The epilogue of that novel, whose last image is of two children disappearing into the forest, sounds the beginning notes of Shelter. What we don't forget, what we struggle to remember, what we strain to hear in the brief silences that occur when ordinary life is momentarily suspended, are the forces that drive our lives and power our emotions. Shelter: the title is both straightforward and ironic. What's out there? Phillips asks. Where and what is our protection?
SOURCE: “Carry on Camping,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 7, April 6, 1995, p. 24.
[In the following review, Hawthorne provides a negative assessment of Phillips's Shelter, complaining about what she sees as a lack of logic and psychological development.]
Jayne Anne Phillips's first novel of more than a decade ago, Machine Dreams, reconstructed the history of three generations of a single middle-class, small-town American family over the course of some fifty years. From the perspective, by turns, of parents and children, she contemplated the complexities and banalities of relations among family members against the political background of the time, focusing on the far-ranging effects that were brought to bear by the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The book's scope was seemingly broad, but it was Phillips's rendering of ordinariness that made it resonate. The locale might have been virtually any small town in America, for she recalled the universals of American culture—especially those of the Sixties—with such accuracy that any reader who, like the author herself, had come of age then was bound to find his own childhood returning to him in electric shocks of memory. It was her eye that conjured up the past contained so mysteriously in objects: the gloomy paraphernalia of military service locked away in a water-stained trunk in the attic; the parade float fashioned out of chicken wire and crepe paper inching along a Main Street strewn with candy; the high horizontal windows of a ranch-house bedroom.
In Shelter, her second novel, Phillips returns to the region of Machine Dreams—West Virginia, where she was born and grew up. But the book is almost the inverse of her earlier novel: the setting is a timeless, primal wilderness; the period in which the principal events take place is one of days—during the sweltering heat of midsummer 1963; and, rather than a melancholy chronicle of foreclosure on the American Dream, it's an indictment of its very foundations, which, here, are rotten to the core. The woods of Shelter County are a dripping impasto of dense vegetation, weathered bones, insects, snakes, damp caves and erotic watering holes, in the centre of which stands, like the castle of Sleeping Beauty, Camp Shelter, a down-at-heel sleep-away for adolescent and pre-adolescent Girl Guides from counties throughout the state: ‘The stone pillars of the camp entrance were dark shapes all grown over with vines. Honeysuckle licked up and down their height, countless sprays of blossoms emerging luminously ivory and gold against the dark, stacked rocks. The camp was all hidden … some drunk going along at night, a drunk at night, a drunk in a car, might not even find it.’
In this paradise, as in every other, trouble lurks. From the novel's opening epigraphs—Rilke (‘Every angel is terrifying’) and Revelation (‘And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil … and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit’)—we suspect that apocalyptic events will soon be visited upon it. Phillips confirms these suspicions, but the book's sensational climax, which comes in a chapter not very subtly entitled ‘Dark Parable’, is achieved only by painstaking effort on the reader's part. Once again, the action is seen through the eyes of its central characters: those of a pair of sisters ensconced at the camp, Lenny, who is 15, and Alma, who is 12; of Buddy, the eight-year-old son of the camp's cook; and of Parson, an escaped convict and crazed fundamentalist who is skulking in the woods. Like Margaret Atwood, in her story ‘Death by Landscape’, in which an adolescent camper inexplicably vanishes on a canoe trip, Phillips is quick to exploit the menacing sexual subtext that children in the forest have evoked since Perrault and Grimm. In Shelter, though, the interchange of perspectives is meant not only to underscore the subjective nature of experience but also to serve as a system of checks and balances: as the ‘reality’ of events becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain, the reader looks to corroborating testimony. We learn that the characters' minds are consumed as much by the past as by the present. Sometimes memory is stirred by dreams, but most often it comes in loops of flashback, triggered by the idle, random associations of an ever-babbling subconscious. The result is sometimes maddening in its indirection and digression: the characters' back-and-forth juggling of past and present convincingly simulates the mind idling in neutral, lazily blurring distinctions between fact and fantasy; but it also disrupts the flow of the central plot, which flirts at least with suspense.
