The most interesting novels are always a bit strange. The stories bend and shift with the author’s own predilections; they reject the predictable progress of conventional plotlines in favour of something that feels more risky and open-ended. They often go off the rails, these books, veering into the wide open spaces of the contingent and unexpected, in defiance of the kind of fiction designed to match outcome with expectation. Less known here than in the US, where she’s gathered up all sorts of prizes for stories that Raymond Carver described as ‘unlike any in our literature’, Jayne Anne Phillips has always written this way. Her writing territory, though recognisably American (she appeared in the 1983 issue of Granta that introduced a new kind of writing from the US that the then editor Bill Buford labelled ‘dirty realism’, taking in Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Bobbi Ann Mason and so on), has always belonged to her and her alone. ‘For me,’ she has written, this ‘no man’s land, a deeply specific isolation drenched in family stories and secrets, is a huge advantage for a writer.’
Her stories, often focused on the dark shadows that are part of childhood and adolescence, reach inside simple board houses to their kitchens and bedrooms and out into sunburned gardens, ragged streets and open fields, where little happens and everything does. It’s foreign and specific, and, for the British reader, alienating: even when the writing makes an occasional excursion into the metropolis, into Boston or New York, Phillips gives up nothing to ideas about the modern world, globalisation or capitalism or anything contemporary at all. From ‘Blind Girls’ in her early short story collection Black Tickets (1979):
She knew it was only the boys in the field, come to watch them drunk on first wine. A radio in the little shack poured out promises of black love and lips. Jesse watched Sally paint her hair with grenadine, dotting the sticky syrup on her arms. The party was in a shack down the hill from her house, beside a field of tall grass where black snakes lay like flat belts.
In the novels and stories that followed the same focus on a particular kind of place persisted. Certain themes are repeated – a coming of age, familial duty, bodily awakening – and yet there is always something new being played out on the page. ‘Concede the heat of noon in summer camps,’ commands the first line of Shelter (1994), a calm, dark undoing of a novel about a group of girls away from home which establishes very quickly the possibility of a violence that may or may not be worked on them. ‘The quarters wavering in bottled heat, cots lined up in the big, dark rooms that are pitch black if you walk in out of the sun. Black, quiet, empty, and the screen door banging shut three times behind you.’
That ‘bottled heat’ shows her willingness to take risks, to unleash her story into metaphor and open it up to mystery. Here is the concentration on seeing the ordinary and the everyday, a poet’s twice-looking. It’s there in the taste of things, their texture and feel. It’s in food and fabric and skin and hair. ‘I could close my eyes and still feel myself across the seat of the moving truck, my head on his sour thigh and my knees tucked up,’ she writes in ‘Fast Lanes’, the title story of that collection. ‘The lake seemed to grow as I got closer, yawning like a cool mouth at the centre of the heat.’ And when Phillips writes about sex, which she does often, and about what it is to be sexual and alert and aware, the sentences seem to implode with their own articulacy. This is from ‘Bess’ in Fast Lanes:
Then I saw Claude kneeling, darker than she because he wasn’t wearing any clothes. He touched her feet and I thought at first he was helping her take off her shoes … But he had nothing in his hands and was lifting the thin chemise above her knees, higher to her thighs, then above her hips as she was twisting away but stopped and moved more toward him, only holding the cloth bunched to conceal her belly.
There’s a hidden rhyme scheme here of ‘chemise’ and ‘knees’, ‘higher to her thighs’; the shift of the texture and weight in words and objects performs the act of undressing instead of just describing it. Nothing feels wasted in this kind of writing, though Phillips spends extravagantly on material detail and the practical: her work may be dreamy and mystical and dramatic but there is always the careful and sure awareness of reality; each narrative is underpinned in ordinary, day-to-day life. In Lark and Termite (2009), her most recent novel but one, the young protagonist bakes for her disabled younger brother:
Nonie hates the idea of blue cake, she says it looks like something old and spoiled, too old to eat, though it’s light and delicate and flavoured with anise. But Termite likes it, and he likes pink cake that tastes of almond, and mostly he likes me putting the batter in different bowls, holding them in the crook of his arm while I bend over him, stirring. I tell him how fast a few drops of colour land dense as tinted black and turn the mix pastel. I make three thin layers, pale blue and pink and yellow, and I put three pans in to bake, shut the door of the oven fast to pretend I’m not making everything still hotter.
So there is the cake – ‘Blue icing does look strange … unless I trim it, save out some white for a lattice over the top or garlands’ – but first the ingredients must be measured, and carefully mixed by hand, before it is baked and cut and served. Such is the rule of this writer’s confections: attention to detail presages the sublime.
