Jayne Anne Phillips’s first novel of more than a decade ago, Machine Dreams, reconstructed the history of three generations of a single middle-class, small-town American family over the course of some fifty years. From the perspective, by turns, of parents and children, she contemplated the complexities and banalities of relations among family members against the political background of the time, focusing on the far-ranging effects that were brought to bear by the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The book’s scope was seemingly broad, but it was Phillips’s rendering of ordinariness that made it resonate. The locale might have been virtually any small town in America, for she recalled the universals of American culture – especially those of the Sixties – with such accuracy that any reader who, like the author herself, had come of age then was bound to find his own childhood returning to him in electric shocks of memory. It was her eye that conjured up the past contained so mysteriously in objects: the gloomy paraphernalia of military service locked away in a water-stained trunk in the attic; the parade float fashioned out of chicken wire and crepe paper inching along a Main Street strewn with candy; the high horizontal windows of a ranch-house bedroom.
In Shelter, her second novel, Phillips returns to the region of Machine Dreams – West Virginia, where she was born and grew up. But the book is almost the inverse of her earlier novel: the setting is a timeless, primal wilderness; the period in which the principal events take place is one of days – during the sweltering heat of midsummer 1963; and, rather than a melancholy chronicle of foreclosure on the American Dream, it’s an indictment of its very foundations, which, here, are rotten to the core. The woods of Shelter County are a dripping impasto of dense vegetation, weathered bones, insects, snakes, damp caves and erotic watering holes, in the centre of which stands, like the castle of Sleeping Beauty, Camp Shelter, a down-at-heel sleep-away for adolescent and pre-adolescent Girl Guides from counties throughout the state: ‘The stone pillars of the camp entrance were dark shapes all grown over with vines. Honey-suckle licked up and down their height, countless sprays of blossoms emerging luminously ivory and gold against the dark, stacked rocks. The camp was all hidden ... some drunk going along at night, a drunk at night, a drunk in a car, might not even find it.’
In this paradise, as in every other, trouble lurks. From the novel’s opening epigraphs – Rilke (‘Every angel is terrifying’) and Revelation (‘And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil ... and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit’) – we suspect that apocalyptic events will soon be visited upon it. Phillips confirms these suspicions, but the book’s sensational climax, which comes in a chapter not very subtly entitled ‘Dark Parable’, is achieved only by painstaking effort on the reader’s part. Once again, the action is seen through the eyes of its central characters: those of a pair of sisters ensconced at the camp, Lenny, who is 15, and Alma, who is 12; of Buddy, the eight-year-old son of the camp’s cook; and of Parson, an escaped convict and crazed fundamentalist who is skulking in the woods. Like Margaret Atwood, in her story ‘Death by Landscape’, in which an adolescent camper inexplicably vanishes on a canoe trip, Phillips is quick to exploit the menacing sexual subtext that children in the forest have evoked since Perrault and Grimm. In Shelter, though, the interchange of perspectives is meant not only to underscore the subjective nature of experience but also to serve as a system of checks and balances: as the ‘reality’ of events becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain, the reader looks to corroborating testimony. We learn that the characters’ minds are consumed as much by the past as by the present. Sometimes memory is stirred by dreams, but most often it comes in loops of flashback, triggered by the idle, random associations of an ever-babbling subconscious. The result is sometimes maddening in its indirection and digression: the characters’ back-and-forth juggling of past and present convincingly simulates the mind idling in neutral, lazily blurring distinctions between fact and fantasy; but it also disrupts the flow of the central plot, which flirts at least with suspense.
