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Dislocations: retracing the erased in Jayne Anne Phillips's Shelter.

JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS, COMMENTING ON THE IDEA of "perception" in her second novel, Shelter (1994), claims, "It's what I'm trying to capture in language or put into some physical, lasting form. I've always been much more interested in perception and in dislocations of thought and the simultaneity of time, than in event, getting from A to B." (1) I emphasize "dislocations" because She/lefts built around a series of narrative disruptions. In a novel divided into sections, each named for a character, what is partially remembered in one section reappears in later sections and other forms. So, for example, in "Lenny: Bright Air," Parson helps Lenny recall forgotten images about her father, but as the section ends the "picture" in her head "went blank." (2) The picture that begins to form in Bright Air re-emerges in the next Lenny segment, "The Voice That Doesn't Talk," when the pictures "rush through her, darting and flashing" (p. 166). The reader is required to become a decoder who pieces together dispersed images and moments of perception that, at one and the same time, reveal and hide a displaced or a dislocated event.

If a real event, or what might be termed the signified, may be thought of as existing behind the complex interplay of various signifiers that simultaneously reveal yet deny, it becomes crucial to understand how signifiers work in Shelter. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok's notion of clyptonymy establishes a reading process that may be deployed to articulate the occluded signifiers within Phillips's novel. (3) Nicholas Rand, in his introduction to Abraham and Torok's study, defines cryptonymy as "a critical instrument that permits us to pinpoint areas of silence in works of literature as well as in the oeuvre of a human life, and grant them the potential of expression, that is, the possibility of untying their tongue" (p. lii). As Rand suggests, a cryptonomic analysis addresses silence in a text, the moments in a narrative that refuse exposure. Abraham and Torok employ the notion of cryptonymy in order to decipher the Wolf Man's coded dream about wolves. In the dream of wolves from which the Wolf Man's name derives, six wolves appear. Abraham and Torok's process of discovering the connection between the s/x wolves in the dream and the Wolf Man's original trauma surrounding his sister is summed up in Jacques Derrida's introduction to their work:
 Schematically: the six in the six wolves [sechs] ... is translated
 into Russian (chiest: perch, mast, and perhaps sex, close to
 chiestero and chiesterka, 'the six', 'the lot of six people', close
 to siestra, sister, and its diminutive, siesterka, sissy, towards
 which the influence of the German Schwester had oriented the
 decipherment). Thus, within the mother tongue, through an
 essentially verbal relay ... the sister is associated with the
 phobic image of the wolf. But the relay is nevertheless not
 semantic; it comes from a lexical contiguity or a formal
 consonance. (4)

The merits of Abraham and Torok's analysis are not a matter for discussion here. What is pertinent is Derrida's summation of how the sound of a present verbal usage may recall and retain prior usages and referents--constituting a residue that is recalled, or partially echoed even as it is displaced. The shifts in Derrida's cryptonymic relay leave traces which warrant close scrutiny. Arguably, a trail of shifts determines how Shelter unfolds. In the following study of dislocation, or "shiftiness," in the novel I wish to concentrate specifically on one of the four narrative points of view, on Alma, Lenny's younger sister.

Alma is eleven years old as the story unfolds at a summer camp in 1963, but she "knew more than most of the grownups knew" (p. 74). Alma is a vessel for secrets, secrets largely derived from her position as confidante to her mother, Audrey, secrets that are significant in the unfolding of the story. Of relevance here is Alma's attempt to structure the fragmented knowledge she possesses. At camp, the younger girls attend "heritage class," a class founded on Cold War oppositions. Categorization during the Cold War placed facts into binary opposites; Mrs. T., the camp directress, teaches the girls about the antithesis between Democracy (good) and Communism (evil). (5) Heritage class prompts Alma to link together the bits and pieces of information that she has accumulated but does not understand. I quote at length to highlight the existence of a "shifty" signifier within Alma's narrative:
 What public place? Alma couldn't ask. And what did it mean, sick?
 He [Mrs. T.'s husband] wanted someone else to find him? A bridge
 was a public place, though no one ever went to Mud River Bridge,
 or walked along it, or did anything but drive over it. The bridge
 was not beautiful. It rattled. Some people in Gaither said Nickel
 Campbell had driven off the bridge on purpose, but he'd never
 seemed sick at all. The man Alma had seen at the drive-in was
 probably sick. And Mrs. T.'s husband must have been. Sick. In a
 public place. He'd wanted to be discovered, like a secret. He
 must have known secrets, his own secrets or secrets about
 Communists. Alma sat down now beside Mrs. T., her forearm nearly
 touching the ample, satisfied wrists of Mrs. T. She watched Mrs.
 T.'s every gesture and expression and linked each one to an entry
 on a list of details she kept in her head concerning Mrs. T.: the
 dead husband, pamphlets about Communism passed around in heritage
 class, the sick husband, the wedding ring with the big diamond and
 the other rings Mrs. T. kept in her room, the gun, the public
 place, the books about Lenin and Stalin on display in Great Hall,
 the silver hairpins Mrs. T. wore. Somehow the details linked up,
 the lists corresponded, like those pages of lists in grade school
 workbooks, those texts where kids drew lines running corner to corner
 between 'wood' and 'mahogany,' 'fruit' and 'cherry,' 'morality' and
 'rules.' The pencilled lines would get mixed up and erased and drawn
 again in web-like combinations. (p. 105, my emphasis)

I emphasize a single sentence to draw attention to the existence of an indeterminable male figure. The "he" simultaneously refers to Nickel, Mr. T., or to the onanist at the drive-in. However, the pronoun's appearance as the generic subject of a serf-contained sentence, while containing all three men, admits the optional presence of a fourth man, differentiated by the very absence of clear designation. The existence of an undisclosed male implies the presence of a further link that Alma does not reveal, or is unable to access. In effect, she sifts her notions of the other named men through the image of a man with "secrets," wanting to be "discovered." Phillips's implied chain of signifiers can be read as an implicit narrative device that depends upon a relay process. In other words, signifiers create meaning through a chain rather than any one signifier acting as a completed unit of meaning. So, for example, Nickel signifies Mr. T., who signifies the onanist, who in the sentence, "[h]e'd wanted to be discovered, like a secret," at least potentially implies a further figure, the nameless man. Alma needs to link things together in response to the interminable "he"; her attempt to join fragmented images is an attempt to build a series of images that will take her to the missing link. The idea that, in the unconscious, one signifier may only and eventually lead to a signified by way of "relay" through a series of signifiers (or parts of signifiers) is, therefore, relevant to any discussion of Shelter. I would stress that my proposed "relay" differs from Derrida's in that the elements in Phillips's chain are semantic (if obscurely so), while Abraham and Torok's links are constituted from the non-semantic.


