Home Finding and Escape in the Short Stories of Jayne Anne Phillips
A Thesis Presented for the Master of English Degree
University of Mississippi
Jon Morgan Davies
May 10, 1997
Preface to the Online Edition
The following text represents the thesis as it was submitted to the University of Mississippi in 1997, except that minor corrections for grammar, spelling, and style consistency have been made. Doubtless, since the thesis was written, much critical material on Jayne Anne Phillips has emerged that is not incorporated here, nor is any discussion of her most recent novels. Were I to take up a full revision, I would doubtless add chapters on Phillips's novels Machine Dreams (1984), Shelter (1994), Motherkind (2000), and Lark and Termite (2009), and I would take into consideration The Secret Country: Decoding Jayne Anne Phillips's Cryptic Fiction by Sarah Robertson (New York: Rodopi, 2007), the one book-length critical study on Phillips that I am aware of. However, the text presented here is largely made available for researchers curious to know more about Phillips's shorter works especially from the point of view of the mid-1990s, before much of the now available criticism had emerged.
I would like to thank the various member of my thesis committee: my thesis director, Dr. Bob Brinkmeyer, for his encouragement and time; Dr. Jay Watson, for his detailed critiques; and Mr. Barry Hannah, also for his encouragement and time. I would also like to thank the University of Mississippi English Department for affording me these three years to teach, study, write, and read at little financial cost to myself.
This research attempted to provide a thorough critical analysis of the short fiction of Jayne Anne Phillips. The analysis centered around the paradox of home versus escape in Phillips's four collections, Sweethearts, Counting, Black Tickets, and Fast Lanes. At issue was whether, and if so how, home and escape are transcended in Phillips's work. Various ideas that Phillips has noted as influencing her were used to help explore this issue. Theoretical apparatuses included Zen Buddhism, the work of Georges Bataille, and critical works on the prose poem. The discussion of each book focused on one mode of transcendence and usually, though not exclusively, on one of the above theoretical apparatuses.
The conclusion reached was that Phillips uses several different modes with varying degrees of success in an attempt to reconcile the concepts of home and escape in her work. Chief among these is the writer's freezing of a moment in a work of literature, which allows the writer himself or herself, as well as on occasions the character, the opportunity to recover a past while not remaining enslaved to it.
Chapter One. Freeze Time in Counting and Sweethearts
Chapter Two. Black Tickets for Border Crossings
Chapter Three. Floating and the Art of Zen Journey in Fast Lanes
Black Tickets BT
"East and West: An Experiment in Multiculturalism" "East"
Fast Lanes FL
"Outlaw Heart" "Outlaw"
Psychotherapy East and West Psychotherapy
"Report of the Spies" "Report"
"The Secret Places of the Heart" "Secret"
Sexual Personae Sexual
This Is It This
"Was This Only a Movie or a Vision of Her Future" "Was"
The Way of Zen Way
"Writing the Second Novel--a Symposium" "Writing"
Jayne Anne Phillips's first collection of short stories, Black Tickets (1979), drew critical esteem that would propel her among the notables of contemporary short fiction. The collection received the Sue Kaufman Award for first fiction in 1980 from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Many of the stories had previously won other prizes. "Sweethearts," "Under the Boardwalk," "Blind Girls," "Home," and "Lechery" all won Pushcart Prizes. "Snow" received the O. Henry Award in 1981. A later collection, Fast Lanes (1987), included the Pushcart Prize Winner, "How Mickey Made It," and a Best American Short Story from 1979, "Something That Happened."
In addition, the first collection, Black Tickets, and its author received high praise from such writers as Raymond Carver, Nadine Gordimer, Tillie Olsen, and John Irving, who called her "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" (13). The collection and its stories were variously praised as "a notable debut" (Cushman 94), as having "a freshness and intensity entirely their own" (Rumens 1280), and as "firmly imagined, written in a prose style that is quite unlike any other, and for the most part altogether successful in keeping one interested" (Epstein 109). Critics have particularly praised Phillips for her "ability to give voice to . . . characters' thoughts and actions and to express them with such sympathy and understanding of language that the reader actually hear[s] them talking" (Kakutani 14). David Remnick calls her "a great American mimic" (9). Richard Eder claims that many of her stories, through their voices, "hover on the edge of poetry" (11).
Yet Phillips's place within the contemporary scene and in literary history remains confusing, as does the place of most of the characters in her fiction. If anything characterizes her short fiction, it is this implaceability--the in-betweeness of her characters, the frequent changes of location in her own life, and finally, the uncategorizableness of her fiction. Critics simply do not know where to put her work. The writers to whom they compare her range widely from Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Ann Beattie (Cushman 92-93), to Bobbie Ann Mason and Mona Simpson (Kakutani 14), to Jack Kerouac, Reynolds Price, and again, Eudora Welty (McInerney 7).
Critics have also placed her among and simultaneously displaced her from several contemporary schools and movements--and almost always by ignoring a sizable segment of her work. Julia Reed, for example, places her within the literary "brat pack" or the "girls of Knopf," as she calls the group, though Knopf has never been Phillips's publisher. These female writers, as Amy Hempel puts it, practice a "minimalism that robs us of nothing . . . compression that seems to capture it all" (qtd. in Reed 61). They stress "themes--mainly loneliness or alienation‑‑" over plot (Reed 61). Indeed, much of Phillips's work fits within these parameters. Many critics have, as we shall see in chapter 1, criticized her work as being static and, especially in Black Tickets, too short--brevity being another characteristic of the "brat pack." Yet even here, Reed qualifies her inclusion of Phillips by claiming she has a "more-lasting" voice, partly because she has removed her self "from what [Virginia] Barber calls the 'loud, insistent beat of the drums in New York City'" (62). Again, however, Reed holds up Ann Beattie and this time Raymond Carver as the models for the "brat pack" and, by extension, Phillips (62).
Indeed, several critics place Phillips's work into the minimalist school (a term that of itself, when applied to literature, has its own problems).1 At least three of the contributors to the Mississippi Review's 1985 tribute to "The New [minimalist] Fiction," including the editor herself, list Jayne Anne Phillips as one of the practitioners of minimalism. Certainly much of her work, especially the short story "Home," which is specifically noted in the editor's introduction, fits many of the characteristics that critics, including Kim Herzinger, cite as minimalist:
equanimity of surface, "ordinary" subjects, recalcitrant narrators and deadpan narratives, slightness of story, and characters who don't think out loud (7);
use of "reality [real world experience as opposed to literary experience alone], . . . use of traditional characters and story-lines, and, importantly, [a] distaste for irony (14);
a narrator who often speaks with the same voice as the characters described, and who generally refuses to evaluate characters by ascribing historical, psychological, socio-economic, or moral motivations for their behavior. (16)
One of the main goals of such writing is, as Raymond Carver puts it, to avoid "tricks which call attention to themselves in an effort to be clever or merely devious" (qtd. in Herzinger 12), or in other words, to elide the author. The attention of the reader, thereby, is on the characters, as opposed to the techniques used in the story--including everything from experiments in form to the setting to the plot itself.2 "Home," which appears as the first story in Black Tickets, seems to follow many of these characteristics. Its subject is "realistic" and "ordinary" enough: a young woman gets caught by her mother having sex with an ex-boyfriend on a visit home. Its narrator is recalcitrant in the sense that she lives a very different lifestyle from her mother. The story adheres to the traditional elements of plot. It has a beginning, middle, and end that is largely chronological. Characters are also traditionally consistent and "realistic," and the tone seems as flat as many of Carver's and Beattie's own stories. The story is about real-world experience rather than literary experience alone.
But many of Phillips's stories do not seem to fit the "minimalist" mode. Stories such as "Lechery," "Black Tickets," and "Gemcrack" are both fragmentary and lyrical--some critics would say excessively and/or self-consciously so. The fragmentation forces readers into a more active role than the typical minimalist story in the sense that readers are forced to reconstruct the plot, rather than merely follow along and feel for the characters. Likewise, the lyricism of such stories draws attention to the language often at the expense of the traditional plot and character. They are hardly in a minimalist "language similar to, but not the same as, their readers" (Herzinger 15). It seems, that ultimately, here too, in both plot and language, critics must admit Phillips is not a complete minimalist in that she has been "strongly influenced by postmodern sensibilities" (Bellamy 37).
Two places in which Phillips seems particularly close to the minimalists, as Herzinger goes on to define them, however, are in her concern with the language act and in the themes that she explores in her fiction. Minimalists, as Herzinger explains, renew in an unself-conscious manner the "compact between writer and reader" that the postmodern writings of such authors as Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon interrogated (15). In this way, "reading [becomes] a conjugal act, an intimacy shared" (15); stories are often told "across a [figurative] kitchen table, at eye level" (15). Indeed, I have already noted how one critic calls Phillips "a great American mimic" (Remnick 9). The label is appropriate, for many if not most of her stories are, as Capper Nichols notes, "presented in monologue form--a character speaking to an absent or unseen listener" (178), a listener who, one could argue, is the reader.
Likewise, most of Phillips's short stories explore the themes of loneliness and isolation found in many minimalist writers' works. Most of Phillips's stories easily fall within Herzinger's characterization of minimalism as being a fiction
"about" endurance, tracing the collision of the anarchic self and its inexplicable desires with the limitations imposed by life in the world, with special attention paid to the moment when the self confronts its limitations and decides to keep on going. (20)
And most of Phillips's stories begin in the same place other minimalist tales start,
with characters experiencing some kind of disconnection--often suggested by noise--followed by their inevitable desire for fullness or fulfillment which is found to be impossible or inadequate. (Herzinger 21)
Yet another critic, Anne Hulbert, places Phillips's work into a fiction and film fad of the early eighties for stories about farming, farmers, and the land. Hulbert calls it "Rural" and "Hick Chic." Other practitioners include Bobbie Ann Mason, Larry McMurtry, Carolyn Chute, and Louise Erdrich. Admittedly, rather than exhaustively defining this movement, most of her essay, published in the New Republic in 1983, berates Hollywood "Hick" films, such as The River and Places in the Heart, for their overidealization of the land and farming in comparison to the more realistic novels of the above authors. Yet Phillips's inclusion in this list is important because it shows another way scholars have attempted to read her work: as rural, Appalachian, and sometimes southern. But such a reading largely emphasizes her novels and her stories about families, while ignoring the early urban stories involving sex, drugs, and crime.
Still another critic, William McGowan, sees Phillips as a descendent of John Steinbeck, a kind of social or historical realist. Just as Steinbeck, in writing The Grapes of Wrath, told a story that "was not entirely new" but rather drew most of his material from historical information and social conditions in order to help readers to feel for and understand the Joads, Phillips draws material from her family past and Life magazine to tell an old story (specifically Machine Dreams , though much of that books resembles stories in Black Tickets and Sweethearts ) that makes us feel for the people of West Virginia between World War II and the Vietnam War (42). Phillips's "social and historical perspective" and her "understanding of the broad fabric of society" (46), McGowan claims, separate her from her contemporaries who seem largely concerned only with "one segment of the population--the literary upper middle class" (43). Furthermore, unlike her contemporaries, her work is rooted in one place, which allows for a greater understanding of "history and social fabric" (45). Again, however, McGowan deals only with one segment of Phillips's work, specifically Machine Dreams, in order to categorize her. The displaced road stories of Fast Lanes and the urban stories of Black Tickets seems much less rooted to place and more typical of the contemporary stories McGowan characterizes as too concerned with exploring "the self" in isolation from the larger society.
Social Realism. Rural/Hick Chic. Minimalism. Brat Pack. Phillips fits into all of them and none of them. What is the reason for this divergent categorization and the inadequacy of any of the categories? Perhaps it has to do with having, as Pico Iyer claims in his review of Fast Lanes, a range "considerably greater than is common her despair-addicted contemporaries" (70). She is at once a family chronicler and a road journalist, a practitioner of the "rural chic" and an observer of the urban outsider, a minimalist and a lyricist, a surrealist interested in the logic of dreams and a realist interested in the mundanities of everyday life.
Perhaps, also, the inability to pin Phillips down, the wide range of work, has to do with how and where she grew up. She was reared in Buckhannon, West Virginia, a place that, as Phillips notes in an interview with Celia Gilbert, has "never belonged to the South or the North, [where] the rural population is larger than the urban one, [and where] family and tradition are what's important" (65). West Virginia is a paradox. Hemmed in on all sides by the southern and northern regions of the United States yet belonging to neither, it becomes a sort of uncategorizable "elsewhere." It is, as Roger Cunningham puts it, "a negativity," "a gap," the "Other's Other--a region marked by double otherness which complicates its very sense of its own being" (qtd. in Tate 92). Yet via its rural and family traditions, it is also very much a distinctive "somewhere." This somewhere, for Phillips, is defined most by her family. "Home is family," she claims in an interview with Thomas Douglas (186), and in turn, "Family politics is the screen through which we experience place" (184). Early on, she felt a need "to define herself outside the family" (184) and believed that "the pull home was so strong that if [she] didn't leave [she]'d sort of freeze in place" (185). Escaping initially meant attending West Virginia University, not West Virginia Wesleyan, which is in her hometown, then later hitching across the United States, settling in a black neighborhood in Oakland after college graduation, working as a waitress in Colorado, and traveling to Nepal and India, whose religions and philosophies she would explore (Edelstein 109), and as we shall see, whose religions would greatly affect her work. Today, one would hardly know she wandered so much. Phillips has become the consummate suburbanite. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts, is married to a physician, and has three children.
Yet the themes and motifs from the early portion of her life--her family, her trips, her escape--are all there in her short stories from the chapbooks, Sweethearts and Counting (1978), to the more substantial Black Tickets and Fast Lanes. All of these revolve, in some way or another, around the tension--her own tension as well as everyone's--between escape and home, loneliness and family, freedom and limitation. Interviews and reviews of her work acknowledge this tension. In a review of Black Tickets, Walter Cummins describes Phillips's typical ("escaped") characters as "lost and alone, unable to make an authentic human connection, desperate for the oblivion of sexual and chemical highs" (468), while Phillips, in an interview about the same work with James Baker, claims to be "interested in what home now consists of" (118). This need to find home occurs because "we move around so much, families are forced to be immediate; they must stand on their relationships, rather than on stereotype or assumptions or a common history" (118).
Reviewers of Fast Lanes reveal this tension even more directly. Michiko Kakutani notices, for example, that while
physical escape proves easy enough . . . Ms. Phillips's characters remain haunted by memories of their youth. . . . [E]ach will come to regard his or her small-town childhood as a kind of touchstone, a still point in a world of random change. (14)
Jay McInerney notes that "the fiction of Jayne Anne Phillips oscillates between two subjects: the world of the open road, runaways and drifters, and the deeply rooted regional American family" (7). Perhaps, Pico Iyer is the most direct when he summarizes Phillips's work as: "Home means no freedom; freedom means no home" (70). "Rootlessness has become the price of freedom," Kakutani concludes, "alienation the cost of self-fulfillment" (14).
Phillips's world appears to be a fragmented one. Characters are outsiders and loners, looking for or reminiscing about a time when they were not split from the rest of humanity. Many of the narratives, particularly in the collections preceding Fast Lanes, are fragmented themselves.
But surprisingly, fragmentation is not Phillips's vision of reality. In an article by David Edelstein, Phillips describes her narratives as representing an alternate to fragmentation. "I guess I see reality as something appears to be a series of fragments but isn't," she says. "And trying to represent that is really the point of most of what I write" (111). The idea that there is more than one reality stems, in part, from her exploration of what she calls "adjacent realities [a term perhaps adapted from Castaneda's "nonordinary reality"]--transcendent states, drugs, Eastern philosophy, Carl Jung, and Carlos Castaneda" (Edelstein 109).
For Phillips, the ultimate "alternate reality," the ultimate transcendence of fragmentation, comes from language itself. In an essay titled "Outlaw Heart," Phillips examines the roles of writers in society and in life, describing that role as almost mystical and hinting that her own vision of writing is similar to one that Katherine Anne Porter shared in a letter to a friend:
I believe we exist on half a dozen planes in at least six dimensions and inhabit all periods of time at once, by way of memory, racial experiences, dreams that are another channel of memory, fantasy that is also reality, and I believe that a first rate work of art somehow succeeds in pulling all these things together and reconciling them. (Qtd. in Phillips, "Outlaw Heart" 45)
Art, and by extension the language used in literary art, thereby becomes, as Phillips notes, "a secret means of travel--a way to live beyond your own life" (Edelstein 109), a way "to move beyond . . . ourselves" (qtd. in Pearlman 160).
The transcendent states to which language and stories can take us in the end give us the power to reconcile escape and home. This reconciliation, in large part, becomes the purpose of Phillips's use of monologues and voices. "As isolated as each character often feels from the others," Phyllis Lassner tells us in an essay on Phillips's work,
they make connections as their voices create a web of family and social activity made up of similarities and repetitions in their experiences. They may not speak directly to each other, but through the narration of their dreams and memories, the voices . . . speak to us, to themselves, and to each other. (193-94)
Continuity in Phillips's work, as Lassner goes on to explain, is "achieved only through human connection expressed in figurative, emotionally charged language" (202). This is true for both us, as readers, who, "[a]s we recognize images repeating themselves again and again, . . . create connections in the characters' experiences" (Lassner 194), and for the characters, who transmit their identities to each other by internalizing their memories and dreams and then transform them into narratives (Lassner 196). Phillips's job in writing stories, therefore, is, as Peter Prescott expresses it, "to endow the inarticulate with a convincing eloquence" so that ultimately they might find connection (116). Indeed, Phillips describes authoring a narrative as a process of getting in touch with voices: "The writer surrenders, listening" ("Writing" 1). This listening is then passed onto the reader through the voice. "The reader senses a listener as well as a voice," Richard Eder notes in his review of Fast Lanes:
It is a listener who seeks the voice out; one who is interested in the characters, feeling, fates, and souls of a wide variety of lives operating at all manner of temperatures. This listener is silent, maybe only implicit; but as Strindberg and Beckett have shown, a speech to a silent listener is the opposite of a monologue. (3)
Through following a Phillips story, a reader becomes as engaged as Phillips is in hearing the voice and thereby becomes a listener as well.
This need for transcendence, however, is not, for Phillips, limited merely to runaways and drifters. She does not believe home is lost only to those who physically move or run away, nor does she limit escape to such persons. Characters (and people) lose home even more categorically by the passage of time. "I think of the West Virginia I grew up in as being lost, as being gone, because it really has changed so much," she says in her interview with Thomas Douglas (185). "Now there is no need of escape," she continues, "because there's nothing left" (185). The physical escape she yearned for so much as a youth happens in time to all of us whether we want it to or not. Phillips therefore claims not so much to be dealing with "rootlessness, or what is happening in America, or the good old days versus the bad old days, or the past versus the present" but rather with "the way things come to an end, the way everything comes to an end, and the way . . . human beings deal with loss" (qtd. in Pearlman 155).
