Jayne Anne Phillips
Familial Obligations and Feminist Freedoms
"Fiction simply is. It is self-evident reality. You either get it or you don't. Students are basically reading fiction for meaning. They are looking for why they are alive and what the point of anything is, and I think fiction answers those questions by not answering any particular question. People are what fiction is all about." (Appalachian Journal) So offers Jayne Anne Phillips, an adamant claim perhaps all the more pronounced given the fictional arena in which was she was working in and out of. Whether men (Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff), or women (Phillips, Joy Williams, Anne Beattie) these were all writers working within what was frequently seen as a minimalist framework and out of realistic environments often suggesting a lack of money, health and education. They were indeed writing about people (rather than experimenting with form) and often poorer ones. Of course, this depended on which writer and which story. Richard Ford can write of the comfortably off Frank Bascombe in books like The Sportswriter and Independence Day, but reveal how a character is about to go off to prison in the story 'Sweethearts'. Carver's characters rarely had much money but occasionally cash isn't the question, as we find in the story tennis-playing cardiologist Mel tells in 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'. Generalizations need to be modified when sometimes a Carver character has far more cash to hand than an Updike figure. (Someone doing the accounts on Mel's income and Harry Angstrom's at the beginning of Rabbit, Run, would find Mel paying more tax.)
But what interests us are a couple of collections by Phillips, Black Tickets and Fast Lanes and how the self-evident reality she talks about is often sexually inflected and morally enquiring. Born in Buckhannon West Virginia, Phillips attended university in the state, travelled a bit and in 1978 went to the The Iowa Workshop, a program that other well-known writers including Denis Johnson, Jane Smiley, Joy Williams and TC Boyle attended. The result was the first collection of short stories, Black Tickets, though she had been publishing fiction before the collection came out. In both Black Tickets and Fast Lanes we often have women trying to escape from stifling environments within the context of a liberal country but not necessarily a liberal milieu, and with choices aplenty, often sexual, but limited amounts of cash. "Though I have no money I must give myself what I need," the narrator insists in 'Lechery'. " In 'El Paso' a character says "I lived with Dude those months in two rooms, rickety bed on blocks and past the windows the roof steamed between shingles." "Sue lived in a three-story army barracks. Each room had a iron bunk on one wall, a single cot on the other, and a dresser in the aisle. They stood on their beds to dress." ('What it Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive') But sex runs through the stories more than poverty. "She wanted to have orgasms more and more." ('Slave') "eating, she thought about sex and chewed pears as though they were conscious." ('Strangers in the Night'). "You reached down and unzipped me, keys still in your hand, your warm surprising fingers on my balls..." ('Black Tickets') "You think women don't use men for fucking? Bullshit, plenty of women have used me for sex, just want some big cock to bang their brains out..." ('How Mickey Made It')
Here we have women (but men too since these are mainly heterosexual relationships) who are given to promiscuity, or better still in the context of women's sex lives, ardency. It is the word Stephen and Hilary Rose insist on using when discussing the limits of evolutionary biology in a detailed article that includes the question of sexual desire. "Like [Sarah Blaffer] Hrdy, feminist ethologist Patricia Gowaty is a sociobiologist. What Darwin spoke of as male 'eagerness' and masculinist ep [evolutionary psychology] salaciously relabels 'promiscuity', Gowaty terms 'ardency', a less loaded term, noting that in the many species she has studied both males and females show this characteristic. The Roses notes, Similarly, while ep and Darwin both invoke female 'coyness' in the selection of sexual partners, feminist ethologists argue from their field observations that coyness is a myth and that females as well as males take the initiative." (New Left Review) To understand an aspect of sexual desire in Phillips' work is to comprehend not just a feminist perspective, nor even only an ardent moment in sexual politics between the sexual revolution and AIDS, but also to understand that the notion men are essentially sexually assertive while women necessarily passive is a not a given of science but potentially no more than a pernicious myth. As the Roses suggest: "such claims take for granted that the sole biologically evolved function of sex is procreation, ignoring the substantial evidence, initially gathered by feminist ethologists, that sexual activity among one of humanity's closest relatives, the bonobos, can be divorced from reproduction, taking place with any pattern and combination of partners as part of day-to-day group living." "Social-science research", they say, "concerning the diversity of human sexual practices (fostered by the HIV/AIDS crisis) has supported and deepened this account, but neither ep nor sociobiology, whether feminist or otherwise, is prepared to acknowledge the social sciences, let alone their contribution to knowledge. The project of sociobiology, so clearly set out by [EO] Wilson, is to render the social sciences unnecessary." (New Left Review)
Our point here without getting lost in evolutionary debates is merely to understand that Phillips work is nothing if not a contribution to the social sciences as fictional examination. When she says "students are basically reading fiction for meaning" she also feels "as though my interest in the matrilineal line and female power has been a constant." (Women's Studies) And this isn't just a personal aspect of the work; she thinks it is more broadly true. As the interviewer, Kate Rhodes says, "you have described your understanding of culture as matrilineal in the past." This is the language of anthropology rather than social biology but where we could see Phillips coinciding with Hrdy and Gowaty as she wonders what sort of environments acknowledge feminine, sexual centrality. In Phillips short stories such a position doesn't present itself as powerful (the women are more likely to be drifters than social achievers) but in that drift there is a strong sense of complex agency. That women can travel around the country, in and out of part-time jobs and find themselves taking casual lovers, may seem from one point of view a negative approach to female lives. But that would demand a very narrow set of expectations, while the purpose in Phillips' fiction is often to show that the opportunities for failure are probably far greater than for success, yet paradoxically where in that failure an approach to feminism can find itself.