Phillips locates the "genesis" of Shelter in "... my childhood self, not in what happened to me, but in how I thought, in the nameless implications I perceived and the echoes of those implications, heard for years. These were secrets and somehow they became my responsibility." (6) Alma hears the "echoes" and "nameless implications" described by Phillips. Alma's narrative sections are haunted by her mother's voice and by stories about her family that she does not fully comprehend. The stories, although blurred, nevertheless "accumulated in [Alma's] mind, bolstering one another, and most of them were images, pictures with no words, or words that didn't match" (p. 108). Phillips structures the novel around a series of images that the characters must try to interpret: "echo," "secret," and "pictures" "not word"--a lexicon that will necessarily result in gaps. Phillips's narratives advance through caesural rhythm, so even as Alma tries to fit the disparate pictures together, Buddy (the eight-year-old boy who lives near camp with his mother, Hilda, the camp cook, and his abusive stepfather, Carmody) translates the markings on the wall of the cave. (7) Buddy relates the "crosshatches" on the wall to "some kind of writing," but a type that "didn't have to make words. It was what writing should be. So old it looked to be grown in, older than letters or numbers" (p. 188). Hieroglyphics and pictures without words imply a nonverbal understanding that is carried through in "Lenny: The Voice That Doesn't Talk." Lenny recalls a childhood memory of calling out to Audrey "in a voice that doesn't talk, but her mother never hears her" (p. 167). Silent communication and the transference of unspoken words from one character to another are central to the mode of understanding that Phillips wanted her characters to achieve. She states that "you give up something to understand the connections between things and you get larger because it takes a certain kind of strength to see how complicated everything is. I wanted these kids to step into that knowledge nonverbally" (Homes, p. 49). Understanding without language not only highlights the knowledge that the characters reach within the present tense of the novel at camp but also points to the gaps in their knowledge prior to entering Camp Shelter.

Alma arrives at camp carrying her mother's guilty secrets. In her first section, "Alma: The Black Field," Alma's connection with secrets is pronounced. She hears Lenny and Cap "speak in monosyllables, as though cartoons were some big secret" (p. 23), and later at heritage class she learns about "Democracy and Communism." Alma thinks that heritage class "was really about secrets" (p. 28). From a child's perspective Alma connects the secrets she knows with the secrecy surrounding Communism. She draws a parallel between "the cold war Mrs. T. talked about, all done with spies," and "her mother's mouth, closer than a kiss, saying silently secret, secret, and spy" (p. 133). The link between "secret" and "spy" recapitulates Alma's dual position as a watcher and a vessel for secrets. The reference to her "mother's mouth" alludes both to Alma's anxiety over, and to her fascinated knowledge of, her mother's affair with Delia's father, Nickel Campbell.

Her mother's affair and its connection with death, in the form of Nickel's suicide, establishes a reason for Alma's secrecy. Alma feels "surrounded" by "Audrey's voice and talk" (p. 109). Audrey's words break into Alma's thoughts sporadically and remain unspoken due to her fear of the consequences of telling secrets. Alma's inner consciousness is infiltrated by Audrey's talk of Nickel and his death, Audrey's "voice" constantly "floating into Alma's thoughts" (p. 70). Alma imagines that at the moment Nickel's body floated away in the river, Audrey's soul also left, and was buried with Nickel (p. 224). The metaphor of burial continues as Alma thinks that "Audrey's soul really would be hard and dense, buried or hidden like a nugget or a seed, like a jewel with her voice held tight inside. Or the voice had found a way into Alma's head, with all its words intact" (p. 224, my emphasis). A "gap" forms inside Audrey as her "soul" leaves with Nickel, a gap that passes to Alma in the form of incomplete mourning--Nickel's empty body that continues to float in Alma's thoughts. Alma offers a choice over exactly how and where Audrey's voice is placed (buried or hidden), in Nickel's body or in her [Alma's] head. I would argue that the "or" is rendered obsolete because in both options Audrey's voice enters Alma. Nickel is the cause of Audrey's gap, and Alma's inheritance of the gap suggests that Nickel is inside Alma. If Nickel is inside Alma, then that part of Audrey inside him will also be in Alma. In either scenario Audrey's voice, with "all its words intact," exists as a gap inside Alma. Alma knows that Nickel "would always be dead" (p. 73), but Audrey's voice replays inside Alma, keeping Nickel alive.

The gap, passed from mother to child, acts as a blockage within the relay process. The chain of signifiers that point to a missing "male" figure becomes dislocated. The signification process breaks down, denying access to that which remains hidden. Rand places the breakdown of a relay process within the context of cryptonymy: "Carrying out repression on the word implies that cryptonymy inhibits the process of definition or meaning by concealing a segment of the associative path that normally allows one to move freely from one element to another in a verbal chain" (p. fix). Alma cannot understand what the "stories meant" because the gap inside her, her "crypt," refuses to expose fully what it conceals. Alma's knowledge, like the novel itself, is based upon an "associative path" whose "verbal chain" denies complete exposure.