As we have seen, language in Phillips's fiction allows people to connect to one another and thereby to transcend their loneliness and their fragmented world. But writing and art serve yet another purpose for Phillips, and it has to do with this sense of change and loss with which all people have to deal. The writer is, as Phillips puts it, "always trying to redeem something" (qtd. in Pearlman 155). The writer's job in listening to voices is not merely to connect the disenfranchised to mainstream society but to hold the world that voice creates "still between the covers of a book . . . to make that world known, to save it from vanishing" ("Outlaw Heart" 47), to make the "past seem present" (qtd. in Norris 252). Life, therefore, for her, is made up of
escape and redemption, escape being flight, movement, self-reliance, redemption being the circle back, the writing, the saving of a version of events that is emotionally real, that can't ever recede or be lost. (Phillips, "Was" 22)
Fiction writing is, as a result, mythmaking, glorifying, creating, and endowing importance to the past through its very act of redemption (Douglas 189).
This mythmaking goal of Phillips's writing (especially Machine Dreams and the last two stories of Fast Lanes) could be compared to the work of Currier and Ives, two businessmen who painted and sold pictures of the mundanities of nineteenth-century America. In fact, Phillips wrote an article about their work for Art and Antiques magazine in 1985. It is their creation and preservation of mythic images of America that Phillips particularly admires. "In illustrating American history in such detail and with such beauty," she states at one point, "Currier and Ives helped invent it" (53). In another passage, she claims that Currier and Ives telegraph "worlds forward to a time still puzzled by the lost of the past" (56). Another thing she admires about their work is how they select and glorify their topics of the "undramatic," of everyday life, of hardscrabble lives.
Phillips's fiction often aims for much the same effect. We read not so much of the "well-to-do" or the "important" but rather about the outsider or the dull life of an average, middle-class, small-town dweller. From these characters' everyday lives, "mundane things begin to churn and whirl, and . . . hurtl[e] into myth" (Edelstein 119). The familiar is transcended, and the key to this is language. Alphonso Lingis seems to sum up Phillips's use of language pretty well when he writes that
intellectual work combining words produces moments of astonishment that induce the mind to stop and gape at reality. The illumination that words produce is in this astonishment--the staring at things that had been passed over as familiar. (83)
This concern for language does help us to place Phillips into certain literary schools, at least in terms of some particular themes. As we have already seen, Phillips shares her interest in the "conjugal" act between writer and reader with the minimalists. She also shares their preference for stories about "real" world experience over pure literary experience; although in Phillips's fiction, the real world is mythologized in the literary world. It is, in fact, precisely this mythologization that makes it difficult to wholly place her work (not to mention Currier and Ives's work) into the typical, mundanity-oriented minimalist modes despite its similarities.
Her interest in language and narrative also helps place much of her work within the literary tradition of southern women. Like minimalism, the use of "traditional narrative and realistic fiction" in southern women's writing can be seen as a reaction against the (once) dominant "self-reflexive, metafictional, experimental" postmodern discourse (Tate 176). This storytelling in a more traditional manner serves multiple purposes. First, it allows the (woman) writer to "make sense" out of life and "to seize interpretive and expressive control" of that life (Tate 176), rather than having that "sense" assigned by outside sources. This is essentially what Phillips's view of fiction as mythmaking does. Via the transformation of the past into myth through stories, writers create meaning for themselves, their readers, and their characters.
Second, writing, according to Linda Tate, allows females and minorities to "tell the story of women on the margins of societal power" (177) thereby both empowering them to define their own roles in a society and reconciling them to that society. Phillips extends this empowerment and reconciliation to all who are on the fringes of society by telling their stories, by endowing the "inarticulate" with a voice. In addition, by writing about and giving voice to Appalachia, Phillips empowers the place and the people living in that place to forge their own identities and reconciles those identities with the rest of the United States, rather than leaving them as simply "elsewhere," as "double otherness," being neither northern nor southern. Instead, through the rural and family traditions mythologized in her stories, and through the connection such stories create between us and the characters, the place becomes "somewhere," the people "someone."
Phillips also shares with other southern women writers a concern, as we have seen, for home and family. Like others, this concern finds shape in a network of voices. "The idea of home place," according to Tate,
is particularly prevalent in southern women's fiction, as women come together to create empowering female networks, to tells stories to one another, to voice their concerns and their triumphs--in short, to give shape and (re)definition to their lives as southern women. (21)
Female characters, Tate contends here, liberate themselves from their traditional, socially restrictive roles as homemakers through their voices. Phillips, unlike the southern women writers Tate discusses, however, extends this network, this voice-created home, to all marginalized. This voice network furthermore "authorizes oral ways of understanding the past" and "collapses the distinction between the 'private and individual' and the 'public and external'" (Tate 75). For the writers that Tate discusses, this occurs through their writing of women's conversations. For Phillips, on the other hand, this occurs largely through her "voicing" characters' lives. Despite this difference, Phillips's stories, like her southern female counterparts' work, strive to give meaning--importance--to the past by placing its voice into a permanent text. In addition, her view that language transcends the bounds of the self, that language reconciles the urge both to escape from and to return to the home, is comparable to the collapsing of distinction between private and public that Tate says occurs in the female tradition. Indeed, we shall see, as I begin to discuss the specific stories, a large concern in Phillips's work for the self versus the society, a concern not unrelated to her concern for escape versus home.
Regardless of whether we view Phillips as part of the minimalist movement or southern women's literary tradition or neither, it is this theme, "the reconciliation of escape versus home," that all of her stories meditate upon. Most involve some form of transcendence to achieve this reconciliation, whether this transcendence be drug use, sex, or Eastern religion (within the confines of the story's plot) or the language and voice of the narrators (as units within a collection of narratives). The following chapters explore these various states of transcendence as attempts to reconcile home and escape, and self and society, as they occur in Phillips's short stories. Chapter 1 focuses on narrative and artistic techniques that attempt to freeze time in Counting and Sweethearts. Chapter 2 focuses on transgression, particularly the use of sex and drugs, as a means of transcendence in Black Tickets. Finally, chapter 3 focuses on the motif of floating, both its ties to Zen Buddhism and its role in solving the problems of the characters in Fast Lanes.
In choosing to deal only with Phillips's short story collections, I am obviously ignoring her more recent work, including her two novels, one of which, Machine Dreams, came out about three years before Fast Lanes, the other of which, Shelter (1994), was published about seven years after Fast Lanes. I am also not dealing in any great deal with her uncollected fiction, though there is not much.3 The reasons for this are threefold. Firstly, although few have given any extensive critical attention to Phillips's fiction, what little attention Phillips's work has garnered has, in most cases, been directed toward Machine Dreams, particularly toward its ties to literature about the Vietnam War. Second, since so few have given Phillips's work attention, it seems appropriate to start at the beginning of her creative endeavors, and hence, with her first medium, the short story. Finally, I have to admit my own preference for short fiction over the novel, especially in the case of Phillips. Her work since leaving short fiction, though dealing with similar themes, has tended toward the more tame, and for my taste, less likable stories of "home" that dot Black Tickets and end Fast Lanes.
Freeze Time in Counting and Sweethearts
Both Counting and Sweethearts consist of stories or fragments of stories that are two pages or less. In fact, more than half of Sweethearts appears unchanged in Black Tickets. Of the sixteen shorter stories (two pages or less) in Black Tickets, thirteen appeared originally in Sweethearts. One of the common complaints critics had about Black Tickets when it was first published was that many of these shorter "stories" were simply too short to be worthwhile. "The shorter tales are, I think, on the whole less impressive than the longer," writes Peter Prescott in his review, "too often they seem no more than showcases for their author's surprising imagination and for her experiments in overwrought prose" (116). Likewise, John Irving complains that "too many of these miniatures, these showoff pieces, mar the rougher and more wholly rendered stories in the book" (13). Garrett Epps explains that, for him, many of these short "short stories" (as well as a few of the longer ones in Black Tickets) fail "because they are not stories at all but static prose poems . . . verbal indulgences in which nothing happens, no characters are revealed, and no time passes" (C10). Walter Cummins, though not being negative, agrees that "the stories have a static quality. Phillips evokes a situation, a state of being, rather than presenting an action" (468). David Remnick describes Phillips's shorter works as "voices or monologues rather than short stories" (9).
These critics are not wrong. These shorter tales, in their fragmented separateness, do not work as short stories, not at least in a conventional sense. There is no development of character, no rising action, no climax, no beginning, nor middle, nor end. Many are simply descriptions. Perhaps, if readers wish to understand these stories, they would be wise to take up Epps's claim that these are "static prose poems" and read them as such, absolving them of narrative responsibility. In fact, many of these "stories," such as "Happy" and "Wedding Picture," appeared originally as prose poems in such publications as the Paris Review and New Letters.
While climax, character development, rising action, beginning, middle, and end may be the characteristics of short stories, the conventions of the prose poem are quite different. For one, the subjects of prose poems, according to Jonathan Monroe in his book A Poverty of Objects, tend to be "ordinary everyday objects of the physical world" (36). Much of Phillips's work, of course, is about such "ordinariness," about the mundane lives of everyday people in West Virginia. If not that, then her work is about outsiders, people on the edges of society: strippers, hookers, druggies, homosexuals, and so on. Whether dealing with outsiders or the mundane, each story, as Peter Prescott says, attempts to "endow the inarticulate with a convincing eloquence" (116). In this same way, the prose poem, in its tendency to draw in and alter "other genres or modes of discourse as part of its own peculiar self-definition" (Murphy 3), becomes, as Margueritte Murphy writes,
a vehicle for the introduction of nonliterary prose into "poetic" discourse--the prose of the street, the pulpit, the newsrooms, the political arena, the psychiatrist's office, and so on. (4)
This tendency "to open itself up to previously excluded forms of discourse and the social groups associated with them" means that the prose poem absorbs the "previously marginalized" (Monroe 20) and unifies the aesthetic/individual language of poetry with the useful/collective language of prose (Monroe 22). The prose poem, therefore, "not only in its form but in its essence, is based on the union of opposites" (Todorov 61). As a result, the prose poem, as we shall see in this chapter and in chapter 2, seems an appropriate medium through which to reconcile the "outsiders" with mainstream society, to, in a sense, give those that have escaped a home.
Another characteristic of the prose poem to consider is its form and its corresponding thematic concerns. Margueritte Murphy claims that
what often distinguishes these [prose poem] pieces from short stories, fairy tales, and orderly and complete description is their resistance to closure, finality, their fragmentary nature. (18)
This fragmentary nature, this lack of concern for the "ending" necessary to a short story, lends itself to a concern with, and an expression of, single moments or "states of being," as Walter Cummins writes of Phillips's work, rather than actions.
The concern for single moments stems ultimately from modernism and, indeed, from the foundations of the prose poem. Accordingly to Clare Hanson, "the emphasis of modernist short fiction was on a single moment of intense or significant experience" (55). This single moment served as a "focus, a structural equivalent for conventional resolution of plot" (Hanson 7), what Joyce would call an epiphany, the recording of "the most delicate and evanescent of moments" (qtd. in Hanson 58). Postmodernists have worked in a similar direction by "breaking experience down into smaller and smaller units" (Hanson 141). What the prose poem does is to concentrate this effect, giving the whole text--rather than the climax or focus of the text--over to the recording of the passing "moment." "The prose poem's author," to quote Suzzanne Bernard, "seeks a kind of static perfection, a state of order and balance--or else an anarchic disorganization of the universe, from out of which he can call up another universe, recreate a world" (qtd. in Todorov 61). Jayne Anne Phillips agrees with such an aesthetic. "I like to create stories that are monologues," she writes in an afterword to an anthologized version of her story "Bess," "but monologues that create a whole world" (qtd. in Norris 251). What this means is that the prose poem seeks to express some kind of transcendent state, to, as Octavio Paz writes of poetry, "transcend language," to use language to move beyond it to something "inexplicable" (qtd. in Beaujour 50). This is similar to Joyce's epiphany in that a prose poem expresses the same "sudden spiritual manifestation" (Hanson 58) but different from an epiphany in that a prose poem records only the epiphanic moment without the surrounding detail.
The means to this transcendence is through the freezing of a "present" moment. Tzvetan Todorov claims that one of the characteristics of the prose poem is this relation to time
or more precisely, [its] way of escaping time's grasp. . . . [I]t can only exist as a poem if it reduces all duration into an "eternal present" of art, if it congeals the process of becoming into atemporal forms. (62)
Such a reduction is also a concern of much contemporary fiction. "Short story writers see by the light of the flash," writes Nadine Gordimer, "theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of--the present moment" (qtd. in Hanson 57). This "eternal now," at least in Phillips's work, is akin to the transcendent Nirvana state of Zen Buddhism, a philosophy that Phillips both studied and with which she claims to have an allegiance (Douglas 188).
In the Zen state of Nirvana, there is "no time." This is because, in Zen, all opposites arise mutually with conceptions. Such conceptions are really illusions created by culture and language. To define, as language forces us to do, is to set bounds, and as a result, it is always, as Alan Watts puts it, an act "of division and thus of duality, for as soon as a boundary is defined it has two sides" (Way 39). This means that past, present, and future are also illusions because, as Watts states, "this moment can be called 'present' only in relation to past and future" (Way 201). Time, therefore, has "only a relative, not a true existence" (Evans-Wentz 7). What this means is that "no time" is also "all time" or the "eternal present" in which we always live. Past and future become "abstractions without any concrete reality" (Way 199).
A person experiences "Awakening" (also called "Satori" or "Nirvana") when he or she truly recognizes this fact and lives life with this understanding. Like the modernist "epiphany," Awakening occurs in a "sudden flash of insight" (Way 83). Furthermore, both find expression in the ordinary world. An epiphany, Joyce claims, for example, can manifest itself "in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture" (qtd. in Hanson 57). Likewise, Watts says that Awakening "is consistent with the affairs of everyday life" (Way 81), and according the Camille Paglia, it consists in "seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary" ("East and West" 150). As a result, Zen art and literature, like much modernist art and literature, favors "the expression of a lived moment in its pure 'suchness'" (Way 183), or as the poet Ezra Pound puts it, the "image" over the discursive (Hanson 2).1
This idea of capturing a "moment," of expressing the "eternal now" of it, is also hinted at as one of Phillips's goals. In an interview with Thomas Douglas, Phillips claims that "the function of fiction is basically religious. It has to do with redemption really" (187). What writers redeem is the past--what is lost, what inevitably changes. But they do so by moving back into the "center of it" (Douglas 187). "Fiction," Phillips goes on to say in the same interview, "holds things in place, lights things up long enough that we can see and feel and sense what might already be lost" (Douglas 187). Essentially, then, fiction captures an evanescent moment and lets us stay in it. Fiction thereby becomes, as Phillips claims in an essay for the New York Times, "the saving of a version of events that is emotionally real, that can't ever recede or be lost" ("Was This" 22). What characters do as a result, Phillips claims in a review of Carver's What We Talk about When We Talk about Love that seems to illuminate her work as much as it does his, is "attempt to discover or communicate the moment, talking to one another or directly to the reader" ("Secret" 77). And indeed, many readers will find, as Michael Gorra does in writing of Black Tickets and by extension of Counting and Sweethearts, that plot for Phillips is "far less important than a character's voice" (20). It is this voice that captures a moment in time. The voice does this by attempting to communicate this moment to a listener so that this moment becomes the listener's as well, so that the listener, too, carries it around with him- or herself. The author, by writing the voice down, preserves both it and, in turn, the passing state of being expressed in that voice.
Both Counting and Sweethearts are meditations, both in terms of narrative structure and motif and thematic concerns, on the attempt to circumvent this passage of time--to remain always present without a loss to the past. This desire to circumvent time in both works is also, in turn, a desire to find or return to a home. Phillips, in her interview with Thomas Douglas, places home in the memory and in what we see (188). By capturing a moment in a voice, characters are able to "find" their homes wherever they are.
Concerns about losses to the passage of time, about aging and death, run throughout Counting and Sweethearts. Images of death, in fact, come up throughout Sweethearts. Phillips introduces this motif into the book even before the title page with an introductory poem titled "Aging." The title seems rather strange seeing as most of the poem is largely a description of the "Day of the slaughter"2 of what are probably hogs (the animal is never specified). What happens in the poem is the men are charged with hanging, gutting, and boiling the animals, while the women remain "in the houses." At the poem's end, the little boys are sent out of the houses, hinting that this confrontation with death, with killing, as well as this leaving of home, is "aging."
During the first half of the collection "Sweethearts"--the collection is divided into two parts--Phillips continues to connect death and killing images with children and, thus, with their rites of passage into the adult world. In "A Few Feet Away," for example, the narrator's father prepares for his "move out" of the house, a growing-up point in any child's life, by divvying up the family's two rifles--one for the father, the other for the narrator's two brothers. The father's main concern, as he expresses it to the boys, seems to be which gun is best for killing "rabbits and birds." The story/poem ends with him telling the boys how to "go after deer."
In "1960," an old woman calls the narrator into her house to take care of a "problem." "Something keeps pouring out," the old woman says. What is pouring out, we learn, is blood mixed with water--the result of a running tap and "a chicken, stump of its neck hanging over the basin, bleeding a steady furled cloud into the water." The event occurs in summer, when "the fields are tall," and the narrator's foray into the old woman's house--a house with "a smell shut up too long"--seems a reminder of the eventual aging of the child narrator and the eventual harvesting of the field at the end of the summer.
"Toad" also blends childhood and death by recounting the accidental killing of a frog by the narrator's brother and the resulting sandpile funeral following. At first, the narrator finds herself "afraid of [the toad's] yellow eyes," but with time, this fear grows into an obsession to confront death, and by the story/poem's end, the narrator finds herself digging into the toad's grave.
"Satisfaction" again demonstrates the connection between aging and death and animal slaughter. In the tale, the narrator and a friend dress "like old men" for Halloween. Later, while walking through the neighborhood trick or treating, they stop to watch an old woman listening to a gospel show on the radio. When the old woman notices the children's commotion outside, she mistakes them for varmints and tells her dogs to "kill them rabbits . . . Brings em here."
"Under the Boardwalk" further connects birth with this concern for aging and death. In the tale/poem, a teen by the name of Joyce Casto kills her illegitimate baby--the result of a sexual encounter with her brother--at its birth. Phillips places the baby's existence and killing on the same level with the animals being gutted at the start of the book. Like a hog, the girl uses a "scythe" to "harvest" her child in the field. Later, at the end of the story/poem, dogs--like the humans who kill and eat--come into the house "with pieces in their mouths." All of this Phillips describes matter of factly, the girl reacting more to the Drifters' music she listens to than to the fact that the dogs have returned her child in piecemeal form. Giving birth, here, like death, becomes, as Thomas Edwards notes in his review of Black Tickets, "a brief participation in the natural order" of aging and change (44).