Looking at four Phillips stories, 'Home', 'Lechery', 'Souvenir' and 'Fast Lanes' can help us explain why this is so. In' Home', the narrator tells us that her mum married young and quickly, nursing her own mother and marrying her husband a fortnight after meeting him at a dance. "She married him in two weeks. It took her twenty years to divorce him." The daughter asks why she married him and her mum replies: "he was older. He had a job and a car. And mother was so sick." A mixture of obligation and social indoctrination led her mother to a constrained life the narrator is unwilling to fall into. Her mum wants her to move back permanently, "come home...save money" but the twenty-three-year-old narrator who her mother has paid through college says she can't possibly do it, even if she isn't quite sure what she can and will do. Her life might be aimless, her financial situation precarious, and her relationships complicated none more so than with Vietnam Veteran, Daniel but it is hers, even if there may be duties. Speaking of Daniel, she says, "we've made love five times; always in the dark. In San Francisco he must take off his shirt for a doctor; tumors have grown in his scars. They bleed through his short, round rust-colored spots." Philips says, "I don't think escape makes me more free. There is that idea of freedom. But, like the song says, 'freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.' People who feel that their past is lost have to compensate in some way, they have to find some way of placing themselves in a context, some way in dealing with a past that is not supported by people around them." (Appalachian Journal) But what might seem from a personal point of view distressing, with someone lost and confused, unsure whether they ought to get married or remain single, live with a lover or take a permanent job, can from a social perspective be liberating. It isn't that the person may be happy choosing this life, but the indecision and even the obligations are theirs as existentialism meets feminism, where before the sixties existentialism (no matter Simone de Beauvoir) could seem a very masculine concern indeed.
When one of the sixties' most vocal and assertive of feminist voices, Germaine Greer, describes her mother Peggy's marriage to Reg, the similarities between the mother Phillips offers and Greer's would seem uncanny were it not the common lot of women as far and wide as the US and Australia. Greer might be describing a moment just before the war, down under, and Phillips just after it, in the States, but Greer notes that Reg could be seen as a thirty-two-year-old man of the world looking to settle down, while her mother was in want of a spouse. "By her own admission Peggy LaFrank was looking for a husband; Reg Greer happened to be looking for a wife." (Daddy We Hardly Knew You) While most men at the time were wearing factory-made suits that were ill-fitting, Reg dressed beautifully as a little bit of status could go a long way. The suit was to Peggy what the car was to the mum in the story. They were older men with a job and a car; why wouldn't you marry them?
But for Greer and Phillips, for many women who more or less came of age in the sixties (though Greer is fifteen years older), the question became reversed: why would you marry them? Why not live for a while a life of ardency while you figure things out, rather than settling and settling down? Phillips' female narrators and central characters can screw and be a little screwed up. "I'll get a ride to the university a few hours away and look-up an old lover," the narrator says in 'Home'. "I'm lucky. They always want to sleep with me." Instead, she gets a call from one of those lovers, Daniel, who wants to see her, is now in DC and will come to her mother's house, relatively nearby. (He has come originally from Oregon). "I love Daniel, his white and feminine hands, his thick chestnut hair, his intelligence. And he loves me, though I don't know why. The last few weeks we were together I lay beside him like a piece of wood. I couldn't bear his touch; the moisture his penis left on my legs as he rolled against me. I was cold, cold. I huddled in blankets away from him." She is free to sleep with whoever she wishes but isn't free from the ambivalence she feels about it. Yet that initself is a freedom: her indecision is her own it has nothing to do with a patrilineal expectation that ought to be met. While she may wish to look after Daniel, to help him look after himself, there is little external societal expectation to do so.