In sisterly fashion, Lenny and Alma in the main stay clear of each other, wholly absorbed in their own worlds, while being cemented in each others’ consciousnesses. They are paired not with each other but, instead, with their respective best friends, Cap and Delia. Lenny and Cap, seniors, are camping in a tent pitched at the top of a hill, separated from the cabins below, where the younger children reside. In the evenings after campfire supper, they shed their scratchy clothes and lounge about languidly in the tent, smoking contraband cigarettes, sparring and nuzzling like young cats. One night, having sneaked away from the camp for a swim in nearby Turtle Hole, they encounter Frank, the camp’s bugler and resident love object, fishing by moonlight, and a highly charged sexual encounter between the three of them ensues; it is Lenny’s first sexual experience.
By contrast, Alma and Delia’s days are taken up with the drearier pursuits of hobby hour and clean-up, and the brain-washing of Heritage Class. The camp is a place of safety and convention, emblematic of the social order and the American Way of Life, surrounded by the larger danger of the woods, traditionally infested with marginal, sinister types – mountain men, brigands, trolls – and sometimes their hostages. (‘The forest is all around us and we’re like a country inside it,’ Alma writes, preparing a speech about freedom.) The camp is presided over by an utterly clichéd and misplaced directress who is also obsessed with evil; but rather than the evil born of Scriptural transgression or the potential evil shadowed by the woods, the evil that consumes her is that of Communism. (‘Certain Americans have vanished without a trace!’ she tells the girls. ‘For instance, there is an open runway ... in Washington, DC, where Russian planes take off and land with no official clearance. No one knows who comes and goes on those planes ... Some disturbing facts remain secrets.’) As it happens, Delia’s father has recently vanished, in a suicide by drowning earlier that spring, and both girls are struggling to cope with the trauma of this sudden, inexplicable loss.
For the sisters, home is a kind of netherworld to which their thoughts, like Persephone, are sentenced forever to return. Paradoxically, their physical remove from the stuff of their daily lives has had the effect of pushing memory more insistently to the surface. Their minds are besieged by uninvited voices and visions, and like the woods themselves, the fragmented stories they tell are rife with secrets. What these stories reveal comes as no surprise – there is no such thing as a happy family. The sisters’ recollections piece together the story of the troubled marriage of their parents, who have been emotionally estranged for years. Their father, Wes, is a brooding, silent man with a drinking problem. He disappears for days at a time, and when at home he’s a stranger in self-imposed exile on the porch at night, darkly nursing a beer. Their mother, Audrey, is a tiresome, self-satisfied woman, painfully aware of her entrapment in a life of waste and emptiness; her pettiness and appalling selfishness are rooted in the kind of simple slow-death boredom in which a complex bitterness happily thrives. (She’s the classic – or, again, clichéd – example of the woman who wakes up one morning and discovers she has a husband and two children and no clue as to who she is.)
Cap and Delia fare no better: Cap plays the part of poor little rich girl, the offspring of divorced, emotionally indifferent parents whose mutual loathing does not preclude their using her to torment one another. Delia also is the daughter of an ill-fated match: her father was a man of relative wealth and good name, who was disowned for acting ‘honourably’ – that is, for marrying a woman, beneath him socially, whom he’d made pregnant. By comparison with Delia’s mother, an alcoholic whose stints in rehab have eaten up the family’s meagre residual resources, Audrey seems at first to represent a model of responsible parenting. But then we learn that, unconscionably and rather unbelievably, she has confided in Alma the facts of her affair with Delia’s father, and, worse, forced her to act as decoy for their trysts in a neighbouring town. At camp, Alma’s pre-occupations centre on the terrible weight of her secret and the agonising guilt she feels about the death of Delia’s father. She finds herself furiously puzzling over what she doesn’t yet have the wherewithal to understand, all the while longing for escape – and vengeance:
Nickel Campbell had died because he drove off the bridge. Alma knew the facts, but it seemed to her that Audrey was guilty. Well, Audrey had always been guilty (seemed like always) but the guilt was secret. Now the secret was bigger, deeper. And a secret had to be paid for. Delia was angry, angry at everyone and everything but Alma. Alma wanted to feel the anger rain down on her, wanted a series of screams that opened out until the earth shook ... cries that were empty like the wind is empty, a voiceless keening that would let Alma go, let her betray her mother.
