Thursday, November 02, 2017

"Home" (1978)

Story by Jayne Anne Phillips not available online.

Jayne Anne Phillips tells another story, which like "The Heavenly Animal" is also from her third collection of stories, Black Tickets, about fractured relationships in a modern media world. The first-person narrator, who goes unnamed, is 23 years old and recently returned home to live with her mother for an unspecified time. "I ran out of money and I wasn't in love, so I came home to my mother," is how she explains the situation. They watch the evening news most nights and worry about the general health of Walter Cronkite. Her mother is a professional, an "educational administrator," who works during the day and comes home and knits in front of the TV at night. They watch a lot of TV and attempt in various ways to connect. And they do connect, but they are also separated by the daughter's interest in exploring her sexuality. It looks—and not only to her mother—as if she is sinking into a life of serial monogamy, forever bewildered by an inability to forge something lasting. For the mother, it's alarming and depressing to see her daughter going that direction. The daughter, for her part, thinks her mother is just an old square. Her mother and father are divorced and there's some sense the father is dead now—a ne'er-do-well at best, as there is also a vague and ambiguous suggestion of sexual abuse. The narrative basically turns on the daughter inviting an old boyfriend for a visit. For the sake of the mother they stay in separate rooms, but they meet later for sex, which wakens and distresses the mother. The visiting ex-boyfriend is obviously a terrible relationship for the daughter—he's in another relationship and just taking advantage of an opportunity, though he's also sympathetic in other ways. I'm tempted to call the story dated because in many ways it could only take place in the '70s, but there's something broader and more universal about it than just that. It's a great example of a major direction for the short story after the '60s, with stories of broken families in American suburbs and a certain spiritual malaise (not actually Jimmy Carter's turn of phrase, but close enough), which lingered into the Reagan years and well beyond: divorce, TV, meaningless sex, temporary living conditions, and a grinding generation gap are typical elements. Phillips makes a pretty good job of it here, much better I think than "The Heavenly Animal."

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

No comments:

Post a Comment