"This withering of gender polarities is also apparent in relation to the maternal," Brian Jarvis notes. "'Mother' functions primarily as a verb in Phillips's writing: daughters regularly mother their mothers, as for example in 'Home' and 'Souvenir', whilst lovers mother each other. Phillips is clearly fascinated by the reproduction of the maternal role, its limits and its protean possibilities. " ('How Dirty is Jayne Anne Phillips?') If there are obligations better they take a contemporaneous form, one that allows for the noun to turn into a verb and thus to lose its constraining value and find instead an existential quality of feeling. While Daniel's doctors curse at the lack of supplies, "I buy some real bandages. Every night I cleanse his back with a sponge and change them." Yet she later asks her mother how she could live with her father. "She came home from work and got supper. He ate it, got up and left to sit in his chair. He watched the news. We were always sitting there, looking at his dirty plates. And I wouldn't help her. She should wash them, not me." The narrator when a girl fell into her expectation as readily as the father, with neither feeling obliged to help, even if at the same time the mother was the main breadwinner: "she should make the money we lived on." But rather than a wage allowing her mother freedom the best it could offer was one for the next generation: "she sent me to college; she paid for my safe escape." When in the next paragraph the narrator says "Daniel and I go to the Rainbow, a bar and grill on Main Street", she adds "we hold hands, play country songs on the jukebox, drink a lot of salted beer. We talk to the barmaid and kiss in the overstuffed booth." This isn't just the next generation doing what their parents did when they were young; we have the feeling the parents never did this at all. It is part of the societal shift that allows for such emotional expression. Turning the word mother into a verb would be part of that shift.
Yet at the end of the story, the mother can't quite countenance the sexual revolution when it finds its way into her own home. Daniel and the narrator have been having sex and the mother has overheard them. "Here, in my own house. Please, how much can you expect me to take" she says, doing the dishes. The mother, who goes to church every Sunday, might just be able to tolerate that the next generation is exploring its desires as she never could, but home is at best where the heart is; it isn't a place where her twenty-three-year-old daughter can come back and make love to a man she happens to be seeing. The moment is clearly of thematic import within the story as it provides the tale's conclusion. If the mother was expected to do the dishes in the past; now she isn't but there she is busy doing them nevertheless. The narrator tells her there is no need; she did the dishes the previous night. But the dishes need to be done not because they are dirty but because the mother feels that she needs to keep things clean now she has a 'promiscuous' daughter in the house. Home still isn't where the libido is, and the generation gap manifests itself in a mother who believes in God and couldn't eventually believe in her marriage; and a daughter who doesn't join her mother at church and who may not believe in marriage at all, not only in the failure of one's own.
In 'Fast Lanes', Thurman and the narrator are crossing the south, passing through Denver, Dallas, Houston and moving up to Virginia. Her father's sick and she wants to see him; she'll go home but she doesn't intend to stay. Thurman wants simply to take off for a while, passing through Texas and Louisiana and to go on up the coast. Thurman, we are told, broke up with a girl three years earlier and it seems to haunt him enough for Thurman to "still date history from that time." The more open sexual encounters available don't seem to appeal, as if he yearns for an earlier era: "you can wear my shirt...you'll look great in blue denim and no pants, like Doris Day in a pyjama movie." He can't easily countenance the narrator's need to take lovers when she feels like it and the story opens with them already well on the road and the narrator the night before getting both drunk and lost. Later in the story, she reveals more and why Thurman might understandably have been so annoyed with her at the beginning of the tale. "What happened was scary and stupid, and whirling and sick and drunkenly predictable..."; a wild evening we have earlier been informed about above the club in a motel room. Even if he isn't so smitten with Thurman, there he would have been all night on his own wondering what was happening to her and whether she would make it back to their motel at all. When she finally arrives it is nine in the morning and he has loaded up the truck, about to leave. "You've got no obligations to me...I don't tell you who to pick up in a bar. But at eight o'clock this morning I began to wonder if I was going to have to leave you, and dump all that crap of yours in the middle of Bourbon Street." Is Thurman the burgeoning boyfriend (though they'd slept together once, a month before the trip), or the surrogate father, suggesting that the verb needn't only be maternal: that what matters most is the flexibility of affection? Yet the story plays on the ambiguous title with the narrator claiming Thurman would do better without her as she fast lanes through life, while he insists having just helped her learn to drive that he knows more than her about highways. "You don't want any fast lanes," she says. "I'll tell you about fast lanes," he says. "Don't close your eyes. Keep watching every minute...sooner or later you'll see your chance." Pulling into the fast lane or pulling away from a crazed intensity turns the exchange into a screwball moment of punning possibilities. Thurman knows he can give advice about driving; the narrator can choose whether to take it as literal or metaphorical. He may wish for a more traditional relationship, but he seems drawn to someone who hasn't only moved with the times but enjoys the velocity of the shift.
