Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fantastic Language: Helen Phillips' And Yet They Were Happy

And Yet They Were HappyI found And Yet They Were Happy on the "New Fantasy Fiction" shelf at the public library, and I was immediately drawn to how different it looked from the other books surrounding it.  In a sea of mass market paperback-sized novels, with covers of purple and black that feature wizards on the cover, Helen Phillips' lemon-yellow, simply illustrated cover stood out as something unique.

The same could be said of the text of the book itself.  And Yet They Were Happy is not a novel, it does not tell the story of a young hero on an epic quest, magic doesn't appear through spells and wizards, and I don't remember seeing a single elf.  Honestly, I'm a bit surprised that it was shelved with the other fantasy novels.

But I'm so glad that it was.

Because, you see, the magic in And Yet They Were Happy is in the language and imagery of the text itself.  It is the magic of crisp imagery, precise wording, and direct sentences.  And as such, this is a magic that has the power to travel outside of its story, into the books next to it on the shelves.

Phillips' book is a series of 2-page vignettes, or possibly fables, that are then grouped into larger sections of five or ten.  The vignettes in each section loosely share a common theme--"the brides," "the mistakes," "the punishments."

There are characters that are repeated throughout these vignettes--Noah, Eve, Bob Dylan, pregnant woman in a post-apocalyptic world--but each can very much stand on its own.  The boundary between reality and fantasy is a very fluid one in Phillips' book, as are the boundaries between past, present, and future.  Characters and ideas come together, then separate, weaving their threads throughout the text in a pattern that is unpredictable, unconventional, and perhaps even inexplicable.

And yet it is a pattern that is amazingly beautiful.  And Yet They Were Happy is a book where you can open to any page, read a random sentence, and be astonished at the way that Phillips uses language.  Her words are chosen so carefully and perfectly, that in a single sentence she is able to capture the essence of whatever she is describing.  Take, for example, the opening passage of the first vignette, "flood #1":

The old family farm is going to drown.  They've built a dam downriver.  The cow-dung meadow will be flooded, the disintegrating tractor and the dandelions.

Particularly in that last sentence, Phillips perfectly captures the image of an old, run-down farm with only two phrases--"the disintegrating tractor" and "the dandelions."  It's a precision of language that is rare and astonishing, and that makes for a rich reading experience.

But it is not reading that can be rushed.  And on more than one occasion, it was reading that I found difficult, because it required me to be engaged in the book in a way that few other books have.

You see, Phillips provides the language, the imagery, the characters, and the hints of a story--but that's it.  She leaves it up to her readers to make something (or not) of it all, thus making them co-authors of her own story.  It's a fascinating strategy, and so while And Yet They Were Happy is not a book I'd read on a lazy afternoon, it's a book that will stick with me.