Floating and the Art of Zen Journey in Fast Lanes
“I had the feeling, the floater’s only fix,” says the narrator of the title story of Phillips’s second, major-press short story collection, Fast Lanes: “I was free, it didn’t matter if I never saw these streets again; even as we passed them they receded and entered a realm of placeless streets. Even the people were gone. . . . I owned whatever real had occurred, I took it all. I was vanished, invisible” (FL 43). Such motifs of flotation run throughout the collection. Many of these images connect to journeys. In “Bess,” sledgeriding becomes “flying” (FL 126). The narrator of “Blue Moon” describes a car as a “gleaming boat” (FL 118). While in the title story, cars becomes the means by which the narrator “float[s] home” (FL 41). At one point, she talks of stopping at diners along the interstates, “taking off [just as she’d] walked in, as if [she] had helium in [her] shoes” (FL 49-50). Earlier in the same passage, she claims to be “escaping gravity in a tinny Japanese truck” (FL 49).
Often in literature and myth, journeys have been symbols for the path of life or for the road into the psyche and the self. This ready symbolism, writes Janis Stout, “derives from the facility with which space can become an analogue for time. It is this interchangeability of the two dimensions, spatial and temporal, that is the basic capacity allowing transformation of simple journey narrative into symbolic action. The journey can readily be used as a metaphor for the passage of time or for penetration into different levels of consciousness” (13-14). The road, thereby, becomes “a passage through the arid zones and waste tracts, the wildernesses and nether regions of the self” (Stephenson 12), the car, as Tom Wolf puts it, becomes “a baroque extension of the ego” (qtd. in Dettelbach 12).
The postmodern world complicates such a journey into the psyche because the self to be realized is itself a fragmented social construct. This stems, in large part, from an inability to center that self in anything solid or to determine what that self is. If a self is the amalgamation of its history, postmodern thinkers “question our . . . assumptions about what constitutes historical knowledge” (Hutcheon xii). Similarly, if the self is written into the signs of language, postmodernism questions whether the signified self behind those signs can ever be revealed. The postmodern self, because it cannot be grasped either in the past or in language, becomes ungraspable. The quest for self becomes “of uncertain destination or duration, the journey to no end” (Stout 105). The journeyers are offered no hope that their roads “will lead them to places of stability or meaning” (Stout 110). In other words, the journeyers, in search of themselves, float.
Of course, the meaning of flotation itself floats. In Fast Lanes, flotation is not merely a journey, it is also home. It is both a casting free and a getting back in, a departure and a return. This is because Fast Lanes hints at another form of flotation. The hint comes in the title story when the narrator and her traveling companion, Thurman, while driving across the United States, discuss the floating of the journey versus the sinking of the working-class home. “I’m living in Zen,” the narrator claims, “highway Zen, the wave of the future” (FL 52). And it’s true. In the story, the road really does have, at times, an almost Zen quality.
This is significant because Zen and many other Eastern religions use flotation motifs in their philosophy with a not altogether different context from postmodernism. The concept that the world is “not stable but always in flux” (Paglia, “East” 159) is true, not only of postmodernism but of many Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. This is partly because Buddhism, like postmodernism, is not concerned with central origins or with God. In Buddhism, there is no center, nor is there not a center—there just IS.1
In Zen, as Alan Watts puts it, “this—the immediate, everyday, and present experience—is IT” (This 11). Zen “always deals with the fact, concrete and tangible. . . . [It] may be full of contradictions and repetitions. But as it stands above all things, it goes serenely on its way” (Suzuki 332-33). As such, floating becomes a central motif. Watts writes, for example: “Wisdom [in Zen does] not consist in trying to wrest the good from the evil but in learning to ‘ride’ them as a cork adapts itself to the crests and troughs of the waves” (This 83). Junjiro Takakusu puts it this way: “First, find out your way and begin to walk on it. The food acquired by meditation can carry you across the wave-flux of human life, and over and above the air region of the heavenly world and finally make you perfect and enlightened like the Buddha” (162). Thus, when the narrator of “Fast Lanes” says she is living in “highway Zen, the wave of the future” (52), she can be taken quite literally.
Because change and fluctuation in the East is natural, the concept of self differs too. That self is not the typical self we think of in the West—the Western ego that individuates us from others and from our true self, that reasons, divides things into opposites, and destroys harmony. In Zen and Buddhism, the true self is no self. It harmonizes with the universe. It is not a separate mind standing aside and looking in at the universe—the self is the universe it experiences.