Other stories about birthing in the collection are similarly gruesome, similarly connected to death. In "Pickens," the narrator listens to the assistant to Elva Lowry, the town midwife, recount a breech birth at the Pickens' place. Again, birth is placed on the level of mundane, everyday concerns. Women blather "about jams, about hookberries," while the husband of the pregnant woman fries fat in the kitchen, seemingly more concerned about eating (another creature) than the birth of his twin sons, upon which Elva is working so hard. Again, the tale ends with a death--the second baby comes out "blue," and Elva lays it down. Similarly, "Night in Gracie's Face" recounts four deaths and two births--the loss of a son to diphtheria, the death of Gracie's husband in an insane asylum, the burial of stillborn twins. Here, through the accounts of the disappearance of various family members, death becomes synonymous with the loss of home and the passing of time quite directly.
In the second half of the collection, "Slaves," death becomes no longer connected as much with childhood as with sex and the desires for sex and escape. In addition, references to death become more metaphoric, less grounded in incident and happening. "Inside him an acrobat tumbled over death" is the way Phillips describes a man's state during sex with his lover in "Happy," the story/poem about a woman who wants to please her man sexually, yet who remains unconvinced of her sexual power over him. In "Stripper," a stripper, "speaking" to the men she performs for, describes their ecstasy and her job this way: "Baby stick em up Baby don't touch Baby I'm a star an you are dyin." In "Swimming," Phillips conflates unfulfilled sexual longing with a desire to drown through the story of a girl who enjoys dancing with her female friend Jancy.
"What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive" describes several "modes" of escape. It starts with physical escape as the main character, Kay, tries "to leave home" by signing up to work a summer at Maple Point, an amusement park "trying to outdo Disneyland." To those working at the park, however, the place falls far short of the vacation escapade a Disneyland claims to supply. "The boys in the kitchen [keep] a list of everyone who crie[s]" because of the managers' harsh words. The girls live in an army barracks with "a red storm fence around the perimeter strung with barb wire," supposedly meant to protect those inside but seemingly also to keep them in. Escape then turns to attempts to leave the park--not physically but through death and sex. A girl commits suicide when she cannot handle the pressure anymore. The tale ends with masturbation as escape, Kay "laying in the top bunk naked with the light off. Fan on full aimed at her crotch," Rod Stewart's voice accompanying her.
In "Blind Girls," a girl named Jesse tells horror stories with the familiar mix of sex and gore to a party of females, while boys spy on them from the surrounding field. Here, danger becomes both sexual and deadly. Within the "favorite" story that Jesse tells, for example, a girl and her boyfriend park on a country road, probably to "make out" in a place away from their parents, but the girl becomes scared--not so much at the idea of sex--but at the wind, which "sounds like something scratching the car." When the couple reaches home in the story, the distinction between death and sex and even between the story told and the party at which Jesse tells the story is almost completely lost. "At home they find the hook of a crazed amputee caught in the door," Phillips writes,
Jesse described his yellow face, putrid, and his blotchy stump. She described him panting in the grass, crying and looking for something. She could feel him smelling of raw vegetables, a rejected bleeding cowboy with wheat hair, and she was unfocused. Moaning in the dark and falsetto voices. Don't don't please don't. Nervous laughter.
While the amputee obviously appeals to the "gory" element of the story told by Jesse, the "moaning in the dark" could seemingly belong to either the couple (scared or having sex), the amputee (the "moaning" being another one of his "cries" in the grass), the girls at the party in the grips of terror because of the story, or the boys surrounding and spying on them. Likewise, "Don't don't please don't" could refer to either a girl trying to put off sex, as in the story told, or to the girls at the party--specifically Sally--too scared to listen to the rest of the story. At this point, Jesse breaks off her story for Sally because "[t]he grass [outside] is moving. . . . Something's crawling in it." Again, now in the storyteller's life, Phillips conflates physical danger with sex. The grass's movement, via the horror story, has become the movement of a psychotic, while in reality, "It's just the boys trying to scare us." The black "snakes" that lie in the field, in the end, serve this same double purpose, representing both the danger inherent in most people's feelings about snakes and the phalluses of the watching boys.
"Strangers in the Night," the last story/poem of Sweethearts, however, is the most direct in connecting sex with death. Its use of the "death" metaphor is so dense, I can best serve my purpose by quoting the first half of it:
Like everyone else, she thought a lot about eating and sleeping. When she was sleeping she felt like death floating free, a white seed over the water. Eating, she thought about sex and chewed pears as though they were conscious. When she was making love she felt she was dancing in a churning water, floating, but attached to something else. Once she almost died and went so far she saw how free the planet floated.
Desire is also a large theme of Counting as the book recounts a love affair from its burgeoning to its aftermath. But here, too, images of aging and death, loss and passing time, fill the text. Concerns with age are evident from the start of the first chapter. "He is twenty-six," Phillips begins. "His lover is an aging dancer" (1). Later, readers find out the woman is fifteen years older than the man, no doubt a major factor in understanding the relationship. Images of death and desire are also present in the first chapter. Indeed, Phillips titles the chapter "Hungry," a title that seems to lend itself not so much to physical hunger ("He has little food but he is seldom hungry," Phillips writes) as to sexual longing. The lover, as readers learn later, has left the man forever. Death has a presence as well, though small, through the description of the man's room: "In his room a bed and one round table. Photograph of an elephant graveyard in Kenya."
Concerns with the passage of time also close the book. The man, still wanting his old lover, feeling her "disappearing[,] [h]is desire com[ing] on like acid" (18), finds himself "at loose ends and visits his family" (16). While there, an old woman (probably his mother, though this is never made explicit) gives him a gun and tells him to shoot a mad dog. It is the preparation for this shooting, this killing, this death, which ends the book--a chapter appropriately titled, "Counting." The "counting" refers in part to the countdown to the kill, but it also refers in part to the count of a clock. Phillips makes this explicit in her description:
The distance [between him and the dog] is yawning, unimaginable. It is stronger than flesh or the odor of flesh, it dwarfs all things. It ticks like a clock in the mouth. It has him at the center of his breath, he is alone.
This distance, coming at the end of the tale and connected to the fact that "[h]e is alone," also becomes indicative of the growing distance the man feels from his lover, both in space and time, as his memory recedes.
In between the start and end, Phillips throws in plenty of other references to aging and loss. These take on particular significance when the man and the woman return to their homes, both literally and in their thoughts. In each case, the childhood home is lost--banished to memory. When the man returns to his family, for example, Phillips notes: "They are old. Even the cousins are sixty, all of it old" (16). Phillips compounds this sense of aging and its accompanying loss with a description of a spray of forsythia that "the old woman" fingers: "It is the way deep yellow of butter melted to a puddle and then frozen" (16). This dwindling plant life hearkens back to an earlier comparison of the lover to "a bowl of . . . fresh picked cherries" (13). Love, like the couple's families and homes, is doomed to rot because it ages, because it can be counted in years.
Likewise, the woman, though not returning home literally, knows it is gone, despite the fact that she owns it now. "She never goes back to claim it," Phillips tells us, "the house falls in, drops its boards" (14). Two further images of loss compound this refusal, this inability, to return home. The first involves what happens at home before the woman leaves. Like the grandmother in "Night in Gracie's Face," the female lover's mother births stillborn twins. These, the father keeps in formaldehyde for a week, attempting to preserve the sons he has already lost. The second image involves the woman's return by train to New York in chapter 17, the train being a metaphor for the passage of not only space but time. Phillips explicitly follows this passage throughout the chapter, starting with dawn ("The morning settles its rust") and continuing into the shadows of afternoon ("Lengthening noon, the long tunnels"). The woman's state on the train mirrors this passage. At the start of the chapter, the woman "thinks her sight is failing"--a reference to her growing older. By the end of the chapter, she realizes that she can see "cleanly," but what she sees is "an old man sit[ting] in a wheelchair. Cock in his lap a limpid flower. . . . His face burns her" (17). The implication, of course, is that without her lover, she is on her way toward being as sexually impotent as the old man. Soon after, in the next chapter, in which she figures, readers find her, not surprisingly, sending random letters, random "calls for connection," to people in the phone book (20). Via such incidents and descriptions, time's passage throughout the text seems both inevitable and ugly.
Both Sweethearts and Counting, however, struggle to contain and circumvent this passage through their respective narrative structures. Sweethearts does this through its use of prose poem techniques, especially the freezing of particular moments, ideas and emotions in time. Phillips groups these "moments" and "ideas" as they appear in Sweethearts into two sections: "Sweethearts" and "Slaves." The "Sweethearts" section records moments as opposed to the ideas and desires grouped in the second section. These moments are all first-person and are arguably all written accounts from the same person's life--a young woman remembering her home life.3 "Slaves," on the other hand, is almost entirely third-person and concentrates most of its subject matter on the sexual desires of various young women‑-women who have escaped the "family home" of "Sweethearts," yet yearn for a new family or home via their lovers. What "Slaves" records are not so much moments as lists of these yearnings, plus emotional states and occasionally vocal monologues. Both "Sweethearts" and "Slaves" contain no stories longer than a page, and as a result, both fit the prose poem requirements.
"Sweethearts," in its attention to single moments of a family life, seems most akin to Phillips's theory of writing as "redemption," the saving of a version of events so that the events cannot be lost. Indeed, much of Phillips's uncollected poetry, published oftentimes beside work that would later appear in Sweethearts, is about attempting to hold a person and, by extension, time in place. "Village Girl," for example, published alongside "Happy" in the Paris Review, starts with the narrator stating, "Tell her you'll do anything to keep her" (200). Phillips then contrasts this and the image of a dress, upon which the narrator fixates for the moment, with passing time in the next line: "The red dress twisted under her is the last of her mother's history" (200). Then again, in the line after this, Phillips reminds us: "You want to keep her always" (200).
Similarly, a poem titled "Asleep in the Past," published in Epoch in 1979, concentrates on a sister's image of her brother having sex in a field with a girl. Again, come poem's end, Phillips emphasizes the desire to hold the moment despite the passage of time. "Even in repose," she writes, "he is abundant, you cannot / hold him. You want to sleep beside his face" (19). "Holding," a poem about a daughter visiting her father in the hospital, likewise concentrates on the desire to hold the moment still and thereby maintain connection between the two characters. At the poem's start, for example, the narrator claims, "I want to put my hard weight against you" (54), the implications being that by doing so, she can hold the father in place even while death threatens to take him away.
Phillips uses similar techniques throughout "Sweethearts," concentrating on either an image or two or on a single incident for each story/poem. A good example of this is "Snowcloud." Phillips starts the tale with two paragraphs of exposition in which a mother tells a younger girl not to watch a prostitute who passes regularly up and down the road. Despite this, the girl seems adequately aware of the prostitute's usual movements through the accounts of others in the neighborhood. In the final paragraph, the young girl rides a bicycle by the prostitute's home and crashes. What Phillips closes with is the brief "moment" of connection between the two individuals:
When I wake up she bends over me, face and hands yellow with pollen. Hair flaming about her face, she obscures the sun. The road is empty. Blood is a syrup on my cheeks. She stands gazing down and releases her ragged gold.
The scene, the connection, as it appears in print is static, forever "present tense," even though we know as readers that the incident has long passed into oblivion. What Phillips has done here is essentially to record, to make permanent, a moment as evanescent as the "Snowcloud" to which the title refers. She has transformed "memory," as Phyllis Lassner writes, "of these characters' chaotic lives into a pattern of continuity and connection" (193).
In "Cheers," Phillips records, not just a single image, but a solid string of moments connecting the young girl with another older lady. In this case, the narrator visits a sewing woman to have her cheerleading outfit adjusted. The incident is tawdry enough, and there is no great illumination, climax, or epiphany at the tale's end. Instead, what the reader receives at the end is a comment of the sewing woman: "Lord, she said. You do look pretty." Interestingly, the other children in the tale/poem are watching Queen for a Day at this time. Like the queens who are no longer, the girl is no longer the same "pretty" that she was. But also like the queens, whose moment of honor is permanent on film, this girl's moment of prettiness always "is" in print.
Perhaps the best example of the prose poem as redemption in this collection occurs in a piece titled "Pretty." This story/poem is nothing more than a couple of lines of dialogue from the narrator's father about the narrator's birthday as a young girl and a description of the people and things surrounding the dialogue. Her father's statements stress the passage of time. "How old are you this birthday Miss? Thirteen?" he asks. "Thirteen," he repeats. "Pretty soon you'll be fifty-three and won't know where the time went." Yet the description surrounding these lines stops time, allowing the narrator to in a sense remain "home" forever. "The things you select to remember, are what home really is," Phillips states in her interview with Thomas Douglas (186). The narrator makes this selection of memory overt in "Pretty" by stating at the start of the tale/poem: "It was my birthday. I was half child, sensing by their feel which scenes I would remember." What she remembers, Phillips's narrator then records:
My mother tore wet lettuce with her brown hands. My brothers, hurrying to wash up, ran through the kitchen smelling of sweat and crushed grass. Outside my father stood over the grill, weight on one foot, hand on hip holding a hot pad I'd made at six. Chicken, basted red, crackled and smoked.
This freezing of time becomes even more explicit at the tale/poem's end when the narrator describes her father's fishing cap: "On its bill a pink striped trout jumped gracefully from the water, hooked tense body a glistening, deathless curve." Like the fish that can remain forever airborne in still image, Phillips's writing allows the narrator to perennially return to, to perennially recapture, "thirteen" in the still imagery of the prose poem.
While "Sweethearts" captures home in the single moments and keeps it always present, "Slaves" seems much less optimistic. Unlike "Sweethearts," "Slaves" does not concentrate on single moments but instead, as I noted before, on strings of emotions and desires, occasionally veering into summaries of long periods of time. The reason for this difference should be clear from the subject matter. The protagonists are women who have escaped home, who are no longer "stuck" there. But these are also women who lack the connections one sustains in those evanescent moments--connections such as that between father and daughter in "Pretty" and even that between prostitute and young girl in "Snowcloud." What these women have instead are desires for moments of connection. "Slaves" demonstrates such desires from the start, from the very first story/poem of the second half, "Happy":
She knew if she loved him she could make him happy, but she didn't. Or she did, but it sank into itself like a hole and curled up content. Surrounded by the blur of her own movements, the thought of making him happy was very dear to her.
What we have here is a desire on the woman's part to fulfill her lover's every need, to connect to him, yet simultaneously, an uncertainty about her ability to do so. Indeed, there is uncertainty whether she loves at all. All she has are her "own movements" and "the thought of making him happy." It is this "thought," not actual fulfillment, that the rest of this story/poem and the most of the rest of the text of "Slaves" explores. Connection and freezing time is possible here only in the imagination.
Images of masturbation throughout "Slaves" further this theme of disconnection. I've already noted how "What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive" ends with a girl masturbating to Rod Stewart as an escape from a horrid summer camp. "Swimming" is yet another tale/poem involving a young girl who masturbates. This story/poem, about a girl who likes to dance with her best friend Jancy, suggests loneliness for both girls in two ways: first, through the girls choosing to dance with each other in the absence of the male partners they would prefer--the only males they can associate with here are the singers to which they listen, the male "crybaby" voices on a record player, which cross "I'm just a soldier, a luh-honely soldier." Second, the story/poem suggests loneliness through one of the girl's habits of masturbating with a three-foot-tall doll when younger. "She slept with the doll at night," we are told, "embraced, kissing the plastic mouth. One night her mother saw the doll in her bed. . . . Its foot pressed against her cunt." Girl/girl relations and relations with dolls become the only means to connection in a world where the desired boy/girl relations do not exist in a physical sense.
Two other, less narrative-based story/poems, "Slave" and "Here We Go Round," consider masturbation as a major, if not the main, subject. In both, sex appears "as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power between men and women" (Foucault 103). This concern for power relates to the characters' desire to remain escapees. The connection these women long for is also the creation of the "home" that will confine them and keep them away from the free, "independent" selves they believe they have managed to obtain.
"Slave," from which the second half of Sweethearts draws its name, is explicit about this concern with power. In it, a girl uses masturbation to fulfill her sexual desires. "When she masturbated," Phillips writes, "she always had a brief intense orgasm, turning over ten times and fell asleep released." This, in turn, allows her to gain "power" over her male lovers by not having to depend on them for sexual satisfaction. In fact, Phillips writes, "she seldom ha[s] orgasms with her men." Instead, she gains pleasure by watching "her men have orgasms with their eyes closed, sailing on their breath, and gone. She ha[s] the pleasure of helping them leave, and [i]s left in possession of them until they [return]."
What occurs is in many ways a reversal of the usual male/female sex roles in terms of the (largely male-dominated) world of pornography, wherein the male watches the female have an orgasm. Here, the woman is the pornographer in possession of the male image, the secret "memorized faces in that moment of unconsciousness." Yet as Alan Soble notes in his book on pornography, pornography holds within it, not just the power of the male possessor, but ultimately his powerlessness (84). "[While] pornography," Soble argues,
allows men to gain a sense of control . . . [by providing] sexual experiences without the entanglements, mistakes, imperfections, hassles, and misunderstanding that interfere with pleasure and that accompany sex with a wife [or girlfriend] (80),
it relegates such control, such power, to the world of fantasy. The same ultimately occurs in "Slave." In a relationship near the end of the tale/poem, the woman "expose[s] and solidifie[s]" her power by confessing to a close male friend that "although she like[s] men she never ha[s] orgasms with them but only with herself." This, in turn, makes him want to make love to her more, but she, now knowing that "her power over him happen[s] because of her power over herself," cannot allow it. Instead of a healthy, loving sexual relationship, the woman, in an attempt to keep power, ends up the slave of her own need to possess and sustain this power, which, in turn, makes her alone and disconnected.
In "Here We Go Round," another woman feels this same unwillingness to let go of the power over herself and, as a result, has the same inability to connect. In this case, the woman grounds her power in sexual experience--experience that she has but is unwilling to share because "when one deals with someone whose experience is of a different level, that exchange implies assuming responsibility for that person." Not wanting the responsibility that connection, love, or sex implies, she turns down a possible relationship with a new man. Instead, she chooses "to take responsibility for her own needs," rather than letting someone "help" her. "Wouldn't that mean," the narrator explains about such "help," "giving up her experience, whose grounded weight was known and supportive, for another experience, or someone's hole where experience would be?" Of course, this unwillingness to risk responsibility or experience ironically means that the woman gains neither any new experiences nor any relationships.
The result of this constant disconnection is that there is not transcendence of time or space, no single moment appropriate to demonstrate connection between two characters. Only two narratives in "Slaves" seem to utilize narrative structure in a way similar to the first half of the collection to circumvent the disconnection that the passage of time creates. These two story/poems, "Stripper" and "Accidents," however, freeze not "moments" of connection but voices--monologues--that express to their listeners a desire for this moment of connection. The results are texts that simultaneously demonstrate connection and disconnection, love and longing.
In one of these, "Stripper," a stripper, Marlene, recounts the instructions on nude dancing that she received when younger from her elder cousin, Phoebe. The text is a mix of Phoebe's and Marlene's voices:
When I was fifteen back in Charleston, my cousin Phoebe taught me to strip. She was older than my mother but she had some body. When I watched her she'd laugh, say That's all right Honey sex is sex. It don't matter if you do it with monkeys.
