Crossing over

In her new novel, Jayne Anne Phillips, the princess of literary darkness, plumbs the emotional netherlands of motherhood.

By Beth Kephart
Published April 28, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

I first met Jayne Anne Phillips in a city of puppets, on a night of daggering rain. It was Prague, the summer of 1995. She was across a gilded, mirrored room, across a table strewn with apples and cheddar, and I remember watching how she moved through the writers who had assembled there -- moved through them, touched a hand to them, then escaped them, just in time. I remember how her long, crimped hair sat on her shoulders like a cape, like depth, a protection. She seemed otherworldly among the rest of us, unspoiled by the rain. She seemed to be dismayed by all the crackling, smacking loudness.

Standing there, observing Phillips, I was struck by contradictions, as readers of her work have always been. Here was the originator of characters who marched straight out of the dark side and spoke: "Jamaica, you black doll, wobbling like a dead girl sewn of old socks ..." Here was the author of tender reminiscence: "My mother's ankles curve from the hem of a white suit as if the bones were water." Here was the teacher -- at Brandeis, at Harvard, at Boston University, elsewhere -- with the reputation for being obsessed with the minuscule, the line edit, the word and its hyphen, the punctuation mark.

"Have you been to the Castle?" She came toward me.

I shook my head no.

"Well, tomorrow," she said. "Tomorrow we'll go. Your family. My family. Here's my number. Call by 10."

We spent the next day jostled by the summer crowds of Prague, in the darkened corridors of St. Vituvius Cathedral, beside the violet drapes of burnished confessionals. We spent it beneath the pinched-up height of vaulted roofs, before the ardent depictions in colored glass. Outside there was summer heat and triangulated gardens, a clan of singers in velvet green and ochre frocks. Phillips was there with her husband and two sons. My little boy and husband were with me. We made our way out of one knot and penetrated another.

We finally crossed the Charles Bridge. It was hot; morning was done. We bought postcards, jewelry, architectural miniatures. Then, saying little to one another, we parted in Mala Strana. I turned to watch her go. I saw how it was. Jayne Anne in the center. Her two sons on either side, her husband nearby. Jayne Anne Phillips: a mother and a wife.

"Black Tickets," the 1979 short-story collection that catapulted Phillips to fame at 26, is best remembered for its explicit fractions of lascivious lives, for the teenage whores and drifters who erupt from stories like "Stripper," "Lechery," "Country" and "Gemcrack" and deliver their inimitable street poetics. And yet it's the book's familial stories that seem most haunting and mysterious, even prophetic.

It's the daughters narrating these stories who stand out, the young, between-places women who come home and don't belong. They talk to their mothers about sex and orgasms. They offer their naked mothers a towel after a bath. Between these mothers and their daughters there is telepathy and disagreement. Perpetually a sickness lingers, a fear, rumbling near the surface, of loss.

In the story called "Home," a daughter remembers a cycle of care. Phillips was in her early 20s when she wrote these lines:

My mother doesn't forget her mother.

Never one bedsore, she says. I turned her every fifteen minutes. I kept her skin soft and kept her clean, even to the end.

I imagine my mother at twenty-three; her black hair, her dark eyes, her olive skin and that red lipstick. She is growing lines of tension in her mother. Her teeth press into her lower lip as she lifts the woman in the bed. The woman weighs no more than a child. She has a smell ... .

I did all I could, she sighs. And I was glad to do it. I'm glad I don't have to feel guilty.

No one has to feel guilty, I tell her.

And why not? says my mother. There's nothing wrong with guilt. If you are guilty, you should feel guilty.

My mother has often told me that I will be sorry when she is gone.

Reading "Home," one senses that the complicated affection of an adrift daughter for her sensible mother is Phillips' truest subject, the thing she has turned over and over in her mind, seeking its heat, sifting through its ashes. Several stories later in "Black Tickets" -- following fragments of near pornography, lines gorgeously twisted -- "Souvenir" returns the reader to the emotional space that Phillips carved out with "Home." Here the daughter is named Kate and the mother, a school administrator, has a brain tumor. Kate has come to the hospital to abide the news with her mother, to wait for an operation that may or may not bring a cure.