Lenny’s preoccupations centre on the seemingly simpler and more cheerful issue of her awakening sexuality. But this stirs up murky memories of scenes that hint at childhood molestation by her father (the author insists on ambiguity on this point).
Buddy meanwhile flits to and fro like the woodland sprite he is meant to resemble. He can’t read and doesn’t know how to tie his shoes, but he’s a savant of the forest, as attentive to its subtlest nuances as any resident creature and meant to be just as adorable. During the day, while the girls are occupied with their chores, he looks through their belongings with the delicate attention of a racoon combing the trash. For the past several years, he and his mother, Hilda, have lived a life of improbably cheerful poverty, making their home in a shanty in the woods outlying the camp. Their idyll, however, has been destroyed by the arrival of Hilda’s husband, Carmody, recently released from prison. Buddy calls him ‘Dad’, though he is not his father. Dad is a truly terrifying presence, as twisted and cruel as Hilda is loving and kind, and their relationship requires a sustained suspension of disbelief. Carmody’s sexual terrorising of Buddy – which Buddy for some reason refuses to confide to Hilda and which she seems either oblivious of or unwilling to confront – begins almost immediately. Just before Dad forces Buddy’s participation in a bizarre act of masturbation, he tosses back a glass of vodka and, observing the child, says: ‘Chugalug.’
Parson is also new to the forest community, having walked away from a prison work crew to go in search of Carmody, his former cellmate. When his mind is not swirling with hallucinatory visions of snakes and fish, he remembers the sad story of his own upbringing. His, too, is a deeply depressing history, characterised by abandonment, sexual abuse and psychological manipulation on the part of a hypocritical preacher who has nevertheless introduced him to the only form of power he’s ever known – the power that comes from preaching the Word. He is a man tempered by the heat of fire and brimstone; to him, Carmody is the devil incarnate. He may recognise that the devil is ‘a fallen child, too hungry to eat, starving, ravenous, alone so long he didn’t remember who’d first cast him out’ but it is his mission to exterminate him. Unbeknownst to Carmody, Parson is biding his time in the woods, lying in wait for an opportunity to pounce.
Shelter, it becomes clear after a while, is in fact about everyone’s deepest need of precisely that – shelter from rain and storm and from the madness and ugliness of the world – and, of course, about everyone’s compromised success at finding it. Parson and Carmody reside at the far end of the spectrum of adult betrayal. Buddy’s fate hangs in the balance; the horrible possibility that Carmody may succeed in laying waste Buddy’s already damaged innocence creates the story’s tension.
Buddy’s future is resolved in a scene involving the murder of Carmody and the subsequent secret disposal of his body. You’ve patiently turned the pages in anticipation of this moment, but when it finally comes your disbelief refuses to suspend itself a moment longer. The novel as a whole is suffused with an unsatisfying sense of illogic – similar, in some respects, to the narrative illogic of the Bible, or of a dream. The scenes in which these extraordinary events take place are certainly memorable, but there is nothing emotionally candid or even truly interesting about them beyond sheer sensation. What they teach the survivors, if anything, is anyone’s guess, since this is where the book essentially ends. Phillips lavishes attention on what her characters see and sense, but provides very little in the way of a psychological dimension. Parson is the most convincing character, but only because he doesn’t live in the real world. In Shelter, Phillips’s talent for visual description gives way to a perversely unselective describing of everything, and to vexing contortions of syntax as well; words gallop away like a horse without a rider. But far more disturbing is the author’s implicit approval of the children’s vigilantism. Their rejection of the laws of the adult world is meant to be heroic. In a cloying epilogue, six months after the cataclysm, we find Buddy’s idyllic kingdom restored to him and Hilda meanwhile wondering absently what became of her husband. The cycle of abuse has at last been broken, but you end up feeling fairly sick about it.