There is a strange quiet to the stories in this collection. They wade through an environmentally devastated dystopian future and give off whispered warnings rather than roaring doom. They are uncomfortable, uneasy, but in a way that emulates the fairy tale, chock full of timeless mythic secrets, shrouded in mystery.
This collection of stories follows a fantastic (in all senses of the word) novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat and it feels very thematically and stylistically linked.
The genius of Phillips is the way she constructs a premise and sees it through. You never really seize the meaning until the end of the piece and even then you will doubt whatever it is you think you have understood. We never really distinguish what is metaphor and what is plot. (All are both, but let’s leave it at that…) To each strange circumstance there is in the background a kind of hanging “It’s as if…” that we hope we will see realized when we reach the end of the story. No, it’s not a story about bearing and raising extraterrestrial children, the story is about a woman who feels “as if” she has born alien children. It is not a story about young girls disappearing into thin air but only about a world that feels “as if” young girls are disappearing into thin air. The whole collection is haunted by this ghost simile, moaning like or as…
In this way, the stories are both powerful thought experiments and emotional experiences.
But what I found to be perhaps the most stunning aspect of the collection was the way Phillips portrays mothering. I freely admit that, within the last year or so, I have read almost every major book in the newly emerging trend of motherhood fiction. This is largely because I guess I wanted to see if they contained any kind of transcendant and effective explanation of what mothering is. Well…not really… Mostly (as this article points out) one reads them and sees oneself, but has no idea what to do with that sight.
But I have not really truly loved any contemporary portrayals of mothering until this book.
For the most part, I am not entertained by a story that speaks directly about the utter insanity of breastfeeding and sleep-deprived depression, or the difficulty of being both a fully-formed human being and a mother simultaneously (spoiler alert: it’s mostly impossible).* That doesn’t interest me. What’s evocative is a book that makes motherhood into a Twilight Zone episode. Because that is exactly what it is. And nothing I’ve read has thoroughly captured the alienness of the new life as much as this collection.
This is not to say that every story is a troubling magical realist spin on parenting and children. Only a few actually feature these themes as part of the plot. But every story is about life and death and love. It’s not light stuff. And what I found to be the most astoundingly gut-reaction-evoking symbol for some of the darker and heavier observations is the doubling of women.
It starts in “Doppelgängers” with Mimosa, a mother who moves to a new town with her husband and newborn daughter and sees herself everywhere, in the faces of women who push strollers and feed their families and wade through exhaustion the same as she. That all sounds like a straightforward enough commentary on how the innately universal nature of this strange time in the lives of women. An intriguing way to metaphorize the situation. But then, one day, Mimosa takes a nap, wakes up feeling very strange, goes out into the world because she is unable to locate her husband and baby, and then finds herself taking the place of another woman. Sliding seamlessly into vacated space with the other woman’s husband and baby. What starts as an observation on universality becomes a jarring and uncomfortable portrayal of a woman’s alienness from her own life and the interchangeability of her role. The extent to which this weird plotline is familiar on the symbolic level is jarring.
But I appreciated this doubling effect nowhere more so than in the story “R” about identical twin girls in a climate controlled world, who were raised in a brothel and work there until they are taken to a field and set to harvesting strawberries.
After arriving at the farm, where they are supervised by the “thin man,” Rose and Roo– sisters so identical and so closely joined that they were often called simply “R” by the brothel’s madame, Mrs. Penelope–begin to diverge. Their hair extensions fall out, their bodies change, their eye color is no longer identical, and instead of being joined at the hip as they have been their whole lives, they even start to occupy separate spaces.
Roo seems to flourish in the conditions of the fields, whereas Rose is tired and somewhat downcast, confused at the separation. But the situation reaches a crisis when Rose awakens one day to find both her sister and the “thin man” missing. Rose returns to the city and tries to take up her former position in the brothel but is turned out. She roams the streets, trying to find companionship, but is eventually prompted to make her way back to the strawberry fields, where she finds a very pregnant Roo waiting for her.
At this point, it wasn’t obvious to me that the two women could be read as two incarnations of the same person, though I should have seen it. The groundwork had been laid with Mrs. Penelope who is sometimes Mrs. Penelope the Lady and sometimes Mrs. Penelope the Mother:
“She was an erratic, moody woman who vacillated between playing the role of tender mother and fierce madame. We were unsure which version we preferred. On days when she resembled a mother she seemed to weigh ten pounds more than she did on madame days. Today was a madame day. We could tell by her slimming all-black outfit and the faux emeralds in her earlobes, and by the undercooked eggs and burnt toast. Mrs. Penelope the Mother would never make such mistakes.”
“The next day Mrs. Penelope the Mother was flipping flawless pancakes when we came downstairs to eat. She wore a baggy saggy flowered dress and had curlers in her thin hair. She embraced both of us in one hug and then stepped back and looked us over. She smiled kind of sadly, as though she did not quite approve, and we felt awfully guilty. That’s why it was a toss-up between Mrs. Penelope the Mother and Mrs. Penelope the Lady. The Lady might make you feel stupid or clumsy, but she’d never make you feel like a disappointment.”
