Review by Christopher Marnach
In the inaugural story of and yet they were happy, a party is thrown to celebrate the flood waters that will soon drown the family farm. Everyone is invited: Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac, Anne Frank, a statue of the Virgin Mary, Noah and Adam and Eve, various monsters both malevolent and benign, and all the Helen Phillipses. These characters, joined by numerous others, both fantastic and achingly real, populate the pages of Helen Phillips’ debut novel and coalesce to illustrate the multifaceted realms of the human experience, from joy to uncertainty to heartbreak, from birth to death, from the sacred to the profane, from flood to flame.
Phillip’s darkly funny, affecting novel is divided into nineteen sections, each containing between five and ten two-page self-contained stories revolving around a similar theme, such as “we?” and “the mothers” and “the envies.” Despite its unique structure, it tells an age-old story, that of a relationship between and man and a woman. We see them meet, fall in love, date, meet each other’s families, marry, and have children. While this is a common enough occurrence in both life and literature, the way Phillips tells their story is what makes the book special.
In the story, “failure #1,” a couple leaves for a trip but fails to wipe off the kitchen counters before they leave. When the return, mice have constructed a carnival out of their kitchen utensils, have made a nursery of their bed, have turned their windowsill plants into a lover’s garden. The scene is all quite funny, until the end, when Phillips delivers the final punch: “All these mice–the partygoers, the parents, the lovers–they were doing such a better job than we’d ever done. They were succeeding where we’d failed again and again…we gathered up our luggage, headed toward the door, and went away forever.”
The ending punch is a technique Phillips employs in most of her vignettes, yet it is done so differently, and the vignettes themselves are so original and quirky, that it doesn’t feel overused. In “offspring #2,” for example, the narrator attends the Anne Frank School for Expectant Mothers. Here, Anne Frank, “who is always eight months pregnant but never bears a child,” tries to teach expectant mothers how to be ferocious and how to fly. Some of the women achieve flight, but most, including the narrator, stay planted on the ground. The image of a pregnant Anne Frank flapping her arms ten feet above the ground is bizarre and strangely funny, and one wonders why Phillips chose to put a Holocaust victim in such an amusing situation, until the end: “Thirteen years later, when they come for my daughter, I shriek and get ferocious, grab her and try to rise over the fire escapes, clotheslines, flagpoles, garbage heaps; but their must be something Anne Frank forgot to tell us about how to achieve flight.”
Most of the book deals symbolically or literally with domestic scenes, relationships both romantic and familial: a girl leaving home, rural parents refusing to visit the city their daughter lives in, a bride and groom beginning to giggle as they say their vows. That changes markedly with the section entitled “the regimes,” which is composed of haunting, unsettling vignettes in an unnamed, Orwellian dystopia reminiscent of Nazi Germany or Pinochet’s Chile. In this and subsequent sections, the scope widens, and Phillips explores what the impact of society, at its most brutal, has on its people. A photographer is forced by the regime to take pictures of naked and emaciated men, women, and children, and slowly loses his humanity. An old woman defies a ban on drying laundry outside, and her “…huge, wonderful underwear looks like the handkerchief of the gods, up there against the blue sky.” There is a museum with beautiful frescoes and a fountain with a centerpiece depicting a screaming man, that at the time, the narrator calls gratuitous.
“But when the soldiers invade the museum, the expression on the fountain’s face ceases to be gratuitous. The fountain screams and the fresco comes crashing down, as the soldiers make off with brilliant red fragments. Across the city, trapped in dim, stifling rooms, we suddenly become capable of evil.”
After focusing on the exterior through the section titled “the apocalypses,” Phillips then turns to the interior. In the final section, “the Helens,” Helen Phillips contemplates all the other Helen Philipses that have lived and died throughout history, imagining them in a meadow, all in beautiful white hats. She writes a letter to them:
“Dear, dear Helen Philipses, you who were once new to this world, you who once desired only milk and sleep: the world misses you, but only a tiny bit, a very tiny bit.”
Many of the stories in and yet they were happy have been published on their own in various literary magazines, but the way Phillips has arranged them in the book feels closer to a novel than a collection of short stories. There is a continuity to the work, a wholeness that only a novel can produce, and the autobiographical elements cannot be denied. Despite, or perhaps because of, her use of disparate themes and fantastic characters and situations, Phillips has created a comprehensive and moving portrait of a woman, navigating her way through life, frightened, and in love, and haunted, and yet, happy.
Christopher Marnach is an Iowa ex-pat currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Columbia College Chicago, where he is also an events coordinator. An excerpt from the ever-expanding novel he is working on was long-listed for the 2011 Fish Publishing Short Story Award.