The "missives" (p. 145), or mail, that the girls receive at camp literally address the notion of gaps. When the girls collect their "missives," Alma is apprehensive about receiving a letter from her mother: Audrey's letters "weren't normal letters like Delia got from Aunt Bird"--Audrey sends "blank pages with pieces of grass or pressed flowers ... or a poem she copied from somewhere" (p. 146). Audrey posts Alma blank sheets or pictures sans captions because she knows that Alma has the knowledge to fill in the missing spaces; her letters are indeed "missives": "[n]o message at all, no scrawled comment in the margins. Alma had stared at the images, intrigued, until she remembered one of Audrey's comments ..." (p. 146). The gaps belong to Audrey, but because she repeatedly tells Alma stories about Nickel, her daughter inherits the materials with which to fill in the blanks. Alma can find words to put in the margins, but those words point to the gap in her unconscious caused by the mother's incomplete mourning, and by her continued attempts to keep the affair with Nickel secret. The presence of the secret makes Alma sense a hidden layer of complexity which she can not identify. She knows that Nickel's death somehow made the secret "bigger, deeper" (p. 121).

I would argue that, in the context of Shelter, Alma unwittingly partakes in Audrey's incomplete mourning for Nickel. Audrey refuses fully to acknowledge her loss. She "plowed up the whole lower yard and planted; it was as though she still had Nickel Campbell, his absence, out there in the ground, and she kept it close beside her" (p. 69). On a visit to the funeral home Audrey remains in the car claiming that "she couldn't look at him [Nickel]" (p. 138). At the moment of denying loss through her refusal to witness the body, Audrey sends Alma in her place. "Alma would have to sign" the condolence book on behalf of Audrey, literally marking her acceptance of her mother's mourning. Audrey, dislocated, is residually relocated in her daughter's [sign]ature. Alma consequently ratifies Audrey's blocked mourning, with a [sign]ature which is both the locus of blockage and a sign incorporating two signatories or signifiers, Audrey and Alma. Mother and daughter signify not loss but blockage, a significance compounded by Phillips's play on the word "sign" ("Alma would have to sign"), where sign may indicate the silent communication of "signing" for the deaf. Failing to turn the loss into words, Audrey and Alma internalize that loss. Because we do not know whether Alma signs her own or her mother's name, both options and names remain possible, constituting an improper excess; the name "Alma" both displaces and contains the name Audrey, along with its incorporated corpse. Even Alma's name, which means soul or essence, is drawn to the maternal subject position: her name constitutes one part of "alma mater"--the benign mother who schools.

Whilst Nickel's death highlights the existence of the gap inside Alma, his appearance in the list of signifiers that Alma puts together implies that he is not the male figure that the gap hides. His death triggers rather than creates the gap, posing the problem of when and how the gap originated. Alma thinks that "Audrey had always been guilty (seemed like always) but the guilt was secret" (p. 121). Alma perceives, without knowing, that Audrey is guilty in a larger sense. I would argue that the significance of Alma's knowledge lies in her thwarted understanding of events before she was born. Alma remembers finding a photograph of Audrey, Wes, and Lenny and showing it to her mother. Audrey asks, "Where were you?" and in response to her own question she answers, "You weren't born yet, or maybe you were on the way, just barely. See that look in my eye? There you are" (p. 108). The implication is that Alma was always present; she was always inside Audrey. The notion of a child existing in the maternal unconscious, even before the child is conceived, is carried through much of Phillips's work and finds a concrete form in Machine Dreams (1984), when Jean tells her daughter Danner that "I always assumed I'd have my own daughter. I picked out your name when I was twelve, and saved it. In a funny way, you were already real." (8) Esther Rashkin, in her study of Abraham and Torok, states that the child's development as an individual, separate from its mother, does not mean that the child "is rid of the maternal unconscious." (9) Rather, "[t]he maternal unconscious becomes part of the child's language" and is "[c]ommunicated without ever having been spoken" (p. 34). I would argue, therefore, that the emergence of Alma's gap predates her mother's affair with Nickel.

The gaps in Alma's knowledge can be detected in the words she attributes to her memories and dreams. Rashkin claims that a cryptonym is "literally a word that hides"; such hidden words might be thought of as the keys to Shelter: given that they are hidden, their presence can be sensed primarily as a summons to search. For example: "Delia did know: somehow, she knew everything, but she didn't know she knew. Her eyes were open but she didn't see" (p. 29). Delia knows but doesn't know; her cognition falls to connect with her experience to make the hidden accessible. (10) Delia's uneasy position between "cognition" and "experience" equates to the dislocations that appear in the novel. Malcolm Bull, in Seeing Things Hidden, defines hiddenness as that which occurs when cognition and experience fail to connect. In other words, the hidden is always partially sensed or known. Bull claims that "perception" is one level at which the hidden can partially be recognized. Perception is central not only to Bull's argument but also to Phillips's method of writing: "perception" as well as "dislocations of thought" are prominent in her work (Homes, p. 48). The notion of perception is crucial because it denies full exposure; to perceive is not to know.

Bull offers a useful account of how perception works in relation to hiddenness: "The dead are perceptible in that through memory, intuition, or some form of extra-sensory perception they remain objects of knowledge despite their removal from the realm of the sensible" (p. 12). Bull's account of perception provides a model for understanding how Shelter unfolds. His emphasis on "memory," "intuition," and the "extra-sensory" as ways of perceiving something echoes the way in which dislocations in the novel come to light. Alma and Lenny share an "extra-sensory," almost telepathic, connection with each other, and Lenny thinks that Buddy "was strange, he knew things" (p. 115). Phillips states that she wanted the novel to unfold in the same "way memory and dream, when you read or write, function together to make consciousness or perception" (Homes, p. 48). Dislocations within each character's narrative imply that whilst moments of perception may occur, the hidden will continue to refuse complete exposure. The tension between the two results in what Bull terms "frustrated knowledge":
 Essential to the concept of hiding is the idea that someone's
 quest was not merely unsuccessful but frustrated in the sense
 that its defeat is inextricably linked to the proximity of
 achievement. If something is hidden, then its knowability is
 restricted so that it is knowable only to specific individuals
 so that it is known only in specific respects. Its degree of
 hiddenness is therefore the difference between how it might be
 known and how it is known. If something is hidden from you, it
 is not because the truth has eluded you and is unattainable, but
 because truth is flirting with you, simultaneously offering and
 withholding, or keeping herself from you while giving herself to
 others in your presence. (pp. 19-20)

Bull's analogy between hiddenness and "flirting" is crucial in understanding Phillips's interest in perception and dislocations. Shelter is constructed around frustrated knowledge, and a key to reading the narrative is to question not just what characters know or try to know but to look at what may be hidden at those points where their narratives merge, simultaneously offering and withholding full comprehension. Alma's narrative continues to be of relevance here as her hidden knowledge, hidden even from herself, pertains to both Lenny and the wider issues addressed by Phillips.


