REVIEW: And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips

And Yet They Were Happy

by Helen Phillips

Leapfrog Press

180 pp/$14.95

And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips can be likened to a magical kaleidoscope. Every time you turn the page the colorful crystals rearrange to form a new beautiful, fantastical scene that is both familiar and alien, quite real and yet also entirely fictitious. The book is a collection of vignettes, if they may be so called, each of which takes up exactly two full pages. Together they form a kind of impressionistic collage depicting the life of a young couple in New York (or some parallel universe version of it) as they date, become engaged, marry, and live together in a state that may not quite amount to marital bliss but that does not, as the title suggests, preclude the possibility of happiness.

However, this fairly cut-and-dried summary does little to convey the beauty, inventiveness, humor, heartache, and love which imbues nearly every piece in this collection (which is actually billed as a novel of linked fables). Whether she is riffing on the ‘the nature of the beast,’ imagining the apocalypse, recounting a raging rodent party at their apartment, or re-inventing the story of Adam and Eve, Phillips does it her own way, unpredictable, imaginative, but above all fiercely truthful. And the allegorical nature of her storytelling proves tremendously, almost eerily, effective at communicating the indescribable essence of existence. Resist it as I might, the word adorable comes to mind, without a trace of sarcasm or derision. For these stories, individually and as a whole, deserve adoration for their honesty, mischievous and lively spirit, creative fearlessness, the humanity they capture and reveal, as well as the sheer level of literary skill with which they are executed.

With her compact, precise, frequently and subtly humorous, and visually evocative language, Phillips makes the whole thing look easy, like a world class ballet dancer or gymnast that seems able to defy gravity without effort. Or perhaps a trapeze artist or prestidigitator would make a better comparison. Because Phillips’s is a high wire act, a fabulous magic trick, which delights and surprises and even frightens you a little, as you wonder whether she might not fall, whether the magical powers might not fail and abandon her. But the performance is wonderfully successful, and the performer safe. And when it is over, it is with further surprise and wonder that you realize that these disparate, short, often outlandish sketches, have coalesced, like the crystals in a kaleidoscope, into a complete and wrenching portrait. An odd, lovely, surrealist portrait which says more about our true longings and disappointments, failures and terrors, pleasures and pains than perhaps any ‘realistic’ depiction could hope to do.

–Ilya Lyashevsky lives in Brooklyn, where he writes fiction and software. His current project, combining technology and literature, can be found here.

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Listen to Helen read some of the stories in And Yet They Were Happy here.

The reading tour for And Yet They Were Happy kicks off this Thursday, May 5th at Bookcourt. Can’t make it then? See Helen at Franklin Park on May 9th or EARSHOT on May 13th.

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