"Surreal miniaturist Helen Phillips’s debut collection, And Yet They Were Happy, is full of gems."
"Helen Phillips' brashly experimental debut novel charts via linked fables the course of a young couple who fall in love, survive many floods, get married, have fights, make mistakes, and create a family -- the whole shebang revealed in completely surreal yet oddly everyday prose."
Los Angeles Times
This constellation of prose-poem pieces resists the kind of categorization required to sell books. Perhaps it is a kind of Bible -- a couple's Book of Genesis; perhaps it is a catalog of human endeavors. Floods, fights, failures, far-flung families -- these are a few of the subjects covered, always from more than one perspective. "I drank from a china cup painted with roses. I sipped tea from a distant continent; and suddenly my parents started to seem real to me." It's all vaguely familiar, the "orange lichen growing on tenements," the benevolence and compassion a narrator shows to Noah, who is forced to leave so many beautiful, mysterious creatures behind in the flood. Adam and Eve, Bob Dylan, Snow White, Jack Kerouac and Anne Frank all make cameos; the reader sits on a carousel horse and watches familiar people and objects whirl by. Helen Phillips uses the simplest objects to create suspense, the merest whisper of plot to make her readers care about these tiny planets."
Milestones--emotional, familial, biblical--feature heavily in Phillips's imaginative debut. The stories are organized around themes--floods, fights, punishments, "the Helens"--and embark on marvelous flights of character and metaphor: in "flood #2" as the waters are rising, a despairing Noah walks into a bar, muttering, "I didn't get them all," while in "fight #2," a battling couple repeatedly take on bizarre transformations, he, for instance, into a rainstorm and she into a fire. The narrator of "fight #5" invites a statue of the Virgin Mary to a cup of tea, only to feel sharp disappointment at Mary's remarks regarding the narrator's emotional needs. The "far-flung family" episodes consist of an anecdote about ancestors building a covered wagon and heading west, and one about the king's daughter who has married "the clever yet dirty craftsman." "The envies" concerns the jealousy of two sisters of "The girls in Maxfield Parish paintings," while "mistake #5" compels the narrator to find Santa, only to be rebuffed by the bitter old man. Mothers, weddings, and monsters are all treated with irreverence in this cunning work that winks at reality as it carves out its niche deep in fable territory.
The story of the world unfolds in bursts of imagination, tied together with the flavor and thematic structure of fables.
The collection is made up entirely of two-page short stories, clumped together by theme. The first, “The Floods,” introduces the end of the world by water, starting with a blowout party to which everyone’s invited, and ending with a Snow White-inspired rumor that all the apples have been poisoned. “We hear of babies born with traces of twenty-seven poisons in their umbilical cords,” Phillips writes. “We sit in the kitchen, eating nothing.” It’s a world where the original Eve and Noah stroll in deep conversation, where a bitchy Bob Dylan helps with the grocery shopping, where our narrator walks all the way to the North Pole to find its most famous resident, only to be insulted for her efforts. There’s quite a lot of humor in these stories, although it’s very dark comedy indeed. And there’s a lovely bit of universality to certain sections, some of the best being themes that examine fights, failures, mistakes and punishments. In the middle, between “The Floods” and “The Apocalypses,” Phillips dwells on the cycles of family with a section that shines a light on the journey from bride to mother to the raising of offspring. Others are disturbing, portraying hauntings, monsters and other fantasies in ways that have to be read, and not described. Phillips’ unique worldview and clarity of language make every story a treat, be it miniature portraits of Anne Frank or Charlie Chaplin, or a sad instructional manual about how to rid oneself of all possessions.
A literary reflection to The Magnetic Fields’ album 69 Love Songs.
Midwest Book Review
When your world is collapsing around you, there is nothing preventing you from finding something to call happiness. "And Yet They Were Happy" is a novel from Helen Phillips as she presents a story of a world not too unlike our own that is covered by the most terrible of things, but still holding people who make it all worth living, and the lessons that life is always worth living. "And Yet They Were Happy" is a unique and recommended work of literary fiction, a choice pick.
Contrary Magazine review by Harriet Green
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.
“Brilliant miniatures. . . . Like the fables of Calvino, Millhauser, or W.S. Merwin. . . . Beautifully blends short story and prose poem. . . . Mermaids, subways, floods, cucumbers, magicians. . . . The book is a gallery of marvels. [Phillips’] quietly elegant sentences are as clear as spring water, haunting as our own childhood memories.”
—Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author of Classics for Pleasure
“A deeply interesting mind is at work in these wry, lyrical stories. Phillips exploits the duality of our nature to create a timeless and most engaging collection.”
“Haunted and lyrical and edible all at once.”
ForeWord Debut Fiction
The pleasures of entering the recognizable-yet-unexpected are the pleasures that And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog, 978-1-935248-18-7) provide. This prize-nominated book is a series of 340-word “short shorts” that read like poems and present-day fables. The stories are litanies born form the author’s admitted Kerouacian proclivity for list-making. “This is not story-telling, this is record-keeping,” Helen Philips writes self-referentially. The list is a sparse form, and Phillips’s elegance comes from her unadorned style. There’s nothing extraneous in these simple sentences and compact stories. They’re tightly packed with a range of references and characters—Eve (the supportive wife of ark-building Noah), Bob Dylan (who charms and eludes our author), other Helen Phillipses, bitchy swans, and men who killed unicorns. So this work is a wondrous mélange of pop culture, autobiography, myth, and humor. And there’s a touch of the sublime too. Each of these diminutive stories create the world anew. They restore one’s sense of the earth even as they speak to its devastations. At once foreboding and light, the book sings destruction and birth. So when one reads Phillips’s plea “May there be some kind of drums or darkness in the white spaces between the words,” one knows that no such drums are needed. The thunder of these small stories resounds.
The Brooklyn Rail
Happiness Is a Short Short by Justin Courter
“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.”
designed by Adam
with music by Nathan
Helen Phillips is the recipient of a 2009-2010 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the 2009 Meridian Editors’ Prize, and the 2008 Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction. Her work has appeared in the Mississippi Review and PEN America, among many others, and in the anthology American Fiction: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers. A graduate of Yale and the Brooklyn College MFA program, she teaches creative writing at Brooklyn College. Originally from Colorado, Phillips lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Thompson.
- LISTEN to fables featured on Broadcastr
- READ “The Disappearing Bride and Other Stories,” an excerpt from AND YET THEY WERE HAPPY, in PEN America
Read A Conversation with Helen Phillips about the writing of And Yet They Were Happy
$14.95 / LeapLit
320 Pages 5.25 x 7.75
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