In Alma's opening section, "Alma: The Black Field," Alma "fit[s] herself to Delia's shape" (p. 30) and falling asleep dreams of Lenny. Merged with Delia, she moves through images of Lenny that imply a level of telepathic communication from one sister to another. The dream, which begins in camp's open space, crosses into the confinement of the "hallway at home" and passes into the bathroom, where Alma dreams of drinking from the "faucet" in a "forbidden fashion,"
 fitting her mouth around its circular lip. She doesn't have to
 swallow, the water snakes down her throat like contraband, and
 she is just climbing to get closer, fit her whole body into the
 oval sink, when she turns to find herself in Lenny's room. Lenny
 looks cold, but comfortably so, as though she is meant to be cold,
 like marble or crystal. She sleeps like a nun, fearless and still,
 on her back, her hands at her sides, her bead gently inclined. Her
 face, expressionless, perfect and smooth, seems a face unconcerned
 with possibilities, a face waiting to be alive. Her long, loose
 hair is the color of bleached hay, hay that has weathered in
 fields. All day her hair is bound in a long blond swatch, a silky
 blunt-cut ponytail that swings when she moves. Wes, who learned
 to barber in the army, trims it once a month--and now Lenny is in
 the kitchen, stalwart in her straight chair, Wes with his sharp
 scissors and rat-tail comb. (pp. 30-31)

The vulval description of the "circular lip" of the faucet and the "oval" shape of the sink indicate a desire centered on female sexuality: significantly, the same language is used throughout the novel with reference to Turtle Hole. The swimming hole, "whose mysterious depths were forbidden" (p. 7), is the spatial nucleus of Shelter, where Lenny's sexual encounters with Frank and Cap, and with Parson, take place and where the characters converge at the climax of their shared narrative. The hole is generally described in feminine terms. Turtle Hole "was a perfect oval, deep in the center" (p. 36), "oval as an egg" (p. 127): "egg" implies womb, but at the same time Turtle Hole appears vulval, resembling the sink in Alma's dream.

The loaded image of the sink is displaced as Alma finds herself in Lenny's room (p. 31). By juxtaposing a sexual moment with the image of Lenny sleeping, Alma effectively transfers her eroticization of the faucet to Lenny. Yet Alma imagines that the sleeping Lenny looks like a "nun, fearless and still" (p. 31). Lenny lies on the bed like a piece of funerary art: "on her back" with "her hands at her sides," she "looks cold ... like marble or crystal" (p. 31). Lenny's face is "unconcerned with possibilities, a face waiting to be alive" (p. 31). As that which is "expressionless" yet "waiting," Lenny's face might be said, in Bull's terms, "to keep itself from" Alma, yet the marble quality of the facial mask indicates a loss of the senses and casts Alma as the mourner who must remember in order to interpret on her sister's behalf. Featureless, Lenny "seems" unable to express, yet in her very semblance of "unconcern" she may be said to "flirt" with her younger sister.

Alma dreams of Wes cutting Lenny's hair in the kitchen at home; her language resonates with hidden sexual overtures. Lenny's hair "is bound in a long blond swatch, a silky blunt-cut ponytail" (p. 31). Phonetics are crucial in my reading of the passage, a reading which will ultimately link to Abraham and Torok's psychoanalytic claims. Jonathan Culler's introduction to On Puns: The Foundations of Letters (11) provides interesting parallels between the concept of puns and the unconscious as dealt with by Freud, Lacan, and Abraham and Torok. Culler argues that puns work "to reveal the structures of language, motivating linguistic signs, allowing signifiers to affect meaning by generating new connections--in short, responding to the call of the phoneme, whose echoes tell of wild realms beyond the code and suggest new configurations of meaning" (p. 3). Puns work to challenge existing codifications of meaning, and as Culler argues, the phoneme works within the pun to provide new meaning. The new meanings, however, need not always be "new." Culler goes on to suggest that phonemes or letters combine "in various ways to evoke prior meaning and to produce effects of meaning ... that cannot but disrupt the model of language as nomenclature" (p. 14). Culler establishes a link between a pun's evocation of "prior meaning" and repetition within the psychoanalytic tradition. In puns, as in analysis, old meanings reappear in a new guise; a denied meaning circumvents its own repression by resurfacing in another word.

Culler deploys Abraham and Torok's discussion of the Wolf Man to draw the pun and the unconscious together. After Lacan, he notes that the unconscious is "structured like a language," adding that structuration depends "not [on] a transparent language where signifiers and signifieds are determinedly paired but [on] a punning language, where the call of the phoneme and the foundation of letters serve as psychic relays" (p. 10). In my reading of Alma's dream I will show, via phonetic shifts, how Phillips's processes of signification take place at several levels, connected relay fashion.

In the dream a shifting "n" turns "blond swatch" into "blod swnatch"; removal of the "w" results in "snatch." The movement to "snatch," a slang term for vulva, gains weight and is justified by proximity to a further shifting "n." The "blunt-cut" of Lenny's hair becomes "blut cunt." Vulvic allusions in Alma's description of the hair-cutting relates to her earlier reference to the bathroom sink. Among such promiscuous instabilities, Wes's role as barber demands closer scrutiny. Lenny's hair, bound up, is under Wes's control; he "trims it once a month" (p. 31). The connection between Lenny's hair and sexuality implies that Wes controls not only Lenny's hair but her sexuality. Alma's dream effectively establishes two key, yet opaque, ideas: the relationship between Lenny and Wes, and the encoded sexuality of that relationship. (12)

