view_column Jayne Anne Phillips Rocks: A Reader’s Retrospective

by Debra Monroe

Published in Issue No. 149 ~ October, 2009

I grew up in the wilds of northern Wisconsin, wanting to be a writer, but who would be my models? It would be years before I’d hear about A Room of One’s Own, or read the interview with Alice Munro in which she says that women of her generation were raised to prioritize clean baseboards, not well-crafted paragraphs, and so it was hard to justify time to write. Meanwhile, I read fiction, all the childhood staples, Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Lovelace; every adult novel that passed through our house, usually in the Reader’s Digest Condensed version; world folk tales, because a set came with our Encyclopedia Britannica; and bestsellers from yesteryear with titles like The Sunlit Ambush or Motorcar Marriage. But I assumed I was a poet, though I hadn’t read much poetry besides the schoolbook classic Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” which seemed like a Johnny Cash ballad to me. I thought I was a poet because of rock and roll, those vinyl albums with copious liner notes that painstakingly recorded every lyric. I’d developed what Roland Barthes called “sacred relish” for the conjoining of otherwise familiar words into a new adjacency, each word trailing into the new context its past connotations and–if the linkage is inspired–creating paradoxical new meaning. Example from Jefferson Airplane: “The summer had inhaled and held its breath too long.” A long summer is familiar, of course. A held breath is. But the torpid ennui of endless summer as unsustainable as not breathing, endless summer made to seem like a toke held onto for maximum potency and then turned stale, is both deeply familiar and startlingly fresh. And the entire image-pair is neither about breath nor summer but bereavement and longing. Words joined in these surprising but meaningful ways –forging together the alien and separating the familiar, as Nietzsche once said–thrilled me.

I confessed my desire to write poetry to two women maybe twelve years older than me, one educated at Vassar, the other at Smith; they lived on a commune outside of town. They asked who I’d been reading. I stuttered, no answer. They prescribed Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I went to college and read Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, all the confessional poets, John Donne and Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder too. I loved these poets, but the subject matter belonged to another era. And when I wanted to lose myself in reading, binge reading, lying on a sofa and blocking out the world, I read fiction. This was an excursion into history too. Though Jefferson Airplane was long gone, punk rock emergent, we were taught On the Road and Catcher in the Rye as contemporary. Recent women writers? This was a provincial college, and we stuck to the Norton Anthology: Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. So I remember the exact moment I stumbled across the 1979 Newsweek article about Jayne Anne Phillips. She was twenty-six. (I was twenty.) She’d published Black Tickets, a book of fiction that contains twenty-seven stories, nine of which would be considered traditional in terms of length and structure. The remaining eighteen are what we call short shorts–incantatory, image-driven prose which implies (though doesn’t describe) events that have led to this dramatic culmination. They’re short short, and they’re stories: a protagonist’s distinct impression, action that’s already arisen, a point of no return. Jayne Anne Phillips’ stories were as engrossing as fiction and as hypnotic as poetry or, given the subject matter, rock lyrics.

A decade later, I was teaching a writing class, and a student asked: what, besides length, is the difference between a short short and a traditional story? This was the 1980s, MTV’s first epoch. I said short shorts are to traditional stories what MTV videos are to feature-length movies. A short short, like a rock video, is obliged to deliver style: heart-stoppingly deft jump-cuts, undisguised contrasts and concords, startling incongruities that force us to re-see the familiar from a new perspective. Very short stories had been around before Black Tickets–e.g. Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” But, to my knowledge, what we call short shorts, or flash fiction, didn’t exist before Black Tickets: prose in which sheer lyrical force, intoxication-by-language, compensates for the lack of time in which to emotionally invest the way we do when we read longer stories, time to inhabit a character and vicariously undergo “development,” or plot.

