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.”