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:
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.
A thesis by Jon Morgan Davies