“It’s over now,” says Lenny near the end of Jayne Anne Phillips’s novel Shelter, after the murder of Carmody, the abusive, alcoholic father of a little boy named Buddy and the near rapist of Lenny, “[b]ut if we tell someone, it’ll never be over. We’ll have to tell it and tell it. We’ll never be able to stop telling it. Nothing else will matter anymore, ever” (278). This skepticism about language and narrative courses through Shelter’s last several chapters. Sometime after the murder, Lenny hears Delia whispering a prayer and realizes that “[s]he can’t believe in words at all. None of it [their experience] translates” (299). A short time earlier, Cap and Lenny decide that they can never talk about the experience with anyone else. “It’s only ours to talk about,” Lenny says. “We’re the only ones who were there. We’re the only ones who know what happened” (287).
The novel raises one final problem that exists in all of Phillips’s work: the reconciliation of language with transcendent states and/or experience itself. In earlier chapters, I have noted Phillips’s faith in language and in narrative, the way she says language can be used to recapture the past and connect to it. Yet this faith flies in the face of an overt skepticism on the part of the various philosophies her work seems to embrace, namely Eastern religion and the work of Georges Bataille. In Eastern religion, language is only possible via the illusion of culture and the corresponding creation of various dualisms, various borders, used to separate words. For Bataille, “language scatters the totality of all that touches us most closely even while it arranges it in order. Through language we can never grasp what matters to us, for it eludes us in the form of interdependent propositions, and no central whole to which each of these can be referred even appears. Our attention remains fixed on this whole but we can never see it in the full light of day” (274). Rather, Bataille, like Lenny in Shelter, seems to believe that “[t]he supreme moment is indeed a silent one” (Bataille 276).
Yet Lenny’s skepticism about language is not matched by her sister, Alma. In the short story titled “Alma,” most of which would appear in a slightly altered form in Shelter—the change from first- to third-person being the most apparent—Alma recounts the reasons for this difference in their attitudes toward language:
Lenny was told nothing. She learned to understand things in a different way. Maybe Wes [their father] taught her it wasn’t necessary to name, label, categorize, compile histories, argue with herself until she knew what she wanted. Our mother had to tell herself stories, recited two or three versions of an event, see where things fit. Always, she was outside what happened, alone, talking to include herself in the picture. Someone had to hear her and believe her. Audrey compiled evidence, stories to support her conclusions, and I was the jury she convinced. (85)
Alma, in both the story and the novel, becomes the bearer of her mother’s secrets, specifically her mother’s affair with Nickel Campbell.
As such, she is the one who must write down the story, must tell it. Alma hints at this in the novel when the girls, Lenny, Delia, and Cap, discuss the possibility that someone might tell of the murder despite their sworn secrecy. “She’s right,” Lenny says. “Any one of use might tell” (290). This means, she says, that they would then have to talk about it, but Alma notes in a whisper to Delia, her best friend, “Or one of us might tell someone . . . who’ll never tell” (291). This “nonteller” is most likely the writer’s blank page—for it is the only thing that can never tell. A person can always tell. One can tell a page anything in secrecy, in silence, and the page will never tell anything unless the author passes that page on to an audience. For Phillips, the writer bears such secrets. “The writing life is a secret life,” she writes in her essay “Outlaw Heart” (43). As such, the writer bears a special relationship to language that allows him or her to transcend even while using it.
The nature of this transcendence remains a mystery only writers—only storytellers—can understand. This is because writers, for Phillips, are a special breed. “The writer is essentially an outsider,” she says in an interview with Mickey Pearlman, “and any artist tries to live beyond the limits of his or her own personality. You are not just yourself; you have access to an entirely different dimension” (160). Writers, she says elsewhere, “grow up with permeable selves” (“Outlaw” 47). These permeable selves mean that writers are “unfailingly attracted to the secrets of others, and to secrets shrouded in the phenomenon of the world” (“Outlaw” 43), and are able to bring such secrets into their own being. In turn, when writing, writers are able to go “to that limitless place, an almost out-of-body awareness in which consciousness peers through time as though through a transparent curtain, not by meditating or fasting, but by moving through to specifics and details afforded by language” (“Outlaw” 45).
