Nothing more unlike ‘N’ could be imagined. The prose is clean and see-through, yet heartbreakingly lyrical; the content unfailingly experiential. The viewpoint is autobiographical. Just enough has been learnt from these experiences, it implies; just enough hasn’t. Rayme lives in a house with her friends, of whom the narrator is one. They take care of Rayme, because, as we’ll see, she is a little adrift. Not that, in those days, which we take to be the 1970s, they aren’t all a little adrift, “consulting a series of maps bearing no relation to any physical geography”. But Rayme, who has baggage that makes theirs look light, goes off the Thorazine and takes it all the way, and soon the whole scene evaporates. Looking back, the narrator remembers everyone the last time they were together, swimming at dusk in a lake somewhere in Arizona. “Our destinations,” she concludes, “appeared to be interchangeable pauses in some long, lyric transit.” There was a point when I thought this the perfect model of a short story, with all its movement and causalities and conclusions packed somewhere the reader couldn’t quite find them, yet informing every sentence of the text; and I think I might still say that if you backed me into a corner. Nothing further needs to be told about Rayme or her friends; they’ll be caught as they are, in the cold Arizona lake, in the twilight, in between lives or worlds, forever; suspended in time, pellucid yet still moving, the crucial elements of a novel that no longer needs to be written, a movie that doesn’t, now, need to be shown.
First published in Granta 8: Dirty Realism, June 1983 and available to subscribers here. Collected in Fast Lanes, Faber & Faber, 1987
These stories remind me of Harmony Korrine’s Gummo—all bleached-out bubble gum colours and grotty interiors with ‘sooty light … interrupted only by tangles of viny plants’. Among this bunch of drifters and dropouts is Rayme, the young daughter of an Argentinian father and a nameless mother who committed suicide in Argentina ‘a long time ago’. Rayme has, as we would say today, ‘mental health issues’. She piles furniture into the corner of a room and turns pictures on the wall upside down. She has a picture of a ‘blue Krishna riding his white pony’ and builds an altar to him in her room. The narrator says “That was her worst summer”. This is the whole of a damaged life captured in just a few pages, but it’s also about the narrator, who we only find out in the last few lines of the story is a woman named Kate who has just had an abortion. Kate names the date, too—September 1974—when she and Rayme travel to Arizona to swim in a deserted lake. The story ends with the apocalyptic image of Rayme, several hundred yards out, swimming naked in the water as a storm approaches.
In Fast Lanes, Faber & Faber, 1987
Jayne Anne Phillips was the writer who first turned me onto short stories. I randomly came across her collection Fast Lanes in my local library. ‘Home” is a deeply uncomfortable story about a woman in her twenties who returns home to live with her mother when she is broke. It explores the tensions (old and new) that arise between them, tensions that are compounded when the narrator brings an old lover to stay the night.
From Black Tickets, Faber and Faber, 1979. Extract available here
“She had the look of someone didn’t sweat much, just burned a coal inside.”
From Black Tickets. New York: Delacorte, 1979. Read online
My copy of Jayne Anne Phillips’ 1980 short story collection Black Tickets, a beautiful King Penguin, a reprint from 1984, with a typically gorgeous cover by Russell Mills, has a bit of blurb on the back: ‘Jayne Anne Phillips’s outstanding debut has been celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.’ Fine, except it wasn’t her debut, or at least not in the US. She had published two collections with small presses, Sweethearts (Truck Press) in 1976 and Counting (Vehicle Editions) two years later. Anyway, Black Tickets is superb and one of the stories from it, ‘The Patron’, was extracted in London Magazine just before the collection came out in the UK. James is a daytime carer for a wealthy, largely bed-ridden old man. His shift over, James heads down to Harry’s Peek-A-Boo, from where he might look up at the old man’s window to see him held there in the arms of Bruno, his night-time carer, but he’s more likely to be peering into one of a row of machines watching 1940s pornographic films. In just a few pages, James, Harry, the old man, even Bruno, all assume distinct, totally convincing existences. The old man is half-dead but couldn’t be more alive. (Some time in the 1990s Jayne Anne Phillips and I exchanged a look – I don’t want to make a big deal of it, but it was slightly more than a glance – across a hotel lobby in Amsterdam. Inspired by this near-encounter, I wrote a story entitled ‘Jayne Anne Phillips’, which was later published in London Magazine, in 2008, when the magazine was under the editorship of Sara-Mae Tuson. The piece was billed as a feature rather than as a short story, for some reason, but as its author I can confirm it was fiction.)
(London Magazine, October 1980)