Her mother pulled the afghan closer. "I've been thinking of your father," she said. "It's not that I'd have wanted him to suffer. But if he had to die, sometimes I wish he'd done it more gently. That heart attack, so finished; never a warning. I wish I'd had some time to nurse him. In a way, it's a chance to settle things."

"Did things need settling?"

"They always do, don't they?" She sat looking out the window, then said softly, "I wonder where I'm headed."

"You're not headed anywhere," Kate said. "I want you right here to see me settle down into normal American womanhood."

Her mother smiled reassuringly. "Where are my grandchildren?" she said. "That's what I'd like to know."

"You stick around," said Kate, "and I promise to start working on it."

In the wake of enormous commercial and critical success for "Black Tickets" ("a crooked beauty," Raymond Carver said; the signs of "early genius," opined Tillie Olsen), Phillips did not yield to the common diseases of early fame -- arrogance, paralysis.

Within five years, she had produced her first novel, "Machine Dreams." Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, chosen as one of the best 10 books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, Phillips' first novel begins with a chapter titled "Reminisce to a Daughter" and goes on to explore an ordinary family against the backdrop of war. Once again, a mother and a daughter are central to the story. Their bond is both fractured and necessary; loss is threatening, adulthood is closing in.

In 1994, following a long period during which Phillips gave birth to two children and suffered the death of both her parents from cancer-related illnesses, she published "Shelter," a novel steeped in darkness and twisted lure. The book begins, "Concede the heat of noon in summer camps," and then asks even more of its readers, above all a willingness to travel to the heart of unabashed evil and then grope back out toward the light.

While many critics hailed "Shelter" as a major step forward, others shied away from the book's dense, lyrical rendering of the loss of innocence. Sales -- at 22,000, strong for a book of literary fiction -- did not meet its publisher's expectations.

For a writer who had early on won critical raves and commercial success as well as two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the task of producing another full-length work could have been wrought with new pressures and doubt. But Phillips, who has always maintained that she writes for her own "psychic survival," persisted -- quietly, resolutely, bowing to nothing but her own imagination. Anyone who tried to interview her during those years hit a wall. She insisted on the big, white line between the books she wrote and the life that she was working hard to live.

In Prague, I knew Phillips first as the hub of her family -- the mother of two sons and the wife of an amiable physician whose eyes I once saw wet with tears as his wife read an essay about her work. Sometimes, in that place of seashell-colored buildings and accordion music and weddings that seemed spontaneous and hopeful, our families would explore together: boutiques and towers, the checkered countryside. She was guarded, perpetually cautious, never carefree. She was, it always seemed to me, more comfortable alone.

And yet. When it was just Phillips and me, just the two of us over hot chocolate and coffee, she was also generous and vulnerable, refreshingly direct. She would tell stories about Sam Lawrence. He was the editor whom she discovered while attending a workshop at a writing conference, a man she later called, in an inscription in her novel "Shelter," "the angel of my writing life, in every word." He was her editor until he died six years ago, another grueling, heart-rending death for the author. Phillips remembered:

"Mr. Lawrence," I asked him, "do you publish short stories?"

"Not if I can help it," he said. I gave him an edition of "Sweethearts" [published by Truck Press in 1976] and he phoned me and asked me to bring my stories to Boston. And that's how it began.

Phillips would talk, too, about her interest in stories and monologues that evoke an entire world. She would ask about me, about my ambitions. And the more I got to know her, the more she talked about a book she was just then working on, a book that seemed laden, forbidden, seductive, a book that it was finally time to write.

It didn't have a name back then. It was a pastiche of images drawn from life. "I've been writing about the lining in a baby's drawer," she'd say, and then she'd go on to name the specifics -- a white bureau, paper adorned by pastel teddy bears small as polka dots -- each word meticulously chosen, each word, it occurred to me, a tax on memory and imagination. "I've been writing about a daughter and a mother. I've been writing about cancer. I've been writing about birth." It seemed that it was important not to press, to simply listen and wait for whatever might be coming next.