To find this true self, this no self, is to find Enlightenment, Nirvana, Satori. Satori, C. G. Jung claimed in his writings, was really “a break-through, by a consciousness limited to the ego-form, in the non-ego-like self” (Coward 162). This state is once again a place of floating. One Zen master describes Enlightenment this way: “There is not a fragment of a tile above my head, there is not an inch of earth beneath my feet” (Suzuki 166). Watts describes it like this: “The weight of my own body disappeared. I felt that I owned nothing, not even a self. . . . The whole world became as transparent and unobstructed as my own mind; the ‘problem of life’ simply ceased to exist, . . . I and everything around me felt like the wind blowing leaves across a field on an autumn day” (This 29).
Fast Lanes through its flotation motifs, becomes a journey through and into the psyche of the postmodern self and an attempt to reach the true self of Zen. This journey, in the collection, can be split into three movements. The first movement, comprised of the first three stories, uses flotation as a symbol for wandering and seeking, for instability and movement, for the journey toward self, which can also be, as we shall see, a journey toward death and/or the womb. In the second movement, comprised of the next three stories, flotation becomes the state of the womb, of home, of prelanguage, of a true but temporal self. Flotation also becomes the departure from the womb. The final movement, consisting of the last story, “Bess,” uses flotation to represent both the womb and death, and ultimately, the true self. Of course, to state that floating in any portion is purely one thing and not another is simplistic, for floating, throughout the text, as noted before, contains many opposing principles.
The first third of the text involves characters who are wanderers and floaters, who lack a stable life, past, home, or self. As such, flotation images and their corresponding connections to instability abound. Such instability eventually rests within an inability to know one’s self. In “How Mickey Made It,” the title character is an orphaned drifter, just back from England, who cannot hold onto a job, girlfriend, or family. Nor does he want to. Mickey is a floater who bases his life on the principle of avoiding anything that “nails” him down. “I’m sixteen and Escaped,” he says at one point, “school, family, house” (FL 8). Thus he prefers to work in restaurants and bars. “I only do it because they don’t lay claims,” he says, “you do it and get out” (FL 13). He avoids rules and anything that might impose them—a family, a job—in the same way he avoids long-term relationships with women. “Talk about walls,” he says, “the rules can do it and women can do it too, put you on your back unexpectedly. Rules do it over the long haul so you don’t even notice but girls can do it with one punch” (FL 14).
Yet underneath this insistent wandering is a bitterness and envy and, ultimately, a fragmented sense of himself. He may be adopted and “free” of family obligations, but he is also aware of what he has been denied. His envy becomes clear when he talks of his adoption: “Only the oldest one, my older sister, is their own kid, and Jesus it was always obvious. I mean, who graduated from Barnard, who works for ecology and married a lawyer? Not Mickey, man” (FL 7). In spots, Mickey even hints that his life is a mistake, that his adoption has “melted” his head (FL 12). When Mickey sings, for example, the only explicit reference to floating in the story, he croons, “I’M FLYin on an AIRPLANE / I’M WALKin on a LAKE / MOVE my LIFE AROUND / BUT IT’S ALL A MISTAKE” (FL 18). There is no rest, no home for Mickey; hence, he seems incapable of gaining any whole sense of self.
This same instability and frustration, this lack of home, courses through the story “Rayme.” Instability is the norm for both the main character, Rayme, and her roommates. Before recounting Rayme’s life, Kate, one of Rayme’s roommates, notes that at the time of these occurrences, they were all “adrift,” “float[ing] among several ramshackle houses,” living in “a town already oddly displaced and dreamed in jagged pieces” (FL 23-24). By the end of the story, even that “town” is being demolished (FL 31), and the friends are fragmented even more as they move to differing regions of the country (FL 32). As a result, even what limited stability and home they may have had comes to an end: “Where were we all really going, and when would we ever arrive? Our destinations appeared to be interchangeable pauses in some long, lyric transit. This time that was nearly over, these years, seemed as close to family as most of us would ever get” (FL 33).
The subject of the story, Rayme, bears many similarities to both the other characters in the story and Mickey. Like Mickey, Rayme cannot hold a job (FL 30). Like Mickey, who is adopted and thus cut off from his family history, Rayme’s mother is dead and her past confusing: “Rayme seldom mentioned her mother and didn’t seem certain of any particular chain of events concerning the past. The facts she referred to at different times seemed arbitrary, they were scrambled, they may have been false or transformed” (FL 25). Rayme lacks a sense of both history and self. For her and the other characters in the story, there is no seeming end to instability. The floating among houses that starts the story also finishes it, with the characters swimming on a lake.
