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Jayne Anne Phillips Biography

novel short stories story

Nationality: American. Born: Buckhannon, West Virginia, 1952. Education: West Virginia University, Morgantown, B.A. 1974; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1978. Career: Teaching fellow, M.F.A. Program, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1977-78; lecturer, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California, 1978-79; fellow, Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1979-80; assistant professor, Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980-81; assistant professor of English, Boston University, 1982-83; visiting senior lecturer, Harvard University, 1990, 1993-94; writer in residence, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1996. Awards: Pushcart prize, 1977, for Sweethearts, 1979, for short stories "Home" and Lechery," 1983, for short story "How Mickey Made It"; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1977, 1984; Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines Fels award, 1978, for Sweethearts; St. Lawrence award, 1978, for Counting; American Academy Kaufman award, 1980, for Black Tickets; O. Henry award, 1980, for "Snow"; Bunting Institute fellowship, Radcliffe College, 1981; literature award, American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters, 1997. Agent: c/o Lynn Nesbit, Janclow & Nesbit, 598 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10022-1614, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novel

Machine Dreams. New York, Dutton, and London, Faber, 1984.

Shelter. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1994; London, Faber, 1995.

MotherKind. New York, Knopf, 2000.

Short Stories

Sweethearts. Carrboro, North Carolina, Truck Press, 1976.

Counting. New York, Vehicle, 1978.

Black Tickets. New York, Delacorte Press, 1979; London, AllenLane, 1980.

How Mickey Made It. St. Paul, Bookslinger Press, 1981.

Fast Lanes. New York, Vehicle, 1984; London, Faber, 1987.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Something That Happened," in The Best American Short Stories 1979, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Shannon Ravenel. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

"Bess," in Esquire (New York), August 1984.

* * *

Jayne Anne Phillips began as primarily a short story writer, though more recently she has concentrated mostly on the novel. Much of her early work was privately published, but Black Tickets is the first collection that introduced her to a wider audience. It contains no fewer than twenty-seven stories in its generously spaced 265 pages, but sixteen of these hardly amount to more than sketches, only one or two pages long. In her traditional disclaimer at the start of the book Phillips notes that "Characters and voices in these stories began in what is real but became, in fact, dreams"; the word "voices" is particularly significant here as many of the stories, especially the shorter ones, seem like attempts at the creation and expression of a particular voice. They could almost be the product of assigned tasks at a creative writing course. "Wedding Picture," for instance, is merely a description, less than a page long, of a photograph of a daughter's parents on their wedding day. It is hard to derive very much significance from this or a number of other short pieces. Often they are written in the first person, in a variety of different voices. "Home," on the other hand, is not only a much more substantial story but a moving account of the relationship between a daughter and mother, a theme which comes up often in Phillips's work. The prose is spare, almost minimalist at times, with short sections, sparse dialogue. The two women argue over changing sexual mores but the bond between them is clear.

Relationships between a daughter and one or both of her parents come up in several stories but most impressively in "The Heavenly Animal," in which a father can only express his love for his daughter by repeatedly offering to repair her car, and in "Souvenir" when a woman discovers her mother has fatal cancer and debates whether or not to tell her or, as her brother demands, conceal the news. Others concern runaway young girls, cocaine users, strippers, and young unmarried mothers. Phillips's vision is a darkly disturbing one. She concentrates on outsiders, those on the periphery of society, and especially the young and defenseless. The best story is the title one, a brilliant monologue by a man who has been dealing in drugs and been betrayed by the two people who introduced him into that world. Only slowly, as the story moves in reverse, do we find out the whole truth (or most of it) as to what has happened and why the narrator is in jail. It is a superbly sustained narrative, part protest, part plea, part love story. "El Paso" alternates between different voices, a device Phillips has come to use quite often.

Machine Dreams is Phillips's first novel and a considerably ambitious one. Using four narrative voices in alternating order, the novel tells the story of the marriage of Mitch and Jean Hampson, a couple who live in a small town in West Virginia, and their two children, Danner and Billy, born close together. It documents the slow corrosion of the marriage, with its eventual culmination in divorce, and finally, in a brilliantly written chapter, the tragic death of Billy in Vietnam. The concluding chapter, which goes oddly over much the material we have already become acquainted with, deals with the near madness of depression and rage which overcomes Danner after the death of her brother.

