- - Wednesday, July 24, 2019


This is Helen Phillips’ fifth work of fiction. Four years ago, when I reviewed her third, a novel called “The Beautiful Bureaucrat,” I felt compelled to provide, for the sake of potential readers, the following definition:

“[A]ccording to Ken Keegan, a senior editor at Omnidawn Publishing, ‘At present, there are basically three major categories of fiction: genre fiction, literary fiction, and a third type which has had no commonly accepted name. This third type has cultural meaning and artistic value, which means it does not fit well into the escapist formula genres, yet it also has non-realistic elements and settings which exclude it from the category of literary fiction. We knew from the start that we wanted to publish this third type of fiction, but what would we call it? We’ve decided to use the simpler term ‘Fabulist Fiction,’ which in our minds we think of as embracing all the kinds of stories that might erase as well extend the boundaries of ‘non-realistic artistic fiction.’”

Let there be no doubt that Helen Phillips’ fiction does just that — “extend[s] the boundaries of ‘non-realistic artistic fiction.’” Apparently, doing so has served her quite well: Her work has appeared in such top places as The New York Times and The Atlantic, and she has won numerous fiction prizes. She is not just on her way; she is there, as attested by the praise given her by another young fiction writer who has made it, Lauren Groff: “I love Helen Phillips’s wild, brilliant, eccentric brain.”

But the reader should know going in that this is definitely fabulist fiction, and not your good old common garden realistic fiction. If you are one of those people who doesn’t suspend disbelief willingly, then you may not, so to speak, need “The Need.” 

The plot is this: Molly, the main character-narrator-protagonist, is a paleo-botanist. Along with two other scientists she operates a dig that is located on land near what used to be a Phillips’ 66 gas station. Their quarry finds, including an ancient miniature Bible in which all the masculine pronouns referring to the Almighty have been changed to female, are displayed in a make-shift museum in the former gas station’s main room.

News of the Bible has brought them tourists, who pay to hear a lecture before being led into the museum; but it has also brought them hate mail from religious zealots who insist that God always was, will and should be a “He.” So there’s an element of danger every time Molly goes to work.

But that’s nothing compared to what she faces at home, where she’s responsible for her two young children, Ben, a toddler who is still nursing, and Vivien, his very precocious sister, who’s almost 4. 

As the novel opens, Molly’s husband, David, has left on a week’s business trip. That night Molly believes that, through a closed door, she can hear someone walking around in her living room. Summoning up all her fierce maternal courage, she opens the door and comes face to identical face with … herself.

Prior to this mind-bending event, the author has documented that Molly, much like any young woman with too much on her plate, is sleep-deprived, dehydrated, ill-fed and overworked, both at home and away. So she could be fantasizing. But the veil of reality has been pierced, and the author does an excellent job of making all the impossible events seem not just possible but actually probable. And she carries it through right to the end. Which I will not spoil.

Despite the fact that I am by no means a fan of fabulist fiction, I hope you buy and read this very well-written book. It’s hard enough to do the novelist’s day job of re-creating reality, but to create both a reality and an alternate reality and keep both plates spinning in the air for more than 250 pages, takes talent — which Helen Phillips has in abundance.

Most impressive to me is how well — and how often — she describes the love between the young mother and her small children, and the multitude of quotidian details so well-known by mothers but often total mysteries to fathers, even attentive ones.

For example: “It was tough, these unexpected gigs, being left alone with the kids for over a week with only a few days’ advance notice. But they needed the money, always. Yet she was weary. She wasn’t sure she had the stamina, so many meals, though, so many diapers, so many tantrums between now and next Saturday. The risk of someone throwing up; the risk of someone else crawling over and trying to touch the throw-up. What if the vertigo overcame her, those small intruding moments of disorientation?”

• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

• • •

By Helen Phillips
Simon and Schuster, $26, 281 pages

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