Phillips, Jayne Anne 1952–
Phillips, Jayne Anne 1952–
PERSONAL: Born July 19, 1952, in Buckhannon, WV; daughter of Russell R. (a contractor) and Martha Jane (a teacher) Phillips; married; children: one son, two stepsons. Education: West Virginia University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1974; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1978.
ADDRESSES: Home—17 Hawthorn Rd., Brookline, MA 02146; fax: 617-739-5188. Office—Brandeis University, Department of English and American Literature, Rabb 249, Waltham, MA, 02454-9110. Agent—Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit, 445 Park Ave., 13th Floor, New York, NY 10022-2606. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer, professor, essayist. Boston University, Boston, MA, adjunct associate professor of English, 1982–1999; Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, Fanny Howe Chair of Letters, 1986–87, and fiction writer in residence, 1999–. Has also taught at Harvard University, Humboldt State University, New York University, Williams College, and writers conferences throughout the United States.
MEMBER: Authors League of America, Authors Guild, PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pushcart Prize, Pushcart Press, 1977, for Sweethearts, 1979, for short stories "Home" and "Lechery," and 1983, for short story "How Mickey Made It"; Fels Award in fiction, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, 1978, for Sweethearts; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1978 and 1985; St. Lawrence Award for fiction, 1979, for Counting; Sue Kaufman Award for first fiction, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1980, for Black Tickets; O. Henry Award, Doubleday & Co., 1980, for short story "Snow"; Bunting Institute fellowship, Radcliffe College, 1981, for body of work; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, American Library Association Notable Book citation, and New York Times Best Books of 1984 citation, all 1984, all for Machine Dreams; Guggenheim fellowship, 1988; Academy Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1997.
Sweethearts (stories), Truck Press (Durham, NC), 1976.
Counting (stories), Vehicle Editions (New York, NY), 1978.
Black Tickets (stories), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1979.
How Mickey Made It (story), Bookslinger Editions (St. Paul, MN), 1981.
The Secret Country (story), Palaemon Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1983.
Machine Dreams (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1984.
Fast Lanes (stories), Vehicle Editions (New York, NY), 1984.
Shelter (novel), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1994.
MotherKind (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of essay to Jock Sturges, The Last Day of Summer: Photographs, Aperture (New York, NY), 1991.
Jayne Anne Phillips Interview with Kay Bonetti, American Audio Prose Library (Columbia, MO), 1991.
Jayne Anne Phillips Reads Souvenir and Machine Dreams, American Audio Prose Library (Columbia, MO), 1991.
Contributor of writings to anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, 1979; The O. Henry Awards, 1980; The Pushcart Prize Anthology, vols. I, II, IV; Norton Anthology of Short Fiction; American Short Story Masterpieces; The Eleventh Draft, 1999; and Why I Write, 1999. Contributor of short stories to magazines, including Atlantic Monthly, Canto, Doubletake, Epoch, Esquire, Fiction, Granta, Grand Street, Harper's, Iowa Review, North American Review, Paris Review, Persea, Ploughshares, Redbook, and Rolling Stone. Phillips's works have been translated into twelve foreign languages.
SIDELIGHTS: Jayne Anne Phillips "stepped out of the ranks of her generation as one of its most gifted writers," wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. "Her quick, piercing tales of love and loss [demonstrate] a keen love of language, and a rare talent of illuminating the secret core of ordinary lives with clearsighted unsentimentality," Kakutani continued.
The short stories in Black Tickets, Phillips' first effort for a commercial press, fall into three basic categories: very short stories, interior monologues by damaged misfits from the fringes of society, and longer stories about family life. In these stories, noted Michael Adams in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, "Phillips explores the banality of horror and the horror of the banal through her examination of sex, violence, innocence, loneliness, illness, madness, various forms of love and lovelessness," and lack of communication. These stories were drawn, observed James N. Baker of Newsweek, "from observations she made in her rootless days on the road," in the mid-1970s when she wandered from West Virginia to California and back again, "then developed in her imagination."
"Most of the stories in Black Tickets," stated Thomas R. Edwards in the New York Review of Books, "examine the lives of people who are desperately poor, morally deadened, in some way denied comfort, beauty, and love." While some of these stories deal with alienation within families, others are "edgy, almost hallucinatory portraits of disaffected, drugged out survivors of the 60s," according to Kakutani. Stories of this genre in the collection include "Gemcrack," the monologue of a murderer driven by a voice in his head that he calls "Uncle," and "Lechery," the story of a disturbed teen-aged girl who propositions adolescents. These are "brittle episodes of despair, violence and sex," declared Harper's reviewer Jeffrey Burke, characterized by "economy and fierceness [and] startling sexuality," to quote Walter Clemons of Newsweek.