The private difficulties of the family are placed against the larger public issues affecting America in the forties through seventies—World War II and the defeat of the Japanese, the Korean war, civil rights marches, the Cuban missile crisis, and, above all, the Vietnam war, which finally impinges closely on the family. Mitch's letters home from the Pacific—so dull that they sound absolutely authentic—are juxtaposed against those of Billy twenty-five years later after he is conscripted to Vietnam. The novel shows the first fumbling attempts at sexual experience of Danner and Billy. Frequently it focuses on important occasions which should be of celebration—July 4, New Year's Eve—but treats them with irony. Three sections of the novel are actually headed "Machine Dreams," and the novel is full of images of technology, most obviously in the Vietnam section. Machine Dreams is hard going at times but it is an impressive attempt to document the mores of American society over three decades in the way that John Updike was also doing at the same time and Don DeLillo attempted later.

Phillips's collection of short stories, Fast Lanes, repeated the success of Black Tickets. Again she experiments with different voices as in that of the twenty-eight-year-old man in "How Mickey Made It," a story which had been privately published earlier. Another first person narrative, "Rayme," tells the story of a disturbed girl, while "Bluegill" is an experiment in a kind of impressionistic, almost stream-of-consciousness style. Some of the material in the collection recalls Machine Dreams; "Blue Moon" deals with Billy and Danner and Billy's lover Kato from a different angle to the earlier work.

Shelter is set in Shelter County, West Virginia, in 1963. In this novel Phillips takes her device of multiple voices further than in Machine Dreams. The narrative has again four voices—Lenny and her sister Alma, Parson, and Buddy Carmody—but they alternate much more rapidly, with the novel being divided into forty-two sections. It is much more concentrated in time and essentially is built around one central, climactic incident—the killing of Buddy's stepfather Carmody by Buddy, during the ironically named Camp Shelter. There is a Faulknerian quality to Shelter with its highly idiomatic language and its concentration on strange sexual relationships, forms of religious belief that have gone awry, and the awakening knowledge of evil by young people. The same events are viewed from a multitude of angles and perspectives. Often characters spy on other characters, unknown to them. Of most importance is the perspective of Buddy, the young boy sexually assaulted by his stepfather, who struggles to understand and come to terms with the world. He watches Lenny and her friend Cap: "Buddy would see them wherever they were, but they couldn't see him, he was invisible, spotted brown and green like the army guys in comic books." There is much less political content than in Machine Dreams, though some attention is paid to Mrs. Thompson-Warner and her deranged anti-Communism. Once again, Phillips employs sustained motifs—the bats who fly around in Turtle Hole, the rings that both Carmody and Buddy covet, snakes, the girl who was a fish.

Set not in West Virginia but in Boston, Phillips's most recent novel, Motherkind, is strikingly different from anything she has done previously. Motherkind focuses almost exclusively on the figure of Kate Tateman, a poet and teacher who is quite different from the underclass characters in many of the short stories. Kate is in the unusual position at the start of the novel of being about to give birth and become a mother for the first time, but also losing her own mother, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Yet again, mother and daughter are extremely close while the estranged father remains on the periphery. Kate has to juggle her impending motherhood, her relationship with her new partner and his two rowdy sons by a previous marriage whose adjustment to the situation is made more difficult by the unrelenting hostility of her partner's ex-wife, and the arduous duty of taking painstaking care of her dying mother. There is no multitude of voices this time. The novel concentrates exclusively on Kate; Phillips cuts back and forth in time but almost the only perspective we see is hers and we learn what little we do about her mother Katherine, her divorced father, and her doctor-partner Matt through dialogue. The novel concentrates on and juxtaposes the simultaneous experiences in Kate's life—the joy and wonder she experiences in looking after her son and the corresponding agony as her mother slowly slips into unconsciousness. There is an almost documentary quality to the novel, a meticulous and at times almost ruthless recording of the experiences of birth, marriage and death, that is new in Phillips's work. The description of Katherine's last days and her growing alienation from those around her is particularly harrowing. Though there are hints that Kate showed some wildness when she was young, the figure we see in the novel behaves with exemplary patience and maturity, struggling to reconcile the various forces tugging at her in this celebration of banal domesticity.

Laurie Clancy

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