Me and Thee

Justine Jordan

  • MotherKind by Jayne Anne Phillips
    Cape, 292 pp, £15.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 224 05975 0

‘Everything happens at once’ in the year charted by Jayne Anne Phillips in MotherKind – her heroine Kate becomes and loses a mother. The book records tiny actions and reactions: Kate changes baby Tatie’s nappy and her mother’s sickroom flowers, spoonfeeds mashed-up banana to one and morphine to the other. She lives in an eternal present: ‘her childhood past had washed away from her, and the more recent past, between home and Matthew, was gone too. Nothing but now: her mother and Tatie in the blue armchair.’

Kate had been that rare creature, a successful poet, and was travelling in Asia when the diagnosis of cancer brought her back to her mother, Katherine, and to Matthew, the doctor who had given her her inoculations. They fall in love in the midst of a divorce which leaves Matthew – and by extension Kate – responsible for half the care of two bewildered and boisterous boys; at the same time, Katherine becomes too ill to live alone and moves into their spare bedroom to die. Kate is pregnant, has her baby, the boys career down the corridors on roller-skates, Katherine lies wincing upstairs and Kate grits her teeth against the pain of breast-feeding.

The war zone may be only a suburban American house, but the family is stuck ‘in the trenches’, focused on surviving each new crisis yet ‘always losing ground’. Kate – the former globetrotter – grapples with nipple guards as her partner retreats to the status of onlooker: ‘this bathroom looks like a MASH unit, Matt would say. But it’s not your unit that’s mashed, Kate would think.’ MotherKind is leg-crossingly explicit about the ravages of childbirth, and reads like a guide to the shocks of motherhood and the unfair forbearance required of the step-parent. Kate doesn’t write after the baby is born, except in her mother’s medication log and Tatie’s baby book, which has sections with stern headings that ask, for example, ‘What Mother Liked to Eat’ in pregnancy (Kate fills in a weary ‘Whatever’) and invite ‘Advice from Family Members’. Jonah recommends Tatie to ‘Get your own roller-skates, because you can’t use mine’; Sam suggests: ‘Don’t get a divorce.’

Phillips has said that ‘this is really a book for use,’ and on her website (www.jayneannephillips.com) asks herself the question: ‘What would you like a reader to take away from MotherKind?’ The answer is: ‘The sense of having lived it, and a recognition of the enduring strengths they themselves possess.’ The bizarre possibility that Phillips intended to write an autobiographical self-help book rather than a novel may be the reason this book is so different in style from her previous fiction. Like Kate, Phillips married a doctor with two sons and became pregnant while caring for her mother through the terminal stages of cancer.

MotherKind is pre-eminently about the mother-daughter bond, its claustrophobias and compromises. Traditionally, men have passed their names on to the next generation, but Katherine staked a claim to her daughter’s identity at the baby’s christening: Kate is ‘meant to be her mother’s daughter, Katherine’s diminutive’. Even Katherine’s poodle is grandly named ‘Katherine’s Katrina Kay’ – unsurprisingly, Kate and the dog have an almost sibling rivalry.

The story of the embattled mother and escaping daughter is one Phillips has told before – in two collections of short stories and two previous novels. The elements are much the same. A woman loses her teenage sweetheart to an early death, marries a much older man in haste, has a child, cares for her own mother who is dying of cancer and then spends her life growing away from her husband, sharing confidences with her daughter, studying in the evenings in order to get a job and a divorce. As the mother carves out her independence, the father struggles (in Machine Dreams, he loses his road-building business and retreats into silence and mystery novels). The daughter always flees as soon as she can.

We first encounter this family model in ‘Wedding Picture’, a prose poem which begins Phillips’s debut collection, Black Tickets (1979): ‘Five years since the high school lover crumpled on the bathroom floor, his sweet heart raw. She’s 23, her mother’s sick, it’s time. My father’s heart pounds, a bell in a wrestler’s chest. He is almost forty and the lilies are trumpeting.’ It’s the story in miniature of Phillips’s first novel, Machine Dreams – which follows Jean and Mitch and their small-town American family from the Depression to Vietnam – and of the lives of Katherine and her ex-husband Waylon in MotherKind. In Machine Dreams the sweetheart ‘dropped dead by the bathroom sink’, in MotherKind he ‘died just after high school’; in both novels he is called Tom. The same details recur: the picnic table in the family garden; the daughter sitting stock-still in church, fiddling with the fingers of her mother’s gloves; the father whose anger makes him unable to discipline the kids (Machine Dreams: ‘he got too angry to trust himself’; again in Phillips’s second novel, Shelter: ‘supposedly he’s afraid of his temper, all up to me, she complains’; and in MotherKind: ‘I had to handle all that . . . He couldn’t trust himself’). Exact phrases are repeated: in MotherKind and Machine Dreams the mother locks herself in the bathroom during a marital fight and screams through the door: ‘There are laws to protect me from men like you.’