Phillips' short stories don't so much counter conventional sexual roles; they play with them within a set of conservative circumstances that characters resist and fight against. It is why we have proposed that the characters often act liberally but within broader structures that aren't yet so liberalized and where gender roles still have a degree of fixity. Daniel was in Vietnam; Thurman in the peace corps in Ceylon. Thurman's brother died in Vietnam. He was twenty-eight, didn't have to go but enlisted anyway. Men are still men and women women despite the generational changes that suggests the women will take numerous lovers and the men will no longer be stoic and solitary. We can see that both Daniel and Thurman seem more in need of companionship than the women, but they are still clearly men. We say this in the context of Pirjo Ahokas's claim that "according to performative theory, subjects are constructed through the reiteration of dominant norms. Gaps and fissures may be revealed as constitutive instabilities, however, in the process of the repetition of regulatory norms, helping to create space for postmodern identity formations." ('It's Strange what You Don't Forget') Ahokas sees this evident in Phillips' first novel Machine Dreams, but we're inclined to think that performativity is too strong a word to describe the sexual roles played in the stories. When we invoke screwball humour in 'Fast Lanes' it resides in the tale refusing a previous generation's norms without quite radically altering them. The relationship between the narrator and Thurman may not be typical but the conventional surrounds it. When Thurman refers to the narrator as sweetheart, she replies "don't call me sweetheart" while they discuss what has changed since their grandparents' generation. Thurman reckons they knew things; they just kept them to themselves. Sitting at home as the grandfather listened to the radio and the grandmother grated the cabbage, the narrator accepts "their isolation was real, not an illusion. They just stayed in one place and sank with whatever they had." The young generation at least have the road. "Roads. Sensation, floating, maps into more the same. It's a blur, a pattern, a view from an airplane." They haven't escaped so much and yet it is still some form of liberation, especially for women.
We distinguish between liberation and performativity because though critics see in Phillips a post-modern streak, the stories seem to us to remain within general expectations that it violates rather than alters, and returns to realist demands next to work by older writers like Coover, Vonnegut and Pynchon. It can seem in form that Phillips is old-fashioned and in content subversive rather than progressive. One needn't present this as a criticism at all. It is consistent with the existential feminism evident in her work. Her characters rarely escape their predicament but they do search for spaces within it. They aren't liberated figures far from home but frequently characters who find they must return to it, as we see in both' Home' and 'Fast Lanes', but also in 'Souvenir', where the story opens describing how central character Kate every year sends her mother a Valentine's card. Her parents always celebrated in a small way and since her father died six years ago, "Kate made a gesture of compensatory remembrance." This year she forgets but gives her mother a ring instead; soon after she gets a call from her brother saying mum is ill and that she in for tests. She is very sick indeed (she has a brain tumour) and Kate stays with her, aware her mother is unlikely to have long to live. At one moment her mother says, "where are my grandchildren...that's what I'd like to know." Kate says her mother needs to stick around, "...I promise to start working on it." Here we have another dutiful daughter but one very different from the duties demanded of Germain Greer's mother and the mother in 'Home' when they were young. There are still expectations but Phillips' characters subvert them without quite liberating themselves from such strictures. Early in the story, Kate and her mother are in conversation. Kate teaches at university and her mother asks her if there are any men on the horizon, later saying that 'nothing would surprise her" when Kate suggests if she has a child it'll be "a dark baby...to stir up the family blood." Yet in all three stories (in 'Home', 'Fast Lanes' and 'Souvenir') there is something dutiful about the daughters even as they all live modern lives quite distinct from their mothers. They all know what expectations are and while they will take advantage of the generational change that makes it easier for them to be single, manifoldly amorous and free to roam the country, they are still close enough to their families, and what the family expects from them, to return promptly to the hearth.