Questions such as ‘What does this mean exactly?’ – or ‘Am I certain I have this straight?’ ‘Did I understand that part correctly?’ – run through a book by Jayne Anne Phillips, dislodging the idea of the solid, established world that is so often a novel’s foundation. It’s as though we move through the narrative in tandem with the people in it, uncertain where we’re going but headed there anyway, dazed dumb, sometimes, by every beautiful and ugly thing around us. From Lark and Termite again:
The ragged cat drags its belly across where the grass is short and the stones are sharp, under the lilacs that have no flowers. The flower smell is gone and the white falls off the trees. Seeds, Lark says, little seeds with parachutes to fly them, Termite, all in your hair, and she runs her fingers through his hair, saying how long and how pretty. He wants the grass long and strong, sounding whispers when it moves, but the mower cuts it. The mower cuts and cuts like a yowling knife.
Other fiction seems like mere mimesis in comparison. Because it’s interesting in a novel to be so caught up with the language, with these gorgeous sentences and paragraphs that run on and around and stop and jump up in front of us, that might seem to become the thing they are describing, we don’t mind not being in the safety zone of some predetermined plot or another. Who cares what her books are about? You just want to read them, every word.
Which isn’t to say her books aren’t about anything. Quiet Dell takes a grisly real-life Depression-era murder story as its subject. It ‘will be compared to In Cold Blood’, Stephen King suggests in his blurb on the back cover, and provides ‘documentary evidence’, Colm Tóibín says, ‘of rural America in a time of crisis’ – a kind of new, new journalism then. Developing her interest in merging factual circumstance with the invented (Lark and Termite used a series of photographs as well as historical information from the time of the Korean War to help establish a narrative hidden inside a love story that was in turn hidden inside a story about a brother and sister), Phillips seems to be flirting with contemporary publishers’ seemingly boundless desire for stories based on real-life events. Yet though Quiet Dell like In Cold Blood deals in facts, murder and reports of defendants and victims, it makes Capote’s project seem a simple thing. For along with the documents and photographs and news cuttings, and the parts of remembered history from Phillips’s own childhood (‘My mother told me of holding her mother’s hand at age six, walking along a crowded dirt road in the heat and dust of August, past a “murder garage”,’ she said in an interview), it also tells another story, it too based on real life, about the young female reporter who covered the trial in 1931 and as she did so met a man and fell in love. So there are all kinds of complication here: a historical report interrupted by a romance, a legal history shadowed by a story that feels as unreal and yearned for as a dream. We’re off track, and veering wildly.
‘When the year turns, there are bells on the wind’ is the book’s opening sentence, under the heading ‘Christmas Eve, December 24, 1930. Park Ridge, Illinois – Annabel Begins’. We are introduced to the Eicher family and the intricacy of their domestic world, all laid out like a table setting in fastidious detail:
Mr Charles O’Boyle, our former roomer, would come for dinner, and the Verbergs from next door, who were bringing the turkey and the chestnut dressing. Mother was making the vegetables and her gelatin surprise, and Charles would bring the pies … Grethe was setting table with the Haviland china and Hart was to lay fires in the dining room and parlour grates.
The perfectly arranged world is to be broken, as Annabel, the youngest daughter, planning a Christmas pageant (‘The trees in my dream sparkle. It’s quiet in the dark, and I’m indoors, on a stage’), seems to intuit. ‘Up high,’ she says, ‘the bells are ringing for everyone alive.’ Her mother, Asta Eicher, widowed and without means, has started a correspondence with a man she has never met and intends to marry him – unaware that he is plotting to murder her and her children in the same way he has successfully killed unknown numbers of vulnerable women before her.
This is the cold heart of Quiet Dell, a story given in advance (it’s there in full on the front jacket flap). In 1930s America the murders were big news, but Phillips makes little of the blood and gore. Unlike the factual reporting of Capote, we barely see the murderer at work: everything is alluded to, glimpsed. And we know very little about the central players as the killing occurs: in the key scenes, murderer and victims alike are kept remote from us. The Eicher family are vividly present in their home – ‘His mother wore her lace collar, her cameo brooch and earrings, and her kitchen apron’; ‘Hart came after, whistling’; ‘The girls appeared in their winter gear … hats which were tight across the forehead and bound with thin red bands’ etc – but skulls and bones by the time the reader catches up with them in the Midwest, where the man going by the name Harry Powers, posing as husband and father, has taken them for dispatch. This is all we get from the last moments of the children’s lives: ‘She begins to run, dodging his hand, and he chases her, grabs her by her clothes as her shoes fly off in the mud. He hits her so hard that she flies back against the car’; then ‘Annabel sees in the shadowy garage, as though by candlelight, a mess of clothes and objects on the floor …’ There’s the rag soaked in chloroform; we get a sense of Powers’s elation, his blood ‘singing’, just before the murder, the rope, the trapdoor. Fragments must do for the whole.
