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Frozen Ecstasy
Contents
Introduction
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography
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Notes

Introduction

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.”

Chapter One

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).

Chapter Two

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.

Chapter Three

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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A thesis by Jon Morgan Davies