The next story, “Fast Lanes,” as its title suggests, is one long metaphor for the journey home into the self, one long floating device. The floating is by car. “But us—look at us,” says the narrator at one point as she and her companion, Thurman, drive across the country, “Roads, Sensation, floating, maps into more of the same. It’s a blur, a pattern, a view from an airplane” (FL 52). Indeed, both Thurman and the narrator are floaters. The story begins with both of them swimming in a lake, the same way “Rayme” ended. Both are long since distanced—by time and space—from their childhood homes. Both seem reluctant to return for any length of time. When they do go back, in this case to Thurman’s home, even the home seems split from its historical base. The mother, the center of the home, cannot even remember her elder son’s death (FL 59). History becomes arbitrary, nailed down to a personally designated item in the floating landscape. “It [Thurman’s previous relationship] had broken up three years before,” the narrator states, “but he still dated history from that time: all the towns he’d lived in since, Berkeley, Austin, Jackson, Eugene, Denver, all the western floater’s towns” (FL 42). In such a shifting geography, the narrator finds that her self has become as arbitrary, unstable, and detached as the landscape that floats around her. “I lose track of where I am,” she states at one point (FL 39).
Despite this lack of stability in the lives of the characters throughout the first three stories, the characters throughout remain obsessed with finding and holding onto the “real,” and in a sense, the true self. Mickey, in the first story, seems particularly obsessed with the “real”:
In each case, Mickey identifies his “real” with music or sex (or England where he got them). He even identifies music itself with sex in some passages, so the real becomes inherently sexual. Sex is, as we shall see later, as it is for many of the characters in Phillips’s previous story collections, the way that Mickey attempts to reach not just the real but also Enlightenment.
The “real,” for characters in both “Rayme” and “Fast Lanes” takes on the form of the concrete world without recourse to these characters’ ideas about the world. The characters do this through becoming “totally aware” of their environment, by becoming their “experience.” Rayme, for example, though seemingly suicidal, is a constant meditator of the Eastern mold. At one point, she sits “looking at the ceiling, her head thrown back, like a woman trying to keep her mascara from running. She [remains] still, as though enthroned, waiting, her face wet, attentive. . . . ‘Yes,’ she [says] after a long while, as though apprehending some truth, ‘tears wash the eyes and lubricate the skin of the temples’“ (FL 29). In this way, she becomes aware of and experienced about her environment. She clears her mind of all “thinking” and becomes her thoughts, her experience, the water on her eyes.
In “Fast Lanes,” the characters’ responses to the car trips take on a similar meditative quality. At times during the narrator’s ride, perceptual “judgment” (ego-conscious thought) ceases, leaving us with purely her awareness and experience, without the thinker/thought duality. At one point, the narrator describes losing herself to the experience of driving this way:
I had moments of total panic in which I seemed to be falling, spread-eagled, far away from myself, my whole body growing rapidly smaller and smaller. I could feel the spinning, the sensation of dropping. I held tightly to the door handle and concentrated on the moving windshield wiper in front of me, carefully watching its metal rib and rubber blade. I willed myself into the sound, the swish of movement and water, dull thwack as the blade landed on either side of its half-rotation. Runnels of rain and the tracks of their descent took me in; I could smell rain through the glass, smell clean water and washed leaves. I sat very still and the spinning of my own body slowed; the aperture of my senses widened, opened in a clear focus. Then I could feel the seat under my hips again and my feet on the floor of the truck, the purr, the vibration of engine. The capsule of the truck’s cab existed around me: damp leather, a faint musk of bodies. (FL 62-63)
Here, she widens her senses and takes all in. She becomes total awareness and total experience, without reflection. Her body floats as the car floats. Floating here becomes a kind of peaceful state, a Satori. Phillips’s account is similar to K. T. Berger’s own description of Zen driving:
The really wonderful thing is it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the rest of the drivers begin. The stream of cars washes down the freeway as one fluid body. Here, as at no other time, we absolutely let go into the One. We ease into a new, more soothing rhythm, our awareness widens. . . . It’s the actual feeling and sensation of being something bigger than oneself. . . . All we know is that it’s done by letting go, by non-action; without thinking about it, without losing our individuality, we are interconnected with the whole. We are driving along freely between heaven and earth. (148)
While driving can be used as a means or symbol for reaching Nirvana, a more common symbol for Enlightenment in Eastern religions is the mother figure and her womb. For example, Taoist tradition teaches one to “return to the state of the infant, before the sense of good and evil” (Paglia, “East” 144). This is because, as Joseph Campbell states, the fetus’s union with the mother figure is “beyond being and nonbeing. . . . It is beyond all categories of thought and mind” (181). To go back to the womb is to return to a time before the differentiation of the ego. In this sense, the thinker/thought duality is disbanded. We “return to the very beginning of things when there was the creation of the world” (Suzuki 74).