Sexuality, or desire in the father-daughter relationship, is not, as Phillips argues, "necessarily abusive" (Homes, p. 50). Rand, in his editor's notes in Abraham and Torok's The Shell and the Kernel, makes an important link between the psychoanalytical claims of Abraham and Torok and historical and social concerns:
 Abraham and Torok's work enables us to understand how the
 falsification, ignorance, or disregard of the past--whether
 institutionalized by a totalitarian state (as in former East
 Germany) or practiced by parents and grandparents--is the breeding
 ground of the phantomatic return of shameful secrets on the level of
 individuals, families, the community, and possibly even entire
 nations). (13)

Rand effectively places Abraham and Torok's psychoanalytic work into the social; secrets, he claims, work not merely at an individual level but expand into familial, regional, and national concerns. Glossed by Rand, the problematics of a daughter's desire for an occluded father may be read as tracing a shift from blue- to white-collar occupations in the South. Numan V. Bartley addresses the rising numbers of the middle class in his study of post-World War II Southern history. (14) In effect, Bartley insists on the loss of paternal order, a paternal order not merely of relevance to an embedded plantation patriarchy but residually informing the Southern male as, by the sixties, he struggles (in Bartley's terms) "to get ahead." The rapid shift from blue- to white-collar status, as laborers moved into sales, insurance, and other such occupations, marked a loss of values associated with direct production, values that might be summarized under the generic term "control." Labor-intensive work implies a control over material and a direct relation, intellectual and manual, to those things that the worker handles. Such labor is inextricable from the way in which Southern men learned to evaluate themselves and their masculinity. As Wes moves from a laboring job to a sales job, his masculinity is effaced, a point emphasized by Audrey's affair with Nickel, signalling Wes's diminished authority.

In such a context, Wes's relationship with Lenny allows him to retain a degree of dominance, at least in her life. Wes told stories of World War II to Lenny when she was a young child, tales about France and the D-day landings. Playing with Lenny in the bathtub, Wes likens the bath water to the ocean that "swallowed ships ... [l]ike the submarines, hard cigar shapes that sunk and spied before the troops could land" (p. 235). The D-day landings preface allied victory in Europe, and Wes's tale recounts the covert and stealthy nature of men in war: "They hid in the dark and landed in waves on the beach"(p. 235). The stories allow Wes to reassert his masculinity by stealth.

Wes tells tales of victory in Europe in order to erase his own participation in an Asian conflict that lacked resolution. In the novel both Wes and Carmody are veterans of the conflict in Korea. In addition, Shelter is set in the summer of 1963, prior to Kennedy's assassination and before the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The loss of a national father figure, compounded by a war typically associated with demasculinization, implies that the declining image of an idealized version of manhood is a preoccupation in the novel. The degree to which desire and versions of masculinity coalesce in the novel is of particular importance. For example, I would argue that Wes's bath-time war talk fits into the wider issue of fatherdaughter desire. (15) The ocean in the bathtub exists in displaced form as the field at the back of the Swenson home, where Lenny and Wes would lie "down so the weeds closed over them" (p. 236). Grass and water elide in the notion of submergence. Wes's hand moves around in the bathtub, a hand that "was the troopship, long and broad, bigger and bigger, steaming toward her with an engine sound," only to reappear in Lenny's memory of the field and of being with her father in it (p. 235). She recalls his bare forearms, "the watchband on his wrist turning and darkening. She caught her breath and felt the roiling shift of the ground beneath the picture. That was in the field, when they were hiding in the grass" (p. 236). Wes's hand, hidden as it submerges, is penetrative, moving towards Lenny to be swallowed, as the ocean swallows submarines and the grasses swallow bodies.

The bathtub images, drawn from two locations, underline the way in which perception works in the novel. The two pictures Lenny carries in her mind, one of the bathtub and one of the field, work together to bring an image into "sight." In other words, perception is inevitably tied to dislocation; the two fragments never quite form one lucid picture but they point, nevertheless, to what they hide. The hidden can only be perceived through a relay of dislocations or signifiers. The images connected with the bathtub reveal an intimate relationship between Lenny and Wes, an intimacy that Phillips places within a class trajectory.

Lenny's flashback to the scene in the bathtub occurs prior to her violent encounter with Carmody at Turtle Hole. In "Lenny: Beautiful Sea," Lenny likens the water in Turtle Hole to "bath water" (p. 236). Ultimately, the environment at camp, and more particularly Turtle Hole, acts as a site of re-enactment. In the water of the forbidden swimming hole Lenny experiences a conjunction or condensation of displaced and quasi-hidden moments whose cumulative force allows her to confront her paternal, working-class legacy.


Here, I wish briefly to shift the focus of my argument from the specifics of Alma and Lenny's narrative, in order to offer an account of what amounts to the "primal scene" in the novel. Phillips claims that the characters all "share the same collision course, or they're all drawn to a center, which is what happens at the water" (Homes, p. 46). In other words, Turtle Hole contains the novel's dislocations. I will, therefore, consider the water(s) in direct relation to the effects it produces on Lenny.

Turtle Hole is defined by class boundaries. The water exists at the "border of camp property" and the "Girl Guides didn't swim there" (p. 36). Lenny thinks that it "was odd" that the girls were not allowed to swim in Turtle Hole; perhaps "there were snapping turtles, or ghosts" (p. 36). Arguably, the girls are banned from swimming there because the "county people" swam at Turtle Hole "when camp was not in session" (p. 36). The "county people" of the area are most clearly described in Machine Dreams. Camp Shelter and the fictional town of Bellington, West Virginia, where Machine Dreams unfolds, are located within the same locality. In Machine Dreams, Danner recalls the people who shopped in Bellington:
 Saturdays, miners cashed checks in their hard hats and rumpled
 clothes; country families stood in line at the welfare office before
 shopping at Woolworth's. They choked the three blocks that were
 Bellington's downtown. Their children were numerous and pale,
 dressed in ill-fitting clothes.... They were dirty and smelled of
 dirt, despite the cakes of harsh yellow soap dispensed by the
 County. (pp. 225-226)

Danner watched these people, "afraid but fascinated" (p. 226), and her fear is reflected in the camp's decision to ban the girls from swimming in a site demarcated working class. Indeed, Mrs. T asks the workmen laying pipe on camp property "not to set foot across the river without special permission" (p. 45). The workmen "were discouraged from walking through the camp except when they were on their way to or from the work site, as though Girl Guides were somehow threatened by the vision on five men in khakis" (pp. 45-46). The proximity of working men, or "county people," is treated as a possible contaminate, but for Lenny, contact with Turtle Hole allows her access to her family history. Her erotic memories of Wes, caught up in a class trajectory, find an outlet both in the water and in her confrontation with Carmody.

