Kitty Corner: Helen Phillips helped me find magic in mundanity
The cover of Helen Phillips’ short story collection “And Yet They Were Happy” is my favorite color — a sunny yellow reminiscent of canaries, daffodils and smiley faces.
Not that I’d ever judge a book by its cover, but the cheerful shade made a favorable first impression, and when I cracked it open and devoured its contents, it was exactly like sinking my teeth into a sticky, sugary slice of lemon meringue pie.
“And Yet They Were Happy” is one of my favorite short story collections of all time. Each story is a vignette, taking up precisely two pages — no more, no less. The constraint keeps them tight and streamlined, swerving the trap of getting bogged down in plot or character development. Instead, each snapshot forms a hazy, impressionistic portrait of a young couple’s life together in a big, New York-adjacent city.
The collection is divided into 19 sections. In an interview, Phillips said she had no original intention of divvying up the stories, but found them easy to group together after realizing how she kept returning to the same themes: marriage, family, natural disasters, supernatural visitors, human fallibility, catastrophe.
The world Phillips builds is absurd, fantastical — unsurprising, perhaps, for someone who once won the Italo Calvino Fabulist Fiction Prize. (Also unsurprising, then, that I would be partial to her work, considering how I adore Calvino.) Phillips fuses the familiar with the bizarre: At the park, a grotesque creature resembling an albino squirrel with wings bites off the narrator’s finger; on the subway, commuters ignore a raging fire, breathe shallowly through their noses and make small talk about the weather.
Some of my favorites in the collection concern a regime that orders its citizens to grow raspberries on their windowsill; an illogically long extolment of the virtues of Mediterranean sea salt, printed on what I assume must be an extremely large jar; and a government-mandated National Reproduction Day to address the low birthrate. Other memorable images include a factory where virgins are made, the Anne Frank School for Expectant Mothers and the Hall of Nostalgia For Things We Have Never Seen.
Phillips wrote the book during her engagement and first year of marriage; her experiences with the relationship subsequently wormed their way into the stories. But it’s in the final section, “the helens,” that the book turns semi-autobiographical, maintaining a precarious balance between mythology and memoir.
Myriad Helen Phillipses find themselves in increasingly impossible circumstances. There’s a ring of identical little girls merrily cavorting, all named Helen Phillips. There’s a Helen Phillips in a cage, the zoo’s main attraction, who is gawked at by passersby. There’s a pair of elderly Helen Phillipses sipping from bone china teacups in the backyard, in the company of two lolling bronze dragons.
The couple in “And Yet They Were Happy” weather fights and floods, mistakes and monsters and yet they are happy. Phillips writes with a lively, mischievous warmth, instilling every fable with heart, humor, honesty and heartache. The result is a whimsical, poignant work that somehow captures the essence of existence.
Perhaps it’s childish, but I’ve never lost my conviction that magic is real, humming alongside our everyday mundanity, amenable to discovery as long as you believe and know where to look. I want to crawl into the universe, simultaneously ordinary and surreal, that Phillips conjures with her haunting, lyrical prose. I want to attend the party she’s throwing for the end of the world, where everyone you’ve ever known has shown up, and raise a plastic cup sloshing with cheap red wine to an inky night sky, defiant jubilance in the face of futility.
Kitty Guo is a junior majoring in journalism and computational linguistics. Her column, “Kitty Corner,” runs every other Wednesday.