The womb, of course, is yet another type of floating—it is the belly of water in which the pre-ego floats. It is no accident, therefore, that C. G. Jung, who studied Eastern religion during the 1920s and 1930s (Coward 10), also used the mother archetype for his concept of the collective unconscious, something similar, though not identical, to the Eastern sense of self. In Jung’s work, the connection between the womb and floating is quite obvious. He describes the collective unconscious as “a boundless expanse full of unprecedented uncertainty, with apparently no inside and no outside, no above and below, no here and no there, no mine and no thine, no good and no bad. It is the world of water, where all life floats in suspension” (qtd. in Coward 152).
What the characters seek when searching for Enlightenment in the first three stories of Fast Lanes, therefore, is also their infancy and their mother’s womb, a state without the duality created by their separate egos. In “How Mickey Made It,” for example, Mickey searches for the real, which as stated before, he often equates with sex. Sex, for Mickey, becomes a way to return to infancy. When he thinks of being the father of his English girlfriend Clytie’s child, it is not as much fatherhood that intrigues him as the way the baby works at Clytie’s breasts. “She showed me about the feeling of feeding a kid, that it pulled at her inside like a real faint coming and made her wet,” he says; “I would lay down with them and fall asleep from the suckling sounds. . . . I didn’t know this good stuff, always before I only had glimpses, BAM, quick flash and close the shutter—ah, there, THAT’S REAL—but only for a minute, an hour maybe. I really pushed man, I pushed to get in where the juice was” (FL 9). Because he can’t go home to his mother (FL 18), the only family member he claims to love (FL 18), his relationships with other women become his attempts at return, including the girlfriend he talks to in the story. He suggests a kind of mother/son relationship between them through his choice of words at the start of the tale: “This bed is wicked comfortable. I mean I sleep like a baby and don’t wanna wake up. . . . Older women are fine with me, you’re fine with me really, a little awesome but I’ll call you Mom once in a while just to keep us in line” (FL 3).
Like Mickey, Rayme has lost her mother. Unlike Mickey, she does not search for the womb literally nor directly but rather through death. This is because death, like the womb, equals the complete obliteration of the ego. While the womb represents the state before the ego comes to be, death represents the state after the ego ceases. In this way, they are two sides of the same coin. Not surprisingly, death, like the womb, is often used as a metaphor for Nirvana. Rayme, throughout the story, treats this metaphor literally, trying to reach Enlightenment by returning to her “dead” mother’s womb through killing herself, or in other words, eliminating her ego. It is a picture of Shiva (FL 28), the Hindu goddess of destruction, but also reproduction, that she tapes to her wall. She dots her school pictures with “tiny pinholes so that the faces [are] gone” (FL 26), literally erasing herself. She meditates in the middle of double line highways (FL 28), pushing herself toward suicide at the same time she tries to achieve Enlightenment.
Not surprisingly, the narrator of “Fast Lanes” is both on a return home to see her mother and self-destructive in her actions. As in “Rayme” the death and birth cycle plays a large role. When Thurman asks where she is from, for instance, she states: “I came from where I’m going” (FL 50). Later, as she nears home, she has a drug fit—a kind of near death experience—and recognizes that she is really “a baby, a frozen six-year-old baby going back to the start of the cold” (FL 64). This frozen baby is similar to her description of death: “Death is a zero. Blue like ice is blue. Perfect. All of us [will be] cold and perfect” (FL 62). Here, the narrator describes death as perfect and a zero, a description metaphorically similar to the perfection and emptiness of Satori.
Ultimately, however, the characters in these first three stories fail to attain any extended knowledge of the true self. Flotation remains chiefly wandering, away from home, the womb, the true self. This is because the characters are unwilling to confront their pasts and/or their futures. This unwillingness means that the characters are ultimately incapable of living wholly in the present either. The present, rather than serving as “the goal and fulfillment of all living” (Watts, This 18) for such characters, as it would in a Zen self, becomes a place tortured by those unconfronted past and worrisome futures. In order to live wholly in the present, as Harold Coward notes,
memory traces of past actions or thoughts [must be] purged from the “storehouse” unconscious. As these memories of the past are brought up from the unconscious their contents momentarily pass through our conscious awareness. . . . This yogic accomplishment not only does away with memory, since everything is now present knowledge, but also the unconscious since it was nothing but the sum total of the . . . memory traces of the past. A perfected yogi such as the Buddha, therefore, is said to be totally present. (66-67)
The mind, in other words, in order to be enlightened, must freely allow the past and future to float in and through the present, must allow the past and future to be present. Otherwise, the mind will remain tied to the cycles of cause and effect, past and future, and will fail to reach “space-less and time-less” Nirvana (Takakusu 24) of the true self.