Other stories focus on less unique individuals. They are about "more or less ordinary people, in families, who are trying to love each other across a gap," according to Edwards. Stories such as "Home," "The Heavenly Animal," and "Souvenir" all deal with the problems of grown-up children and their aging parents: a young woman's return home forces her divorced mother to come to terms with both her daughter's and her own sexuality; a father attempts to share his life—Catholic senior citizens meals, car repairs—with his daughter and fails; a mother slowly dying of cancer still has the courage to comfort her daughter. In them, Edwards stated, "Phillips wonderfully captures the tones and gestures in which familial love unexpectedly persists even after altered circumstances have made [that love] impossible to express directly."
While some reviewers—like Carol Rumens in the Times Literary Supplement, who called the dramatic monologues in Black Tickets "dazzling"—enjoyed Phillips' richly sensuous language, others contended that the author's best work is found in the more narrative stories concerning the sense of alienation felt by young people returning home. Stone called these stories "the most direct and honest of the longer works in the collection" and stated that "the language in these stories serves character and plot rather than the other way around." "The strength in these stories," said Mary Peterson in the North American Review,"is that even narrative gives way to necessity: honesty gets more time than forced technique; language is simple and essential, not flashy; and even the hard truth, the cruel one, gets telling."
Machine Dreams, Phillips' fifth book, was her first novel. According to John Irving, writing in the New York Times Book Review, the novel is the prose format in which Phillips excels. He stated that Phillips is at her best "when she sustains a narrative, manipulates a plot, and develops characters through more than one phase of their lives or behaviors." In Machine Dreams, the author used the family in much the same way she had in some of the stories in Black Tickets. The sprawling novel tells the story of the Hampson family—Mitch, Jean, their daughter Danner and son Billy—focusing on the years between World War II and the Vietnam War, although it does show glimpses of an earlier, quieter time in Jean's and Mitch's reminiscences. It is the story of the family's collapse, told from the viewpoints of each family member.
In a larger sense, however, Machine Dreams is about disorientation in modern life, tracing, in the words of Allen H. Peacock in Chicago's Tribune Books, "not only [the Hampsons'] uneasy truce with contemporary America but contemporary America's unending war with itself." Mitch and Jean were raised in the days of the Depression, hard times, "but characterized by community, stability and even optimism. You could tell the good guys from the bad ones in the war Mitch fought," said Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World. Machine Dreams is, he concluded, "a story of possibility gradually turning into disappointment and disillusion," in which the Hampson family's dissolution mirrors "the simultaneous dissolution of the nation." Peacock echoed this analysis, declaring, "This is the stuff of tragedy: disintegration of a family, disintegration by association of a society." Toronto Globe and Mail contributor Catherine Bush pointed out that the machine dreams of the title, "the belief in technology as perpetual onward-and-upward progress; the car as quintessential symbol of prosperity; the glamour of flight … become nightmares. Literally, the dream comes crashing down when Billy leaps out of a flaming helicopter in Vietnam." Bush noted that the Vietnam conflict itself, however, is not the cause of the dissolution; appropriately, she observes, Phillips "embeds the war in a larger process of breakdown."
Part of this tragedy lies in the characters' inability to understand or control what is happening to them. Kakutani explained: "Everywhere in this book there are signs that the old certainties, which Miss Phillips's characters long for, have vanished or drifted out of reach. Looking for love, they end up in dissonant marriages and improvised relationships; wanting safety, they settle for the consolation of familiar habits." For them, there are no answers, there is no understanding. "This fundamental inexplicability to things," stated Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books, "is compounded for Phillips's characters by their uncertainty about what it is exactly that needs explaining. Emerson's dictum 'Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion' might aptly stand as the motto of the book."
Many reviewers recognized the strength and power of Phillips' prose in Machine Dreams. Novelist Anne Tyler wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "the novel's shocks arise from small, ordinary moments, patiently developed, that suddenly burst out with far more meaning than we had expected. And each of these moments owes its impact to an assured and gifted writer." Phillips also rises to the technical challenge of using more than one point of view. As John Skow of Time magazine declared, "Phillips … expresses herself in all four [character] voices with clarity and grace." Geoffrey Stokes wrote in the Voice Literary Supplement, "That Machine Dreams would be among the year's best written novels was easy to predict," and Yardley called the novel "an elegiac, wistful, rueful book."