It seems to me that short shorts–prose that depicts consciousness during crisis, not action leading up to crisis–had so far appeared only in Hemingway’s In Our Time, as fleeting shell-shocked moments set off in italics to emphasize their status as not-quite-stories. In Hemingway’s book, they serve as interstices between traditional stories. But Jayne Anne Phillips’ book reversed the ratio: long stories are punctuation scattered among the short shorts; short shorts are not the punctuation scattered among long stories. Their conspicuous style–in which the reader experiences the image with its familiar connotations and contexts violated by the image’s proximity to an image with antithetical connotations–is palpable, almost tactile. At the time the book was published, the Chicago Sun-Times called her prose “the monologue of a rapt seer, random bits of the world fused together.” Frederick Busch called her “part witch, all poet.” Even in the book’s long stories, this style is present, though in the long stories the striking image-pairs occur at a less rapid pace. They nevertheless force us to a new perception of the otherwise quotidian world, a new angle on objects or ideas to which we have become so inured we barely note them anymore. Walter Cronkite, usually staid and authoritarian, is suddenly maudlin-seeming and “done for.” Muted voices sound like “infinite shades of silver.”

So Jayne Anne Phillips inspired me, and a generation of women my age, because she pushed the boundaries of form. She changed fiction the way Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot changed late-Victorian poetry into modern–she made it jarringly opulent, simultaneously lush yet abrupt. She reminded us that figures of speech are best when they’re new-minted, not recirculated. Her fiction also inspired women my age because of her themes: her characters and their predicaments. Her stories were the first I’d read in which some characters seemed like people I knew. I also remember feeling enamored, or at least affirmed, when I saw the photograph of her that appeared in Newsweek–with shoulder-length hair and an intensely thoughtful face, she wore a black leotard and faded jeans. I was probably wearing a black leotard and faded jeans as I read the magazine. It was my uniform then. As I pored over the article, I felt the parameters of my ambition shift.

I bought perhaps a half-dozen copies of the book–one at a time. I’d order it from a bookstore called The Absent-Minded Professor, read it, rave about it, lend it to friends, and soon we were all as enthralled with Jayne Anne Phillips as we were with Bonnie Raitt or Rickie Lee Jones. When I loaned the book out, I never got it back because friends begged to keep it another week, to reread, revel, ponder. So I’d order another copy. Most of my friends weren’t English majors, and they didn’t want to explicate it. It started us talking about life. We, like characters Jayne Anne Phillips described, knew the world was risky, but we didn’t want to settle for the only shelter we’d been raised to think was available. We were too old to count on parents, too restless to want husbands taking on the quasi-parental role our mothers’ husbands had. A dyed-in-the-wool English major and fledgling writer, I tried to steer the conversation back to technique, exactly how Jayne Anne Phillips had achieved this fusion of form (the disquieting collision of image-pairs) and content (the disquieting collision of our parents’ value system against our own). But my friends, social work or music or art majors, didn’t want to talk about technique. They wanted to tumble out of the stories and back into life. This is what a good book does: it forces readers to explore latent knowledge. My friends didn’t need to turn the book inside out, put it under a magnifying glass, say how.

I did. I noted the way her technique creates content. Her themes–a schismatic divide between this particular generation of mothers and daughters; the daughters’ fluctuating desire to escape middle-class safety, and their rebounding fear once life outside the edges of respectability turns too harrowing–are inexpressible by any other means.

As I studied her characters, I noticed two recurring types.

On the one hand, she wrote about protected young women battering against the edges of shelter because shelter felt like a trap. These protagonists weren’t feminists; they were born a few years too late for that. But they reaped the rewards of the feminist vanguard a generation before and explored avenues unavailable to their mothers. So they butted up against compromises their mothers had made to feel accepted, normal. Their mothers had married men who didn’t turn out to be the suave breadwinners outlined by the every-woman’s-dream-come-true template. Their mothers depended on rules and devices to mete out life’s disappointment in palatable measure: kitchen scales, the USDA food pyramid, household hints (every curtain must hang straight on its rod so at night the lit house will look plumb and solid), and conventional wisdom (don’t give milk away for free or no one will ever buy the cow). This is a specific cross-section of the middle-class: a low rung. To be just barely and recently middle-class is to understand that social protocols separating you and your offspring from the social class just below are not trivial.