And so I waited and I listened and I understood that Phillips wasn't a daughter anymore. Life had turned her on its pivot and taken her to the opposite side of the breach. She was the mother now -- she was the one who had to take care, who had to soothe, who had to hone her own lonely instincts and finally trust them. Her subject now was motherhood. The daughter lived in memory.

When I saw Phillips again it was 1996, the Bread Loaf Conference in Middlebury, Vt. The book that had been fragments in Prague had matured into chapters, an overarching vision.

"MotherKind," as the book would soon be known, would capture nearly a year in the life of a young woman named Kate, whose first pregnancy and bewildering months as a parent coincide with the exquisite pain of caring for her dying mother. Two stepsons would be featured in the book, as well as a first son, a doctor husband and a town near Boston. Kate would be a writer born and raised in West Virginia. The mother, Katherine, would be a former schoolteacher who never would quite stop sharing her every confidence with her daughter. The book would carry the past into the present. It would look back at what had been lost, at things dissolved. It would be told in an airtight third person, from Kate's perspective.

From the back of a drafty auditorium, I listened as Phillips read an early chapter. In the scene that day, the baby was home from the hospital. Katherine, the mother, had come to live out her final months in Kate's unruly house. Kate was nursing; she was drifting through her life:

He was her blood. When she held him he was inside her; always, he was near her, like an atmosphere, in his sleep, in his being. She would not be alone again for many years, even if she wanted to, even if she tried. In her deepest thoughts, she would approach him, move around and through him, make room for him. In nursing there would be a still, spiral peace, an energy in which she felt herself, her needs and wants, slough away like useless debris. It seemed less important to talk or think; like a nesting animal, she took on camouflage, layers of protective awareness that were almost spatial in dimension. The awareness had dark edges, shadows that rose and fell. Kate imagined terrible things.

"MotherKind" is the sort of involving, brokenhearted book that easily could have devolved into the sentimental in another writer's hand. It relates a circumstance and not a plot. It divulges how it feels to need a mother, to lose a mother, to become a mother.

This is a book about forfeiting the strongest link one has to one's self, about turning around and spinning a web toward the baby in one's arms. It's about the circle of healing that does not close, about what will never be replaced. There is poetry on the fringes; there is real life in between; there is the planted perspective of the protagonist Kate, who never wavers from what faces her, nor from her own reactions to many uncontrollable fates.

"MotherKind" is a book for families, but it is a book for writers, too, shot through with Phillips' own lessons about words and the indelible weights they carry. Early in the book she writes:

Words are so often maligned by their meanings; Kate conceives of words as implements of pure energy, washed, infused, shadowed or illumined by all they carry in endless combination with one another. She writes words and works with them, for pay and for succor; she believes words open in the intangible spheres of their construction, yet stay apart from the world of use, innocent of motive, of healing or harm.

"MotherKind," Phillips says today, "is about paradoxes and patterns. It is meant to invite the reader into a layering of experience that is nearly limitless, yet wholly ordinary and familiar. I want this book to reach the large number of readers who are actually grappling with these issues in their day-to-day lives, and then to look beyond those lives, into what surrounds all of us."

She speaks to me from her home in Boston, her boys in the background, her mind busy with a syllabus she is preparing on a course called Primal Pictures, a course that, she says, "focuses on primal loss and its role in the development of the artist's consciousness." She speaks to me, wary, as she has always been, of taking what she has wrought into the world, of trusting the rest of us with the secrets she shares.

"MotherKind" is a book about loss by a writer famous for her protected loneliness. It is a stunning meditation on family by a woman who pioneered a shocking rootlessness. It is a lesson in writing by an author who is known to spend days patiently beading together words, knotting them into place, securing the clasp.

Whatever happens next with the book is beyond Phillips' control. She understands this better than most writers do, understands the separation between a person and a book, the demand that each be evaluated on its own mysterious, ineluctable terms.

Beth Kephart

A recipient of an NEA grant this year, Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Award finalist. Her new book, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," will be released in the fall.

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Family Motherhood