Veering Wildly

Kirsty Gunn

The most interesting novels are always a bit strange. The stories bend and shift with the author’s own predilections; they reject the predictable progress of conventional plotlines in favour of something that feels more risky and open-ended. They often go off the rails, these books, veering into the wide open spaces of the contingent and unexpected, in defiance of the kind of fiction designed to match outcome with expectation. Less known here than in the US, where she’s gathered up all sorts of prizes for stories that Raymond Carver described as ‘unlike any in our literature’, Jayne Anne Phillips has always written this way. Her writing territory, though recognisably American (she appeared in the 1983 issue of Granta that introduced a new kind of writing from the US that the then editor Bill Buford labelled ‘dirty realism’, taking in Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Bobbi Ann Mason and so on), has always belonged to her and her alone. ‘For me,’ she has written, this ‘no man’s land, a deeply specific isolation drenched in family stories and secrets, is a huge advantage for a writer.’

Her stories, often focused on the dark shadows that are part of childhood and adolescence, reach inside simple board houses to their kitchens and bedrooms and out into sunburned gardens, ragged streets and open fields, where little happens and everything does. It’s foreign and specific, and, for the British reader, alienating: even when the writing makes an occasional excursion into the metropolis, into Boston or New York, Phillips gives up nothing to ideas about the modern world, globalisation or capitalism or anything contemporary at all. From ‘Blind Girls’ in her early short story collection Black Tickets (1979):

She knew it was only the boys in the field, come to watch them drunk on first wine. A radio in the little shack poured out promises of black love and lips. Jesse watched Sally paint her hair with grenadine, dotting the sticky syrup on her arms. The party was in a shack down the hill from her house, beside a field of tall grass where black snakes lay like flat belts.

In the novels and stories that followed the same focus on a particular kind of place persisted. Certain themes are repeated – a coming of age, familial duty, bodily awakening – and yet there is always something new being played out on the page. ‘Concede the heat of noon in summer camps,’ commands the first line of Shelter (1994), a calm, dark undoing of a novel about a group of girls away from home which establishes very quickly the possibility of a violence that may or may not be worked on them. ‘The quarters wavering in bottled heat, cots lined up in the big, dark rooms that are pitch black if you walk in out of the sun. Black, quiet, empty, and the screen door banging shut three times behind you.’

That ‘bottled heat’ shows her willingness to take risks, to unleash her story into metaphor and open it up to mystery. Here is the concentration on seeing the ordinary and the everyday, a poet’s twice-looking. It’s there in the taste of things, their texture and feel. It’s in food and fabric and skin and hair. ‘I could close my eyes and still feel myself across the seat of the moving truck, my head on his sour thigh and my knees tucked up,’ she writes in ‘Fast Lanes’, the title story of that collection. ‘The lake seemed to grow as I got closer, yawning like a cool mouth at the centre of the heat.’ And when Phillips writes about sex, which she does often, and about what it is to be sexual and alert and aware, the sentences seem to implode with their own articulacy. This is from ‘Bess’ in Fast Lanes:

Then I saw Claude kneeling, darker than she because he wasn’t wearing any clothes. He touched her feet and I thought at first he was helping her take off her shoes … But he had nothing in his hands and was lifting the thin chemise above her knees, higher to her thighs, then above her hips as she was twisting away but stopped and moved more toward him, only holding the cloth bunched to conceal her belly.

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