In Machine Dreams Jean wonders if she picked up this phrase from her own mother, who had spoken like that to her father. When her mother, Gracie, became ill they ‘moved towards the approaching death as though partners in it’. Kate and Katherine perform a ‘long dance’ towards death in MotherKind. Like the labour of childbirth, this is women’s work; Jean’s husband isn’t involved, and ‘it wasn’t his job to be.’

MotherKind may be Phillips’s final version of the story. It is certainly the most realistic. She has said that she ‘wanted to write MotherKind in clear, simple, very accessible language because it deals with such intricate patterning’. Her stylistic journey has been unusual: in the early stories with their trailer-trash rants, hallucinatory cut-ups and dramatic monologues of the dispossessed, Phillips can sound like a female Burroughs. The early novels, too, contain a variety of voices: in Machine Dreams each family member provides a different interpretation of the domestic drama. In Shelter four narrators, two young sisters, a solitary Bible-maddened drifter and a poor local boy who runs wild in the woods, tell a story of innocence lost at a summer camp in the 1960s. The child’s-eye view of the distant, dysfunctional adult world is lyrical and compelling. In MotherKind the narrative voice has grown up and been flattened: it provides no more than a factual recital which falters when it reaches for poetic effect or abstract commentary. The compromises of daily life seem to be reflected in the compromises of the novel’s language. It aims to capture the detail of the good things in life – baby clothes, warm folded sheets, festive meals – which can be shored up against future terrors, but in celebrating the ‘mundane, celestial detail of the everyday’ Phillips ends up giving us a shopping list of incidental material. Novels are deadened by this kind of information overload.

Phillips used to write about America’s rites of passage – the bewilderments and bereavements of the Second World War and Vietnam. Now her characters watch those events on video. The closest Kate gets to history is a visit with Matthew’s kids to the local Kennedy museum, but when she tries to discuss the collapse of the idea of Camelot with Matthew she is interrupted by the children, who want a treat after their educational trip. The arrival of the baby means the family must move house, and they leave a rough neighbourhood for a suburban one; Kate feels middle-class guilt over her escape from proximity to the dispossessed, the kind of people who appeared in Phillips’s short stories. ‘We’ve circled the wagons,’ Matthew says. Kate’s world has shrunk; for months after Tatie’s birth, she sets out for a daily walk and is unable to cross the nearest traffic junction: ‘Whatever she had got used up at home. The rest of the world was too much for her.’

The stations of Kate’s year are modest but all-consuming: a trip to buy birthday presents for the boys, an Easter party at a neighbour’s house, her wedding to Matthew, which is held in the garden. When the family go further afield disaster strikes: on a day trip to the seaside one of the boys drifts out to sea in a blow-up dinghy. Kate plays the heroine, leaving her baby on the sands and striking out into the water. Phillips devotes a number of paragraphs to the contents of the bags that were packed for the outing, but skates over the crisis in a few sentences. The incident is related as if it were a bad dream.

Kate has chosen not to be the most important person in her own life and Phillips is nicely ambiguous about the erosion of her identity, the price she pays for children and a relationship. Kate, a modern woman, presumably keeps her surname, but she loses her first name: Matthew seldom uses it, so she ‘wasn’t herself any more; she’d become a term of endearment. She was dear to him. What was dear to him, therefore, must grow dear to her.’ There’s resentment there, and pleasure and self-validation. The world before her baby comes back to Kate in memories of childhood and travel, dreams and reveries that squeeze into the enveloping present, but they are of ‘a half life, floating world, a bubble’.

The compromised happiness of the stepfamily described in MotherKind – the ‘negotiation, bargaining, insecurity’– is doubly fragile: Matthew must be shared with his ex and his children (who are forbidden to mention Kate’s name in front of their mother). The only person Kate doesn’t have to share is the mother she is learning to lose. Set between the chapters of the novel are italicised flashbacks to Kate’s visit to tell her mother she is pregnant – the type of homecoming that daughters in Phillips’s earlier fiction dreaded. Kate knows Katherine so well that she can anticipate her responses, and MotherKind portrays the never-ending dance of judgment and mollification, frustration and tenderness played out by mothers and daughters. However different Kate is from her mother, Katherine is always her starting point. ‘Sometimes I wonder what we’ll have left when this is over,’ Matthew says. ‘Me and thee,’ Kate replies instantly – and then realises that this was her mother’s phrase for the two of them.