Lenny's direct contact with Parson also allows her to access her past, particularly her paternal past. Parson, one of the workmen at camp, is a drifter who spent time in prison where he met Carmody. As a Fundamentalist, he fears Carmody's capacity for causing "damage" and subsequently follows the other man to Camp Shelter, where he dreams that Carmody
 was water, an elongated sheen not unlike Turtle Hole in color and
 brilliance, an oval water that moved along the edges of things
 like a shade or a ghost, a water that moved up walls, through bars,
 edged past the warrens of cells along the main corridor of the
 prison, water that glistened, featureless and flat, probing,
 searching to take on any shape, any color, anything to get out.
 (p. 10)

Carmody's links to Turtle Hole operate holographically and typically, emphasizing the characters' ability to see multiple images in the same reflection. Lenny, after meeting Parson by Turtle Hole, imagines that "the oval of Turtle Hole was the black pool she knew could tilt and move through trees" (p. 166). Buddy perceives that the "circle of clearing around Turtle Hole and the water that went so deep were one world, far from any other" (p. 238). Lenny and Buddy see two worlds within Turtle Hole, only for the surface layer to crack open, revealing a hidden depth. (16) Carmody makes the "dark crack" in the water, a "crack that reached across to find [Lenny] and hold her" (p. 238). The cracking open of Turtle Hole is reminiscent of the "room" that Parson opens up in Lenny's mind, a room that "cracked open" to reveal pictures in her head, pictures that "are older and rush through her" (p. 166). In a figurative sense, the cracking represents the opening up of Lenny to reveal the damage that exists inside: "crack" is a slang term for vagina, and the oval-shaped Turtle Hole has previously been linked with the vulva. After Lenny is dragged from the water by Carmody, Carmody is depicted as "on her back with one arm under her, pulling her hips off the ground like he was going to rip her open" (p. 242). However, as Buddy and the other girls stop Carmody's attack, Lenny "tried to crawl toward them to tell them, stop, stop, you're too late" (p. 242). Her attempted interjection implies an earlier assault: presumably because Lenny is already damaged in ways that Carmody's attack merely brings to the surface. I would argue that the damage results directly from the Swenson family's politics which divide Lenny between an increasingly independent mother and a weakened father. The cracked or split image of her body implies that she is not only sexually broken but that the division in her body is founded on class antagonism.

As Audrey diminishes Wes's position within the family unit, Lenny is torn between the erasure of her father and the need to maintain his position. Audrey's affair signals a shift in the family dynamic, marked by the mother's break from the home sphere via a violation of the marital bond. On two separate occasions Lenny recalls Nickel kissing Audrey in the Swenson kitchen--images that recall a key event at the heart of the changing politics within the Swenson family. Lenny describes the scene for Cap during the "rabbit game":
 She might tell how she'd seen a man biting and kissing her mother, a
 man who'd come to the house selling dictionaries. In fact the man
 had been Mr. Campbell, Delia's father, the same one who'd driven off
 the bridge last spring. He'd brought Delia over to stay the night
 with Alma. Wes wasn't home and the girls had been watching TV. Lenny
 had looked into the kitchen from the sofa and noticed the clock,
 the second hand moving around, and realized there was no talking.
 She'd moved into the hallway and seen her mother with Delia's
 father, pressed against the kitchen counter, their eyes closed,
 oblivious. Lenny didn't even consider telling her father.
 It seemed like women's business, mundane and mildly horrifying,
 like menstruation. (p. 113)

Lenny's lie, refraining the scene for Cap, reflects the class status of Audrey's infidelity. Nickel is a salesman, but unlike her father who sells machinery, Lenny's revision of the adulterer has him selling dictionaries: effectively, she makes him the vendor of educational aides. Lenny also notes that the peddler of language stands in the place of the father, who is missing from the family home. Lenny's decision to keep her knowledge from Wes involves her in a double bind. Her complicity with "women's business" undermines her allegiances to Wes. The analogy with menstruation indicates the inevitability of Lenny's own developing sexuality, a sexuality that she may connect with the betrayal of the father after witnessing Audrey and Nickel. Lenny's desire for Wes is, therefore, an attempt to reverse Audrey's betrayal. The image of Audrey and Nickel kissing returns to Lenny as she helps to dispose of Carmody's body:
 A picture slams into Lenny clear as a snapshot: Nickel Campbell with
 Audrey, Audrey backed against the kitchen sink, holding him, his
 mouth in her neck. Then the picture moves, they move inside it,
 forward and backward in their tiny history like film on a reel.
 Slow it down and look. They were moving, weren't they, like dancing
 in place, no, more like floating on what eddied and slowed and moved
 them both, and Lenny thinks about Mud River, Nickel Campbell's car
 blunt as a metal beetle, spraying water when it hit and disappearing
 when the river closed over. Audrey backed against the kitchen sink.
 Lenny hears the roaring, far away from her, like some dim
 apprehension. (pp. 261-262)

The image violently interrupts Lenny's thoughts and contains traces of a relay process. Lenny first remembers Nickel "sucking on [Audrey's] neck" as she plays the rabbit game: the image reappears in the above passage where the focus has narrowed to Nickel's "mouth in" her mother's neck. Lenny and Cap play out a similar scenario during their game, "Cap grabbing Lenny, lying on her, sucking at her shoulder to make a warm, soft bruise" (p. 114). The condensation of images around the recalled gesture foregrounds the issue of silent communication. Lenny looks into the kitchen to see her mother and Nickel because she "realized there was no talking." The very gesture of sucking implies transference without words, a point that takes the reader back to Lenny sucking on Wes's finger as a child. The desire-filled moment between father and daughter also signals the bond between the two; the image underscores Lenny's inheritance of her paternal past. In effect the sucked finger lays down a trace that attracts the sucked exchange between Audrey and Nickel into its pattern--a pattern that is re-enacted by the girls in their "sucking" game (p. 114). Condensation results in the secretion of information, passed silently to Lenny in play: a passage that is marked by "a warm, soft bruise" (p. 114). A bruise is hardly "informational"; my point is that it operates as a mark filled obscurely with resonances. The vampiric connotations of the suck and the bruise, read retroactively back to the adulterous kiss, transforms Audrey: the position of Nickel's mouth "in" Audrey's neck shows the middle class sucking the working class into itself.

