Jayne Anne Phillips Phillips, Jayne Anne (Vol. 139) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Ann Hulbert (review date 24 December 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2822 words.)

David Edelstein (essay date December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4394 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 19 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 934 words.)

Marianne Wiggins (review date 11–17 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Ahdaf Someif (review date 1 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Susanne Carter (essay date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

Maya Koreneva (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5949 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 4 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1224 words.)

Deb Schwartz (review date 14 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2161 words.)

Andrew Delbanco (review date 26 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)

Sylvia Brownrigg (review date 5 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Miranda Schwartz (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 996 words.)

Leslie Larson (essay date April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

“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...

(The entire section is 2004 words.)

Mary Hawthorne (review date 6 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2428 words.)