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Phillips, Jayne Anne 1952–

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Phillips is an American short story writer and poet. Her first major collection of short stories, Black Tickets, has received much critical attention.

Mary Peterson

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There are 27 stories in Black Tickets; sixteen are very short, a page and half or less. These short pieces are interesting and flashy, sometimes overwrought and sometimes successful. Altogether, they don't satisfy as much as the longer stories in this collection. Any of them might be marvelous read aloud: already strong in voice, compressed in language, their associations would become richer with pauses and inflection. The best of them ("Stripper," "Cheers," "Slave," "Solo Dance") have a sense of being spoken wholly all in one breath, and have a feeling of desperate necessity….

The longer stories show more range, take bigger risks, and mostly succeed at what they try. The best have at their center a young woman who makes contact, or misses it, with one of her parents….

The strength in these stories is that even narrative gives way to necessity: honesty gets more time than forced technique; language is simple and essential, not flashy; and even the hard truth, the cruel one, gets telling. So, incidentally, does the absurd one…. "Home" is one of the best stories. It goes somewhere deep into a thing between two people, and touches the mystery of the sad ways we can not, ever, be together….

I like "Gemcrack" the least of the stories—not because it fails in technique (it doesn't), or in language (the writing is feverish, obsessive), but because something recoils at putting poetry in [the mind and voice of a mass murderer]. There's something obscene to it, even when the poetry suggests—as it does here—a larger social sickness, a killing alienation.

The stories are not cheerful.

Not cheerful, but worthy. Even, sometimes, tender. They refuse sentimentality. They work in voice, poetry, dream logic…. This is a prose of accident and image that is often exactly suited to its subject. It's no surprise to learn that Phillips wrote poetry before she wrote prose. (p. 77)

The stories about families are the best ones in this book, if only perhaps because connection and need between people tied by blood might go deeper, and resonate more, than fevered monologues, and might drive home harsher than a bullet. But there are many things in this book: inventiveness, risk-taking, range, language that at its best sticks to the essential and doesn't waste time. Black Tickets is an impressive collection. (pp. 77-8)

Mary Peterson, "Earned Praise," in The North American Review (reprinted by permission from The North American Review; copyright © 1979 by the University of Northern Iowa), Vol. 264, No. 4, Winter, 1979, pp. 77-8.

Jeffrey Burke

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[Three] of the stories in Black Tickets, are perceptive renderings of subdued middle-class problems in suburban settings—conflicts between generations…. Several others represent good period or regional pieces (time: 1934; place: Anytown, Down South). Most of the balance are scraped from the urban underbelly: pimps, hookers, junkies, murderers, loners, losers, many of them young, in brittle episodes of despair and violence and sex. The writing, streetwise and staccato, hustles along from one startling image to the next. The shock effect wears thin quickly, and these stories reduce to masochistic exercises in negative capability—raising an effective barrier of mannered ugliness to screen or challenge her audience….

To expect consistency in a collection of one author's work is not unreasonable, but Black Tickets strikes me as an intentional display of range and virtuosity, from which one takes the good with the unlikable and, filing away the author's name for future reference, guards against faint praise. (p. 100)

Jeffrey Burke, "Ineffable Pleasures," in Harper's (copyright © 1979 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the September, 1979 issue by special permission), Vol. 259, No. 1552, September, 1979, pp. 99-100.∗

John Irving

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Of the almost 30 short fictions collected [in "Black Tickets"], there are about 10 beauties and 10 that are perfectly satisfying, and then there are 10 ditties—some of them, single paragraphs—that are so small, isolated and mere exercises in "good writing" that they detract from the way the best of this book glows. Jayne Anne Phillips is a wonderful young writer, concerned with every sentence and seemingly always operating out of instincts that are visceral and true—perceived and observed originally, not imitated or fashionably learned. Yet the occasional reminder of what total praise she must have received in any creative-writing class hurts her; this fine book is punctuated with tiny voiceprints, little oddities too precious to the author—or, perhaps, to her memory of their praise—to be thrown away….

Like many writers with natural reflexes for an important scene and schooled in paying loving attention to prose, Jayne Anne Phillips is at her best when she tells the biggest story she can imagine, and "Black Tickets" tells at least a dozen big ones. When her characters and their stories matter most to us, and to Miss Phillips, she stops writing every sentence with quite such self-conscious verve, she trusts in her own good gift for words and doesn't permit her language to swamp the clarity of the tale she's telling; she doesn't obscure her characters with virtuoso displays of "voice" and other exercises of the craft.

In the opening story the narrator says of her mother: "Her heart makes a sound that no one hears. The sound says each fetus floats, an island in the womb"; the absolutely focused affection for the characters in this story (called "Wedding Pictures") makes Miss Phillips's extraordinary language not call attention to itself but just exist, naturally, enhancing the lushness of the scene….