As the story/poem continues, the difference between the two voices becomes almost indistinguishable, implying not so much a freezing of a moment as a loss of distinction between the two cousins. When later the narrator proclaims, "Once in Laramie, I was in one of those spotted motels after a show an a man's shadow fell across the window," the "I" could apply to Phoebe or Marlene. In fact, Marlene, one could argue, is not the narrator at all, but Phoebe's stage name--for it is only on stage that the name occurs. "Now Marlene's gonna slip ya into a little darkness," the M.C. announces.
Despite this connection, the subject matter has written within it the disconnection and the longing that stripping implies. Not only do men watch the stripper, desiring her, but the stripper (whether taken for Marlene or Phoebe) finds herself fearful of her customers and tries to avoid them. Toward the middle of the story/poem, for example, the stripper recounts a man coming near her motel room. Nervous, she locks herself in the bathroom and waits for him to leave. The man becomes emblematic of all her customers. "Now I'm feeling his shadow fall across stages in Denver and Cheyenne," she says. To counteract this nervousness on stage, she "close[s her] eyes an dance[s] faster, like [she] used to dance blind an happy in Pop's closet."
But it is also this blind dancing that allows the stripper to transcend time, to freeze a past and make it once again present. Right after the narrator states that she "used to dance blind an happy in Pop's closet," she, for a moment, transports herself back there through description: "His suits hangin faceless on the racks with their big woolly arms empty." This motif of dancing runs through much of Phillips's work, including such examples as the two girls dancing in "Swimming," the narrator of "Accidents" proclaiming that she wishes to dance with a lover, and one of the major characters in Counting being identified as a dancer.
What may seem odd about this motif is that dancing appears to be just the opposite of "stop time" or "stasis." It is "movement." Yet dance, particularly modern dance, as many dance theories point out, aims for this same capturing of a "moment." To understand how, we must return to Eastern philosophy, from which many contemporary theorists and dancers, such as Erich Hawkins, draw their thinking. Unlike the West, which often views change as "an insoluble problem and a major source of psychosomatic distress" (Jacobson 6), in the East, Buddhists and others recognize change as "one of the ontological realities of life" (Jacobson 6). All, as Junjiro Takakusu puts it, is always "dynamic becoming" (36), and there is only, as noted before, the "eternal present," which is always in a state of "becoming." Dancing expresses this eternal present, this becoming, in its movement. It "points toward our moving and perishable embodied existence," as Sondra Fraleigh explains, "holding it before us, filling and freeing present time that we may dwell whole within it" (xvii). Because the dancer is "present-centered, or pre-reflective" (Fraleigh 13), he or she experiences everything through the immediate senses without recoil to thought. In this way, he or she achieves a kind of Zen nirvana state of "no thought," or a "clear place," as Erich Hawkins puts it (71). This state, in turn, allows the dancer to transcend, to "move beyond the confines of the self" (Fraleigh xxii). This liberation is ultimately a liberation from the constant flight between desire for home and escape. It allows one to find home in the "now" of becoming, while also allowing escape from the tyranny of a socially created self.
Yet the problem here is that every time the stripper opens her eyes, she is once again objectified, once again disconnected from the audience through their looking upon her. As a result, dancing in this story becomes both a means of transcendence (with fellow dancers, with a past made present) and a means of re-establishing Otherness and, thus, disconnection (through the gaze of the audience).
In "Accidents," the other frozen-voice story/poem of "Slaves," a woman recounts her "accidents" in an attempt to seduce a lover--any lover. Here, however, the narrator does not merge with her listener in the way that Phoebe and Marlene merge into each other. From start to end, the narrator merely expresses her wants. "I wanna dance," she says, halfway through. "I wanna just wrap my legs around you like those rings are round the moon. Lemme press my mouth against you like the rain against the glass it's see-through." At the end, she again expresses her desire and explicitly requests its fulfillment, when she says, "I wanna feel a hand on my waist. He and I are through, why don't you come over?" But the narrator's dependence on telling about her "accidents" to make her male listener "sympathetic," to make him "fall in love" with her, is unfortunate--for as we discover, the narrator cannot tell a sustained story. The narrative itself is almost impossible to follow, full of juxtaposition of a wandering mind. The narrator even acknowledges at one point,
I keep dropping how things went, which story goes where. This week and next week and next week. Somewhere out there's a winner but I'm losing track. I try to stay home and turn the pages in my books. But the words are a dark crusted black that cracks.
Ultimately, because this narrator, unlike the narrator in the first half of the collection, cannot tell a story, she cannot freeze moments or redeem a past to connect herself to others.
While Sweethearts shows both successful and unsuccessful attempts to circumvent the passage of time through narrative by splitting the text into two distinct sections, one that records moments of connection and one that records desires to connect, one that records "home" and one that records "escape," Counting shows both the circumvention of time through narrative and that narrative's inability to do so in the real world simultaneously. The way it does this is by following two narrative tracks at the same time, one following a Buddhist Samsaric birth-death-rebirth spiral and the other following, via its fragmentation into a series of moments, the prose poem's freezing of the "eternal present."
I've already noted how Counting concerns itself with death, loss, and the passage of time through its motifs and its concerns for the ages of its characters. Phillips furthers this theme via the overall arch of the plot, with its recounting of the relationship between an aging dancer and a younger man from its inception to its aftermath. This "love relationship" parallels the process of Samsara as defined in Eastern religion. Samsara is, as Alan Watts writes, "the everlasting Round of birth-and-death" (Way 45) from which practitioners of Eastern religion seek liberation when they "seek" Nirvana (though, of course, to seek Nirvana is to never attain it--since Nirvana is the attainment of nonseeking, or nondesire). What imprisons one in this round of birth and death is desire, which in turn causes suffering. Desire can only occur, however, when an individual recognizes a difference between himself or herself and the external world. As already noted, such difference must arise mutually. In Zen and other Eastern religions, this difference is an illusion--the external is internal. This is not to say we have some sort of mystical control over the events in the world, but rather that all we know and feel about the external world is what is inside us. Alan Watts, in Psychotherapy East and West, explains this better than I can:
all our sensory experiences are states of the nervous system. The field of vision, which we take to be outside the organism, is in fact inside it because it is a translation of the external world into the form of the eye and the optical nerves. What we see is therefore a state of the organism, a state of ourselves. (79)
In other words, the only "external" world we know is the world inside us, the world that touches our various senses, the world that we create via our various ideas and feelings about it. As a result, all that one desires is already a part of oneself, for the desire is not external to us but internal. Not to recognize this is to continue desiring and, thus, to continue suffering, to continue in the round of Samsara.4
To desire, furthermore, causes us to "ignore the most powerful motivation of all, the need to be faithful to the fundamental creativity of life" (Jacobson 90). This creativity of life stems from being "present-centered" (Jacobson 24). When one wishes for a "lost love," one wishes for a past that is impossible to regain or a future over which one has little or no control. Yet, as we shall see, it is through such unattained desires that Phillips shows the passage of time.
In Tantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy, Philip Rawson discusses a common Indian metaphor for Samsara: the love relationship between a man (Shiva) and a woman (Shakti). The relationship occurs in five stages. In the first,
The pair are so closely embraced that neither is fully aware of the other as distinct . . . [and] Shakti is said to "have her eyes closed," in total bliss, because she has not awoken to the state of separateness. (18)
In the second,
Shakti's eyes have opened, though the couple are still united. She is now in the first state of realized separation. The Shiva-self, the subject, has been 'presented' . . . with a separate active object, a "that" distinct from his "I." (18)
Rawson goes on to describe the last three stages:
At the next stage down the couple move out of union into distinct parts. Only their mutual sexual attraction reminds them that they belong to each other, that self and world are really only complementary aspects of the same reality. And now Shakti can really begin to function. She becomes in the next lower stage that beautiful female dancer, whose dance weaves the fabric of the world. The patterns of the dance are not pure illusion, but neither are they "real" in the sense of being independent concrete facts. The self is so fascinated by her performance that it believes it is seeing all kinds of different things which are really her movements and gestures. Most important of all, it begins to think--because of her bewildering activity--that is itself not one, but many, male and female. (18)
Counting involves a similar process. Though the first chapter starts after the couple has already split up, the story itself recounts the way they meet ("at a bookstore, near Union Square" ), their sexual union ("There was a hard edge to their fucking. She was immersed" ), her "opening of her eyes" ("She was awake, she wanted no knowledge. At night she sat by the window while he slept. She would leave him" ), and her "moving out" into a distinct part when she does leave him.
Concerns with Eastern religion are not limited, however, merely to the narrative form. Phillips makes the ties she has placed within the text explicit throughout the story. The aging female is, in fact, a Zen practitioner and a dancer. Phillips even titles chapter 3 "Samsara." It is in this chapter, in fact, that the dancer first states her Zen leanings. "To cry is to resign yourself," she states. "That's why you are bitter. You have accepted so little" (3). The event itself, though early in the text, chronologically falls toward the center--right after the woman has told the man she's leaving him. Thus Phillips connects, early on, the story's theme of desire as the cause of suffering (through the above quote) with Samsara and Zen (through the chapter's title). This connection continues throughout the text. In each case, the male lover appears tied to Western modes of thought, and as a result, to the suffering caused by desire, by the separation of "I" and "thou," and by the desire that comes from the loss of that "thou."
In chapter 4, for instance, the man tells his lover, "I supposed we were born with desires," while the woman, expressing the Buddhist line of reasoning, says, "We are born with nothing" (4). Again, the male's Western mode of thought finds expression in chapter 18 when he finds himself wishing for his love:
He wants her. He feels her disappearing. His desire comes like acid, the air changes.
. . . How could he have had her. Not this hole in the days, its chemical taste. Her voice saying You can't get it man, I haven't got it.
Interestingly, Phillips titles this chapter "Circle." The title comes from the account of a lion circling in its cage in the chapter's center. Yet the description resonates on several levels. The man himself is this lion, imprisoned in his desire to his attachments to the past. The "circle," furthermore, is another word for Samsara--the round of birth and death.
Unlike the man, the woman strives to release herself from such attachments, to escape Samsara. Her Zen beliefs blanket the text. They are, in fact, one reason she leaves the man. In chapter 10, she awakens and finds that she wants "no knowledge," and then decides to leave him. "No knowledge" is the equivalent of the Zen "no mind," wherein one strives to purify one's mind of "all kinds of intellectual nonsense and passional rubbish" in order to free oneself of attachments that make one "miserable and [make one] groan under the feeling of bondage" (Suzuki 339). By leaving her lover, the woman rids herself of physical attachments, which, in turn, should give her the freedom and power that the characters of "Slaves" try to maintain by escaping the cycle of "need and responsibility." Like those characters, however, the woman, though able to leave her physical possessions--symbols of her attachment to the world--with the man (11), finds that she cannot escape her need for interconnection with others. By chapter 20, she is keeping the letters her ex-lover writes to her in a box and sending out letters to random people. Her desire to remain unattached yet also to connect causes her simultaneously to send out letters with words, "Open this," across their faces and to refuse to actually write anything on the paper inside the envelopes--it remains "blank as pebble" (20).
Phillips offsets this movement of time created by the mirroring of the Samsara birth-and-death cycle with the fragmentary mode of recording the narrative. Like the first half of Sweethearts, most of these fragments revolve around single moments. And also like Sweethearts, the fragments are nonchronological--thus stressing an episodic, moment-based structure over a climactic one. The story does, of course, have a "sense" of climax, but this climax is not via a chronological plot.
Once again, the capturing of passing moments in a written text serves to circumvent the passage of time. Chapter 2, "Landing," for instance, stresses a ride home in a taxi, or rather, the "windows" that the male lover remembers from that night. These windows become the means through which the male returns to a time in which he was still in love, a time just before the breakup. "He is haunted by the speckled windows of taxis," the chapter begins. Later, as the couple ready to enter their apartment (having left the taxi), he remembers, "Blank windows of the buildings were a color he could not explain. Shadowed gray, sides of oxen. If he touched the glass panes, he felt they would move back slow beneath his hand" (2).
In chapter 21, "Bridge," driving, something the male does habitually at night once he has returned to his parents' home, becomes the means to restore lost moments, rather than windows. "Cars hunched in the dark" remind him of childhood love affairs‑-they are "sexual," the text reads. The hay fields he drives "smell of adolescence." A bridge he crosses takes him back to age 14, to the night a driver of one of his father's trucks "pitched into the water." At the end of the passage, the difference between past and present blurs as he remembers or feels "shivering on the bridge, aware of his contracted sex." The shivering could refer to the cold of the morning that he and his father dragged the river for the truck or to the "shuddering" of the bridges as he crosses it. Phillips furthers this loss of difference between periods of time via the implied metaphor of "falling off the bridge" to the loss of lovers both in the distant past and the recent past. Through memory, the man dispels this loss, "crossing over" into times before breakups, before his bridges were severed.
In both Sweethearts and Counting, Phillips furthers these attempts to stop time by drawing upon the similarities between photographs and prose poems. Photographs, and specifically descriptions of photographs, take a prominent position in both texts. This shouldn't be of much surprise since, like the prose poem, photography captures single moments of ordinary experience. Phillips's use of prose poem structure is in many ways analogous to creating a book of photographs. The photograph, in fact, seems an appropriate metaphor for Phillips's goals as a writer and the way in which she sees fiction as a means of "holding things in place long enough to examine" (Douglas 187). Susan Sontag, in On Photography, describes photography in a way similar to the way Phillips describes fiction. "Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality," Sontag writes, "of making it stand still" (163). Photography is also similar to Zen art and to the prose poem in its seeming ability to express the "pure suchness of a lived moment" in that "[p]oetry's commitment to concreteness and to the autonomy of the poem's language parallels photography's commitment to pure seeing" (Sontag 96). "Photographed images," as a result, as Sontag notes elsewhere, "do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it" (4). What this means is that, like writing, "photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal" (Sontag 9), yet also like writing, "by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt" (Sontag 15). The photograph, thereby, is simultaneously "pseudo-presence and a token of absence" (Sontag 16), just as words stand in the place of objects in their absence. Finally, like narrative, the selection of images for a photograph confers "a kind of immortality (and importance) [on an event] it would never otherwise have enjoyed" (Sontag 11), and thus, like narrative, photographs can, as Sontag notes, "be used to make a substitute world" (162). Through this substitute world, each family constructs
a portrait chronicle of itself--a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness [even while . . .] in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of family starts undergoing radical surgery. (Sontag 8-9)
This radical surgery is the destruction of the family unit as we know it. Photographs, like writing, allow for the continued connection of families through their ability to act as permanent witnesses to events. These acts of witnessing, as Phyllis Lassner notes, are of great importance in Phillips's fiction because they, through their being recorded, erase "emotional, temporal, and spatial boundaries between self and other while ensuring the self's individuality" (197). By freezing moments, photographs, like narratives, escape and witness time's passage, allowing characters to meet the need both to return home and to escape it, to live in the past as well as the present. It should be no surprise, then, that at least one critic, Doris Grumbach, compares Phillips's short fiction to a series of "vignettes that reminds 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" (9). Phillips, in fact, seems to express this aesthetic in her review of Raymond Carver's What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. "He possesses a splendid ability to isolate a moment and render it completely," she writes in praise:
Motion and time are captured as in freeze-frame of a stopped film and a distillation of experience is revealed. The moment itself is a recurrent fascination. What is the texture of memory? What is saved and what is meant? (77)
"Meaning and resolution may remain secret," she muses later in the review, "but the image itself exists indelibly" (77). She could as easily have been speaking of her own work.
Photographs, in fact, start both Sweethearts and Counting, as well as her later collection, Black Tickets. The "photograph" in Sweethearts and Black Tickets is the prose poem "Wedding Picture." Knowing that the narrative structure will attempt to circumvent time and that each "poem" attempts to capture a moment, the use of a photograph, which attempts the same, seems highly appropriate with which to begin. As a mere description of a wedding photo (which, in fact, appears on the cover of Sweethearts and an early edition of Black Tickets), there is no "story" or plot structure, and therefore, no action to denote the passage of time--the piece remains static. Yet within this stasis, Phillips manages to convey "all time." She does this by integrating memories--specifically other images--connected to the photograph. She starts with a description of a mother, then moves to the father, and then quickly into his past through a similar image: "My father stands beside her in his brown suit and two-tone shoes. He stands also by the plane in New Guinea in 1944." This image then connects to another: "On its [the plane's] side there is a girl on a swing wearing spike heels and short shorts." Through one image, Phillips enters a whole string of images, and thereby, an entire universe, transcending all time barriers, in the same way that one girl's painted breast can "balloon" so that "the sky opens inside them."
Counting, likewise, starts with a photograph, only here the photograph is only mentioned, not described. It is, as noted earlier, a photo of "an elephant graveyard in Kenya" (1), a photograph that is important insofar as it suggests the feel of loss that blankets the entire story and the way in which the collection attempts to capture such loss. Yet Counting is not without its own lengthy description of a photograph. It simply occurs later, in chapter 12, "Camera." This chapter starts with an account of how the male lover steals the photograph when the woman leaves, the photo becoming a physical manifestation of the memories he carries with him. The description of the photograph makes this connection to memory explicit: "In the picture she is nineteen, backed against slick white walls of a shower. Her face surfaces in long wet hair. At first glance she is a child living someone's memory of her." Like "Wedding Picture," the photograph description opens out into further images, in a fuller containment of time. In this case, the image becomes the cameraman himself as he takes the picture, which in turn connects to the woman's memories of an even more distant love affair.
Though Phillips's choice of the photographic prose poem structure over the longer short story structure attempts a freezing, a circumvention of time, the ability to actually prevent "loss" remains questionable in both of Phillips's two earliest book-length works. We see this chiefly through the numerous references to loss already noted in this chapter. Indeed, even the photographs and the images and memories they evoke seem to suggest such loss. The narrator of "Wedding Picture," for example, cannot help but note that the photo was taken "[f]ive years [after] the [narrator's mother's] high school lover crumpled on the bathroom floor, his sweet heart raw" and that the photos was taken at the same moment that "her [the woman in the photograph's] mother's sick, it's time"--the time for mothers to die, time to marry, time to take the photo. Through mention of these dark undertones within a frozen moment, the photograph becomes the embodiment of both the loss that death implies and the connection implied by marriage. "Camera," in Counting, contains a similar undertone of loss. In this case, the memory that the photograph evokes is of the woman's early love affair with an over-fifty-year-old man, and more specifically of a singular sexual incident between the two. What the narrator notes last has a bittersweet ring to it: "When he speaks to her they pretend he will live forever." What the text implies here is both a permanence--as demonstrated by the sexual moment forever sealed in the photograph--and the impossibility of such permanence in reality--as embodied in the word "pretend."
