Happiness is a Short-Short

Helen Phillips
And Yet They Were Happy
(Leapfrog Press, 2011)

“Short-shorts” seems to be the common term used for works of the length of those that appear in Helen Phillips’s debut collection. Each piece in And Yet They Were Happy is about half the length of this review. Among the challenges a writer faces in putting together approximately 150 of these is how to make them varied enough to avoid redundancy, yet coherent enough to form a collection. Phillips meets this challenge magnificently.

Chapters with lowercase titles like “the envies,” “the mothers,” “the wives,” and “the regimes” include between six and 12 pieces, which are numbered rather than titled; this low-key approach to the superficial aspects of the stories contrasts with their originality, enhancing one of the pleasures of examining these miniatures. From a distance, they appear as rows of tiny toy soldiers; but then one looks closely and sees that, no, actually, the first one is not a soldier at all, it’s a bride, and the next one is a monster, and the next one is a child, etc. Likewise, some of these short-shorts are fables, some are portraits, some are slices of life—they are anything but uniform.

Phillips excels in the mini-fable mode, often using surreal elements to make an oblique strike at the truth of a situation. For example, in “failure #1,” a couple comes home to find a mouse carnival in their kitchen—the electric mixers serving as rides for rodents drinking scotch—a mouse nursery in their bedroom, and a mouse lovers’ lane in their living room. The mice make the couple realize how unsuccessful they have been at living their own lives to the fullest. Some of Phillips’s modern fables are simple hyperbole that she has taken the time to illustrate. For example, a woman pointing out her husband’s obliviousness might say, “You wouldn’t notice if I turned into an ice sculpture.” In “fight #4,” a woman actually carves an ice sculpture in her image. The man gets home after midnight and kisses the sculpture, failing to notice the difference.

Some pieces in this collection are self-contained slices of realism, such as “wife #6,” a story about two friends meeting at a café. “One is recently and secretly divorced. One is recently and secretly married…Each has come to tell the other her secret.” But they don’t. The story is really about the end of their friendship. In a similar vein, “fight #7” shows us a kitchen in which the table is set for two with a half-eaten supper on it, with no one there to finish it. Cast in a melancholy light, what we see, in addition to the interrupted remains of the meal, is the room and its ordinary objects, as if a filmmaker had switched on the camera and shot several minutes of footage after the fight scene had wrapped.

Phillips’s endings make her pieces feel like completed stories rather than fragments. This nimbleness of mind is also apparent in her frequent stylistic technique of building a moment with short, declarative sentences,

creating a staccato tone that often seems to grow increasingly desperate before finally bursting into a longer sentence. The sensibility of someone who has moved to New York City from a small town informs these stories, and perennial themes include relationships, concern for family, peer envy, nostalgia, and Bob Dylan, who really should read this collection. He’d doubtless be charmed when he got to: “Bob Dylan, if you ever read this…I want you to know: My name is Helen…I believe I love you as no girl ever loved you. Every girl believes she loved you as no girl ever loved you.”

Contributor

Justin Courter

JUSTIN COURTER is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.

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