Sunday, October 29, 2017

"The Heavenly Animal" (1975)

Story by Jayne Anne Phillips not available online.

This story by Jayne Anne Phillips has a lot of good ideas but never quite executes on them. The premise is so familiar to its times as to nearly verge on cliché, but I don't think that's the problem exactly. It's a baby boomer generation gap story about a young woman in her mid-20s, Jancy, whose parents have divorced acrimoniously and now she is stuck with the shattered pieces and ongoing fallout, still living at home with her mother. Her father refuses to visit or "even step on the grass" of the home he once shared with his ex-wife and Jancy. He lives only 10 blocks away and honks when he drives by and sees Jancy's car there. He expresses his love for her by making sure her car is maintained. Meanwhile, Jancy is footloose and often troubled by tormented relationships. This is good stuff, but it doesn't feel like Phillips gets very far into her material. She has a good sense for the way these people live their lives, but falls short a little in the expression. It somehow feels like she is telling more than showing, even as the story is full of short paragraphs and intriguing stylistic eccentricities such as no quotation marks for dialogue. Maybe this is ultimately more on the order of pioneering work, opening up a rich vein that others would mine with more success. Mary Gaitskill comes to mind. I like this kind of material actually a lot—family estrangements. I just expect them to be a little more heartrending than I found this story. It is built out of powerful emotional material, which is strangely distanced and inert. It labors for a big ending with an auto accident involving a deer, but feels too thought through and abstracted. I didn't like anyone here that much. The father is bumbling and means well but he's also an old-fashioned bigot. Jancy is too skittish and confused to trust, but it takes a bit to figure that out, with the result I felt a little tricked. I've already forgotten any impression of the mother. The father is extreme about rejecting his ex-wife even as he is slipping into unattractive cheap and easy ways to live, which make him look like he doesn't really care much about living at all. The whole car thing is where the story felt most stale to me, and it is fundamental to multiple strains in it. I guess that means I have to call it flawed. But I like the direction it's going.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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