It seems, therefore, that characters in these two texts are given no choice but to lose their homes, to escape or be stripped of their literal physical pasts, whether they wish to or not. Change, in the end, imprisons them. At the same time, home almost constantly remains with them through memory, through their views of the world, no matter how far away they try to run from it. Ultimately, their ego self stems from the world view handed to them by their homes and their pasts. "We carry home around with us in the way we perceive things," Phillips has said in interviews, "in the way we look at things. Your view of the world, the kinds of things you notice, the things you select to remember, are what home really is" (Douglas 186). To escape such a home is to lose the ego self, to escape the mind, to float completely without any stabilizing structure. While this, of course, is the goal of the liberated or enlightened mind, in Eastern religion, such loss remains terrifying to many in the Western world because it suggests, as Watts writes, a "lost control of everything" and means an individual can "no longer trust himself or others to behave consistently" (Psychotherapy 35). So instead of lasting enlightenment, what Phillips leaves her characters with are mere moments of enlightenment, snapshots of connection and harmony with others. These snapshots find form in her written text, and it is this written text that allows the "enlightenment" to find permanent form in the ever-changing present.
Black Tickets for Border Crossings
In Sweethearts, Jayne Anne Phillips discusses home and escape in two distinct sections, "Sweethearts," dealing mainly with stories of home, and "Slaves," dealing mainly with those who have escaped, who are lonely, who desire love. Black Tickets, Phillips's first story collection for a major press, expands on these same themes and, in fact, uses over half of the material from Sweethearts in verbatim or modified form. Yet this time, Phillips, rather than dividing the book into two distinct sections on home and escape, mixes the two concepts throughout the text. In fact, the larger Black Tickets collection seems to stress the themes of escape and of loneliness over that of home. Of the first half of Sweethearts, dealing with first-person narrative accounts of home, only five of the fourteen appear verbatim in Black Tickets (two others appear as portions of longer stories). By contrast, eight of the ten pieces from "Slaves," the second half of Sweethearts, dealing mainly with sexual desire and loneliness, appear unchanged in Black Tickets. The entire collection seems a meditation on loneliness and desire and, as the characters attempt to move beyond such things, sexual and moral depravity, the characters' chosen modes of transcendence.
Reviewers have been quick to note such themes. "If she writes about love, or the absence of love," writes Peter Prescott, for example,
she does so in a way that suggests nothing much can be expected from it. . . . Love is not romantic: it is something they [her characters] may have had once and then lost; it is an obligation, a vestigial link between child and parent; it is something they hadn't known before they got involved with sex; it is above all the unfulfilled promise of redemption. (116)
"Love," Keith Cushman writes in his review, "is at best something that happened long ago" (93).
Phillips's stories in the collection fall into two general categories. About half deal with "addicts, pushers, whores, strippers, psychotics, [and] abandoned children," all of them "unable to make an authentic human connection, desperate for the oblivion of sexual and chemical highs" (Cummins 467-68). The other half typically involve, as Prescott puts it, "a woman in her middle 20s, temporarily parted from a lover, who returns home for a few days' disheartening encounter with a widowed or divorced parent" (116). Despite the young woman's expectation of security in this time of disheartenment, what she discovers is "that the parents are now just as adrift and emotionally needy as [she is]. Only memories of happier times remain, and the memories are not to be trusted" (Cushman 93). In either case, whether dealing with young women come home or persons on the margins of society, Phillips stresses loneliness and loss of love.
In her book Lonely in America, Suzanne Gordon defines loneliness as "the sense of deprivation that comes when certain expected human relationships are absent" (26). Of course, there is, as Gordon notes, a kind of existential loneliness that goes deeper than this, a loneliness "inherent in the human condition" (37). We are all, she writes
inevitably alone because we are all separate from one another. We are born alone and we die alone. We are enclosed by our bodies in a unique space that can never be completely penetrated by another. (37-38)
In order to avoid such separateness, persons will often "attach themselves to anyone or any group" (Gordon 28). This attachment, in Phillips's Black Tickets finds two forms--either a return to one's childhood as in such stories as "Home," "Souvenir," and "Heavenly Animal" or a turn to the largely criminal underworld as in such stories as "Lechery," "Black Tickets," and "Gemcrack." If a character chooses to return home after a length of time abroad, he or she inevitably finds it changed, and like a wanderer, "once the excitement of his home-coming has worn off, he feels himself an outsider" (Wood 150). This, in turn, makes the person grow "restless and [yearn] to go back to the bush again" (Wood 150). If a character joins with the criminal underworld, he or she finds "a measure of recognition, response, and security [and] the emotional satisfaction of belonging to a group" (Wood 99). Yet here too such characters come to view themselves as "outsiders," and the "normal law-abiding" community, in turn, takes
the attitude that the criminal breaking the mores has deliberately and of his own free choice placed himself outside the pale. Consequently, on both sides of the relationship are attitudes of fear, distrust, enmity, and revenge. (Wood 98)
In other words, the criminal, alienated from "average" people and society, finds himself or herself even more dependent on his or her criminal family--a family whose allegiance, as Margaret Wood points out, is often "based primarily on fear" rather than on true affection (98).
In addition to this drive toward others, there is also, especially in American society, a counterdrive toward independence and individuality. It is this conflict between these two drives that Phillips's early work largely explores. "The very desire for relatedness and continuity," Phyllis Lassner writes of Phillips's characters, "produces rage at the failure to be recognized as individual and autonomous" (195). Ironically, however, in order to differentiate between the autonomous ego and the society, an individual must define him- or herself as something other than the society in which he or she lives, must define him- or herself as an outsider.
At the same time, it is the society and its view of the individual and, in turn, the individual's view of that view, not some inherent ego, that determines what the individual's identity as Other is. This identity requires a "consistent behavior," an adherence to rules that forge a pattern, a system, or an order (Watts, Psychotherapy 22).
Yet as Watts notes, "ideas of the world and of oneself which are social conventions and institutions are not to be confused with reality" (Psychotherapy 9). It is this confusion of the socially constructed identity with reality, Watts claims, that most often "creates feelings of isolation, loneliness, and alienation" (Psychotherapy 9). In reality, "there are no outsiders in the universe of life. There are only people who live as though there were. They cling to the world that has been projected for them" (Jacobson 151). Nirvana, the Buddhist state of Awakening, then, is to be considered primarily as "a liberation from being taken in by social institutions" (Watts, Psychotherapy 52). When a person recognizes these institutions as the illusions that they are, Gardner Murphy notes, "individual self-awareness is abrogated and the individual melts into an awareness which is no longer anchored upon selfhood" (qtd. in Watts, Psychotherapy 18). Such an expertise, however, is both desired and dreaded by an individual, both terrifying and ecstatic.
One reason for this is that the dissolving of the individual necessarily entails a kind of death--the death of the independent ego. In his famous work Erotism, Georges Bataille ties this death to the "erotic." Bataille also believes there are two contradicting drives within man: discontinuity versus continuity. He refers to these two drives by other names as well: life versus death, individual versus universal, peaceful versus violent, work versus passion, civilization versus nature, profane versus sacred. For Bataille, discontinuity is our individual state--the state in which we exist in society, while continuity is that state in which the ego melts away. Bataille places experiences of continuity within the erotic whether physical (sexual orgasm), emotional (feelings of love), or religious (a mystical tie to the universal). The transition from "normal" discontinuity to erotic continuity necessarily entails an act of violence, a "transgression," the transgression from one body to another, one ego to another, and thus the breakdown, the interrogating, of independent spheres.
But as in Buddhism, it is society that sets up barriers to continuity, that defines egos and enforces their continued existence. It does this by setting up prohibitions to eliminate violence (Bataille 38), which we then internalize as our own when we accept separate identities. These prohibitions or taboos, as they are also called, order the world so that we can work in it (Bataille 41), so that we are not, as Camille Paglia notes "storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature" (Sexual 1) and do not destroy each other.
Eroticism, in those few forays we make in "assenting to life up to the point of death" (Bataille 11), then "always entails breaking down established patterns . . . of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals" (Bataille 18). Many characters in Black Tickets do just this--reject the mainstream social order in favor of sexual delights and the criminal world. Others try to return home. In each case, the character seeks a connection, a continuity, a loss of loneliness extant within the ego. Yet the cost of such rejection often seems to be still more loneliness, still more despair. Whether via a return home, a sex act, a criminal act, or some combination thereof, Phillips's characters in Black Tickets remain outsiders attempting to transcend (that is, transgress) the borders separating them from others.
The stories in this collection with narrators who attempt to connect via a return home include "Home," "The Heavenly Animal," and "Souvenir." "Home," the first long story of the collection, seems the prototype. Here, an unnamed twenty-three-year-old woman, after running out of the money she uses to wander around, returns home. Her mother is now divorced and has recently had a portion of a breast removed because of cancer. The story focuses around the daughter's "sexually free" lifestyle versus her mom's desire not to have sex. As with most of these stories, these opposing lifestyles come to represent the opposing drives toward continuity and discontinuity, and the daughter's thrust into the home is, in fact, a means of transgressing the boundaries set up in a discontinuous society.
These boundaries manifest themselves with the first words of the story:
I'm afraid Walter Cronkite has had it, says Mom. Roger Mudd always does the news now--how would you like to have a name like that? Walter used to do conventions and a football game now and then. I mean he would sort of appear, on the sidelines. Didn't he? But you never see him anymore. Lord. Something is going on. (BT 7)
By referring to Cronkite by his first name here, Mom, as Constance Pierce brings out in her article on pop culture in contemporary literature, internalizes "a version of 'the outside world' by a wholehearted acceptance of its media emissaries" (668). In other words, the outside world implants itself into the inner world of home through television and media. Other references to the popular media entering the home abound. Mom receives Reader's Digest; her daughter reads old classics and detective stories. Each of these gives the illusion that the characters have real connections with the world around them. But, of course, the connections are deceiving. At their heart is alienation. Walter Cronkite and Roger Mudd, "the very agents who convince us we are in the know and therefore, in the world are known to be infinitely distant from us, our 'relations' only a one-way-close-circuit effect" (Pierce 668). Such alienation, such distance, at the heart of this media-to-"real"-person relationship seems true of every connection in the story.
One reason for this is the mother's unwillingness to risk contact with anything that might lead to deeper connections with the outside world. She refuses her daughter's offer of subscriptions to "mildly informative" magazines: "Ms., Rolling Stone, Scientific American" (BT 9). She refuses to read anything but "books in [her] field" (BT 8). She will not go out to the movies. When asked why, she says she does not want to "pay money to be upset or frightened" (BT 8). Rather, she prefers the happy music of musicals like The Sound of Music (BT 14), stories outside the misery of her own life, which make her happy.
In one sense, the mother has already communed, however unwillingly, with the outside world through her battle with cancer. The immune system works by recognizing and eliminating that which doesn't belong, that which is foreign or aberrant, that which is not self. Cancer bypasses this immune system by breaching "every convention of cellular etiquette . . . sabotag[ing] internal checkpoints that normally arrest aberrant behavior" (Hall 76). Cancer invades the body by deception, breaking down the distinction between that which is self and that which is not self, that which is inside and that which is outside. Eventually, cancer brings death--obliterating this distinction completely. Through cancer, the mother has had to stare at continuity directly. Her self--her body--has begun its process of disintegration. Her desire to shut out the outside world is quite naturally an attempt to re-establish her discontinuous self.
This is not, of course, to say that she refuses any contact with the outside world. She does, after all, watch the evening news and even movies on television, either or both of which can elicit unpleasant emotions. But when she does watch television, she is on her own turf--the home--which offers a safety, a distance from danger, that she cannot receive in the outer world or even in her own body. The knowledge of the potential danger in the outer world, in fact, seems to cloud her view of every person she watches. She believes at the start that because Walter Cronkite is not doing the news as often, he must have cancer. Likewise, Hubert Humphrey's aging body, which she sees on the news, becomes "a death mask"--he too has "cancer" (BT 15). By staying home, the mother locks out such cancers, such dangers.
Partly because the mother is so intent on re-establishing her individual self and partly because she knows the risk that love brings--both in terms of the anxiety created when such love is lost and in terms of the loss of self-control/self-definition that love itself brings--she ultimately finds distaste for her daughter's "free sex" attitude. "It's been years," she tells her daughter at one point about having an orgasm,
and in the last years of the marriage I would have died if your father had touched me. But before, I know I felt something. That's partly why I haven't . . . since . . . what if I started wanting it again? Then it would be hell. (BT 23)
It is also for this reason, this inability to face her own death, this loss of discontinuity, that the mother hates to look at youthful, sexual, female nudity such as her daughter's. It reminds her of what she can no longer have, and it forecasts a continuity that is now too dangerous for her to desire, a continuity that her own body speaks even more directly.
The daughter's return into the home becomes yet another example of the outside world invading the safety of the inside. The daughter has apparently been gone several years, traveling on the outside. Her return and two-month stay is a hesitant one. She is, after all, as she puts it, "twenty-three years old" (BT 8). And it is, not surprisingly, the daughter who tries to take the mother out to the movies, and when her mother refuses to leave the home, it is the daughter who tries to bring periodicals and reading in. It is the daughter who purchases and gives the mother The Sound of Music, happy as it is--yet still another outside possession. Ultimately, it is the daughter who brings in a man, something the mother seems to enjoy, "having someone in the house, a presence, a male" (BT 18), but also about whom the daughter can tell the mother has reservations. Like a cancer cell, the daughter's "closeness" to the mother, both genetically and emotionally, allows her to continually do these things, to continually transgress the boundaries of the home with little actual defense of the mother's part.
The narrator, unlike the mother, has not come so close to continuity, that is, to her actual death. As a result, the narrator's own wish to transcend necessitates a bringing in of the "male"--a sexual act. The male "member" is the daughter's invading mass. While the mother may fear starting to want sex again, the daughter, with her seemingly frequent sexual encounters, finds she does want it, finds that life is hell without it. Unlike the mother, whose tie to the continuous is spoken perennially through her deformed breast, the daughter's continuity--even her mere human connection to others--remains temporal, hence, her continued sexual "need." "To be aware of love," as Clark Moustakas says,
in its real sense, is loneliness: . . . this awareness that love is now and yet passing, that one reaches out to hold the moment and suddenly it is gone, suddenly it is sealed in the past, in memories, to be recaptured in reminiscence. (143-44)
The narrator demonstrates such "lost love," such desire, throughout the story. On Saturdays, for example, she goes to the Veterans of Foreign Wars rummage sales, largely to look for possible "possessions of old friends" and, more specifically, old boyfriends (BT 12). Through such an experience, she is able to recall memories of past loves. This desire to reclaim her past loves manifests itself while the narrator's mother takes a bath--"[h]ydrotherapy," the narrator calls it. The narrator's own therapy, it appears, is sex. "I'll get a ride to the university a few hours away," the narrator thinks, "and look up an old lover. I'm lucky. They always want to sleep with me. For old time's sake" (BT 16). Sex as the solution for the narrator's disconnection and discontinuity also manifests itself in the discussion the daughter has with her mother over Hubert Humphrey. While the mother claims he is dying of cancer--a tragedy--the narrator claims all he needs "is a good roll in the hay" (BT 15). Not surprisingly, one of the narrator's past loves does show up, and interestingly, he is a Vietnam veteran. Her desire for him is apparent from the moment he calls. "Bring some Trojans," she tells him. "I'm a hermit with no use for birth control. Daniel, you don't know what it's like here" (BT 18).
Yet the daughter's desire for an experience of connection and continuity masks an actual inability on her part to reach such moments with any sustained power or meaning. For one, she has had no sustained relationships with men--just discontinuous episodes. These episodes, furthermore, have never yielded even a moment of orgasm for the daughter--the moment wherein, as Bataille notes,
fear of death and pain is transcended, [and] the sense of relative continuity between animals of the same species, always there in the background as a contradiction, though not a serious one, of apparent discontinuity, is suddenly heightened. (98-99)
Like her mother, the daughter even expresses, at some points, a fear of death. Holding a towel to her nude mother's body in the bathroom, for example, the daughter notices how fragile her mother is and is suddenly "horribly frightened" and lets herself out of the room (BT 17). These inabilities to face the death embodied in her mother, to reach orgasm with her men, or even to commit to a single man suggest ultimately that the daughter is not serious about continuity, that she, like her mother, prefers the safety of a discontinuous state.
Home, a place of rules and of taboos meant to block out death but also, in the process, love and continuity, is an appropriate place for both mother and daughter to run to for safety. The taboos manifested in the home find their expression in guilt, something the mother, as the "symbol" of home, fosters. "There's nothing wrong with guilt," she tells her daughter at one point. "If you are guilty, you should feel guilty" (BT 10). Despite protestations to the contrary, the daughter cannot overcome such guilt. Taboos become a part of the house itself. When first trying to have sex with her visiting beau, Daniel, for example, they both find "something is wrong," and though they try, nothing happens. "This room," the boyfriend says. "This house. I can't breath in here" (BT 21). Finally, at the end of the story, when the daughter does manage to have sex and her mother finds out, she worries about confronting her mother. We see this in the way she attempts to hide her act--despite it already having been discovered--by stripping her bed and bundling the sheets. Even as she does so, she feels a "pressure in [her] chest" and she has "to clutch the sheets tight, tighter" (BT 24). Later, as she goes downstairs, she notes how "the fear comes." "I hug myself," she says, "press my hands against my arms to stop shaking" (BT 24).
By bringing sex into the house, she has transgressed the discontinuous boundaries that her mother's home attempts to maintain. She has violated the taboo and finds herself now also taboo through her mother's ignoring of her. Such a violation of the taboo "may be exorcised through acts of penance and ceremonies of purification" (Freud 34). This exorcism ends the story through the ritual of washing dishes. It is at this moment, as the daughter and mother "disappear in steam" that the only real connection in the story seems to occur, their disappearance into steam becoming a metaphor for the loss of the individual selves. This more personal communion is what orgasm was attempting to substitute for. Interestingly, this is the only point in the story where the mother and daughter must confront a taboo act together. The mother's words, "I heard you, I heard it . . . [.] Here, in my own house. Please, how much can you expect me to take? I don't know what to do about anything" (BT 25), both reimpose the boundary that the daughter has knocked over and force the two to face that boundary's lack of realness. The mother's line, "I don't know what to do about anything," shows what the home is supposed to defend against--the ultimate anarchy and lack of order in the outer world that the daughter has, through her act, fortunately or unfortunately, brought inside.
Similar moments of connection and transcendence end both of the other two stories involving daughters returning home, "The Heavenly Animal" and "Souvenir." In addition, both stories involve the same conflict between a wandering, sexually active daughter and a more conservative, dying, lonely parent. In "The Heavenly Animal," the parent is a divorced father, a former road builder,1 who "never did have any friends" (BT 135) and who, when phoning Jancy, his daughter, but instead receiving her mother, immediately breaks the connection (BT 129). "Souvenir" uses a mother figure again, who is again dying of cancer and whose husband has been dead six years.
In both cases, the daughter is a young wanderer come home, seeking connection in the sexual ties she has made on the outside. Jancy in "The Heavenly Animal" is a twenty-five-year-old on her way to visit her boyfriend, Michael, with whom she is "upset," by whom she is pregnant, and who she will not marry. Like the narrator in "Home," Jancy is "afraid of this house [her mother's], afraid of all the houses in this town" (BT 137). To her, they seem "silent and blank. They [seem] abandoned" (BT 137). Such fear causes her to reach out for others. In this case, she calls Michael, but in other cases, she travels, proclaims herself "abroad" (BT 142)--that is, without a home. "I won't stay in one place," she rebuffs her father, "out of fear I'll get crippled if I move" (BT 131). Likewise, the daughter in "Souvenir" has traveled widely, including--it is hinted--to Venezuela. She has sex with men whose names she cannot remember (BT 181). And like the narrators in both "The Heavenly Animal" and "Home," she has not had sex in a while--in this case, five weeks (BT 182).
