BY James Surowiecki in Frieze | 11 NOV 01
Featured in
Issue 63

In search of lost time

On Jayne Anne Phillips' 'Black Tickets'

BY James Surowiecki in Frieze | 11 NOV 01

Many years of my life passed, and I did not read Black Tickets (1979). That's how it feels. There were lots of days that went by, on any one of which I could have been reading Black Tickets, but wasn't.

This seems strange. There were lots of days when reading Black Tickets maybe just a few pages of it would have been a good thing to do.

What seems especially strange is that for most of those years a copy of Black Tickets was sitting in a stack of books on the table next to my bed in my parents' house. I don't remember buying it. I must have picked it up in some remainder shop, probably because there were quotes from Raymond Carver and Frank Conroy and Tim O'Brien praising it. Obviously, those quotes were not enough to get me to read the book, but that's my fault. I wasn't really paying attention. Carver said: 'These stories are unlike any in our literature. [Phillips is] an original, and this book of hers is a crooked beauty.' That should have been enough for me at least to read the first story. 'My mother's ankles curve from the hem of a white suit as if the bones were water. Under the cloth her body in its olive skin unfolds. The black hair, the porcelain neck, the red mouth that barely shows its teeth. My mother's eyes are round and wide as a light behind her skin burns them to coals.' I would like to have read those words sooner.

Books disappear. That's how I explain it to myself, that in all the conversations I've ever had about books, no one I knew ever said, 'Hey, you might want to read this.' A book that was once welcomed with hosannas, that people thought of as it, as state of the art (as it were), can just drift into, not oblivion, but some place like it. Not that anyone who ever read the book necessarily forgot it. In the reviews of Jayne Anne Phillips' most recent books Black Tickets always gets mentioned. And I'm sure if I asked Frank Conroy about the book, he would have fervent things to say and sharp memories of what Black Tickets meant when it first appeared. But at some point this book stopped mattering. It stopped being something people talk about. Which is fine. Except that it does make me wonder what else is out there that isn't being talked about that I should be reading today.

Of course, that makes it sound as if it was just a matter of chance that Black Tickets was once tremendously important and is now a book that I can pretend only I love. But it wasn't just chance. Black Tickets is a kind of book that American writers do not, for the most part, write any more. It's not a book in which the story matters all that much. There's no satire in it. No paranoia. You will learn nothing from it about the global economy, or about biotechnology. There are no kooky, self-loathing but basically sweet characters looking for love in it. Nothing about the sterility of the suburbs. And no excavations of the interior self.

So what is there? I don't know. Let's say: language and radiance. The prose is spare and yet lush. The characters use words differently from most people. They speak from somewhere else. They notice beauty. They're all body and spirit. Psychology doesn't really get in the way. From reviews, I know these characters do lots of things in the book. They deal drugs and take drugs, and strip and have sex with young boys, and break windows and all that. But I don't really remember that stuff so well. When I think about the book, what I remember is how everyone talks and how everything looks.

'She'd come home with a bottle of brandy, get into bed with a pack of cards and we'd play poker to win till the sun was flat on the floor. Cards buckled finally and thrown against the wall, shades drawn, we lay there see, until we could talk. Her face in the white bed, her face by the window; light behind the shade as she stood there colored her face blurred and fading like a photograph. It's all right just come here.'

'We ran to the lobbies before the lights came up to stand by the big ash can and watch them walk slowly downstairs. Mouths swollen and ripe, they drifted down like a sigh of steam. The boys held their arms tense and shuffled from one foot to the other while the girls sniffed and combed their hair in the big mirror. Outside the neon lights on Main Street flashed stripes across asphalt in the rain. They tossed their heads and shivered like ponies.'

'My father's heart pounds, a bell in a wrestler's chest. He is almost forty, and the lilies are trumpeting.'

Is any of that how things really are? I don't care. And not so much because if that's not how things are it's how they should be (though of course I do think that) but because that is how things are when you're reading the book. Black Tickets is about itself first. And if it's about the world whatever that means it is itself a new and important thing in that world. The space that Black Tickets carves out for itself is a space I want to inhabit. Things feel different there.

I spend more of my life reading than I do anything else. A lot of it I do to find stuff out, because I like knowing stuff. But a lot of it I do to experience something else. And by that I don't mean I read to experience what it's like to be a character in a book. I mean I read to experience reading that book. And I really like the feeling of reading Black Tickets. Let me put it another way. I like the person I am when I'm reading this book. He seems closer to understanding something important. It's like what Barry Hannah another writer who's working the same terrain as Phillips said about reading Cormac McCarthy, 'You are no longer just a dead man, floating. You're right there with the stars, smoke, the peace, and the beauty as well as the violence. It makes you a player.'

In the end, I have nothing complicated to say about this book. It is true and beautiful. All things shining.