In sisterly fashion, Lenny and Alma in the main stay clear of each other, wholly absorbed in their own worlds, while being cemented in each others' consciousnesses. They are paired not with each other but, instead, with their respective best friends, Cap and Delia. Lenny and Cap, seniors, are camping in a tent pitched at the top of a hill, separated from the cabins below, where the younger children reside. In the evenings after campfire supper, they shed their scratchy clothes and lounge about languidly in the tent, smoking contraband cigarettes, sparring and nuzzling like young cats. One night, having sneaked away from the camp for a swim in nearby Turtle Hole, they encounter Frank, the camp's bugler and resident love object, fishing by moonlight, and a highly charged sexual encounter between the three of them ensues; it is Lenny's first sexual experience.
By contrast, Alma and Delia's days are taken up with the drearier pursuits of hobby hour and clean-up, and the brain-washing of Heritage Class. The camp is a place of safety and convention, emblematic of the social order and the American Way of Life, surrounded by the larger danger of the woods, traditionally infested with marginal, sinister types—mountain men, brigands, trolls—and sometimes their hostages. (‘The forest is all around us and we're like a country inside it,’ Alma writes, preparing a speech about freedom.) The camp is presided over by an utterly clichéd and misplaced directress who is also obsessed with evil; but rather than the evil born of Scriptural transgression or the potential evil shadowed by the woods, the evil that consumes her is that of Communism. (‘Certain Americans have vanished without a trace!’ she tells the girls. ‘For instance, there is an open runway … in Washington, DC, where Russian planes take off and land with no official clearance. No one knows who comes and goes on those planes … Some disturbing facts remain secrets.’) As it happens, Delia's father has recently vanished, in a suicide by drowning earlier that spring, and both girls are struggling to cope with the trauma of this sudden, inexplicable loss.
For the sisters, home is a kind of netherworld to which their thoughts, like Persephone, are sentenced forever to return. Paradoxically, their physical remove from the stuff of their daily lives has had the effect of pushing memory more insistently to the surface. Their minds are besieged by uninvited voices and visions, and like the woods themselves, the fragmented stories they tell are rife with secrets. What these stories reveal comes as no surprise—there is no such thing as a happy family. The sisters' recollections piece together the story of the troubled marriage of their parents, who have been emotionally estranged for years. Their father, Wes, is a brooding, silent man with a drinking problem. He disappears for days at a time, and when at home he's a stranger in self-imposed exile on the porch at night, darkly nursing a beer. Their mother, Audrey, is a tiresome, self-satisfied woman, painfully aware of her entrapment in a life of waste and emptiness; her pettiness and appalling selfishness are rooted in the kind of simple slow-death boredom in which a complex bitterness happily thrives. (She's the classic—or, again, clichéd—example of the woman who wakes up one morning and discovers she has a husband and two children and no clue as to who she is.)
Cap and Delia fare no better: Cap plays the part of poor little rich girl, the offspring of divorced, emotionally indifferent parents whose mutual loathing does not preclude their using her to torment one another. Delia also is the daughter of an ill-fated match: her father was a man of relative wealth and good name, who was disowned for acting ‘honourably’—that is, for marrying a woman, beneath him socially, whom he'd made pregnant. By comparison with Delia's mother, an alcoholic whose stints in rehab have eaten up the family's meagre residual resources, Audrey seems at first to represent a model of responsible parenting. But then we learn that, unconscionably and rather unbelievably, she has confided in Alma the facts of her affair with Delia's father, and, worse, forced her to act as decoy for their trysts in a neighbouring town. At camp, Alma's preoccupations centre on the terrible weight of her secret and the agonising guilt she feels about the death of Delia's father. She finds herself furiously puzzling over what she doesn't yet have the wherewithal to understand, all the while longing for escape—and vengeance:
Nickel Campbell had died because he drove off the bridge. Alma knew the facts, but it seemed to her that Audrey was guilty. Well, Audrey had always been guilty (seemed like always) but the guilt was secret. Now the secret was bigger, deeper. And a secret had to be paid for. Delia was angry, angry at everyone and everything but Alma. Alma wanted to feel the anger rain down on her, wanted a series of screams that opened out until the earth shook … cries that were empty like the wind is empty, a voiceless keening that would let Alma go, let her betray her mother.