Parents in both stories, furthermore, as in "Home," lecture their daughters on their dangerous lifestyles and/or urge them to stay home. "If you'd stay in one place for a while you'd gain a little weight and look better," the father tells Jancy in "The Heavenly Animal" (BT 143). "You need a family," he tells her later. "No one will ever help you but your family" (BT 144). The mother in "Souvenir" lectures her daughter similarly: "Using birth control that'll ruin your insides, moving from one place to another, I can't defend your choices" (BT 182).
The mother's comment here demonstrates again the way the outsider daughter transgresses taboos set up in the home and forces their re-evaluation. "I can't even defend myself against you," the mother in "Souvenir" says (BT 182), raising again the specter of daughter as "deceptively invading cancer." The line here also suggests, perhaps, a secret yearning the mother has to be young again and free as the daughter is now--a yearning not absent from the mother in "Home" either. In "The Heavenly Animal," the father's overwhelming concern for the daughter's car serves a similar role, masking not only his concern for his daughter but a secret yearning to be once again a "road builder," a traveler.
Both stories, despite the seeming lack of connection within them, especially via real love from people outside the home, end, like "Home," with a moment of transcendence, of continuity, between family members. Like all of Phillips's work, both are tinged with the feel of impermanence. In "The Heavenly Animal," this impermanent transcendence takes the form of a memory. Jancy, having finally crashed her car, feels, for a short moment, connected. Interestingly, the moment comes right after hitting and killing a deer, death--the bloody sacrifice of an animal--being a moment, as Bataille would note, of continuity akin to sex. The individual being the deer ceases to exist, and Jancy thereby faces her own discontinuity. Through her fear, she becomes one with the world, and the firm borders between her and the outside blur. "The earth and the asphalt were spongy," the narrator notes, describing Jancy as she walks (BT 147). The vision of the deer's feces then launches Jancy's memory, specifically of a single moment with her family in the past. The tone, the attention to detail, is much like the frozen time of the prose poems in Sweethearts:
Once it was Christmas Day. They were driving from home, from the house her father had built in the country. A deer jumped the road in front of them, clearing the snow, the pavement, the fences of the fields, in two bounds. Beyond its arc the hills rumpled in snow. The narrow road wound through white meadow, across the creek, and on. Her father was driving. Her brothers had shining play pistols with leather holsters. Her mother wore clip-on earrings of tiny wreaths. They were all dressed in new clothes, and they moved down the road through the trees. (BT 147)
While the above image hints at a communion between family members, it also hints at a moment before loss, before both the family and the deer were "lost." In this way, like the narrator in "Home," Jancy to an extent reveals a hesitance to truly embrace total continuity. The frozen moment here then points to both a continued discontinuity through the making permanent of individual life and to a continuity through the communion of family members and the "whiting out" of the physical world in snow.
"Souvenir's" moment of connection occurs as mother and daughter "float in air" on a Ferris wheel, communing with "the big sky," as Kate, the daughter, calls it (BT 195). It is here that the two finally confront each other regarding the death they know is about to occur to the elder. The floating itself, as we shall see, especially in chapter 3, becomes a metaphor for the state of the world and of the transcendence wherein impermanence--the Ferris wheel ride will last only a few minutes--and instability--the wheel is movement--are accepted as the "real" world. It is in such a place that the mother and daughter lose sight of their discontinuous egos in favor of the continuous, of connection and unity. "She saw herself in her mother's wide brown eyes," the narrator ends the story, "and felt she was falling slowly into them" (BT 196).
Sex, the attempted means of transcendence for the daughters in each of these stories, is also an attempted means of connection, of continuity, for several characters in the collection who opt not to return home. Sex, and in some way, love act as the chief motivators in several stories, including "El Paso," "The Patron," and "Country." All three of these involve characters who have either lost loves or wish to have them. All three involve characters who obsess over this desire for connection, a desire they cannot have without crossing some barrier, whether that be the passage of time or some physical or cultural barrier.
In "The Patron," this desire and lack of fulfillment is twofold, as it proves to be in the other two stories. An old gay man lusts for his daytime male nurse named James; the male nurse, in turn, lusts after the women in old pornographic films. The old man cannot have what he wants because, like the parents in the "daughter returns home" stories, he is dying and can no longer travel around with the young gay dancers as he used to. The male nurse, just as Kate watches over her dying mother in "Souvenir," supervises the dying man, but he looks for love, not with the old man, but in the outer world of "Harry's Peek-A-Boo," a world the patron cannot have anymore. Both, in essence, desire the past--either on film or in memory.
Obviously, one of the primary barriers the old gay man--the patron--must transcend is the moral/societal prejudice against homosexual love. Such prejudice manifests itself in the story through the old man and his friends being categorized as "Perv fairies" by such persons as Harry, the owner of Harry's Peek-A-Boo (BT 165). Something is assumed to be deviant about same sex love, thus the placement of the old man and his boys in pornographic avant-garde films (BT 161). The movies are removed twice over from "normal" society, first by their classification as pornography rather than art and second by their classification as avant garde, which aims to violate accepted conventions and decorums through such things as the introduction of forbidden subjects.
Relegated to the margins of society by their taboo actions, the patron and his boys find a home for themselves in dance. Dance creates such a home not only through its emphasis on the "present-centered, pre-reflective" state discussed earlier in chapter 1 but also through its perceived value and role in society. In her book Dance, Sex, and Gender, Judith Lynne Hanna characterizes dance as a "low-status occupation not sequestered by the dominant male group" (120). Such low status, in turn, allows "women and gays, groups stigmatized in the United States in the sense of being subject to prejudice and discrimination, [to find an] escape from their social and economic constraints" (120). This escape, however, also entails a homecoming, a creation of a new, albeit "marginalized," community. "The act of men dancing together," Hanna goes on to write, "may create a sense of belonging and a return to basic human relations unimpeded by industrialism's distortion of the natural rhythms of social life" (138). Dance also allows for the release of sexual urges--in this case, taboo urges--in a socially acceptable manner. This is because "[d]ance often has the excitement, release, and exhaustion characteristic of sexual climax," to the extent that "orgasmic gratification may come from actual or empathic dance involvement" (Hanna 47).
In an odd twist, however, because Phillips sets the story within the marginalized gay world, gay love in the patron's "home" is not only accepted but expected. The story reverses deviance so that the straight white male nurse, James, is now the "odd" one. The patron becomes the parent figure expecting conformity to the house rules. Family metaphors abound in the story. The patron's lovers are called "his boys," as if they are his sons (BT 160). "Maybe I'm his goddam son," James even states at one point. "He cops an incestuous thrill as I gather his bones together, wrap him up, deposit him in his blue suede chair" (BT 160). James, in fact, believes the old man expects him to be gay. "It's no secret," James says at one point, "he thinks I'm one of them. He buys my clothes in the same places, wants me to take lessons with their [dancing] teachers" (BT 161).
Like the homebound daughter of "Home" and "The Heavenly Animal," James find this environment too confining and seeks escape. When invited to spend the night one evening, for example, James flies "through the hallway, down the banistered stairs past frozen lions, through double doors carved with gods and snakes, and the stoic knockers shaped in cold brass crows" (BT 164). Where he goes is Harry's Peek-A-Boo, his usual hangout, where he enjoys watching 1940s and 1950s heterosexual pornographic movies. Such films, of course, at least as the narrator describes them, are hardly hardcore. In fact, part of what James admits to liking about them is their seeming lack of overt sexual "deviance": "And they [the women stripping] were so modestly teasing, smiling their serious smiles. So innocent you can't think of them that way" (BT 162). What occurs, therefore, in this story, is an odd juxtaposition of "home" and "escape," "inside" and "outside." What is usually taboo is now expected; what is seemingly innocent becomes deviant and strange.
The claustrophobia of the patron's house and the freedom and escape to Harry's takes on the language of hot and cold. Cold obviously serves as a metaphor for the "coldness," the lack of passion, extant within the patron's house for the narrator. References to cold abound within the house and as pertaining to the old man. "His stone house is cool," the narrator tells us at one point, "the street a muffled hum" (BT 167), this in the midst of summer. The connotation is that the home lacks "life." This coldness, this lack of life, the narrator parallels with descriptions of the old man: "The old man is always cool, pale as a root" (BT 168).
The street and Harry's Peek-A-Boo, in comparison, are places of heat, passion, and action. "In summer," the narrator notes, "the store is hot" (BT 168). This heat transfers to the film that James watches, both metaphorically in terms of his passion, his obsession for them, and literally. These two levels meet when Harry gives James some new "old" films. What follows is a description of a girl taking her clothes off on a beach as she runs into the ocean. But as the scene continues "the ocean starts to burn" (BT 165). Harry's comment that the "[d]amn films get hot in the machine" (BT 165) plays off both this literal and the usual metaphorical level for heat.
The narrator also notes that
[i]n summer the street gets hot. Heat wavers from its surfaces and the Krishnas dance, jerking thin skirts dark in sweated patches. Jingling angle bells. Leathery feet, thud, calluses, so deep tiny worms lay eggs in their cracks. (BT 167)
These active dancers contrast to the old man, who interestingly, has fallen and broken his ankles and who is, thereby, as the narrator notes, "like a Chinese girl with bound feet; a girl of good family whose feet are the feet of a baby" (BT 168). In order to escape into the more active and hot streets, the narrator not only runs away but actually "sins" against his adopted gay family by stealing from his "old man," overcharging him for drugs, and contemplating pawning his jewels. It is this literal transgression that allows him to have money to spend at Harry's Peek-A-Boo and thus to move outside the bounds of the old man's home.
Despite the seeming freedom that James finds at the Peek-A-Boo, however, he is still bound to a passion that cannot be filled. This lack of ability to transcend want on James's part parallels the old man's inability to fill his desires. The reason that James eventually fails to find transcendence outside the home is because the innocence embodied in the films he watches is always past tense. The narrator, in fact, begins the first description of the films in the past tense:
1940's and 1950's. Kinks were subtle and women were always alone; climbing ladders and bending over long finned cars. How beautiful they were, breasts the size of oranges, powdered brows. (BT 161)
This past tense gives way to the present as a specific woman is described: "There's the blond whose cheeks look bruised with rouge, kneeling beside a bathtub and scrubbing it out with a long brush" (BT 162). What is occurring here is something akin to the prose poems of Phillips's Sweethearts--a past is preserved forever in the present via a "recording," whether via film or words.
But like the photograph, film is
both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. . . . The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked [then] feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance. (Sontag 16)
What this means is that the pseudo-presence of such women entails both a relief--though temporary--of James's loneliness and an extension of that loneliness. As Susan Sontag puts it, "using a camera is not a very good way of getting at someone sexually. Between photographer and subject, there has to be a distance" and, as she goes on to note, detachment (13). Indeed, James's use of pornography seems precisely geared toward such ambivalence because he prefers those subjects who are intended to arouse one sexually yet who are simultaneously "innocent."
This inability to connect also finds expression in the person of the old man. His age and frailty bind him to walkers, nurses, and beds. As a result, he cannot use his feet to dance with his boys and thereby participate in their community. Yet this participation has, in fact, always been limited because he never was a dancer (BT 161). Thus his participation, his connection, to the gay community is, in some ways--though, of course, his literal sexual participation is hinted at throughout via references to his former lovers and shared pornographic film roles--limited to the same kind of voyeuristic detachment in which James participates. Indeed, many passages recount how the old man watches his dancers, much as James watches women on film.
James's unwillingness to give into the old man's desires further enhances this inability of the old man to connect. In the same way that James watches over the old man's health with a detachment that allows him to steal from the old man, run away when he cannot stand being around the old man anymore, and finally, merely perform his job in hopes that the old man will "die and leave [him] something, anything" (BT 160), the old man, though not detached in his desire for James, has to settle for watching James "mother" him by lighting his cigarettes, washing him, and moving him around. The old man's few moves toward James are relegated to speech--"How are you James?" (BT 160); "James . . . take care . . . James, have you plans for the evening" (BT 164)--and are met with James's flight and subsequent absence.
Despite this disconnection, James's introduction into a gay "home" amounts to a transgression of the discontinuous barriers between the heterosexual world and the homosexual world. Phillips sets up this mixture of the two worlds from the start, not with necessarily homosexual and heterosexual images, but with a mix of high and low aspects of society, of the religious and spiritual with the profane and mundane. "I head for the bathroom," the narrator says near the start,
I might grab the chamber pot under his chair and carry its sloshing contents in my flight. I might sprout wings, nearly run up the dark hall holding a squat chalice engraved with angels. His tilted bathroom smells of churches. (BT 159)
Here the church meets the bathroom. Not surprisingly, many of the scenes following involve bathrooms, from the 1940s and 1950s pornographic film in which a woman scrubs her tub in the nude to the ending wherein the narrator carries the old man to the bathroom to do his "business." The bathroom becomes a place for the erotic, as in the pornographic film, as well as for defecation. Both suggest a transgression of the body's boundaries, working upon the body's orifices, its entry and exit zones, its places of connection between the inner and outer. In addition, the bathroom itself is usually taboo, a place not discussed. It certainly is not the place for "high" literature. But here, the bathroom becomes a sacred temple because it binds us to nature and to death and to our continuous "Oversoul." We are all no more than "feces" spit/split up by the earth, waiting to be redeposited, to become undifferentiated feces again.
The bathroom is also the place where the strongest connection of the story seems to be made. As usual, the connection comes at the end. The old man finally gives James something meaningful--a gold locust pin--this in the midst of one of the old man's coughing spasms. James, not wishing to watch the old man's disease take hold, not wishing to get so near to death, just as he cannot get near a real woman nor anything more than extrasoft pornography, thinks of fleeing as he usually does. This time, however, he does not. As a result, he is "drawn to him [the old man], closer" until his ear is at the old man's lips. What he smells is death--"a rotted weight," "drying of an ancient herb"--but what he hears is love. "Love, my love," the old man whispers. "Don't leave me" (BT 169). The old man and the nurse finally connect for a moment, as in both death and love, and in the continuous world of the erotic.
"El Paso" and "Country" use the bath and/or bathroom as a mode of sexual connection as well. In fact, "Country" uses this connection to end its story, although the bathroom here is replaced by a bathtub in the kitchen wherein the two lovers bathe and essentially lose their discontinuous identities in each other:
Seeming we are in the water for hours. . . . She dried me with her hands in bed, her mouth on my eyes. . . . We had each other slow, looking at ourselves. . . . Our black faces rubbed her shoulders gray. And it gets confused, she, her face on me, silent, oh god easing into her we're in the dark. (BT 241)
In "El Paso," though the moment is not as elegantly described, nor seemingly assigned as much importance, the two lovers do shower together, then "wet the sheets, [sleep] in their damp" (BT 87). In both cases, the wetness implies a sexual communion and a moment of connection between the two lovers.
Like "The Patron," both "El Paso" and "Country" attempt to bring two worlds together through such acts. In "Country," the two worlds are black and white, as in a black woman and a white man. In "El Paso," the two worlds are Hispanic and white, as in an Hispanic woman--though her mother tries to deny this heritage--and a white man. And both stories, like "The Patron," also involve forms of detachment, of watching. In these two stories, however, the watcher becomes a third person, a witness. In "Country," the narrator watches his friend Billy get involved with the black woman. In "El Paso," a character known simply as "Watching" witnesses the relation between Rita and Dude. In both cases, the watchers, like the old man and James in "The Patron," attempt to establish a connection between themselves and the loved object, that is, the loved woman.
One can, in fact, read "Country" as a meditation on watching, on the attempt to cross over from watching to action. Though the story begins with the account of a sexual act--"We went down there because she was easy. . . . Sixteen, she was sixteen, moving on you, rolling flat and hard against you like some aging waitress" (BT 231)--it quickly backtracks to the first time that the narrator's friend Billy sees the black girl: "He looked at her, thinking, half-breed and sexual tales. She knew it, seeing him look as men look" (BT 233). Watching then passes on to the other characters. Billy watches the girl's father in his truck (BT 233). The children watch their grandmother circle the floor, crazy, chanting to herself (BT 234). The narrator watches the grandmother, too, seeing the old woman's and the black girl's faces together (BT 234).
Eventually, both Billy and the narrator become involved with the girl sexually. Yet as the narrator will recount, this, too, to him, seems like watching, seems still somewhat detached. "I felt like I'd never slept with her," he says the first time he sees her alone after Billy moves away, "like both of us, Billy and me, had really only watched her" (BT 237). This watching continues as the narrator recounts the different forms of light in which he has seen her: early daylight in the yard (BT 237) or the dim lights of a pool hall (BT 238). In each case, there remains always the object and the subject, the watcher and the one watched. As a result of this, the narrator and the girl fail to transgress the boundaries of their individual selves until they meet at the end of the story. What makes possible the "confusion" of their bodies and their selves on the bed following their bath is the lack of distance created by the tactile rather than the visual. It is this sexual meeting between two persons that allows the transcending of individual identities.
This tactility actually occurs in one other place besides the beginning and the end of the story. It is when the narrator gets into a fight with the girl's incestuous father. What makes this scene interesting is that the fight is transformed, not into a battle between the outside white person attempting to destroy the incest extant in this black family, but rather into its own sexual act in which the outside white becomes a part of the black family and thus part of its incest. "I thought for the first time that he must have been with her," the narrator says, "not now, but long before, and more than once. . . . We [the father and I] rolled in the yard and I felt her in his arms in that Detroit room" (BT 236-37). Here, the narrator actually becomes his black lover being raped by her dad, thus shifting his identity into an entirely other body.
The attempt to cross over from detached watching to continuous action and the tactility of sex is also a major theme of "El Paso." Just as early portions of "Country" stress the narrator's watching, early portions of this story emphasize Dude's watching of Rita and, through this, his desire to obtain her through the sexual act. This emphasis starts with the first mention of Rita:
I stumble blind into a table and voices, Spanish curses, stop and start. I look up and Rita, she's standing there not three feet away, having ripped the curtains off one window; she's screaming in her voice that goes throaty and harsh, and the light pours in all over her. Hot yellow gravy of light, her black eyes, and the red skirt tight, blouse loose old lace ripped at the shoulder. I wanted to roll my hand in her; I could feel her wet against my legs. (BT 78)
In this brief moment, Dude goes from unable to see, to sight of and desire for Rita, to the feeling of her against his legs.