As Audrey deviates towards middle-class values, she both violates and transcends the domestic sphere. She brings Nickel into the home she shares with Wes, and then later renounces that home by moving north and into a clerical occupation. Lenny anticipates Audrey's separation from Wes within the image of her mother kissing Nickel. Lenny hears a roaring sound when the image returns for the second time at Turtle Hole: later in the section, she will imagine sending the roaring (which originates from within Carmody) to Audrey. The passage in question begins as Lenny contemplates the effect of Carmody's killing on the lives of the children who stone him, and so save her from his assault:
 They've done a terrible thing. The line floats into her head like a
 story about someone else. She knows what it means but she can't feel
 it. She knows something terrible happened, came to get them. She
 feels it in front of her, breathing on her. Like the air of another
 world, this world, the world that shifts and moves beneath what she
 knew. What had they seen, each of them, what did they know? A world
 inside them all, dark and velvet and ripped. Suddenly come upon and
 taken in. Like he took them in and showed them: what was in him
 roared like a cyclone, a hurricane; it was the sound that ate Carmody
 and turned him loose and Buddy had turned it all: Buddy with the rock
 in his hand, no plan, no thought, what he knew broken through in him
 at the only possible moment. Strangely, he'd saved them, and they
 had saved him, made sure Carmody never got up, never, to come and
 get him, find them, find Buddy. They did something terrible. And
 when he'd fallen and lay there, still, with his feet turned in and
 his long arms loose, the roaring dropped him like he'd dropped
 Buddy. What it raged inside was only a thing, a possession. Where
 had it gone? Lenny imagines a black wind tearing through the night
 sky over Turtle Hole, ripping at trees and bridges, ripping along
 the two-lane to Gaither, imagines Audrey alone in the house,
 opening the door. And the roaring is Lenny's own voice, poured
 through like a message, a long, rattling, unmistakable sound,
 perfectly rendered. (p. 264)

Carmody exposes an intrinsically spoiled interior world. The roaring leaves Carmody and transfers to Lenny, not because it is inherently Evil but because it is her only available articulation of an interior damage. (17) Lenny imagines the roaring moving towards Audrey because she needs Audrey to hear her. The roaring takes the form of an "unmistakable sound" "perfectly rendered"--one that Audrey could not fail to hear; as such, it gives Lenny a "voice" that transcends the earlier "trapped quiet" of her attempts to communicate with her mother and perhaps with her sister (p. 169). The words that Lenny hears--" They've done a terrible thing" and "They did something terrible"--float "into her head like a story about someone else" (p. 264). The lines suggest that Lenny, at that moment, reflects on the "terrible" thing that she saw her mother do, rather than, or as well as, considering her own part in the death of Carmody. I would argue that Carmody allows Lenny to re-enter her paternal legacy--a legacy that Audrey is gradually erasing.

Lenny is effectively transformed, in the dense waters of Turtle Hole, into the white cloth that haunts her childhood memories. Swimming out to the center, Lenny looks back towards the shore, "showing only her white shoulders and her opalescent face, her wet hair flat to her head and floating out around her, swirled like fabric when she turns" (p. 237). Lenny's "fabric" hair that "float[s]" and "swirls" joins with the whiteness of her shoulders to fix the displaced parental bedroom in the associative context of the hole. Whiteness plagues Lenny's flashbacks and should be thought of as relaying back to the room of potential abuse. Lenny's memory of calling to Audrey without response occurs when Lenny remembers that she went to the parental window to hide from a male presence inside the room. Other images break into her memory, impeding a clear understanding of what occurs in that room. Wes's reappearance throughout the flashbacks at least implies that his is the unannounced presence in the room. Lenny needs to talk with Audrey regarding the probable and inappropriate paternal presence, yet Audrey is unable or unwilling to hear her daughter:
 What did I ever do to you? Why don't you talk to me? The phrases are
 Audrey's, plaintive and insistent, as though she's repeated them for
 years. Lenny feels herself respond with an old silence, but she
 hears, in the trapped quiet, another answer which seems to have been
 there all along: You can't hear me. You never could. (p. 169)

The room of potential "abuse" is cancelled as Audrey fails to hear Lenny, presumably because her cry, unheard, passes into muteness. However, the room cannot be fully silenced or dislocated: like the lines drawn in Alma's workbooks, the erased lines can always be detected. Alma's grade school exercises indicate that any category, list or line of demarcation, comes ghosted with its own negation, blurring Alma's attempts to categorize: "The penciled lines" between the words in school textbooks "would get mixed up and erased and drawn again ..." (p. 105). The erased connections leave an indelible trace on the page, indicating the presence of underlying and alternate connections. Useful here is Bakhtin's claim that any word moves from context to context, but that in "its path of transfer ... cannot completely free itself from the power of those concrete contexts into which it has entered." (18) Because a word retains layers of usage, any attempt to define that word categorically is problematic in its simplicity. For example, the whiteness in Lenny's flashbacks, although appearing in different forms, still draws her back to the parental room; new meanings cannot elide the old.

