Adam Phillips is one of those writers who is best read slowly -- not because his writing is opaque (it isn't) but because it is so rich in implication. Phillips, in books such as his 1994 essay collection "On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored," is able to tease the most extraordinary insights from the seemingly mundane. Each essay is a finely wrought example of psychoanalytic thinking in practice. Each paragraph, sometimes each sentence, is enough to send the reader off on a new trajectory of thought, and it is almost impossible to emerge from one of his essays without some old patterns of thinking permanently unsettled.
Phillips' new book, "Monogamy," is unsettling in a different way. It is not his writing that perplexes so much as its peculiar form. The book consists of 121 miniature essays (if they can be called that), ranging in length from a single sentence to several paragraphs spread over a page or two -- a collection of psychoanalytic fortune cookie messages bound up in a book. The effect, alas, is more jarring than enlightening. Phillips is an epigrammatic writer, to be sure, but in his longer essays his flashes of insight are located securely within larger trains of thought. Here you merely get his conclusions, without any of the reasoning that led to them. It's like hearing the punchlines to 121 unknown jokes. "We have couples because it is impossible to hide alone," he writes, and you suspect he may be right -- but you want more. "Most infidelities aren't ugly, they just look as though they are," he tells us, and we wonder what on earth he could mean.
Perhaps his essays are not so much punchlines as riddles. Perhaps in the months ahead I will compulsively come back to this book to ponder over Phillips' enigmatic epigrams. In the meantime, I am merely puzzled -- not only by Phillips but by his publishers. This is a book seemingly designed to defeat itself. It's too honest, too understanding of the impulses toward infidelity, to be an anniversary gift. Yet the title itself will be enough to frighten off the curious libertine. It's a pity, because it is clear there is something real at the heart of this book; too bad Phillips has decided to hide it from us.