The story further emphasizes watching by the fact that Rita is a stripper. As such, she is unattainable--an object differing from the self, "a movie magazine none of em could touch," as Bimp, the club owner, describes his blonde stripper (BT 88). Yet like a photograph, the stripper simultaneously embodies the unattainable, the separate, and "signifies male desire" (Copeland 145). As such, as Bataille puts it, "The naked woman is near the moment of fusion, her nakedness heralds it. But although she symbolizes the contrary, the negation of the object, she herself is still an object" (131). What this means is that the "first stirrings" of the "final aim of eroticism . . . fusion, all barriers gone" are "characterized by the presence of a desirable object" (Bataille 129-30). In this way, watching itself becomes an erotic act, the eye "an organ which both keeps the objects at a distance (outside) and 'eats' them inside" (Falk 13).
In Zen, according to Alan Watts, "the eyes and the ears, the nose and the skin, all become avenues of erotic communion, not just with other people, but with the whole realm of nature" (Psychotherapy 86). This process is known as "Total" or "Pure Awareness," an act wherein one sees "the world as it is concretely, undivided by categories and abstractions" (Watts Way 155). What this means, of course, is that "there is no longer the dualism of the knower and the known" (Way 52). What one sees is what one is; there is not someone seeing and something seen--there is only "seeing" or "watching."
This "watching" finds its most precise expression in the character of the watcher in "El Paso," whose sections are labeled, not in noun subject/object form, but as "Watching"--an act, a state of being. Throughout the story, the watcher acts as a constant presence and, thereby, a "judge of the whole damn game," as Bimp puts it (BT 86). Unlike the other characters who seem to take an active role in the incidents, the watcher, until the end of the story, acts chiefly as a witness. Dude makes love to Rita. The blond dances with her. Bimp pays her. The watcher merely watches her, watches them all. He, indeed, seems as distant and unattached as a judge. Even his name is never revealed. Bimp refers to him once as "one of them hunched-up watchers" and once as "the watcher"; but otherwise, the watcher is known only by his section headings. The use of "watcher" on Bimp's part reveals his tie to normal Western-style watching, but the watcher's section headings suggest that the watcher has moved beyond the subject/verb concepts of the West.2
Yet the end of the story reveals Dude's obsession for Rita‑-"dedicated," the watcher notes, "like a single eye to his own loving" (BT 82)--to be the watcher's obsession as well. Unlike Dude, however, who after losing physical relations with Rita, in order to deal with the loss, in order to reobtain the feeling of continuity, turns to destruction and self-destruction for survival via his new profession of racing junk cars, the watcher is able to establish continuity through the mere act of watching. This is not to say he doesn't feel the effect of the loss of the physical presence of Rita. Rather, he goes as "far north as [he can] get" to obtain a snow that will cool and clean "a dirt heat [he keeps] feeling for months" (BT 95). But what the watcher has still is a sketch that Rita painted, "a picture of trains dark slashed on tracks, and behind them the sky opens up like a hole" (BT 95).
This picture allows the watcher to re-establish a connection to Rita. Earlier in the story, Rita notes what the picture represents: "Them stars are just holes in the sky after all. And while I'm sleeping in that hot bed everything I ever thought of having falls into em" (BT 84). Through the stars in the picture, the watcher carries "everything [he] ever thought of having" (BT 84), including Rita. The holes she falls into are both her absence, her burial and loss, as well as, via her containment in the sketch, her presence. In this way, the watcher continues to be able to "see," to "watch" her, to carry her perennially with him, a continual presence in her absence. It is this watching that takes over near the story's end:
I'm seeing her in summer by the stove in their room, sweat clouding her hair and her lips pursed with cheap wine; she smoothing her cotton skirt and throwing back her hair to bend over the burner with a cigarette, frowning as the blue flame jets up fast. On the street under my window she is walking early in the day, tight black skirt ripped in the slit that moves on her leg. (BT 94-95)
If erotic communion, whether via sex or watching, is the means of transcendence for characters in "El Paso," "Country," and "The Patron," stories like "Black Tickets," "Lechery," and "Gemcrack" make clear the sexual act's connection to transgression by taking the erotic act into criminal society. Bataille notes this connection in Erotism when he writes: "Violence is what the world of work excludes with its taboos; in my field of enquiry this implies at the same time sexual reproduction and death" (42). As a result, the excitement of sex is dependent on "disorder and rule-breaking"; through sex, particularly illicit sex, love becomes "a greater force than that of law" (Bataille 112). In all three of these stories, "Black Tickets," "Lechery," and "Gemcrack," sex highs, love, and connection are dependent not only on the crossover from one person to another but also on transgressing the criminal codes created by society.
"Black Tickets," the title story of the collection, is, in fact, largely a meditation on rule breaking. The narrator makes this explicit at the tale's end:
At first, all the girls wore dresses. There was a checkered flag of separation and the race was nothing on a board laid out with paper money and plastic hotels for Park Place. . . . The rules were written down and smeared in a fruity juice on all our faces. (BT 65)
These rules find expression in two basic places in the story: one's childhood home and prison. Prison, the place from which the narrator speaks, is the embodiment of how society confines those who refuse to live by its rules. It both defines the "outsider" and forces him to live by a set of rules imposed by "normal" society. These rules find expression in the poker games of guards--games are dependent on rules; games are what the narrator remembers from his childhood. Prison is also confinement separate from society and, most importantly, from the one he loves. The narrator, thus, finds himself sitting close to the bricks of the wall of his cell "like some newborn rattish creature longing for the nearest suckle" (BT 57).
Prison also reminds the narrator of home:
Women and stomachs. Here we go nowhere. My cell door is identical to the rest of my wall-with-a-view, and to think my old man broke his ass to put a picture window in his suburban clap-trap house. Bungalow, my mother called it. (BT 55)
Home, for the narrator, is a place for "a preschool obedience course graduate" (BT 55). It is a place where true communion, true connection, with another cannot happen. As a result, as the narrator recounts, his mother settles for watching a neighbor woman "have her jollies" with the grocery delivery boys (BT 55).
The narrator, by contrast, has connected, has really connected, with another, has crossed the criminal and sexual boundaries necessary to find the continuous self. He has done this largely through his lover, Jamaica Delilah. Jamaica Delilah, through her very name and through many of her predilections, represents several boundary crossings for the narrator, some on the mere level of destroying culturally defined stereotypes and others on the level of destroying discontinuity. One of these boundary crossings finds expression at the very end of the story. "The morning before I never saw you again," the narrator recounts just after the explaining the rules of childhood, "I opened my eyes and your shorn hair was all over my naked front. You had cut it to a jagged bowl around dawn, standing over me with scissors and scattering the pieces" (BT 65). This shearing of hair represents Jamaica's predilection for acting and being a boy. Girls may wear dresses, as the narrator recounts. They may even usually have long hair. But Jamaica prefers boy's hair and boy's clothes. She wears
boy's shirts, like the ones I [the narrator] wore to school when I was thirteen, button-downs with long tails and cuffed sleeves. Or those knit ones, red and green, open-necked, with the tiny alligator sewn on the chest. Golfer's shirts. (BT 52)
She wears "boy's briefs, thick white cotton" (BT 52). At one point, she buys "a boy's cap, an old woolen one with a snap brim and gold silk lining," tucks her hair inside it, and pretends to be a turn-of-the-century male (BT 62). As a child even, she is a boy for her mother, wearing her braids up in hats (BT 62).
Not only does Jamaica tear down gender boundaries, but she, like the love interest in "Country," represents yet another case of cross-racial relationships--partly suggested through her Caribbean name. Though we do not know if the narrator is necessarily white--an upper-middle-class, probably white, upbringing is hinted at in the short account of his parents' idyllic home and marriage--we do know Jamaica is black and from the West Indies. The apartment and theater wherein most of the story takes place, further, contain three other characters--all from different racial groups. Raymond is "a nice Jewish boy" with access to the drugs that the narrator sells on the streets and in the theater; Neinmann is the German immigrant who owns the theater; finally, a Filipino runs the theater's projection. In this way, races, often separated from one another by cultural boundaries--though such boundaries are often imposed not by the government but by cultures themselves--find a single focus point around which they work. Raymond and the narrator live with Jamaica; the Filipino works with her; she "works for" Neinmann. And she, through her sexuality, moves all of them "around like little girls" the way her mother used to pimp her and her sisters (BT 63).
Finally, Jamaica represents the sexuality which allows the narrator to transcend, to get "inside and forg[e]t the rules" (BT 56), to move past his discontinuous self. Her last name, Delilah, becomes an obvious reference to the "delight" that men feel with her and, more explicitly, to Samson's Delilah, the Biblical Philistine who seduced her husband and, in turn, sold him out. The narrator even suspects at times that it is Delilah who has sold him out to the police.
Whether she did or not, what is important is that for the narrator, Jamaica Delilah is "the only train that could push him past a raunchy perfection" (BT 59), who can give him "one more chance to crash through" (BT 59). What she allows him to do is to both escape the rules created by society and find a home--within her--through which he can feel connected to another. She is his "black ticket"--the black woman who allows him through the ticket gate into the Obelisk theatre. Her role as "ticket" finds expression most explicitly near the story's start when she draws tickets on her knees and thighs, literally transforming herself into a "chain of inked-on tickets" (BT 53). What she allows entry into is the Obelisk, in this case, a theater. But the name itself suggests something more transcendent, something akin to the structure the word Obelisk stands for: "a four-sided, usually monolithic pillar, tapering as it rises and terminating in a pyramid" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate). Such a structure points to the heavens of the universe and of God; and it is also, of course, a phallus, a kind of giant maypole.
Sexual communion with Jamaica Delilah is, in a sense, the equivalent of entering the Obelisk and, thereby, the Universal, of extinguishing the dualism of separate beings. Her body is the black ticket--black in color, black in its tie to the indefinable state brought with sexual highs. Not surprisingly, the sexual communion, most often, and most descriptively, takes place in the bathtub again, as in "Country" and "The Patron," bringing together the low and the high, earthy dirtiness and its counterpart purifying or cleansing. The bathtub both begins and end this tale, and as in "Country," it is a place where the difference between two persons blurs. The narrator, for example, finds himself totally dependent on his lover for movement and breath. "You run the tub full of water," he says, "before I'm too gone and walk me there in the fluid drunk on your skin to breathe" (BT 64). Finally, near the end, they unite. Her body becomes "a string of paper cutout dolls with joined hands who join hands around [him]" (BT 64). The ink on her legs clouds the water and passes onto his body. When she touches his flesh, he "slide[s] out of it" (BT 65), out of his body, and finds himself propped up by her.
The main characters, at certain points, however, connect this sexual transcendence to the illegal drugs that they both take and sell throughout the story. In this way, they link sexual communion to criminal activity.3 Not only do they sell amyl, Jamaica and the narrator take it during sex to "promote orgasmic endings" (BT 58). When Jamaica, at one point, "feel[s] that grand connection coming on," she "quick twist[s] off the cap to inhale [and] the room goes out in a blue staccato and [she's] hammered to the finish by [her]self in a storm and a roller coaster" (BT 58). Soon after, the narrator himself picks up
that shoe box of delicates, amyl nitrite in old Faberge, Coty, and Arpege bottles, and [throws] it against the wall. The smell [comes] up around [them], liquefying air; for six blank seconds [he feels her] under [him] again. (58)
Likewise, near the story's end, it is pills that prevent the narrator from moving, even breathing, on his own without his lover's help as they "make it" in the bathtub.
"Lechery," like "Black Tickets," involves drug taking as well. In this case, two drug-taking and probably drug-selling pimps adopt a twelve-year-old orphan. Kitty, the orphan's surrogate mother, is addicted to cocaine and cheap speed at the tale's end. The narrator sells pills along with pornographic pictures to little boys. But in both "Lechery" and "Gemcrack," the two other tales that revolve around crime and sex, the connection between the crime and the sex is more than a mere coupling of the "criminal" act with sex. Transgression becomes more than rule breaking in general; it becomes a particular type of rule breaking--the destruction of innocence. In "Gemcrack," this takes the form of "cracking gems," as the narrator would put it, of killing young women. In "Lechery," the destruction of innocence takes the form of the defloration of virginity.
"Lechery," in fact, centers around losses of virginity: first the narrator's and then the narrator's attempts to destroy the virginity of others. Such loss is, as Camille Paglia puts it, "always in some sense a violation of sanctity, an invasion of her [or in the case of this story, his] integrity and identity. Defloration is destruction" (Sexual 24). Assuming this to be so, attempts by the narrator and others to destroy virginity are also attempts to destroy discontinuous identities.
The fifteen-year-old narrator's attempts to do such dominate the first half of the narrative. Over and over again, she describes the "innocence" of the boys she seduces. She likes to "get them before they get pimples" (BT 34). She wants the ones who "don't understand their soft little cocks all stiff when they wake in daylight" (BT 34), the ones scared of "shaved girls" (BT 36). What this gives her ultimately is control. "I do things they've never seen," she says. "I could let them touch but no" (BT 36). Instead, she directs the sexual act that is to occur:
I arrange their hands and feet, keep them here forever. . . . I pull him across my legs and open his shirt. Push his pants down to just above his knees so his thin legs and smooth cock are exposed. . . . In a moment he will roll his eyes and come, I'll gently force my coated fingers into his mouth. I'll take off my shirt and rub my slick palms around my breasts until the nipples stand up hard and frothy. I force his mouth to them. (BT 36)
Throughout, the boys remain "girlish as faggots," not unlike herself in a younger state.
Such actions may seem strange, yet within the logic and world of the narrative, they make sense. Such defloration is the only means this character has ever really learned to achieve connection. The connection when she is with her boys is a weak one, a one-sided loss of discontinuity, for while the girl brings discontinuity to the boys whose virginity she destroys, she herself remains an ego, an "I" in seeming control of both herself and her victims. The most she can receive of continuity this way, except perhaps during the very height of the sexual act if she ever actually reaches such height, is as a third person, a watcher. But it is the only way she knows to connect, a way better suited to her when she is the victim--which she has been numerous times. As a younger orphan child, she received little conventional family love: she moved from home to home and received well-meaning but obviously inappropriate and, therefore, impersonal cards at holidays. The only "caring" parents she has known are Wumpy and Kitty, both of whom use her for sexual delights and monetary needs. When she first meets them, for example, Wumpy and Kitty take her to a motel, then strip both themselves and her. As Wumpy has sex with Kitty, Kitty "makes love" to the narrator:
She pulled me down She said Honey Honey. In the bottom of something dark I rocked and rocked. His big arms put me there until he lifted me. Lifted me held my hips in the air and I felt her mouth on my legs, I felt bigger and bigger. The ceiling spun around like the lights at Children's Center spun in the dark halls when I woke up at night. Then a tight muscular flash, I curled up and hugged myself. (BT 38-39)
At the story's end, the narrator hints that such sexual acts with Kitty persist: "Kitty hugs me, My Baby. She wants me to do what she wants. . . . We move around on the checkerboard floor" (BT 43). Mothering, hereby, becomes sexual, an act of defloration, of destroying the child's discontinuous self.
The narrator transfers this concept to her relations with boys--mothering them by destroying their innocence. Sex is the only way she knows how to show love, hence, her desire to touch Wumpy, to squeeze him hard (BT 43). Wumpy, unlike Kitty, however, does not receive satisfaction from direct sexual relations with "his" little girl. As a result, when the narrator "take[s] off [her] shirt he hits [her]" (BT 43). Instead, Wumpy prefers to watch as "his" girl has sex with other men (BT 39), again, placing connection within the realm of what the authority figure exacts.
The narrator's child friend Natalie furthers this confusion of sex with familial love. Natalie, a fellow orphan, likes to play house with her friends, but the game, as she knows it, is hardly the tame "babysitting and working" game in which most children participate. Rather, it takes on obvious sexual tones. "I'm a house," she says. "I'm a giant house. Crawl through my legs Its the door" (BT 42). Soon after, she grabs the narrator and "stroke[s her] throat, point[s] her pink tongue in [the narrator's] ear and hiss[es]." Then, "[s]he pretend[s] her voice [is] a man." "I love you," she says. "You're mine Eat your food." And the narrator licks "her hand all over, up and down between her fingers" (BT 42). The narrator's desire to re-establish connection with Natalie takes on the form, therefore, of explicit wet dreams: "Natalie on top of me Natalie pressing down. Her watery eyes say nothing. She sighs with pleasure and her hot urine boils all around us" (BT 40).
Ultimately, the narrator identifies sex not only as the means of re-establishing connections with family and friends but as what she needs just as she needs money and food. The narrator forges a connection between sex and food and money throughout the story. Sex becomes the equivalent to eating in several passages, including the passage about the house game discussed before. Another example occurs when she has sex with other men for Wumpy. Her choking and gagging during such incidents, she says, are like "salt exploding in [her] throat" (BT 39). This salt taste relates to a similar experience with Natalie, wherein the narrator eats a box of it. Here the sexual language is obvious: "Salt comes in my mouth so fast, fills me up but I can't quit pouring it" (BT 40).
Sex also reminds the narrator of making money and, in fact, is a way of doing so. First, she sells pornographic pictures and sexual favors to young boys (BT 33). Second, Wumpy sells her to make money (BT 39). Third, the narrator remembers an incident in which a man rapes Natalie, an incident made possible by the creation of "coins" on a shed floor with a hammer (BT 42). As a result of this conflagration, the narrator confuses the three--sex, money, and food--as similar necessities from the very start of the story:
Though I have no money I must give myself what I need. Yes I know which lovers to call when the police have caught me peddling pictures, the store detectives twisting my wrists pull stockings out of my sleeves. And the butchers pummel the small of my back to dislodge their wrapped hocks. (BT 33)
Sex becomes, as a result, the very means by which society survives and functions. It serves as the heart of family, of food, of economics, and most important, of authority. To escape the authority of home via sex with another becomes problematic in this story. At best, the narrator can impose such authority on others.
The narrator of "Gemcrack" imposes his own authority as well. Again, he does this through destroying a form of innocence. Near the tale's start, the narrator proclaims his work: "I crack these gems and expose their light in the dark Saturdays, the nights" (BT 254). This role, the narrator sees as akin to religion, proclaiming that he has been led "astray into the paths of right thoughts" (BT 254) and that each victim is a "sacrifice" (BT 255). What he does is, with an unspecified frequency, shoot a woman so that she "lays down like she's home" (BT 253). This, he believes, is an act of love, and "[l]ove," as he says, "is the outlaw's duty" (BT 253).
In Erotism, Bataille proclaims that "the desire to kill relates to the taboo on murder in just the same way as does the desire for sexual activity to the complex of prohibitions limiting it" (72). What this means is that the process of deflowering a virgin or even participating in sexual activity is not unlike the killing of another person. Indeed, as Bataille brings out, "The lover strips the beloved of her identity no less than the blood-stained priest his human or animal victim" (90). This is because sacrifice is yet another means of attaining transcendence or continuity. Indeed, for Bataille, sex is a type of sacrifice. Continuity is gained in sex by both the victim and the violator through their merging of selves. Continuity via ritual sacrifice, on the other hand, is something in which the whole community participates and learns from. Bataille puts it this way:
[The] sacramental element is the revelation of continuity through the death of a discontinuous being to those who watch it as a solemn rite. A violent death disrupts the creature's discontinuity: what remains, what the tense onlookers experience in the succeeding silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one. (82)
This onlooking makes possible continuity through the contemplation of death that it brings to the watchers. The communal ritualization of sacrifice furthers this contemplation by making all in the society participants in the sacrificial act.
