For better and for worse

by Harriett Green

book cover

And Yet They Were Happy
Helen Phillips
Leapfrog Press
2011

 

In her first book, And Yet They Were Happy, Helen Phillips doesn’t begin at the beginning, or even, as some writers do, at the end. Instead, she selects themes—some sacred and some intimate, some ordinary and some fantastical, some political and some apocalyptic—to weave a complex tale of one couple’s life journey into a series of miniature, interconnected stories.

Phillips divides her book into nineteen segments, such as “the weddings,” “the fights,”  “the droughts,” “the monsters,” “the wives,” and “the envies.” Within each section are numbered chapters where the absurd mingles with the mundanity of human relationships. Intensity permeates every line of the text in these short chapters that depict variant imaginings of the same theme.

In “fight #2:”

She becomes a maple tree. He taps her for syrup. She poisons her sap.  He falls beside a stream. She becomes a stream.  He vomits in the stream.

While in “fight#8:”

The kitchen. Pan on the stovetop. Unsweetened cocoa powder, sugar, five magical ingredients. Pour in water, stir until it becomes a spicy paste. Add milk—yes, whole milk, it has not been easy lately, we need milk that will save us.

The commonplace and the magical smoothly intertwine in the narrative to create an inexact and multi-faceted portrait of this couple’s life across time, relationships, and physical locales.  The stories play out the title’s subversion of “happily ever after,” charting how the now-united two survive obstacles both understandable and unexpected. Unicorn-hunters and ghosts appear in the wife’s attempts to navigate her marriage and its aftermath.  Strange creatures appear in the forests; monsters stalk children from televisions, and magicians in hot-air balloons fill the skies above the couple’s home.

Dystopia also haunts the setting of the novel, which hints throughout of oppressive forces and a fractured world.  In “regime #7,” we read:

They order us to grow raspberries on our windowsills. We don’t know what motivates this law. We do know it’s been a long time since supermarkets carried raspberries; our children wouldn’t recognize them.

And in “failure #7,” the narrator and her husband visit a museum where

we come upon the Hall of North American Environment, but between ourselves we call it the Hall of Nostalgia for Things We Ourselves Have Never Seen.

In Phillips’s world, the veil between the fantasy and the reality regularly tears apart. Even the characters are difficult to classify; one moment recognizable and the next, not. In the concluding section on “the helens,” the narrator is a character named Helen Phillips, a young woman who has an affair with Bob Dylan and also:

a wife who had transformed from a human into something else. The plaque beneath the cage bears only her first name: Helen.

Employing a character with the same name as the author in a fictional work allows this final section to speak not only to the complexity and depth of the work itself but also to the issue of the author as an element of the story, as well as to the ongoing literary conversation on the thin line between fiction and nonfiction.

In stories marked by a shattering of the wall between concrete and ephemeral, a constant shifting of fates and realities, and a core truth that nothing is what it seems, And Yet They Were Happy chronicles two lives bound together for better and worse. Through a realistic kaleidoscope of perspectives, it delicately probes how two people survive in a world that includes large terrors and small unicorns, a world with which we are all familiar.

 

Harriett Green is the English and Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.