The depiction of the generational divide between mothers and daughters was also specific to an era. Mothers telling daughters not to have sex, meanwhile quizzing daughters about the gritty how-to. Mothers telling daughters to marry and settle down when–if daughters looked to the mothers’ life to see if this was a good goal–the mothers seemed to have settled, yes, and down. The daughters Jayne Anne Phillips described were raised by unhappy housewives, but the mass media, and legions of women a few years older who’d marched in the streets, told these daughters they didn’t have to be unhappy housewives. This was my generation. Yet finding our own way, postponing marriage and children as we set our sights on personal goals, was a new plan; no one knew anyone who’d spent more than a few years questing after this new model of fulfillment. Our mothers feared “liberation” was a fad, that our futures would be filled with regret; our mothers envied us our freedom. As daughters, we were protected and warned, and we were also urged on. As we stepped outside a definition of womanhood that had promised our mothers much and delivered little, we carried with us their unmet desires.

The other character Jayne Anne Phillips specialized in was congenitally unsheltered: born that way. A sixteen-year-old “talked of her thin brown mother leaving those mines her pap worked…[who] finally whored out of Baltimore hotels, the kids waiting outside on the stoop.” When the mother dies and the daughter is sent back to coal country, her safety depends on the hope that haphazard men who find her sexually attractive will turn out to be kind. Or a young girl who’s survived a series of foster homes and initiates sexual contact with strangers–this way, she’s in control. The story ends with a flashback: a standard-issue louche of a foster father playing games at a carnival wins a doll dressed as a bride. The narrator lights it on fire and watches it melt into a twisted lump. Or this fifteen-year-old, whose cousin teaches her to strip, instructing: “Don’t paint your face till you have to, every daddy wants his daughter.” As she earns her living dancing in clubs, she creates a sense of security by closing her eyes and pretending she’s dancing in “Pop’s closet. His suits hanging faceless on the racks with their big wooly arms empty.” There’s a pervasive sexual menace in all the stories: it’s a fuck-or-be-fucked universe. There’s also incest and pedophila, sometimes spelled out, sometimes insinuated, as in this dream about a dead father: “He smells of sour musk, and his forearms are black with hair…. Cover yourself, I tell him. I can’t, he says, I’m hard.”

When I was twenty, I identified with the first characters, the ones who found their mothers’ lives claustrophobic, and, in an unexamined way, I admired the second set of characters, the strays and outcasts. But thirty years later, the second set of characters strikes me as air-brushed. Some are edgy variations on the whore with a golden heart prototype. They’re extraordinarily serene–their private code of morality intact–given the brutish childhoods they’ve experienced. In fairy tales, children are made noble by having lived with ogres; yet in life, and in the genre of realism, abused children turn out asocial, manipulative. A story by Joyce Carol Oates published around the same time, “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,” is more credible. In Oates’ story, the girls who live on the street are violent, resourceful, and they resent the hell of the privileged girl who objectifies them. Of course, Black Tickets is fiction, not a documentary, and yet the characters who are keen to escape domesticity are a complex mix of selfish and selfless urges; they’re realistic. So the second set of characters, the ones born without shelter who seem only benign, have an almost mythic presence. When I was reading from the same perspective as characters who are wary of being trapped in their mothers’ clapboard houses with Melmac dishes and husbands fixed like wax figures in living room chairs, I was intrigued by these portraits of foundlings and waifs. It was the other side, I thought. I didn’t think: is everyone on the other side this articulate and magnanimous? This depiction of the other side has enough threat to be titillating, to raise interest in a prurient way, or to convince us this is social realism, yet also enough wish-fulfillment for the shock to feel pleasant. It’s how we hope we’d fare–lucky, resilient, and kind–if we gave up our safeguards.

I’ve read every book she’s written since, and I’ve watched these themes evolve. If the central conflict in Black Tickets is a logical catch-22–too much shelter means stiflingly narrow options, but too little shelter (in reality, if not in myth) creates narrower options–her later books revisited this paradox with an increasingly critical eye. In time, her books depict poverty’s lack of shelter not as an alternative to middle-class hypocrisy but more unflinchingly as a terrifying condition. Her later books suggest that, if pre-feminist era housewives and their daughters don’t have much mobility, people without enough food or protection have less. So the premise created by the juxtaposition of the two sets of characters in Black Tickets–stories about impatient women breaking free of middle-class values sitting side by side with stories about women who have never been under the sway of overprotective rules, and the protected, bored characters seem more unhappy than the street urchins who, because they see the dog-eat-dog reality of sexual politics more clearly, have grasped onto female sexual allure as a tool, a shiny piece of bait, and are therefore less used than using–is slowly overturned by Jayne Anne Phillips’ later books. The unsheltered turn out to be simply desperate, plying the only advantage at their disposal. To idealize poverty as you chafe against the structure of the class into which you are born, a structure that monitors behavior according to the previous generation’s priorities, is a late-adolescent fantasy. Seeing poverty as more free than strict parents is the illusion behind every generation’s version of slumming. Her later books are unambiguously clear about this fact–freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose is what you say if you have a safe home to go back to after your adventures fail.