Taking Bataille as our theoretical apparatus, the narrator's psychopathic urges begin to make some sense. He expresses his "love" for others through literal violence. This love sends his victims "home" by forcing them to connect with Universal being and escape from the dualities created by everyday society. In turn, those who watch the "sacrifice" of his victim, largely through newspapers that report stories of his bloodshed, receive a glimpse of continuity. Indeed, at one point, the narrator proclaims: "I know which readers follow the stories. Their faces are looking for secrets. I'm pushing them" (BT 260). These "secrets," the narrator claims to already know, having gained them through his role as executioner. Like the person who reaches Satori, the narrator goes on to say, "light comes in one quick flash to the seeker" (BT 260). The difference here is that the narrator's acts are not part of an actual communal ritual--they are, rather, single, discontinuous acts on his part. Hence, while he gains illumination, the community gains only "glimpses"--a participation distanced by newspaper reportage rather than a participation that is first-hand witnessing and contemplation.
Such murderous transcendence on the narrator's part, as David Edelstein notes in his article on Phillips's short stories, means that Black Tickets ends with the "dark side of transcendence" (111). This dark side, however, has been apparent throughout the collection. This is partly because "the mechanism that can save you from being swallowed by your milieu can also drive you mad" (Edelstein 111). Indeed, madness is a trope throughout Black Tickets, including the crazy grandmother in "Country" and the, at one point, asylumed narrator of "Lechery." It is "1934" and "Gemcrack," however, which give us the clearest cases of transcendence gone to its furthest, maddest, and most destructive extremes.
"Gemcrack's" narrator, without a doubt, is no less delusional. This delusion takes the form of an uncle whose "sounds are in [the narrator's] head like a voice in a radio" (BT 261). It is this uncle, the narrator claims, who "whispers and points," who tells him "what to do in his voice that whines and excites" (BT 259). The narrator finds the uncle in "everyone's mouth . . . inside the hippie across the hall with the moon poster tacked to his door, inside the black girls [he] see[s] in the elevator" (BT 258). What this means is that, outside of killing, the narrator is actually in contact with no one but his uncle, and an imaginary uncle at that. The transcendent acts meant to connect the narrator to the universe become a means of disconnection from everyday society. What "Gemcrack" hints at is a world where the old moral standards and taboos have finally, for the narrator, fallen by the wayside. Taboo practices, as a result, as Alphonso Lingis writes in discussion of postmodern sexuality, are "interpreted no longer in the register of fault and sin, excess and transgression, but according to the axes of the normal and the pathological" (69). The narrator's apparent pathology is quite natural here. His rejection of everyday society's version of reality means that he is, indeed, an outsider. Phillips's use of first person in this story, however, means that it is difficult to assess her actual attitude toward this pathology.
To better understand Phillips's stance on this dark side of transcendence, we must go to "1934," another story that deals with the normal versus the pathological, but this time from the point of view of one of the "normal." In this story, J. T., the husband of Lacey and father of the narrator, has gone crazy after the loss of his mill business to the Great Depression. The situation in the real world is bleak, yet J. T. remains happy by never leaving his joyful past. Each morning after breakfast he goes to his office, "dressed in his old spats and a bow tie. He ha[s] all his account books up there, boxes of them, and he notate[s] every page" (BT 109). Such insistence that the past is still present allows him to stay connected both to the past and the peoples in it. We see this most clearly on his walk with his daughter, Francie, who he calls "Frank" and thinks is a boy. As they proceed, he
tip[s] his hat to all the women. . . . [He] fairly swagger[s] with happiness, and everyone on the street [speaks] to him. They nod and shake hands eagerly, the men anxious to talk. At the dry goods store, he ask[s] Mrs. Carvey about her children. (BT 115)
Mrs. Carvey, whose husband is dead and whose son, Bill, has long since left her, likes to talk with J. T. as if her son is still nine years old to assuage her loneliness. Cy, the pharmacist, likewise seems to enjoy talking with J. T., giving Francie free sodas so "J. T. would stay and talk to him" and pretending, for J. T.'s sake, that it is Sunday and the paper has not arrived (BT 115). Later, J. T. stops to discuss the stock market with the men outside the pharmacy. Though they are "painfully aware the market . . . crashed in '29," they seem very please to indulge J. T.'s fantasy that the market will "stand firm," and they let him win any arguments on finance (BT 116).
While J. T. remains connected to the past and, thus, transcends the separation from people created by the passage of time, he becomes disconnected to persons and events in the present. This disconnection, the story suggests, comes at great cost to the people around him. The narrator proclaims at one point, for example, "I don't know if I love my father. He doesn't even know I'm a girl. Sometimes I hate him" (BT 114). Lacey, J. T.'s wife concurs, "I know, Francie, sometimes I do too" (BT 114). By the story's end, J. T. has destroyed the car that is to keep the family financially afloat after a barn burns down. This action shows J. T.'s ultimate disconnection from his family, and in turn, the family has no choice but to "have him put away" (BT 122). J. T.'s mad transcendence, therefore, becomes not a mode of connection but of disconnection from society. Like the people of the criminal underworld, J. T. becomes an outsider, but here the story's tone is clearly a sad one. J. T. is completely locked in the past, happy, but singly so. Continuity, Phillips suggests, is not without its human costs.
The losses and gains of continuity are further explored in "Snow," another story dealing with a pathology of sorts. While the diseases of "Gemcrack" and "1934" are psychological in nature, the diseases of "Snow" are physical. Despite this, again, disease acts as a force separating characters from the "normal" world. In this case, the "disease" is blindness. What is interesting about this motif of blindness is its double implication. It both cuts off from the world and ties things together. The way it cuts off from the world is evident from the start of the story: "The school opened iron gates to show its clowns and jugglers. Crowds came to watch the mutes, the senseless ones" (BT 207). The idea conveyed here is one of carnival or circus (clowns; jugglers) and of freaks (mutes; senseless ones)--the abnormal. The iron gates, in most cases, separate such peoples from the community surrounding these "abnormals." Soon after this, we find that Molly's blind dad is a teacher at the "School for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind" (BT 208), again, setting the "freaks" apart from the "normal" schools around them. This separation is further extended by Laura, Molly's mother, who uses the blindness as a means to block out the past and even a moment of continuity in that past. After an accident involving a man, Laura, and her mother, Laura not only fails to remember the past for many years, she goes blind. "Her blindness," a doctor explains, "is to some extent hysterical . . . thrown free, the car . . . her mother crawled out burning, he said. We think Laura was, he said, Conscious" (BT 220). Here, Laura, in order to maintain her human sanity, in order to maintain her tie to the "normal" discontinuous world, after the "sacrifice" of her mother, has to sacrifice a different tie to that world--her sight.
But blindness also becomes a metaphor for continuity, a world without separate entities, a world in which nothing is "by itself," where everything blurs into one another. Neither the father, Randall, nor the son, Callie, are totally blind. Instead, they see such things as the "glimmered blur of bodies running" (BT 211). This lack of distinction between separate objects is particularly evident in the case of Callie, who doesn't receive glasses until some years after birth. In this way, Callie remains tied to a world without dualism or borders, without the concept of separate entities. "Things were different before he went to the white room," the narrator notes, "a face sat on top of a face and blurred where they came together. . . . Nothing was ever by itself because everything faded its edges into something else" (BT 221). Callie's reception of glasses means that, like a child born into the world, he has entered the discontinuousness of living objects and, thus, the existential loneliness of existence:
Callie was lonely when he saw that his mother had only one face. She had seemed to be all around him. Her arms legs hips breast hands hair had been in his sight a milky atmosphere. Now he saw that everyone was separate. (BT 221-22)
Sight also allows Callie to see words, to read, and thus to conceive in the dualistic mode that words insist on. But the introduction of sight also allows Callie to connect to the real world. While he loses the feeling of the interconnectedness of all things, he gains an appreciation for all he sees. This appreciation finds its greatest expression in Callie's love for the movies that allow him, in essence, to "see in the dark." But these movies eventually lead to Callie's death--a brain hemorrhage caused by eye strain. Ultimately, Callie's awareness of discontinuous life descends into the continuity of death.
We are left, thereby, with a story that through the sacrifice of Callie, connects not only characters but readers together. We experience this connection at the story's end, as Molly, following her brother's hemorrhage, rides on a carousel in the park. Molly's separateness, at this point, from her blind family is clear:
Every time Molly came around, his [her father's] face was looking where she was. Her hands wouldn't move. She was crying with no sound and finally the music stopped. Her father sat on the bench in the rain with his head tilted, looking with his luminous eyes. (BT 224)
Yet even within his separateness, we as readers, through our emotional tie to the story, connect to the characters. As a result, what we experience is what I would argue is the ultimate transgression for Phillips (not Bataille), the passage of fiction (in the form of narrative) into reality (in the form of feeling). Through this emotional tie to the story, Phillips brings those outside characters into our own inside being and, thus, breaks down the borders separating the characters from us.
What Phillips finally suggests, therefore, with Black Tickets, is not just that people try to transcend the borders separating them from others. Certainly, her characters do this, but Phillips's attitude, unlike Bataille's, regarding the modes often used remains ambivalent. Free sex and crime are not ultimately touted as necessarily desirable actions for readers, nor for the characters. Nor is a return home. Either option could lead to sad and disastrous results. Instead, what Black Tickets suggests is an artistic aesthetic. It is the writer who is to transgress, the writer who is to bring the outsider into literature and, thus, into our hearts and into communion with society. Indeed, certain of her subjects and characters, themselves, have been labeled "taboo," or more precisely, "nonliterary," by various critics. Mary Peterson, for example, in her review, proclaims that she likes
"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. (77)
Similarly, Joseph Epstein, in his review, proclaims that those stories "that deal with the subject of drugs--as does the title story--are the least successful" because "using drugs is perhaps the one literature-proof subject in the world--that is, . . . interesting literature can[not] be made of it" (109). In both cases, these critics label Phillips's subject matter as obscene and/or as outside the proper realm of art.
Such arguments, especially the one proclaiming that poetry in the mouth of the psychotic is obscene, are similar to certain arguments against pornography which
are structured into a sequence of distinctions which again and repeatedly defines pornography as the excluded Other: the aesthetic versus the erotic (and sensual), erotic art and literature versus pornography. (Falk 190)
The basic arguments as to what is not obscene run along three particular lines, according to Pasi Falk (191). First, the distance between the object of art and the audience must be maintained. Second, the object must be contemplated in harmony with virtue and good taste. And third, there must be no desire for a realizing act with the object. Much of Phillips's work in Black Tickets violates the first two of these. Her subjects, at least according to Peterson and Epstein, are not in "good taste," or in this case, literary taste. More important, Phillips aims to destroy the distance between the object (the text) and the reader.
"Art," Phillips proclaims in an interview with Mickey Pearlman, "is what is going to move us beyond . . . ourselves" (160). The artist is to aid in this move beyond the self. He or she does this by making us feel. As such, Phillips idealizes writers like Stephen Crane, who she says serve as "brother[s] to all transgressors, to outsiders, to lost souls" (Introduction ix), and who, thereby, bring such lost souls into literature and into mainstream society, allowing all to identify with them and breaking down the arbitrary barriers that place such persons on the outside in the first place. Poetry, or in this case, the short story, therefore, for Phillips, leads to a place similar to eroticism--to the blending of separate objects, to the eternity of the moment, and to a kind of transcendent connection between discontinuous beings.
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":
here are the imports, the real stuff, there's no real shit over here, it's all happening in England like I told you. (FL 6)
One little rack of singles with penciled-in titles, but this shit is REAL this is REAL music and they don't have to pretend it's sex. (FL 6-7)
England was really real, I grew up over there, I learned about rock 'n' roll. (FL 7)
My first real time [the time he lost his virginity] was with a neighborhood girl the fall that I was twelve, I got into a lot of trouble over it. (FL 10)
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;
No dependence on words or letter;
Direct pointing at the Mind of man;
Seeing into one's Nature and the attainment of Buddhahood. (332)
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.
"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.
1. Kim Herzinger spends the first several pages of her essay "On the New Fiction" trying to come up with a better term than "minimalism" but finally settles on it because of problems with all other terms used to define the majority of new contemporary fiction of the eighties: "Dirty Realism (Granta); New Realism; Pop Realism; . . . Neo-Domestic Neo-Realism; . . . White Trash Fiction; Coke Fiction, Extra-Realism" and so on (8). Raymond Carver himself, whose work seems almost synonymous with "minimalism," did not like the term. Kirk Nesset, in his book on Carver's stories, rightly observes that the label is
unfortunate . . . considering its sloppy connection to the disciplines from which it was borrowed, and considering the fact that the practitioners of literary 'minimalism' boast in general far more differences than similarities in terms of individual craft. (4)
In fact, the term in art and music suggests, one could argue, the exact opposite of what it has come to mean in literature. While literary proponents of "minimalism" largely attempt to elide the author through the use of flat tone and so on in order to stress character and content, "minimalist" artists largely remove subjects (what would be characters in literature) in order to stress form.
2. "Minimalist" stories have been accused of both placelessness (Herzinger 19) and plotlessness (at least in comparison to their often overplotted, postmodern antecedents like stories by Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover). As for plot, the combination of traditional plotting (beginning, middle, end, in largely chronological order) and slightness of subject matter produces a story that nearly elides it. While an experimental (often fragmented) story draws the reader's attention to the artificiality of the plot--readers, in fact, many times have to reconstruct the chronology of the story themselves--a traditionally plotted story allows them to read passively, sucking in occurrences just as one might watch a television show. The author usually makes up for the passivity that such a plot can create by writing in such a way (and about such things) that readers are drawn into the storyline, into wondering what will happen next. That is, readers wonder, for example, whether character X will make it out of the airplane before it explodes or before character Y abducts him or her or before character Z dies, and so on. A "minimalist" story downplays even this "what-will-happen" interest in the plot because of its typically mundane subject matter. There are no exploding planes or murders or runaway juries. Instead, readers get earaches and car washes, garage sales and trips to Wal-Mart. Climaxes become small realizations about life in the midst of seemingly banal activities.
In the same way that plot "disappears" in minimalist stories, attention to place also seems of little import, if not nonexistent. Settings, although ranging widely across the United States, are "delocalized" (Herzinger 19), often taking on the generic feel of suburban shopping malls. Reno, Nevada--minus a few gambling casinos--could as easily be Palmdale, California, could as easily--add some rain--be Tallahassee, Florida.
This elision of both plot and places means that the reader's attention must gravitate toward the characters themselves, for there is little "what-will-happen" or "where-it-happens" to maintain the reader's interest.
3. What little of Phillips's prose that remains uncollected is, in fact, usually either essays on writing, critical reviews, narrative essays on particular subjects for various anthologies, or most often, passages from her three novels--the last of which is, as of yet, unpublished but "will deal with the death of her mother from lung cancer" (Pearlman 156). Two "stories" from this novel have recently found their way to publication, one titled "Mother Care" and the other titled "Age of Wonders."
1. One distinction that should be noted regarding the modernist epiphany in comparison to Zen Awakening is that, at least for writers like Joyce, modernist concepts of time are rooted in Western philosophy and religion. What this means is that for many Westerners such as Plato, Augustine, the Symbolists, and the Romantics, timelessness, because it requires a lack of change, is not achievable in the changing physical world. Epiphany, as a result, is often some kind of greater spiritual manifestation of "another world"--a world of dreams, for example. Furthermore, for some like the Symbolists, certain symbols and words have the ability to evoke this epiphanic moment. In Zen, "Awakening" is in this world. While change is the world's real state in Zen, it is also only perceivable when compared to such illusion as past and future. This is one reason that Nirvana can be both a place of change and a place of no change, of all time and no time. Though obviously influenced by Zen, especially in the way transcendence in Phillips's work often appears in this world, Phillips, at least in terms of her faith in language, seems philosophically more in tune with the modernists.
2. Because neither Sweethearts nor Counting have page numbers, references are to the specifically titled prose poems/stories in Sweethearts and to the chapter numbers in Counting.
3. The fact that all of the stories/poems in "Sweethearts" are first person and are all written from the point of view of a young woman are just two good reasons to assume it is the same woman throughout the first half of the book. In addition, none of the stories in the first half contradict incidents in other stories/poems in the section. Finally, most of the tales bear resemblances to portions of Machine Dreams, Phillips's family epic set in West Virginia between World War Two and the Vietnam War. "Slaves," on the other hand, includes only two first-person accounts among its ten stories/poems. In addition, almost every one of the eight accounts in the third person seems to contradict certain facts given in other stories, leading me to believe the protagonists of these particular tales/poems are indeed different characters.
4. Note that in many schools of Eastern religion, including Zen, this round of birth and death known as Samsara is not a literal process of reincarnation, but rather, as Watts notes, a figurative reincarnation in which "the process of rebirth is from moment to moment, so that one is being reborn so long as one identifies himself with a continuing ego [separate from the external world] which reincarnates itself afresh at each moment of time" (Way 49).
1. The concept of building roads obviously connects the younger dad to his daughter, Jancy. The road acts as a symbol both of wandering and of escape--as Jancy likes to do--as well as of connection. "The people I care about are far apart," Jancy even tells her father at one point, trying to justify her travel. "I don't get many chances to see them" (BT 131). What Phillips suggests by making the father a former road builder is that "escape" and "home" are, in fact, stages in life. Jay McInerney concedes this when speaking of the story "Bess" in his review of Fast Lanes: Bess, a seemingly homebound character--"slow and steady"--of Machine Dreams, "is revealed here [in the story] as one of Ms. Phillips's runaways" (7).
2. I have chosen to use Bimp's term in referring to the watcher because to use "watching" to refer to him would be to make watching into a definite noun, whereas when used as a section heading, "Watching" has a more ambiguous state as a form of speech--possibly a noun, even more conceivably a verb.
3. The connection between drugs and "awakening" is well documented in the work of Carlos Castaneda--an anthropologist who documents the teachings of Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian, and who Phillips claims to have studied early in her adult life (Edelstein 109). Under the influence of peyote, Castaneda claims that he cannot "distinguish anything or anyone" and a "supreme happiness fill[s his] whole body" (42). He actually forgets, he claims, that he is a man (43). Under the "smoke" or "devil's weed," "the world opens up anew!" (69), just as for a Buddhist who recognizes Nirvana everything is always new because the world is perennially changing, perennially becoming.
1. This "lack of center" or "lack of stability" shared by postmodernism and Buddhism stems, in part, from the postmodern tendency to critique previous more essentialist philosophies of the West, including our use of language itself. It is quite natural that the West, in rejecting many of the tenets of its earlier philosophies, has ended up where the East has already arrived. Buddhists, long before poststructuralists existed, recognized that the "differences" needed for cultural order and for language arise mutually and arbitrarily without an absolute center that "escapes structurality." They recognized that our definitions of the world are culturally created rather than real. What is "real" simply IS.
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