The young reporter who is making a name for herself on the Chicago Tribune might be a cipher for the writer herself. Emily Thornhill, like Phillips, is creating a story out of the facts, forming something new out of what exists to excite a readership and move them to empathy. And as that story is told, so too is another, about her life: she’s fallen for a middle-aged banker from the Eichers’ Chicago suburb, racked with guilt because he believes he could have helped the family, given them the financial advice that would have saved their lives. His need for redress and Emily’s need to create a living testament from the emptiness of death transforms both characters: ‘Immediately, she stood and moved close to him. The fragrance, so subtle, was the smell of his skin. It was as though she’d stepped into some inchoate sympathy, charged and alive, between them. They stood so, looking at one another, and did not need to speak.’ This love story presents a massive challenge to the concept of a novel like Quiet Dell. For while the relationship between two outsiders to the central drama may be based on information as verifiable as the Eicher murders themselves, to introduce it might threaten the force of that original premise, as grim murderous detail and love and passion wrestle together on the same page. At the trial, faithfully recorded transcript-style, the murderer is about to be brought into court, when this turbid scene appears:
Emily looked up at William in his box seat and stood to leave, making her way quickly into the aisle. She would cover this story and file it quickly, rather than ramify Powers’s lies …
William caught up with her in the driven snow, on the street … took her arm, for the sidewalk was slick with ice, but she turned on him sharply. ‘You needn’t follow me. Go back if you like.’
He stopped her. ‘I’m here for you Emily, and I pray to God it turns out in whatever way allows you to live beyond it. Will hanging do it? …’
Snow, sharp with ice, flew at them in gusts.
She pulled him to her and turned in to the wind. ‘Come with me, then, and wait in your room until I type this and file.’
There are lots of passages like this in Quiet Dell. It’s strange and uneasy, the way Phillips challenges us to make what we can of the two very different stories that occupy the same space, the way she sets both her stories adrift somehow, in our imagination, and pitches them against each other, giving neither a proper home. It makes us think about how easily our reading is dictated to, in general, compared to the experience we have here of trying to make sense of different kinds of narrative, with characters criss-crossing from one story into the other. One minute the lovers are enclosed in a hotel room, William submerged in the bath, and in the next we are plunged into the world of Emily’s reportage: ‘He moved in the water and rested his long arms on the tub’s curled edge. Water sluiced to the floor. “Read to me.” … She read by snowlight: “Boy Bolsters State’s Case Against Alleged Child Killer”.’ There’s sex, and then there’s a discussion about ethics. Emily writes her pieces and these are shown in full, and then there’s a jumble of domestic conversation and chit chat.
The more Emily writes about the Eicher family, as though, like the novelist, she might bring them to life, and about Annabel in particular, the more she feels the girl’s presence, as a ghostlike and yet entirely natural shift in the air, a compression of moisture and atmosphere and light that seem to carry her very words and thoughts. This presence gradually comes to permeate the book and to express itself as a third and final story, one that’s transcendent and mystical, yet made to read as though it were as real as all the rest:
Annabel, borne up, sees lantern light amidst the valleys and rumpled mountains. The prison potter’s field is marked, a name and a box for the murderer, but those gathered above Quiet Dell are nameless. Taken, they fell apart like fruit in muck and water, barely hidden or never found. Now they lift and swirl, a cumulus of air and cloud, a charged flow drawn to that place, below.
Phillips is not the first to write from the point of view of a murder victim, or to give her a ghostly role in the ongoing story (Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is one example), but she may be the first to write about that point of view with such fineness and originality that the whole idea becomes overpoweringly attractive. Though suspension of disbelief has been mightily strained at times by some of the preposterous coincidences that the structure of Quiet Dell enables – with its love stories and happy endings forged out of chance meetings and the pressures of a newspaper deadline – and though the moral, sentimental world that is reconstructed for us, sentence by sentence, across the empty meaninglessness left by the murder, seems crazily frail and vulnerable to a robustly critical reading, the writing itself, with all its dance and movement, beguiles us. ‘There are bells on the wind’ was Quiet Dell’s chiming and strange opening line – and that tinkling, delicate echo sounds around us long after the book is done.