In her second book, her first novel, Machine Dreams (1984), the point of view shifts among members of a West Virginia family just barely paying its bills. The mother has been ill-served by marriage, its unspoken pact that the man will provide and the woman will nurture. The father turns out to be weak, childish, and the mother jettisons him in order to better provide for her children who, ironically, are grown now. The college-age daughter shuns her mother’s values as a demonstration in failed values, and the family’s allegiance to the political status quo, the Vietnam War, as an error of not just national but personal consequence, and explores the dicey, internecine drug culture of the 1970s.

Her next book, short stories, Fast Lanes (1987), is the high point, or maybe the dead end, of this love affair with risk. Two stories reprise characters from Machine Dreams and, in them, female protagonists ponder the hidebound mores they’ve inherited and meanwhile project onto less sheltered characters a romanticized vitality. But most stories are narrated by outsiders in a swaggering, reckless voice. The heavy reliance on stylistic panache seems truly compensatory this time–not just for the reader, making up for a lack of emotional complexity–but compensatory for the narrators too, a bravura style that makes life in the fast lane seem over-defended, damned by exaggerated praise. It’s worth noting, too, that by 1987 the startling image-pairs that Nietzsche had proposed should be the hallmark of modern literature, once the province of highbrow art, had begun to appear with increasing frequency in pop culture: e.g., the calculated decision to use a name connoting the mother of Christ, Madonna, to denote a woman who sings while wearing underwear as outerwear; or the highbrow photograph by Andres Serrano, “Piss Christ,” which caused a middlebrow furor. The ubiquitous use of too-obvious incongruous image-pairs–the hackneyed sacred next to the hackneyed profane–made this technique seem trite, as if the art Nietzsche had described was suddenly available at Walmart.

In her next book, Shelter (1994), a novel, the implication that vulnerability is an uninhibited state is gone. If F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “the rich are very different from you and me” because they have to create from scratch their own refuges, Jayne Anne Phillips’ earliest books seemed to suggest the opposite: that the unsheltered are different because they have fewer rules and precautions to repress them and, to extend this logic, more freedom. Not so, in this novel. Shelter depicts the protected Girl Guides attending Camp Shelter as well as Buddy, the unprotected son of the camp cook whose ex-con stepfather abuses him and his mother. The book depicts an instinctive return to the notion that shelter isn’t a mere convention but a basic need, and that if middle-class parents have failed their children it’s by keeping children so protected they’re naïve and hence forced to witness evil without adults to help them filter the experience. In this way, Shelter has the same function Bruno Bettelheim once claimed for bloody folk tales: to remind us that evil exists, to prepare us for our inevitable encounters with it. Most telling is Buddy’s knowledge that his social betters, the Girl Guides, don’t see him. He’s not on their radar: “He was invisible, spotted with brown and green like army guys in comic books.” This seems applicable to the reader’s experience of characters in Jayne Anne Phillips’ earliest books, or any romanticization of the impoverished and unlucky. Shelter is not only a more complex look at the protection earlier protagonists ran away from (naïveté is the problem, not shelter), but a more realistic look at its lack. The Girl Guides get enough exposure to violence that they return, grateful, to their sober, well-lit homes.

