Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wrong Done Right - #3

This entry is about a really upsetting story.
So here's a cute picture of my cats to take the edge off.

STORY: "Lechery" by Jayne Anne Phillips 
BASICALLY: An immensely disturbing (and probably triggering) story from the point of view of an abused foster girl. Her sexual slavery and own cyclical eruptions of abusive behavior are luridly, though not gratuitously, detailed. Not for the faint of heart. 
I highly recommend you read this, because it's a very well-written story. You should know, though, that it's appalling. I hardly know how to talk about it, dealing, as it does, with the worst impulses of humanity's most damaged specimens. The story opens with a teenage girl luring prepubescent boys into abandoned cars to look at dirty pictures. Sexual acts follow. The prose is dark and restrained, but it doesn't pull any punches. I'd give you some quotes, but I think I'd have to put one of those WARNING NOT FOR THE TENDER CHILLUNS screens up on the blog—just trust me when I say that Jayne Anne Phillips establishes a first person female voice which terrifies and fascinates the reader from the very outset. It's crass, filthy-mouthed, lascivious. It alienates with its fixation on the physical traits of young boys, and disturbs with its hints of malice. But it demands that you keep reading.
That first-person voice does something else, too. I'll talk about it in a minute.
From the get-go, Phillips uses unrelentingly gritty language to ensure that the reader condemns her protagonist, who's "nearly fifteen." But then she breaks open the nightmare with a haunting paragraph that begins to raise even more serious questions:
In the foster homes they used to give me dolls and I played the church game. At first I waited till everyone left the house. Then it didn't matter who was around. I lined up all the dolls on the couch, I sat them one after the other. They were ugly, most of them had no clothes or backward arms. They were dolls from the trash, the Salvation Army, at Christmas, junk-sale dolls. One of them was in a fire. The plastic hand was missing, melted into a bubbled fountain dribbling in nubs down the arm. We faced the front of the room. I made us sit for hours unmoving, listening to nothing at all and watching someone preach.
This recitation is instantly ominous. What normal child plays like this? What has she gone through? What does it mean? (Notice how effectively the "here's something weird I do that tells you about my character" trope is employed here. There's a complete fusion of the childhood oddity with believability. It doesn't slide into maudlin territory because we've already been shocked by the beginning and are scrambling to create a context that allows for both of these versions of the narrator—the unrepentant victimizer and the child annihilated by her circumstances.) Then the author ups the stakes: in the very next section, the narrator calmly intones, "Uncle Wumpy gave me a doll."
To develop the character's psyche further, Phillips moves back and forth between scenes of appalling abuse (the couple that buys her for $30, feeds her pills, rapes her) to emotionless reminiscences of how her damage has manifested itself:
I remember like this: Natalie watches me all the time. They're gone all day, we stay alone with the silent baby. Once there's no food but a box of salt. Bright blue box, the silver spout pops out. The girl with the umbrella dimples and swings her pony tails, flashes her white skin. I can eat it Natalie. I can eat it all. She looks out the window at the snow. I know she's scared. I sit down on the floor at her feet. The box is round like a tom-tom, I tip it up. Salt comes in my mouth so fast, fills me up but I can't quit pouring it. . . . I start to strangle but Natalie won't look, she screams and screams. She kicks at me with her bare blue feet, the box flies across the room throwing fans of salt. When it gets dark, salt gleams on the floor with a strange cool light. Natalie stays in her chair without moving and I get to sleep alone.
This is a mild example—others are vastly more sordid, though deliberately connected to this incident through their imagery—but I am amazed at what Phillips manages here. Even as she shows her character engaging again and again in horrific acts, she is simultaneously creating an expanding context for those acts. Our sympathies don't know which way to turn.
I think it all rests on first person narration. The girl starts out defensive, deliberately provocative, but she soon settles into telling a story that, it becomes clear, she hasn't herself been equipped to understand. The unnamed "I" draws us in and we find that we have become complicit—we are privy to these secrets, we know what's going on, and we yet we do nothing. We don't know how to protect this girl.
Apparently, this stuff is called dirty realism, and it lives up to its name. I don't know that I'll ever deliberately seek anything else out by Jayne Anne Phillips, but I can't help but admire a literary gaze that's so unflinching. If you want to see a staggering approach to dark topics, this is an author who should be on your radar.


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