The characters in the first three stories are not able to reach such a state because they remain either too scared or unable to bring their pasts and/or their futures into the present, which means, ironically, that those pasts and/or futures, or more precisely, their unwillingness to confront those pasts and/or futures, will continue to control them. Mickey, in “How Mickey Made It,” for example, cannot just tell the story of his life. Instead, he has to hide his real hurts in a kind of bravado speech—a speech that dismisses such hurts, relabeling them as complaints. When he gets fired from a job bartending, for example, he proclaims “It was a suckass job to begin with” (FL 4). He dismisses a modeling job he quit in a similar way: “I burned the whole thing, the job the pictures the assholes, all of it, and I told the fag to get another boy” (FL 5).
Throughout the story, rather than confront such situations, Mickey tends to burn his bridges. He seeks to escape all things that might tie him down to true feeling. “I only do it [work in bars],” he proclaims at one point, “because they don’t lay claims” (FL 13). This same unwillingness to commit to feeling means that he treats his girlfriends—including the one he has at the time of the story—with a mixture of disdain and love, enough love to keep them, enough disdain to avoid a committed monogamous relationship. It also means that his way of dealing with the future is to dream—of music, of traveling to England—but when confronted with its actual presence in the present, he becomes fearful. “Darling,” he says, “put those cards away. . . . You can tell my fortune with those cards? I believe in that shit, don’t scare me” (FL 19).
Rayme, likewise, rather than confronting her mother’s death, hides her grief in her mysterious and often suicidal actions. At the funeral, she does not cry. Rather, Rayme tells her sister that while she has lost her mother, Rayme herself has not (FL 26). Soon after, a farm couple finds her sitting in the center of a highway, and she is committed to the hospital. What history Rayme does have, she will not tell clearly—the narrator claims that Rayme’s biography, as she was told it, could “have been false or transformed” (FL 25).
The narrator in “Fast Lanes,” though she still has a family home, seems hesitant to return to it, indeed, moves around the country to avoid it. “What are you scared of?” Thurman asks her at one point. “I don’t know,” she says. “Going back” (FL 44). Indeed, her desire to travel seems an expression of her unwillingness, even an inability, to root herself in any place or history. She only goes back home because her father is sick, and she promises not to stay there long. As a result of this inability or unwillingness to face their pasts or futures, the characters in each of these three stories remain tied to the cycles of time, doomed to continue wandering, despite whatever efforts they make to the contrary.
If the first three stories use flotation as a motif for drifting and a search for the mother, the next three tend to use floating as a motif for the womb and the departure from it. “Bluegill,” for example, is the story of a baby readying for departure from the womb. “Blue Moon,” similarly, though told from a viewpoint many years after departure, is a tale about leaving home, and in essence, the mother. “Something That Happened” covers what happens after departure. In the three stories, floating again takes on the dual role of the prebirth and postbirth worlds, of the true self and lack of ability to find the true self.
“Bluegill” appropriately stands in the center of the collection. It follows stories about searching for a womb; it precedes stories about departure from the womb. It is a story that occurs in the womb itself. The narrator compares this womb to the sea, a place for floating. This happens largely through images of the fetus. The fetus becomes the “[a]nimal in me [the mother], fish in a swim” (FL 77). It becomes kin to live crabs (FL 70). The womb becomes the “free and safe” place that Daisetz Suzuki describes as the true self (376): “There is no danger,” the narrator of the story states; “you are floating, interior and protected” (FL 73).
In this sense, floating in the womb takes on many characteristics similar to Enlightenment. The womb is a place before dialectics are forged, before the subject/object-thinker/thinking dichotomy comes into being. The bodies of the woman and her baby become one: “I feed my body to feed you and buy my food with money sent me because of you. I am very nearly married to you” (FL 73). The womb is also a place that is prelinguistic. “You cannot speak,” the narrator says at one point to the fetus, “only fold, unfold. Blueprint, bone and toenail, sapphire” (FL 73). This is important because, as many structural linguists point out, language is dependent on a system of differences, on creating varying symbols in order to present opposing ideas. In this sense, language is the opposite of Nirvana in which everything is in harmony, in which everything just is. As a result, to escape the ego is also to escape language, for both depend on a system of opposites to exist. Suzuki describes the Zen process of attaining Enlightenment in just this way in his “Four Maxims” of Zen:
A special transmission outside of Scripture;
The only way to achieve this is to attain Enlightenment or to go back to a period before words, a place outside words—the womb.