Like Machine Dreams, Phillips' next work—another collection of short stories—concerns itself with discontinuity and isolation from the past. Fast Lanes begins with "stories of youthful drift and confusion and gradually moves, with increasing authority, into the past and what we might call home," commented Jay McInerney in the New York Times Book Review. Many of the characters "are joined more by circumstances than by relationships"; they "lack purpose and authority," said Pico Iyer of Time magazine. "Their world is fluid, but they do not quite go under. They simply float." These are people, added Kakutani, for whom "rootlessness has become the price of freedom, alienation the cost of self-fulfillment."
In some reviewers' opinions, Fast Lanes suffers in comparison with Machine Dreams. For instance, Kakutani stated that although "these [first] pieces remain shiny tributes to [the author's] skills, they rarely open out in ways that might move us or shed light on history the way that … Machine Dreams did." David Remnick, writing for the Washington Post Book World, found that the last two stories in the book—the ones most reminiscent of the novel—are "such strong stories that they erase any disappointment one might have felt in the other five. They are among the best work of one of our most fascinating and gritty writers, and there can be little disappointment in that." Chicago Tribune Books contributor Alan Cheuse similarly said that in these stories "you can see [Phillips'] talent grow and flex its muscles and open its throat to reach notes in practice that few of us get to hit when trying our hardest at the height of our powers."
Some of Phillips' best writing, concluded Marianne Wiggins of the Times Literary Supplement, concerns "the near-distant, fugitive past—life in the great USA fifteen years ago," reflecting the unsettledness of that period in American life. In some ways Phillips' writing returns to themes first expounded by the poets and novelists of the Beat generation; Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Richard Eder called Fast Lanes "the closing of a cycle that began over three decades ago with Kerouac's 'On the Road,'" the novel about the post-World War II generation's journey in search of the ultimate experience. "It is the return trip," Eder concluded, "and Phillips gives it a full measure of pain, laced with tenderness." McInerney echoed this assessment, calling Phillips "a feminized Kerouac."
Unlike her expansive Machine Dreams, Phillips' second novel is "a tighter, smaller book, limited to a few voices and a few days; but what it lacks in scope, it gains in intensity," according to Andrew Delbanco in the New Republic. In this novel Phillips once again examined human loss, this time the loss of childhood innocence. Set in 1963 in a West Virginia summer camp for girls, Shelter, like Phillips' earlier fiction, renders a full range of voices. As Delbanco noted, Phillips "writes in the idiom of the trailer-park Mama as comfortably as in that of the bookish dreamer." He added, "In Shelter, where each chapter amounts to an interior monologue belonging to a different consciousness, [Phillips'] virtuosity is on full display. The result is a novel that has the quality of an extended eavesdrop."
Shelter tells the connected stories of four of the campers—fifteen-year-old Lenny Swenson, her eleven-year-old sister Alma, Lenny's friend Cap Briarley, and Alma's friend Delia Campbell—as well as those of Buddy, the eight-year-old son of the camp's cook, and Carmody, his ex-con stepfather. But as Gail Caldwell stated in the Boston Globe, "it is [the character of] Parson, a holy madman living on the fringes of the camp, who is Phillips' great creation." Parson has come to the camp ostensibly to lay pipe with a road crew, but actually in pursuit of Carmody, whom he met in prison. "I wanted to think about evil," Phillips told Delbanco in explaining her motivation for writing Shelter, "about whether evil really exists or if it is just a function of damage, the fact that when people are damaged, they damage others."
The children in Shelter, Deb Schwartz explained in the Nation, are "confused, lonely, struggling to temper a barrage of information and emotions with only the crudest of skills. They are slightly grotesque, clumsily chasing their half-formed desires and attempting to outrun their fears." The four young girls have more than summer camp in common: Lenny's and Alma's mother was in the midst of a love affair with Delia's father at the time he committed suicide. "Phillips," Schwartz wrote, "goes straight and true into their hearts and illuminates how children make sense of what they can."
