Published in 1979, Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips is a collection of short stories and flash fiction that you simply should not deprive yourself of a single day longer. Fair warning: the characters in this world are not “likeable.” Their actions, largely, are not “relatable.” If that’s what you value in fiction, you may find this collection troubling. Read it anyway. The experience will be worth it, I promise.
Consider the opening paragraph of the book, from “Wedding Picture”:
My mother’s ankles curve from the hem of a white suit as if the bones were water. Under the cloth her body in its olive skin unfolds. The black hair, the porcelain neck, the red mouth that barely shows its teeth. My mother’s eyes are round and wide as a light behind her skin burns them to coals. Her heart makes a sound that no one hears. The sound says each fetus floats, an island in the womb.
Have you ever encountered such violently lush prose? Like, nothing is really happening. But also: everything.
Thematically, there are a few different threads running through the collection. Several stories explore body frailty, with individuals succumbing to drugs, age or disease. Several revolve around various forms of sex work. And several focus on young women’s relationships with their parents in early adulthood. That last one, in particular, made me think about what types of stories are lost when the literary establishment systematically centers male voices and marginalizes female voices.
Thematically, there are a few different threads running through the collection. Several stories explore body frailty, with individuals succumbing to drugs, age or disease. Several revolve around various forms of sex work. And several focus on young women’s relationships with their parents in early adulthood.
In “Home,” we hear from a 23 year-old woman who moved back in with her mother after she “ran out of money and wasn’t in love.” They watch Walter Cronkite on the evening news together, ruminating over failed romantic relationships and comparing notes on what orgasms feel like (and whether the daughter has ever had one). The mother is concerned that men don’t respect her daughter after she sleeps with them; meanwhile, the daughter is concerned about the limited and unintellectual media her mother is consuming. They take care of each other physically and emotionally, but the tension between them comes to a head when the mother comes home early and accidentally hears her daughter with an ex-lover.
In “Souvenir,” we see a similar loving struggle play out with a different mother-daughter pair. In this story, Kate has returned home to visit her sick mother. The mother is concerned that her daughter isn’t taking care of herself, “using birth control that’ll ruin [her] insides, moving from one place to another”; meanwhile, Kate is concerned about the food her mother is eating, and how much to tell her about the seriousness of her condition. After she receives the initial news, Kate takes a moment to reflect. Phillips writes beautifully:
She sat a long time with her coffee waiting for minutes to pass, considering how many meals she and her mother ate alone. Similar times of day hundreds of miles apart. Women by themselves.
Women by themselves, doing wholly unremarkable things. These are things that happen all day, every day — yet we so rarely see those things reflected accurately in the literature being held up as “classic,” “universal,” or “important.” (Meanwhile, stories by men about men doing these exact same things are “required reading.” I am so bored of this.)
Women by themselves, doing wholly unremarkable things. These are things that happen all day, every day — yet we so rarely see those things reflected accurately in the literature being held up as “classic,” “universal,” or “important.”
Even when Phillips writes about subject matter that has been tread to death by male authors, there’s something really special about it. In one of my favorite stories of the collection, “El Paso,” she tells a crooked little love story, alternating between the perspectives of Rita and “Dude.” Dude narrates:
When I got home it was late evening and she lay almost naked on the roof. Past crooked streets the tracks ran off white, cutting their light and crossing. Sluggish trains changed cars in the hard-baked yard. Beside her on the shingled heat, I smelled her salt skin and she laughed, pulled my face to her throat. We rolled, hot shingles pressed to my back, and later the shower was cold. We drank iced whiskey in jelly glasses and she danced up the hall dripping, throwing water off her hair.
Based strictly on the subject matter — a man having sex with a women on a roof, then going to the strip club — the story isn’t something I’d assume to be of interest to me. But Phillips has such a compelling way with words, I found myself utterly captivated. I had this experience over and over reading Black Tickets. In “Lechery,” for example, a 14 year-old prostitute describes the thrill she feels in picking up clients. It’s uncomfortable, but I found myself fascinated by Phillips’ unflinching exploration of Female Gaze in the piece.
Or on the theme of body frailty, for example, there’s this lovely line in “Sweethearts” where a young woman feels an old man’s wrinkled heart “wheeze like a dog on a leash.” Where is that old man’s heart metaphorically pulling him with such urgency? To his death, I can only assume. Contrast this with the lush descriptions of youth necking in a darkened theater just one page prior, and you can’t help but have a visceral reaction. Over and over, Phillips deftly limns the grim progression of human life: we bloom, then rapidly decay. It’s both distressing and utterly mundane.