This womb experience in “Bluegill” also becomes a journey for the mother into her own self. The story works as a kind of archetypal night journey in which the mother experiences, as Joseph Campbell would put it, “a long, deep retreat inward and backward, backward, as it were, in time, and inward, deep into the psyche; . . . encounters of a centering kind, fulfilling, harmonizing, giving new courage; and then finally . . . a return journey of rebirth to life” (qtd. in Stout 91). Early on in the story, the mother is “sucked inward by a small interior flame” (FL 71). She is sucked, eventually, into a dream of children who have characteristics with remarkable similarities to babies in the womb and to what one would achieve in Enlightenment. These children “communicate only with the unborn” (FL 72) and “have no interest in talk or travel” (FL 72). They are neither wanderers nor linguists. But they are in touch with their pasts. “Their memories of a long-ago journey are layered as genetics,” the narrator says (FL 72). They also have a Zen-like awareness of everything: “The children translate each wash of light on the faces of their stone capsules; they feel each nuance of sun and hear the fog as a continuous sigh” (FL 71). There children have reentered the womb, “walked into the sea and were submerged” (FL 72), and in this way, they leave time. They are “[i]mmortal,” as the narrator tells us; “they become their own children” (FL 72).
Likewise, the mother returns to her past, becomes her own child: “Faraway I was a child, resolute, small, these same eyes in my head sinking back by night. Always I waited for you [the baby], marauder, collector, invisible pea in the body” (FL 76). She goes on to recall how she would dream of her future child as she crawled under the sheets of her bed and “held [her] breath till the whole floor moved” (FL 77). In this way, she brings her memory into the now and achieves a kind of floating communion with her baby.
This story, however, like the two that follow it, is ultimately about departure. Floating in the womb, as the story ends, is doomed to be transformed into a floating wandering. Ultimately, the woman gives birth. The subject-object duality reemerges: “I say believe me if you are mine, but you push like a fist with limbs” (FL 77). The child enters language: “They [the fishermen] rise moving toward us, round-mouthed, answering, answering the spheres of your talk. I am only witness to a language” (FL 77). As a result, harmony is disrupted; the ego comes into being; opposites reemerge.
If “Bluegill” is a story that ends in departure, “Something That Happened” is about what happens after departure. Three basic things occur. First, with the emergence of the ego after departure from the womb, opposites return. Significantly, the story starts with the narrator, Kay, separating clothes, proclaiming, “It’s a segregated world” (FL 81). She is no longer floating in a womb—she is drowning. She has “slipped below the surface” in the basement (FL 81). Second, the womb as a place to flee for safety disappears. “In the hospital,” Kay says, “I was convinced they had removed my uterus along with half of my stomach” (FL 83). As in “Bluegill,” the womb and the stomach become connected. “I always confused my stomach with my womb,” Kay says (FL 83). But here, the womb/stomach has been damaged and half-removed. Third, the mother is unwilling to bring the past into the present, to go back in order to purge. Rather, she tries to ignore her past, forgetting her former wedding anniversary. “You don’t care enough about yourself to remember what’s been important in your life,” Angela, the mother’s daughter, tells her (FL 82). Later in the story, though earlier chronologically, her former husband asks her what it is that she is afraid to face, that she cannot control (FL 84).
This inability to face her past and her life, this desire to control what she will not face, causes her to eat herself alive, for her literally to dissolve her stomach/womb and thus lose whatever safety she could gain by facing her apparent problems and dealing with them. The title, “Something That Happened,” is important here, for the “something” remains a trace speaking through the whole story that is never directly addressed. We, too, are never allowed to come into contact with it—the narrator’s repression will not let us. If there is any hope, it lies with the daughter, Angela, who pushes the mother “to the brink of remembrance” (FL 82). It is the daughter, at the end of the story, who seems likely to take on the mother’s role and continue the birth-death cycle. It is she who still had the stomach/womb that allows her to “eat” what her mother cannot, which is exactly what she does at the story’s end.
