Meanwhile in California: Jayne Anne Phillips — Spiraling Fictions @ the Hammer
1. Phillips and Mona Simpson, writer, professor, and organizer for readings at the Hammer, proving once again that the cool girls wear black. 2. Fans from the reading line up for a signature at the Hammer bookstore, where lit. themed shawls sell for half-off!
After learning that it takes forty minutes to speed the ten miles between Silverlake & Westwood, I burst into the lobby and was immediately offered assistance by several museum staff. I get corralled into the Billy Wilder Theater in LA’s Hammer Museum, which deserves high regards for offering so many free, culture-conscious programs in the arts, right as the signifying velvet curtains drift together.
1. “People tell me they want to be Termite, say they want to walk in his shoes.” -perhaps this shot of Phillips gets us closer to his blurred edges. 2. I love a woman with red eyes… 3. Simpson is an English professor at UCLA. I made her laugh by saying how much I feel like a cop- showing up uninvited, flashing identification, taking pictures, and digging for intel.
Mona Simpson takes the stage first in the red, red room. She describes being a young writing student, coming across Philips first book, Black Tickets, a collection of short stories that, at the time of its publication in 1979, placed her squarely in the heart of the wounded American conscience, and being blown away that a writer in her mid-twenties could actually publish and live by writing. Philips has kept afloat through the decades by self-publishing, winning awards and grands, and in 2007 she was asked to design an MFA for Rutgers University, where she serves as the director for the diverse, young program.
Lark and Termite makes you occupy three very different characters across three days, nine years apart. In one moment, a US corporal dies while ensuring the safety of a refugee woman and her children at the beginning of the Korean war, and in the same moment his son is born, and in the same moment he is celebrating his 9th birthday with Lark, his teenage half-sister and guardian, on the other side of the world.
Phillips describes the refugee woman: “She seems as furious as [corporal] Levitt feels, like they all should feel. Walking away like that, leaving everything….Enraged that she needs help.” War is a familiar topic for Phillips’s work, and she makes the terror and crimes so clear — how our given equality cab be ripped away for someone’s means-to-an-end.
She contrasts this environment with the relatively raging stillness of her own home state, Virginia, where the corporal’s story carries on in Lark and Termite’s search for sustainable truth and understanding within the quiet landscape. Termite is “minimally hydrocephalic,” a special needs child in 1959 who sees colors blending together and can only hold onto images in his mind. Lark gave him the nickname, saying, “I think he’s in himself like a termite’s in a wall.”
Here, characters feel their way around events and collisions, not through them. They explore their world by riding the unraveling energies of conflict in larger and larger circles, striking me like if Carver had softer diction and five sets of eyes.
Jayne Anne Phillips’s beginnings are in writing narrative poetry, in which she would let stories unravel from a central image, echo in the precise de-tangling of her fiction, where she dives into what she calls, “The layered quality of reality.” She writes slowly and without plans line by line, two or so paragraphs a day, letting the form of the novel reveal and shape itself in the process until it, “Finds its own truth.”
On writing: “I can’t even say that the work is enjoyable, but there is nothing more meaningful.”
On teaching writing students: “They have to get as deeply as they can into what they most fear.”
She’s right. Now, I’m off to run naked down a street of fire.
–David Ohlsen, an LA native, received his BA in Creative Writing at UC Riverside and is a new contributor to Electric Dish.