Kakutani also commended Phillips' characterization: "In delineating the girls' relationships to one another and to their families, Ms. Phillips manages to conjure up the humid realm of adolescence: its inchoate yearnings, its alternately languid and hectic moods of expectation." Kakutani pointed out, too, the skillful way in which child molestation and incest are alluded to and "covered over with layers of emotional embroidery that transform the event even while setting it down in memory."
Though most reviews contain accolades for Shelter, R.Z. Sheppard's review in Time found fault. Describing the novel as "overwritten and trendy," Sheppard noted that its treatment of sexual abuse will undoubtedly prove "a hot selling point." By contrast, Ann Hulbert wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "To be sure, Ms. Phillips plays skillfully with the rich metaphoric implications of violated children—the religious overtones of creatures being cast out, the mythic dimensions of generational rivalry and decay." Hulbert concluded that Phillips is "an astute chronicler of American preoccupations."
In Phillips' 2000 novel, MotherKind, the author returned briefly to the Appalachian sites of Machine Dreams and Shelter, but placed most of the action in the Boston suburbs where Kate, the book's protagonist, now makes her home. Kate was born in West Virginia, and returns there to tell her mother, ill with cancer, that she is pregnant; her mother, whose death is expected within the year, agrees to move in with Kate in Boston. Katherine, Kate's mother, sacrifices all in order to be able to meet her new grandchild, and to live her last days close to a daughter with whom she has an extremely strong bond.
The novel, told from a third-person omniscient viewpoint that allows readers to hear the thoughts of all the major characters, dwells mostly with Kate's experience of new motherhood, and with her mother's decline into death. About the early weeks with her son Tatie, Kate reflects:
"The days and nights were fluid, beautiful and discolored; everything in her was available to her, as though she'd become someone else, someone with a similar past history in whom that history was acknowledged rather than felt, someone who didn't need to make amends or understand, someone beyond language. She was shattered. Something new had come of her. Moments in which she crossed from consciousness to sleep, from sleep to awareness, there was a lag of an instant in which she couldn't remember her name, and she didn't care. She remembered him."
At the same time Kate celebrates this new life with her whole being, she must bear witness to her beloved mother's weakening state. But a new baby and a dying mother are not Kate's only challenges: her son's father is also the father of two boys from a marriage he is still trying to dissolve, and the older boys are not eager to join a reconstituted family with a new "mom" and half-brother. Kate must find a way to make a connection with these boys that does not threaten their tie to their own mother, or their burgeoning sense of identity and independence.
The book's title comes from the agency Kate calls to help her care for her mother toward the end. At her Web site, Phillips herself described the relationship between the title and the novel in these words: "'Mother-Kind' is a term that refers to the human family women enter when they become mothers—a term that should be common usage. They enter a territory that is the other side of childhood and move from being someone's daughter, someone's lover, into the sudden fruition of passion and attachment that is labor, birth, and caring for an infant…. In MotherKind, birth and death happen as concurrent transformations, and the amazing strength of that relationship courses through and beyond both."
Critics' reactions to MotherKind were mixed. While a Publishers Weekly reviewer called the novel Phillips' "best so far," and applauded it as a "deeply felt, profoundly affecting" work, Richard Eder of the New York Times complained that "there are many pages that the writing fails to bring to life." Like Eder, Michiko Kaku-tani, who also reviewed the book for the New York Times, compared the writing unfavorably to the domestic evocations of John Updike and Anne Tyler, stating that "the mundane routines of daily life do not fully engage her imagination." While the reviews of both Eder and Kakutani were lengthy and respectful of Phillips's gifts as a writer, both evinced disappointment in Mother-Kind. Other reviewers, however, found much to commend in the novel. Chicago Tribune reviewer Alan Cheuse likened the novel to a Mary Cassatt portrait of mother and child, "beautifully composed and emotionally wrenching." "Even the most commonplace care,… becomes lyrical—but never, never sentimental—in the enlivening embrace of Phillips' wonderful prose," he added. In Booklist Brad Hooper remarked, "The story brims with vivid details of day-to-day family life, revealed largely through dialogue, which Phillips unerringly captures with consummate authenticity," an opinion that was also voiced by Judy Goldman in Washington Post Book World, "Her lastest novel is further proof of an extraordinary ability to reflect the texture of real life." Moreover, in a lengthy review for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service Marta Salij concluded, "Too few books touch on the ferocity of women's lives, the intense will it takes to shepherd births and deaths without shrinking. MotherKind is the rare one that tells that truth." MotherKind is "both technically impressive and deeply moving," asserted a Sunday Telegraph reviewer, who added that the novel "deserves to be widely read by both men and women."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 15, 1980, Volume 33, 1985.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Short Story Criticism, Volume 16, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Afterimage, October, 1985, p. 20.