Some will see in such gestures nothing less than human decency but Phillips shows also that these are low-key familial demands containing within them other expectations too. When Kate returns she isn't just faithfully at her mother's bedside, she also feels she owes her mother grandchildren as well. Phillips reckons, "The phrase 'the personal is political' comes to mind. The characters in all the books operate in distinctly real worlds that are historically accurate, emotionally accurate. I said in my talk at Keele that 'history tells us the facts, but literature tells us the truth.'" Phillips also says that, "growing up in West Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s was like coming of age in a laboratory of gender distinction - partly because it was generally an economically depressed area, men identified with their work, with getting and keeping work, and women supported them partly by not working themselves." ('European Journal of American Culture') The sense of obligation changes as the women very much work and in many instances, like Phillips, move away. These gender distinctions, and expectations, don't just disappear because society as a whole is a little more liberal than it was twenty-five years prior. New milieux must be sought. "I had to leave West Virginia. That was kind of all there was to it." ('Appalachian Journal')
In 'Lechery', the expected gender roles have in some way collapsed, but so has everything else. Our narrator is a teenage prostitute, brought up in foster homes, who at the age of twelve is introduced to drugs and orgiastic sex. There have been plenty terrors before that too, and now at fifteen she as no money but knows how to survive selling pictures, having sex with younger boys and stealing. The story can read a little like a conservative's worst-case scenario: this is what happens when society liberates itself so much that children don't have parents and sexual roles disintegrate. But better to see it as the further reaches of Phillips' interest in the subverting of convention, finding in it not liberation but perversion. Though Phillips may have been known in these early short story collections for what could seem the extremity of sexual freedoms, we can find in them too an interest not in the wonders of escape but the limitations of it. She may also want a society quite different from the one in which was brought up, but the modifier still counts. Hence why we are wary of Ahokas's claims for Phillips' work, at least in the context of the stories. "Identities are produced within existing power structures, but postmodern thought in general and postmodern feminisms in particular deconstruct subordinating norms," she says, "and insist on recognizing and respecting difference. Thus, like feminisms of color and ethnicity, postmodern feminist approaches, which include theories of performativity, are useful in challenging dominant regimes of categorization and oppression." ('It's Strange What You Don't Forget') From a certain point of view nobody is more liberated than the narrator in 'Lechery', but she also, of course, lacks the basis upon which her liberation has much meaning or very much empowerment. As she assembles a few of the young boys, she chooses who will gather the money, then meets them in a tunnel, takes the money from them, shows them a vulgar picture and sucks them off. There are plenty variations, but this is the gist of the exchange and probably the narrator thinks she thus has power.
Yet it seems more a continuation of abuse, taking advantage of others as she has been taken advantage of as well. Who would be inclined to think the narrator in 'Lechery' is freer than Kate in 'Souvenir' or the narrator in 'Home'? These young women are much more obligated than the still younger one in' Lechery' but we are reminded once again of the Kristofferson song Phillips quotes: if freedom is just another word for nothing to lose, then what word better suits the sort of progress that Phillips insists upon so that women of her generation needn't be as restricted as women in the immediate post-war years? There is a tension in Phillips' stories between progress and regression, between moving forward and going back, between knowing you are free to do what you want but also duty-bound to people that you love. In these stories so often the fidelity isn't to a lover but to a mother or a father, to someone from the previous generation who you can feel safe with and responsible for. 'Lechery' shows what happens when people don't have that sense of obligation, with parental figures absent or exploitative, and the teenager at its centre no less so as she tries to find a way of making a few dollars without thinking too much about the consequences of her actions. Interviewed by Nicci Gerard, Phillips says what interest her is "Divinity...This what I'm trying to get at, in everything I write." (Guardian) She makes clear this isn't obviously religious but it is vitally about how to live and what to believe. While academics like Jarvis and Ahokas see a radical writer in Phillips, we are more inclined to notice in Phillips' story collections, for all their sexual adventurousness, and for all their explicit content, a yearning to find the balance between older values and newer ones, between respecting the past and exposing it in the present. As Phillips says writing itself is "forbidden, an act of transgression'. But she also notes, "as the writer in my family, I felt that I was the person who was charged with making sure all these stories and ideas survive, but at the same time you're not allowed to tell anyone. Writing is the telling of secrets." (Guardian) It is both a subversive and a responsible act.
© Tony McKibbin