Her next novel, Motherkind (2000), in which the protagonist gives birth to a baby while easing her mother’s dying, depicts shelter as the site of sometimes numbing routines but also as essential, necessary. This protagonist long ago stretched and broke the mother-daughter bond, and has reestablished it on diplomatic terms. The mother’s characterization hasn’t changed, but the daughter’s perception has. “Kate…so valued her mother’s sheer dependability… strong opinions based on scant experience.” The colliding imagery that reflects colliding generational values isn’t angry, but poignant, tender. And in her recent novel, Lark & Termite (2009), there are no characters at all who are too sheltered, nor any parental or quasi-parental characters imposing order like a straitjacket. There’s a God-fearing, unsophisticated aunt, but she’s quietly heroic. The social worker is so mystical she’s angelic. Everyone else is motherless, including Corporal Robert Leavitt who sees his lover as the mother he never got enough of, lovemaking an attempt to re-enter the womb. He helps two Korean war refugees, an old woman and child, each harboring the other, and dies in a tunnel, his insides splitting apart at the precise moment, back in the U.S., his son Termite passes through the birth canal of his doomed mother. Lark, Termite’s half-sister and caretaker, is the nexus of Jayne Anne Phillips’ antithetically recurrent themes: unsheltered herself, watchful, cagey, she shelters Termite.

As Jayne Anne Phillips’ themes have ripened, so has her style. Her luminous prose is still studded with phrases we experience as surprising contingencies, but they’re less dependent on shock. If the word pairings startle us–”snow…like blurred white petals,” “heat and light pour through like syrup”–we are stopped not by the pairing of simplistic opposites, the too-respectable butting up against the explicitly taboo, but by cross-sensory analogies (synesthesia) that evoke an emotional apprehension of material phenomena that can’t otherwise be communicated. Even the fusion of an orphan’s mother-longing with a man’s adult sexual desire doesn’t seem kinky but psychologically apt.

Yet Black Tickets seized my attention when I was twenty because it flouted the traditional pieties, and a handful of its characters seemed so real: daughters who resent their mothers’ dreary admonitions but also worry about leaving their mothers behind; mothers who scold their daughters for breaking away but silently hope they’ll make it. And it made my secret ambition to write seem feasible. Its author was an iconoclastic young woman raised in a small town in West Virginia, and so perhaps I–hell-bent, raised in a rural setting, my sense of the poetic more honed by rock and roll than by the history of literature–might become a writer too. It was a seminal book, a seedpod that burst, the genesis for Jayne Anne Phillips’ later work, but also for the voices and narrative shapes of another generation. If it glamorized the unprotected, most art did then. When the Rolling Stones sang “Gimme Shelter,” the lack of shelter was optional, not inescapable, and they made it sound cool. After the Vietnam War and Watergate, conventional wisdom had begun to seem like a lie, so we instinctively preferred outsiders. If we’d stopped to think it through, we’d have understood that people who’ve been excluded don’t necessarily live more sincerely, more free. But their lives seemed like alternatives. Stoned and desperate people also seemed more welcoming and nonjudgmental than the middle-America we were revolting against. The real mistake in this perception is not that unsheltered people aren’t welcoming and nonjudgmental–individually, they may or may not be–but in idealizing an entire swath of humanity, seeing it as another way to get our needs met, we a nation of “eaters, users, owners”(from Motherkind).

During the three decades in which Jayne Anne Phillips wrote five books, she stopped being a daughter and became a mother. During the same three decades, I wrote five books, and I stopped being a daughter and became a mother. The counterculture we all found exotic in the 1970s became more dangerous, the drugs more instantly addictive, and we’re too old to want drugs anyway, and we fear for our children. We understand our mothers better now: the impulse to protect the children, the realization that our best won’t be quite enough. These books, Black Tickets, Machine Dreams, Fast Lanes, Shelter, Motherkind, and Lark & Termite, are place-markers in my life. I know where I was and who I was when I first read each of them. I’m not a casual reader. I recently found myself telling a magazine editor I couldn’t review Lark & Termite in a thumbs-up or thumbs-down way because liking it is beside the point. The question is what new insights she’s acquired. Her issues–how much shelter is too much, and how little is not enough?–have been my issues, and I’ve explored them more fully, both as a writer and as a woman, for having read her. My thirty years of close reading began as a form of hero worship, emulation; I’d discovered a spokesperson for me, for young women like me. She depicted our desires and frustrations–we were protected enough, but aiming for more satisfying lives than the ones for which we’d been bred–our realities as well as our illusions. If she didn’t see the illusions as illusory as she first wrote about them, and I didn’t as I read, that fact made reading her subsequent books a rich process, all the room for elaboration, a brilliant writer taking notes as I outgrew the past and fit myself for the future.

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Debra Monroe, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award, is the author of four books of fiction. Her memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal, will be published in June.