Some Possible Solutions by Helen Phillips
You’re a standard human. You want what other humans want. You buy groceries. You sweat and get embarrassed. You watch people on the train for too long. You have conversations in which you’re shocked when the other person has different thoughts from you, and then conclude they must be wrong. You know (distantly) you’re also a mammal; you can secrete milk. You worry about how bad you smell when you are within a few inches of other people, and try to never think about other people doing the gross things you do when you’re alone, even though that should form a bond between you and the other humans, the other grocery shoppers, the other train riders, the other mammals.
Helen Phillips’s collection of short stories, Some Possible Solutions, vividly captures all of this mundane, gross and wonderfully surreal experience. Her stories sidestep our world just enough to feel eerie, existing in their own uncanny dimension. There’s a story where a new mother finds herself only able to connect with a group of her own doppelgangers, each with their own new baby, with their own identical dilemma over real lemons or lemon juice. There’s a story in which everything is really quite normal, except suddenly no one has skin, and only the narrator (skin still intact) is repulsed by the teeth and muscles and moving ligaments of her coworkers, parents, and lover. There are stories about aliens, about knowing your child is an alien but your husband can’t see the truth, about the alien soulmate on a new planet that would make you perfectly happy as one half of a four-legged new being, and how you would pack for that trip (don’t bring pants).
Phillips’s stories often explore how the safe, clean space we keep between ourselves and other people can collapse, horrifyingly and suddenly. These intimate encounters can lead to connection and bliss (sometimes literally, as in the story of the alien soulmate) or it can feel like an invasion, an uncomfortable reminder of our gristly human machinations—but more often it is a combination of both. In her story, “The Messy Joy of the Final Throes of the Dinner Party,” all the guests at a dinner party are frozen except for one. She uses the time to kiss them, remove their eyeglasses, rearrange their silverware, and inspect them from all angles. She admires the frozen people who just moments ago were intimidating and irritating her. At the end of this realization, Phillips writes, “She found herself achingly aware of their skeletons, of the fact that just beneath their skin lay tendons and intestines and other repulsive things. She loved them, these people—the lettuce lodged in someone’s tooth, the parade of acne across a forehead, the stain on the shirt, the fray of the hem.” The character’s ability for human connection comes from breaking through to the repulsive layer, the one we hope no one else will see.
It is often impossible to discern the trajectory of Phillips’ imagination. Her stories are pleasingly uninterested in answering “how did this happen,” instead focusing on the strange consequences of the worlds her characters inhabit, following them into bizarre intersections, bizarre not because they are foreign, but because they are almost familiar, even as they deal in the impossible. There’s a vibrating energy in her stories, like an optical puzzle your eye keeps trying to settle into just one thing, but it insists it’s both: it’s love and panic, it’s adoration and revulsion. In “Life Care Center,” she writes: “In the distance, an incredible creature. As large as a baby elephant, with tan fur like a wooly mammoth. Some kind of magical beast moving through the twilight. Surprise, followed by terror. But this—this thing turns out just to be two people, a man and a woman, walking several paces apart in the darkening world.” –Blair Johnson