Indeed, many of Phillips’s recent uncollected stories and essays deal with persons who seem to have special access to some kind of spiritual knowledge of the world, and who, in turn, seem poised to become writers. In a narrative essay titled “Report of the Spies,” Phillips compares her younger self (assuming that the “I” equals herself—the essay was published as nonfiction) to both the spies sent into the Promised Land in ancient Israel and the disciples of Jesus. Both groups had a special access to a body of knowledge not available to others. The narrator in the essay reaches a similar state of knowledge. In one scene, during a Bible lesson, for example, she actually finds herself transported into the time of Christ:
For a strange moment I see, in my mind, the crowd below him [Jesus], all of them in gownlike clothes, looking up in the hot dusty air, and the smell of the boys near me is the smell of that old dust, like trampled flowers drying into smoke. The air is an odd color, luminous and coppery, bronzed almost, and darkening. I hear him breathing: I know I’m in his mind, inside a warmth that is floating and viscous, suffused. I don’t have time to be scared, it just happens, and when I come back to myself I glow with the roll and dark float of it, tingling in the shape of my limbs. (267)
This special ability, this special knowledge, means that she is one of the “chosen,” just as God chose the Israelites. Being chosen, as the minister proclaims in the essay, entails certain responsibilities. They are responsibilities Phillips seems as likely to assign to writers. “Holding a live treasure others don’t recognize can be a burden,” the minister says, “having to protect it and nurture it and explain it, teach it to others” (269). The writer’s job then becomes to protect and to teach, to “never stop telling,” as Lenny says (Shelter 278).
The short story “Alma” ends with a similar mandate for a young writer, a similar burden of responsibility. This responsibility is given to Alma throughout the story and throughout the novel Shelter—for it is she who must bear her mother’s secrets. Every Saturday, Alma’s mother takes her to what Alma’s father thinks are baton lessons. In truth, Alma wanders around the mall for several hours as her mother conducts an extramarital affair. At the end of the story, Alma, on her first Saturday at the mall, wanders into the elevator. “Whole families stood nearly silent,” she recounts, “all but the youngest children quieted. The small, oblivious ones continued to jabber and sing, their voices whole and pure in the enclosure, large beyond their own expectations. Their breathy talk permeated our ascending cage. Listening, I heard their words and phrases as the lost, receding language of a home now far from me, and I understood that I was no longer a child” (88). The passage hints at both a special calling and a special ability that Alma has, an ability that Phillips would say writers have, the ability to hear a “lost, receding language.” It is this language that writers hold on to, that they write down, redeem, pass on to others.
While Zen Buddhism and Bataille overall remain skeptical of language, both do leave a place open for poetry. In Bataille’s case, poetry can still lead to “the same place as all forms of eroticism” (25) if it moves us beyond language. “We all feel what poetry is,” he says. “Poetry is one of our foundation stones, but we cannot talk about it” (24). He, like Lenny, in Shelter, knows that language of itself is inadequate for continuity, inadequate to explain the erotic experience. But poetry, through the feeling it creates, can become an erotic experience. In this way, poetry does not explain eroticism, the experience of poetry is eroticism.
Zen Buddhism is also not without its share of poets. Again, the idea seems incongruous. A way of life so skeptical about language still manages to use language as one of its art forms. The way Zen poetry does this is by saying “nothing”—in other words, it “is not philosophy or commentary about life” (Watts, Way 182). It “sees things in their ‘suchness,’ without comment” (Watts, Way 185). Alan Watts summarizes the essences of all Zen art this way: “The aimless life is the constant theme of Zen art of every kind, expressing the artist’s own inner state of going nowhere in a timeless moment. All men have these moments occasionally, and it is just then that they catch those vivid glimpses of the world which cast such a glow over the intervening wastes of memory” (181). Here then is our answer, at least in part, as to how Phillips can claim allegiance to Eastern ways of thought and yet express a tremendous faith in language. As already noted, Phillips aims to redeem a past, to move back into the “center of it” (Douglas 187), “to [hold] things in place, [light] things up long enough that we can see and feel and sense what might already be lost” (Douglas 187). By writing, Phillips aims to express her own “inner state of going nowhere in a timeless moment” (Watts, Way 181). Committing such moments to paper, it would seem she would say, is what ultimately allows her to return to her past, to her home, though she is, indeed, one of the escapees. As such, we might add yet another category for Phillips’s fiction: postmodern romantic, uniting many of the themes and techniques of postmodern fiction (the disintegration of self, the fragmentation and change of the world) with the Romantics’ faith in poetic language to bring about transcendence. Thus Phillips, to an extent, treads the paths of Wordsworth and Tintern Abbey, only now the paths are those of the small-town square, the American highway, and the inner-city alley.
A thesis by Jon Morgan Davies