Lenny's preoccupations centre on the seemingly simpler and more cheerful issue of her awakening sexuality. But this stirs up murky memories of scenes that hint at childhood molestation by her father (the author insists on ambiguity on this point).
Buddy meanwhile flits to and fro like the woodland sprite he is meant to resemble. He can't read and doesn't know how to tie his shoes, but he's a savant of the forest, as attentive to its subtlest nuances as any resident creature and meant to be just as adorable. During the day, while the girls are occupied with their chores, he looks through their belongings with the delicate attention of a raccoon combing the trash. For the past several years, he and his mother, Hilda, have lived a life of improbably cheerful poverty, making their home in a shanty in the woods outlying the camp. Their idyll, however, has been destroyed by the arrival of Hilda's husband, Carmody, recently released from prison. Buddy calls him ‘Dad’, though he is not his father. Dad is a truly terrifying presence, as twisted and cruel as Hilda is loving and kind, and their relationship requires a sustained suspension of disbelief. Carmody's sexual terrorising of Buddy—which Buddy for some reason refuses to confide to Hilda and which she seems either oblivious of or unwilling to confront—begins almost immediately. Just before Dad forces Buddy's participation in a bizarre act of masturbation, he tosses back a glass of vodka and, observing the child, says: ‘Chugalug.’
Parson is also new to the forest community, having walked away from a prison work crew to go in search of Carmody, his former cellmate. When his mind is not swirling with hallucinatory visions of snakes and fish, he remembers the sad story of his own upbringing. His, too, is a deeply depressing history, characterised by abandonment, sexual abuse and psychological manipulation on the part of a hypocritical preacher who has nevertheless introduced him to the only form of power he's ever known—the power that comes from preaching the Word. He is a man tempered by the heat of fire and brimstone; to him, Carmody is the devil incarnate. He may recognise that the devil is ‘a fallen child, too hungry to eat, starving, ravenous, alone so long he didn't remember who'd first cast him out’ but it is his mission to exterminate him. Unbeknownst to Carmody, Parson is biding his time in the woods, lying in wait for an opportunity to pounce.
Shelter, it becomes clear after a while, is in fact about everyone's deepest need of precisely that—shelter from rain and storm and from the madness and ugliness of the world—and, of course, about everyone's compromised success at finding it. Parson and Carmody reside at the far end of the spectrum of adult betrayal. Buddy's fate hangs in the balance; the horrible possibility that Carmody may succeed in laying waste Buddy's already damaged innocence creates the story's tension.
Buddy's future is resolved in a scene involving the murder of Carmody and the subsequent secret disposal of his body. You've patiently turned the pages in anticipation of this moment, but when it finally comes your disbelief refuses to suspend itself a moment longer. The novel as a whole is suffused with an unsatisfying sense of illogic—similar, in some respects, to the narrative illogic of the Bible, or of a dream. The scenes in which these extraordinary events take place are certainly memorable, but there is nothing emotionally candid or even truly interesting about them beyond sheer sensation. What they teach the survivors, if anything, is anyone's guess, since this is where the book essentially ends. Phillips lavishes attention on what her characters see and sense, but provides very little in the way of a psychological dimension. Parson is the most convincing character, but only because he doesn't live in the real world. In Shelter, Phillips's talent for visual description gives way to a perversely unselective describing of everything, and to vexing contortions of syntax as well; words gallop away like a horse without a rider. But far more disturbing is the author's implicit approval of the children's vigilantism. Their rejection of the laws of the adult world is meant to be heroic. In a cloying epilogue, six months after the cataclysm, we find Buddy's idyllic kingdom restored to him and Hilda meanwhile wondering absently what became of her husband. The cycle of abuse has at last been broken, but you end up feeling fairly sick about it.
Additional coverage of Phillips's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 50; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 80; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 4; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 16.