The short stories in this darkly absorbing collection remind us of the hope and humanity, the warmth, joy, and love that can be found in even the bleakest circumstances.
One of the many remarkable things about Phillips’ fiction is that, even as she conjures unsettlingly grim dystopian futures, which seem to be an unfortunate extension of today’s urban reality, or fixes her focus on untidy aspects of the here and now, she reveals something essential, enduring, and glitteringly beautiful about our most personal relationships: the ways our families (our husbands and wives; our children) can offer us comfort and safety, humanity, and love in a cold, uncaring world. She did it in her debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat (2015), and she does it again in several of the 18 stories in this darkly delicious collection. In “The Knowers,” a story that is especially redolent of Phillips’ novel, a woman opts, over her husband’s objection, to learn the precise date of her own death: “April 17, 2043,” the character muses. “The knowledge heightened my life. The knowledge burdened my life. I regretted knowing. I was grateful to know.” “The Doppelgängers” captures the terrifying wonders of first-time motherhood—the ways it reroutes a woman's loyalties and fundamentally redefines her. In “Contamination Generation,” Phillips brings us a couple trying to raise their 5-year-old daughter with a sense of nature’s joy and wonder in a cement-hard city landscape, a world in which only the wealthy—like the rich family next door—have private lawns and in which the “grass for the masses” at the city’s botanic gardens (reached via two buses and the subway) may be gazed at but not walked, sat, lain, or played upon. This young family may not have a lush, air-purified backyard with a swimming pool, like their neighbors, but their shared love, the delight they take in each other’s company, and the thoughtful things they do to help one another muddle through make them rich indeed. Phillips’ sneakily optimistic stories are all about finding hope in even the bleakest situations. “The thing is, the organism survives no matter what,” the dad who narrates “Contamination Generation” observes; “the organism even thrives.”
Phillips proves yet again that she is an intuitive, emotionally resonant writer who is willing to consider some of life’s biggest questions and offer, yes, a few possible solutions.