This dichotomy between Lady and Mother as two archetypes joined in the same person actually becomes more clear as Rose and Roo themselves begin to split. First, Roo stops sleeping in the same bed as Rose, forsaking a habit they have held their entire lives. Then she starts staying up late with the thin man, sometimes not returning to her own bunk at all. Then, of course, Roo and the thin man leave the farm together, but even this does not fully realize the division between the sisters. Finally, when Rose goes back to the city, Mrs. Penelope (the Lady) informs her that Roo and Rose were never twins at all. In fact, they weren’t even sisters. And everything that held these two women together is severed.
Yet Rose returns to the fields, having nowhere else to go. And there she finds a woman, Roo, “composed of many kinds of roundness: her cheeks, her shoulders, her tits, her belly, her bum. She looked soft to the touch, lovely. The mother everyone yearns for.” Her (not-)sister informs her that she and Alex (the thin man who now has a name) went away to be married. And when Rose is shocked, she is reminded by Roo that all three of them,the two women and the thin man, sat up late into the night, playing cards and talking and making plans.
Rose then conjures a vague memory of this threesome: “I remembered myself drifting, not listening, carried upward and away by the warmth of food and fire.”
And here it becomes clear that Rose wasn’t simply bored with her sister and the thin man. Rather, she was experiencing one of those fairy tale states of sleepiness in which things happen that are somnolently ignored by the very person to whom they are happening.
It’s as if the primal elements of survival, food and fire, send the Lady into hibernation as they bring the Mother into domestic overdrive.
So there’s the scene. A woman discussing projects for the future with her mate who, yes, is playing a banjo. Together they till the soil. They make food. They domesticate. But all the while, there’s a third person sitting at the table who used to look a lot like the woman but who looks increasingly less so these days, bored into unconsciousness by the whole thing and floating away into a distant realm.
It’s a recognizable enough tableau.
And while that other woman–that ghost Lady who drowses off at the dinner table and helps harvest the crops but sleeps alone–might disappear for a time, she does come back. And when she does, she looks at her sister, the Mother, wondering what the hell happened and where did she go and why did she leave her to tough it out alone in the city?
The Lady, Rose, comes back from her time in concrete exile, trying to find a place in the life of the Mother. Maybe she asserts herself a little too strongly at first:
“When she questioned me about my time in the city, I overemphasized the loveliness and wildness of the people I’d known in the park, and my tenderness toward them; I enjoyed searching her face for hints of envy.”
But she tries to join in the harvest. Until the crying combination of a tripartite family drives her away. So Rose leaves for the woods. And oddly enough, she finds a place for herself.
“There was a full bookshelf and a bed with a grey blanket. Blue flannel pajamas and a large bag of coffee beans. To my surprise–to my disappointment–no one came to kick me out. All winter I read. I read and I practiced saying ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ . . . In the spring, when the thaw came, I stepped outside and noticed above the door of the hut a wooden sign: R’s hideaway. It was obvious the blanket I’d slept under all winter matched their gray peasant blanket exactly. Enraged, exhausted, I leaned against the dripping hut: I’d never been alone, I’d never been free.”
So what Phillips does here, that is beyond my wildest expectations of fictional portrayals of motherhood, is to set up the split self in two distinct women, and then to question what that other woman, the Lady, not the Mother, does with herself. Where does she go? What is it like? What are her feelings, processing her sudden state of solitude? What we read about mothers is so often about the Mother missing the days when she was the Lady. But here, it is the Lady in exile who doesn’t know how to proceed:
“Please tell me where else I might have gone, what else I might have done.”
It’s here that we realize, the other person, the Lady, the woman who sat back and fell asleep while her twin fell in love and took on the tasks of domestic life and reproduction, doesn’t disappear. She only goes into hiding.
The end of this story is profoundly chilling.
“Sometimes her daughter can’t tell us apart. She comes rushing up the row behind me yelling, ‘Momma! Momma!’ Sometimes she keeps calling me ‘Momma’ even after I twist fiercely around and she sees my eyes, my ferocious mouth, my hair blowing across my face.”
That is the face of the Lady, and also the face of what Jenny Offill has termed the art monster in her incredible article “Magic and Dread,” which asserts that the fundamental tasks of mothering are at odds with the fundamental tasks of being an artist, but that both can potentially be achieved.* And contrary to the way we seem to conceptualize it in both our popular culture and our coffeeshop chit-chat, as a yearning for a past life, we might rather more productively think of it as a yearning for a present self, that lone woman in a cabin in the woods with nothing but a shelf full of books.
*I say “for the most part” because the big exception to this is Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, which I do not place in the same category as other books, for various reasons.
**I believe that this story is actually directly related to the article. See Phillips’s writing on Offill.