The last story of departure is “Blue Moon.” In this story, the narrator, Danner, recounts her last year at home as a teen-ager before being pushed out. Here, flotation images favor the same kind of instability that “Fast Lanes” and the earlier stories emphasize. The most prominent floating image is Billy’s trampolining in which he twists and turns “as though borne up by some liquid medium” (FL 92). Later, this trampoline becomes a metaphor for the dislocation that all the young characters are about to experience. In fact, Phillips explicitly says this through reference to a passage from a book on gymnastics: “Values: More Than in Any Other Activity, Trampolining Develops a Sense of Relocation” (FL 110). By the end of the story, Billy and his girlfriend, Kato, to whom Billy has become a “cover” (FL 95), a kind of mother, have been split, sent to separate locations in the country. Likewise, Danner is readying to leave for college. They are headed for wandering, for the flotation of life. “I tried to imagine Kato next year, her senior year, without Billy,” Danner states at one point. “I’d be gone too . . . the thought of that unknown seemed clean and limitless, like floating in space” (FL 110).
Yet this departure does not seem wholly negative. Phillips hints at a more positive view of the floating about to occur through the car images that emerge in this story. Cars become a place for the blurring and, thereby, unifying of the outer world. In one passage, Danner recalls riding in Billy’s car to school: “Town landscape flowed by. . . . Now the outskirts of Bellington were dotted with ranch houses whose backyards melded with the long cold grasses of empty fields” (FL 107-8). The car also becomes a place where the past, present, and future merge, where all time comes together: “The outside world, waving in heat lines, seemed a movie we were voyaging through, and the room of the car was a kind of inviolate space. Watching the two of them in the front seat, Billy’s profile a smoother, classic version of my father’s, I felt a sense of what I now know is called déjà vu—that I had watched them in just this circumstance before” (FL 93).
Because flotation and departure become a kind of positive thing, the story, unlike the earlier ones, seems to actually “end” in a kind of Enlightenment. It is near the end of the story that Danner experiences a moment she claims is real: “We stood, smoking, and I watched them [the boys in the parking lot]. What made sense? This moment was real” (FL 115). This moment is accompanied by the cold, a motif earlier identified in “Fast Lanes” with death and with a return to the womb. She stands in this cold with, in her father’s words, “nothing on” (FL 118), like a newborn. Eventually, this moment involves another blurring and twirling, oddly reminiscent of some of the car passages in both “Fast Lanes” and “Blue Moon”: “The pressure of his [Shinner’s] grasp seemed to lift me toward him and I didn’t resist. . . . We stood totally alone in the snow, and the space in which we stood seemed to turn in unhurried, resolute circles. What remained outside—the walls of the building behind us, the white ground and the highway, the parking lot and the boys, . . . blurred and receded” (FL 117). Finally, near the very end of the story, Danner experiences an awareness she has never known before and hints at recognizing the Zen true self, the no-self, the non-ego. All is tied together: “The boundary I’d imagined between myself and anything I saw or touched, was gone. Everything was different now, larger, enveloped by a shadow. . . . It felt as though my vision had altered, as though I’d seen things through a dull filter that now disintegrated” (FL 121).
While the previous six stories hint at momentary glimpses of the true self, “Bess” indicates a full emergence of that self. Again, this emergence is tied to the story’s floating motifs. What is of even more importance, though, is that Bess, the narrator, gains most of her experiences of floating through her brother rather than through herself. This is important because, unlike many of the other characters, who either float alone or search for mothers to “float in,” Bess is able to embrace a “more tangible” sibling. In this way, she floats out of her ego into another human being. Daisetz Suzuki, in discussing the Zen self, writes of the importance of adolescent love to getting past the ego: “The ego shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow. . . . We are, however, given chances to break through this shell, and the first and greatest of them is when we reach adolescence. This is the first time the ego comes to recognize the ‘other,’ or the awakening of sexual love. . . . The love now stirred demands at once the assertion and the annihilation of the ego. Love makes the ego lose itself in the object it loves” (330). This is the same type of love that occurs in “Bess” between Bess and Warwick, her brother: “I was twelve years old, perceptive, impressionable, in love with Warwick as a brother and sister can be in love. I loved him then as one might love one’s twin, without a thought” (FL 145). In an interview with Kay Bonetti, Phillips claims that this does not have as much to do with anything incestuous as it does with “children reacting to dysfunctional relationships between parents and forming maybe even a closer than usual bond within that.” In other words, the sibling replaces the mother archetype.