She also shows us the good instinct to tell stories in which something that matters takes place. In a classic getting-caught story, called "Home," a young woman's mother overhears her daughter's lovemaking…. And in a piece called "Lechery," the narrator is a young prostitute who tells us how she picks up little boys…. It is a story full of more than astonishing eroticism; it explores those early, innocent sensations of lust—a titillation that can turn into something awful. It is a marvelous, dark story, where the shock of something sordid sometimes lurks at the end of desire; although we already know that, or should, Miss Phillips catches us by surprise.

She is especially effective with sex and drugs—and with the madness that can blossom from sex and from drugs. The title story is a long eulogy to someone destroyed in a drug-dealing life. (p. 13)

Occasionally, Miss Phillips seems too conscious of being gross, as if too much of her intent is to shock us into noticing her writing itself…. But her stronger stories can contain the grotesqueries of life; in fact, her strongest writing makes the grotesque tragically real and necessary, and never purely eye-catching or sensational.

Even when she fails, Miss Phillips is admirably ambitious; most good writers are overwriters at heart, particularly when they're young. Miss Phillips also cares a lot about her characters…. My favorite is a story of voices called "El Paso"—a combination of Woolfian monologue and the grittiness of unrequited love found in Country and Western music (the story has all the characters and sounds of an encyclopedic album called "Best of Nashville"). (pp. 13, 28)

I hope Miss Phillips is writing a novel because she seems at her deepest and broadest when she sustains a narrative, manipulates a plot, develops characters through more than one phase of their life or their behavior. I believe she would shine in a novel.

Miss Phillips shines brightly enough in this collection to interest me in whatever she might write next, and I don't want to suggest that all of her smaller pieces are "ditties." In one called "Slave" she offers men and women a vision of orgasm that is so sympathetic to the differences in our sexes that we should read the book for it alone. It might make us think less of conquering each other and more of caring for each other. (p. 28)

John Irving, "Stories with Voiceprints," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1979, pp. 13, 28.

Doris Grumbach

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[Black Tickets] bursts with original visions and primal energy….

[Jayne Anne Phillips's] stories about the old wring one's heart and illumine one's blindness toward the young, the afflicted, the dying, the unloved….

[These] are extraordinarily powerful stories. The first in the collection, "Home," brought the mother-and-daughter stories of Flannery O'Connor to mind. It is written in what might be called, in another art, plain chant; its prose rhythms are perfectly suited to the delicate balance of guilt, resentment, and love that exist between a mother and her grown daughter….

The story ends in a still picture, a photograph, the kind Phillips likes because it catches in one unsuspecting moment the essence of an entire event, even a lifetime. She includes in Black Tickets a number of these short, quick takes—vignettes that remind us of a camera that can take only one of the many possible pictures to record a person or persons, their lives or a moment in them. I think these are less successful than her longer stories because they allow her to indulge a certain fondness for ornate writing, which works less well than her stronger, more precise and simple rhetoric.

As I look over this book once more, I have the feeling that there is too much here, too much insight, too much unusual compassion for those who are lonely and cut away from human sympathy, especially those in the same family who are bound by parental ties, to be used up by a first book. I am more than willing to believe that with the publication of Black Tickets we have something to celebrate—and a writer to watch closely. (p. 9)

Doris Grumbach, "Stories Caged in Glass," in Books & Arts (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), Vol. 1, No. 6, November 23, 1979, pp. 8-9.∗

Daphne Merkin

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

Jayne Ann Phillips' volume of short stories, Black Tickets … comes garlanded with quotes about its author's "early genius" and its "crooked beauty."… Perhaps if I had not been expecting so much I would not have felt so grievously let down by this reputed éminence jeune. With one or two exceptions, I find these stories to be artsy, derivative and unconvincing. There are many portraits of those who walk on the wild side—strippers, hookers, pimps, nymphomaniacs, drug-dealers, and the generally crazy. Phillips recounts their stories with a studied, infinitely irritating mixture of street language and blowzy writing-class prose….

Sometimes she sounds like Gertrude Stein: "It was spring it was raining it was the ambulance almost pretty in the dark." ("Snow") Another story begins like a parody of any one of a number of Southern Gothic writers: "In 1934 I was seven years old. Bellington, Virginia, was a Depression town. My mother was twenty-eight, my father fifty, my grandmother sixty-two. We lived in a big falling house in the center of town; but in those days, forty years ago, even town people had some land, barns in back. We had cows, some chickens. If it weren't for them we'd have starved because my father was crazy." ("1934") Many physical details seem to be conjured up merely to provide an opportunity for pretty fussing: "They all had moles near their lips, dark little pigments ignored and sexual. The dark spots rose like tiny scarabs on their faces." ("Gemcrack")

Most of the metaphors lack what William Gass once called "figurative commitment." They simply and baldly call attention to themselves…. Someone should tell Jayne Anne Phillips to strain less for "crooked beauty" and write more stories about family life and other bourgeois tribulations, such as "Home" and "The Heavenly Animal," where the voice is direct and pure and the subject is her own. (p. 19)

Daphne Merkin, "Mastering the Short Story," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 23, December 3, 1979, pp. 18-19.∗

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