Booklist, April 5, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of MotherKind, p. 1525.
Books and Arts, November 23, 1979.
Books and Bookmen, December, 1984, p. 25.
Boston Globe, April 5, 1987, p. 100; September 4, 1994, p. A12.
Boston Magazine, September, 1994, p. 70.
Boston Review, August, 1984; June, 1987, p. 25.
Chicago Tribune, September 30, 1979; May 14, 2000, Alan Cheuse, review of MotherKind.
Christian Science Monitor, June 7, 1985, p. B7.
Commonweal, October 19, 1984.
Detroit News, January 27, 1980; December 13, 1984.
Elle, April, 1987.
Encounter, February, 1985, p. 45.
Entertainment Weekly, December 2, 1994, p. 66.
Esquire, December, 1985.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), July 28, 1984.
Harper's, September, 1979.
Harper's Bazaar, September, 1994, p. 306.
Horizon, October, 1987, p. 63.
Irish Times, February 29, 2000, Eileen Battersby, "Fraught for Her Comfort."
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1987.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 24, 2000, Marta Salij, review of MotherKind.
Listener, December 13, 1984, p. 30.
London Review of Books, February 7, 1985, p. 20; October 1, 1987, p. 23.
Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1986.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 9, 1984; April 19, 1987, p. 3; September 4, 1994.
Ms., June, 1984; June, 1987, p. 18.
Nation, November 14, 1994, pp. 585-588.
New Leader, December 3, 1979.
New Republic, December 24, 1984; September 2, 1985; December 26, 1994, pp. 39-40.
New Statesman and Society, November 9, 1984; February 10, 1995, p. 45; September 2, 2000; October 9, 2000, Justine Ettler, review of Motherkind.
Newsweek, October 22, 1979; July 16, 1984.
New Yorker, October 24, 1994, p. 111.
New York Review of Books, March 6, 1980.
New York Times, June 12, 1984; June 28, 1984; January 6, 1985; April 4, 1987; April 11, 1987, p. 11; June 19, 1988; January 12, 1992; August 30, 1994, p. C19; May 12, 2000, Michiko Kakutani, "Caretaker for Both Son and Mother"; May 28, 2000, Richard Eder, "The Ties That Bind."
New York Times Book Review, September 30, 1979; July 1, 1984; March 17, 1985; May 5, 1985; May 3, 1987, p. 7; March 6, 1988, p. 32; September 18, 1994, p. 7.
North American Review, winter, 1979.
Observer (London, England), October 28, 1984; September 6, 1987, p. 25; October 30, 1988, p. 44.
Publishers Weekly, May 9, 1980; June 8, 1984; March 1, 1985; February 27, 1987, p. 152; December 4, 1987, p. 68; March 20, 2000, review of MotherKind, p. 72.
Quill and Quire, September, 1984.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 1984; April 5, 1987.
Spectator, November 3, 1984.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), October 1, 2000.
Threepenny Review, spring, 1981.
Tikkun, January-February, 1990, p. 68.
Time, July 16, 1984; June 1, 1987, p. 70; September 19, 1994, p. 82; May 15, 2000, Paul Gray, "Matters of Life and Death: Jayne Anne Phillips' MotherKind Tells a Moving Tale of Birth and Illness without Easy Ironies or Pathos," p. 84.
Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 1980; November 23, 1984; September 11, 1987, p. 978; September 22, 2000, Annmarie S. Drury, "West Virginians."
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 24, 1984; July 22, 1984; April 19, 1987, p. 6.
USA Today, April 10, 1987, p. D8.
Village Voice, October 29, 1979.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1985, p. 23.
Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1984; February, 1986.
Wall Street Journal, July 25, 1984.
Washington Monthly, March, 1985, p. 42.
Washington Post, September 4, 1994, p. 5.
Washington Post Book World, December 21, 1979; June 24, 1984; April 26, 1987; May 14, 2000, Judy Goldman, review of MotherKind.
West Coast Review of Books, November, 1984.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1987, p. 24.
Jayne Anne Phillips Web site, http://www.JayneAnnePhillips.com/ (August 17, 2004).