Bess’s floating, therefore, occurs through Warwick rather than through a mother. This happens in five major ways. The first way occurs when Warwick takes Bess out on a tree limb, where they “float” above the adults below them and outside the second-story window of their brother Claude’s room. The second flotation occurs when Warwick rides atop a circus elephant. Here, Bess does not actually experience the flotation. She is only able to watch her brother and experience it through him. “Far, far up, I saw Warwick’s face,” she says. “I was yelling, yelling for them to stop, stop and take me up, but they kept going” (FL 135). The third, again, occurs vicariously, this time as she watches her brother “totter magically just above the groundline” as he practices walking a tightrope across a river (FL 136). As he does this, “The earth stop[s], the trees [stand] still” for Bess (FL 136). Time ceases. She enters a place of no-time, Nirvana. She, in essence, floats with her brother.
The fourth kind of floating incident occurs when Bess watches Warwick with their mother. Here, as in “Blue Moon,” all blurs and becomes a unitary nothing. The world becomes the blue of death in “Fast Lanes,” the blue of the womb in “Bluegill.” “The sky those summer nights was like the pale inside of an overturned bowl,” Bess recounts, “blue and light longer than the earth or the fields were light” (FL 137). Bess’s awareness widens as the scene continues: “Fireflies blinked in the tall black grass while it was still nearly daytime. Close by, crickets made a shrill weeping under the house; cats slid, hunting; Warwick called our mother ‘Mam’ and she touched his feet, silent, Warwick looking away across the yard” (FL 137). All blurs, becomes one: “Meadows had lost definition” (FL 137). Finally, Bess floats: “Breeze wavered the whole slow mass like deep water and made a sound, a sighing pitched low and perfect: I was standing with the lamp in my hand and thought the house moved beneath my feet, slipped and slid with a creaking like a ship, like we were all afloat” (FL 138).
The fifth moment of floating occurs when Warwick dies. He does this, in essence, twice. The first “death” occurs at his sickness following his allergic reaction to poison plants. Throughout his recovery, the tent he has to live in is compared to “a coffin” (FL 142). After awakening from his coma, Warwick claims to have had a vision of death: “He told me [Bess] he slept a hundred years, swallowed in a vast black belly like Jonah, no time anymore, no sense but strange dreams without pictures” (FL 144). To Warwick, death is time-less and symbol-less, or workless. It is a type of Nirvana. Interestingly here, that “death” is a belly, an object which is confused with the womb in both “Bluegill” and “Something That Happened.” Bess goes on to make that womb state explicit when she compares Warwick in his tent to “a pupa” (FL 140). The tomb and womb become one.
The other death, the literal death, is also linked to floating. Warwick in his coffin, Bess says, lies “in a piece of water” (FL 147). His coffin becomes a box “so deep it [goes] to the center of the earth, his body contained there like a big caged wind” (FL 147). In essence, Warwick in his coffin is emptiness—no self. The coffin is also significant because, in Buddhism, stupas, or burial mounds, are symbols of full Enlightenment, “the world and the axis and the center” (Paglia, “East” 160). Bess is able to crawl into this “stupa” through her dreams. She is able to kneel down in the place where Warwick and she fought and “dig a hole, as though a grave is there, a grave [she] will discover” (FL 146-47). It is the tomb/womb of Warwick’s tent that Bess crawls back into in a dream at the end of the story. Here, she again watches Warwick float: “I felt myself smaller, cramped as I bent over Warwick inside his white tent of netting, his whole body afloat below me on the narrow bed. . . . My vision went black for a moment, not black but green, like the color of the dusk those July weeks years before” (FL 148). Bess, at the end of the story, enters Nirvana with Warwick. She simultaneously grasps nothingness (the “black”), the real transitory state of the world (the “dusk”), and the past (“those July weeks years before”). She brings all of that past into the funeral parlor with her, into the present, and thereby escapes time. Through floating with her brother, she purges herself of all and finds her true self—the no self.
It is through flotation motifs, therefore, that Bess and the text ultimately journey into the true self, into unknown nothingness. Bess and the text are able to do this, despite postmodern fragmentation, because they move beyond the world into a postlife/prelife state that is both alinguistic and ahistoric. Nothingness is accepted as the core. The key to finding the self becomes abolishing the ego. Flotation becomes a symbol for the instability extant within the outer world as well as the stability of the “real” world. It becomes the path to freedom. What Phillips suggests with Fast Lanes, as a result, is that we can reconcile these constant and contradictory drives toward home and away from home, toward an ego self and away from it, by accepting change, as do the Buddhists, as one of the “ontological realities of life” (Jacobson 6). If we simply float, finding home in whatever present we are in, we will avoid a lot of stress.
A thesis by Jon Morgan Davies