Jayne Anne Phillips Finds Anguish and Asylum in Civil War America

NIGHT WATCH, by Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips’s new novel, “Night Watch,” about a woman and her daughter in a genteel asylum in West Virginia around the time of the Civil War, is sludgy, claustrophobic and pretentious. Each succeeding paragraph took something out of me.

It hurts to say this because my feelings about her work are, more so than usual, personal. Two of Phillips’s early books — the story collection “Black Tickets” (1979) and especially the novel “Machine Dreams” (1984) — mean more to me, I’d guess, than any fiction published in the last 50 years. I’ve read each five or six times. They more than live up to their ideal titles.

I have a sense of my own fallibility when writing about Phillips’s work because, like her, I’m from West Virginia. My grandfather, Archie, was a coal miner. I fear I am granting her, intellectually and emotionally, a home-field advantage.

“Machine Dreams” catches, in a way no other novel has, the heavy inner life, the sensorium, the vibe of West Virginia — the feel of old Elks lodges, where your grandparents danced and fell in love, the combined smells of axle grease and gasoline and grass, the roads that cling preposterously to the sides of mountains, the empty parade grounds and public swimming pools in vague disrepair, the men with big square hands, the coal tipples, the deep family ties, the young men bound for the military or the mines, the ambitious young women who get out and then miss the landscape every second. “Machine Dreams” has more to say about the promises and betrayals of sex, rock music, travel and politics than nearly any novel of its time. It catches the undertaste of loneliness that can attend even life’s big moments. It puts a lump in my throat from its first pages. If this review causes even a minor run on “Machine Dreams,” it will have done enough.

I consider Phillips to be among the greatest and most intuitive of American writers, and among the most undervalued despite her many prize nominations. This is true even though I’ve found nearly everything she’s written in the decades since “Black Tickets” and “Machine Dreams” to be a steep step down and, on a certain level, skippable.

Phillips’s work took a turn around the time of her second novel, “Shelter,” which appeared in 1994. Her work burrowed inward. It became more self-consciously literary and plainly Faulknerian, as if she had decided to abandon her gift for connection and deny her readers further rough pleasures. The bright and angry and vivid young women in her work, like Danner in “Machine Dreams,” gave way to blinkered perspectives: those of young children, of half-spectral beings or people damaged by life, most of them snails without their shells. Her novels no longer stared frankly at existence but gave us fleeting glimpses, to drag Roger Waters into this, out of the corners of people’s eyes.

When action did intrude, if was often excessive and exaggerated, like the young man at the end of “Lark and Termite” (2009) who rides his motorcycle Evel Knievel-style into the car of a moving freight train, thus saving the day.

“Night Watch” is Phillips’s sixth novel. It’s set in 1864 and 1874, near the end of the Civil War and in the war’s wake. The landscape is crawling with ragged, drifting, shellshocked, hungry, bitter, addled men. One of these men — we come to know him, sardonically, as Papa — finds his way to a ridge where a young woman named Eliza lives with her daughter, ConaLee. Further up the ridge is Dearbhla, their “granny neighbor,” who once lived on a slave plantation in the south. She’s a healer. She collects ginseng and makes powders and tinctures and God’s Eyes, and hangs cleaned bones from her porch rafters to catch good fortune.

Papa is a drinker, a thief and a rapist. Before long, in the face of his assaults, Eliza has entirely stopped speaking. Having taken everything he can from them, Papa drops mother and daughter at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. It’s a real place, and an enormous one, in Weston, W.Va. Though it’s now a tourist site, it has lost none of its haunting grandeur. The doctors believed in “moral treatment,” and once there Eliza and ConaLee begin to thrive before old devils threaten anew.

I’ve explained the plot as simply as I can, but while reading “Night Watch” I often had little idea what was happening for pages at a time. Pronouns go for long walks without antecedents. Phillips destabilizes her narrative, then destabilizes it again. Reality slides like the furniture on an ocean liner during a storm: “The floor seemed to shift underfoot”; “Dearbhla had seen some tilted version”; “I would see things shift sometimes”; “his glow that sees and slides”; “he’d felt a kind of shift — of space, or light or perception — in her presence”; “the storm of him buzzed like a whirl in the trees.”

When the Jorie Graham-like gauziness dissipates, when the fog lifts, what’s left are sentimentalities and near banalities. It’s impossible to imagine the Phillips of “Black Tickets” or “Machine Dreams” writing this lurid passage, which appears in “Night Watch”:

Or having characters say things like: “Mountains belong to no man. They are forever.”

I’ll end by restating my sense of fallibility. Can home-field advantage become home-field disadvantage? Maybe Phillips’s early books were simply there when I needed them. But I need them still, and I didn’t need this one.

NIGHT WATCH | By Jayne Anne Phillips | Illustrated | 276 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28

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