Indeed, Parson's "white undershirt" takes Lenny back to Wes in the potential room of abuse. The whiteness of the room is reflected in the white sheets that Audrey hangs on the clothesline and in the white envelope into which Lenny fits herself: "In the big bed she [Lenny] keeps her eyes closed but afterward she can reach the string on the window blind by its little ring and pull it all the way down. The blind reaches to the floor and Lenny sits hidden between the blind and the wall, a narrow white space like the inside of an envelope" (p. 167). The link between Wes's white shirt, laundry, and envelopes suggests the cleaning away and sealing up of something, which takes the reader back to Lenny's inability to communicate with Audrey in the moment of whiteness. I should add that the whiteness also cancels out Wes: "In a dream Lenny has, he holds out his hands for inspection, to show he hasn't taken anything; the hands show open palms against a white field that gets so bright the hands are blotted out" (p. 169). Wes's hands, once associated with manual labor, are erased by a whiteness that epitomizes Audrey's desire for middle-class status. White is associated with Audrey; both Lenny and Alma have recurring images of Audrey pinning up "white sheets that are vast and square," while in the parental bedroom the "sheets are white and the bed is white and the walls and the ceiling are white" (p. 167). For Audrey, whiteness covers those things that she wishes to forget. She defines her affair with Nickel by telling Alma, "[b]eing with him was the worst wrong I ever did but it felt the most like belief; I still believe things he said. I don't have any shame in my mind about that time, just a still white calm, like there's snow over all the pictures and the words" (p. 230). Audrey displaces her guilt, and the whiteness blanks out the images that remind her of her probable part in Nickel's suicide. Similarly, the cleanliness of her home implies an attempt to erase Wes from her life. Even as a salesman Wes holds on to blue-collar values, shown by his emphasis on the manmade structures at Camp Shelter. He remembers how his father and brothers participated in WPA-commissioned work in the South during the Depression, helping to construct new buildings. Camp Shelter is a product of WPA work, and Wes tells Alma that "[t] hose halls will last into the next century, if they don't burn down. Those stone chimneys, all by hand" (p. 119). Wes places emphasis on the lasting nature of such work; Camp will continue to "shelter" future generations in that it represents a legacy of male labor, resting on paternal foundations. Wes's values impede Audrey's desire for middle-class status, and consequently she refuses to recognize them. However, the whiteness, expressive of forgetting, never completely covers the picture, just as an impression of the lines erased in Alma's schoolbooks remains on the page.

The nameless implications that haunt both sisters echo with images of their parents' lives. Phillips states that children take on their parents' "unresolved issues" to "keep their parents alive, in a sense. Parents may act in a particular way because of what they haven't resolved in themselves.... It becomes the tenor of family life" (Homes, p. 46). In Shelter "tenor of family life" and the tenor of a regionally specific class trajectory constitute the dislocated images and image relays that permeate the text. After Carmody's death, Lenny comes to realize that "[t] he world would not be as it was. She saw that there was no world but this one now, full blown and dense with shifting air; they were born into it, mourning" (p. 243). Phillips does not allow her characters closure; their new knowledge may bring the silences in their narratives to the surface, but the father remains displaced or only partially mourned. Such displacement or partial mourning points to hiddenness and to the retention of secrets. Lenny and Alma will always mourn for the idealized working-class father left behind in their move from West Virginia to the state of New York; from the blue-collar tradition of their father to the white-collar lifestyle of their mother, who takes "a job in admissions" in the school Lenny attends (p. 273).

Audrey's new occupation contains within its title a dual signifier: her job marks her as an "admitter." Drawing on Culler's work on puns, "admit" may be read as either confess (admit) or take in (admit). Finally, Audrey takes the reader back to hiddenness and to the tension between concealment and revelation. Phillips wanted her characters to "experience something that clarified the rest of their lives up to that point, and made them feel strong enough to hold what's inside of them" (Homes, p. 49, my emphasis). The internalization of secrets remains crucial; as Lenny tells the other children after they kill Carmody, "... if we tell someone, it'll never be over. We'll have to tell it and tell it. We'll never be able to stop telling it. Nothing else will matter anymore, ever" (p. m). The characters move on, still hiding.

(1) Qtd. in A. M. Homes, "Jayne Anne Phillips," Bomb, 49 (Fall 1994), 48, my emphasis.

(2) Jayne Anne Phillips, Shelter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p. 130.

(3) The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonymy, trans. Nicholas Rand, in Theory and History of Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), Vol. 37.

(4) "Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok," trans. Barbara Johnson, in The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonymy, p. xl.

(5) For a useful account of political "demonology" and the process of categorization see Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

(6) "Outlaw Heart," Critical Quarterly, 37 (1994), 47.

(7) In the chapter "Buddy Carmody: Say and Say," Carmody hides in the cave, holding Buddy "prisoner." Buddy reverses the situation in "Buddy Carmody: Dark Parable" when he and the girls bury Carmody inside the cave.

(8) Jayne Anne Phillips, Machine Dreams (New York: E. P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence, 1984), p. 4.

(9) "Tools for a New Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism: The Work of Abraham and Torok," Diacritics, 18 (Winter 1988), 34.

(10) Malcolm Bull offers an illuminating account of the tension between cognition and experience in Chapter 1 of his study of hiddenness (Seeing Things Hidden: Apocalypse, Vision and Totality [London: Verso, 1999]).

(11) Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1988.

(12) I would like to thank Richard Godden for sharing his insights into the phonetic shifts within this particular passage.

(13) The Shell and the Kernel, trans. Nicholas Rand (1987; London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), Vol. 1, p. 169.

(14) The New South, 1945-1980: The Story of the South's Modernization (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press & The Littlefield Fund for Southern History of the University of Texas, 1995).

(15) For an alternative analysis of this scene, which makes a direct link to the climax of the novel at Turtle Hole, see Richard Godden, "No End to the Work? Jayne Anne Phillips and the Exquisite Corpse of Southern Labor," Journal of American Studies, 36 (August 2002), 249-279.

(16) For a fuller analysis of this scene, see Godden.

(17) For an account of Shelter that deals primarily with the notion of Evil, see James Grove, "Because God's Eye Never Closes: The Problem of Evil in Jayne Anne Phillips's Shelter," in The World Is Our Home: Society and Culture in Contemporary Southern Writing, ed.Jeffrey J. Folks and Nancy Summers Folks (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000).

(18) Qtd. in V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik (New York: Seminar Press, 1973), p. 199.


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Author:Robertson, Sarah
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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