Paralysis Analysis: On Brad Phillips's "Essays & Fictions"
Essays & Fictions | Brad Phillips | New York Tyrant Books | January 29 2019 | 300 Pages
Brad Phillips has been tampering with identity for much of his career. Essays and Fictions, his debut collection of stories, is no exception. At this writing, Phillips’ Wikipedia page has him listed as born in Eszergom, Hungary. The website reported that Kingston, Jamaica was his home base a week prior to that and is currently listed in his Twitter bio. Sometimes he was born in 1973, other times in 1974.
In 2017, Phillips created a series of business cards under a project titled, “Get A Real Job.” There was Brad Phillips the concierge of LA’s Chateau Marmont Hotel; Brad Phillips the board-certified psychiatrist; The private investigator. The talent agent at Jim South’s World Model Agency; The literary agent at CAA; The associate editor at Penguin Group.
Two hilarious Cease & Desist letters followed: One from CAA politely highlighted internship options and closed with offering Phillips the chance to pitch a book or movie idea, since the scheme, with its, “certain charm,” reminded the company of Clifford Irving’s fictional autobiography of Howard Hughes. The letter from Penguin Group’s Markus Dohle scolded, but carefully praised the impersonator for his compelling narrative premise: “I’ve been told twice now by the legal department,” the CEO laments, “not to encourage you in any way.”
“I can’t believe how many people think the letters are real,” Phillips told Olivier Zahmn of Purple magazine in a late 2018 interview. In defense of those who did, they are brilliantly designed and hit the right Generic Business Letter pitch of writing, all the while retaining Phillips’ queasy humor, a signature of his text-based work.
In melding the traditional genres of essay and fiction, Essays & Fictions is king. Scenes that feel built on memory dip playfully into surreal fictions. Gutting recollections are dotted with humorous hindsight so that no one story ever feels devoted to a single tone.
The book’s central themes, (sex, drugs, love, loss) course through the veins of every narrative, beautifully binding a miscellany of stories, scenes, proposals, and premises into a cohesive collection that bellows with creative authority. Confessional fiction—itself broad in definition—is too confining for this collection. In this way, the book resembles the artist’s ever-shifting identity.
Phillips’ writing is bright, sharp, and clean. He mentioned in previous interviews the influence of literature on his visual work, that he’s often felt like a failed writer trapped in a painter’s body of work. Yet Essays and Fictions doesn't feel like a debut collection of writings; rather, it feels like a whole different medium altogether, like Phillips just decided that the best way to communicate his art was to put it in book form.
Before the author’s friend and publisher Giancarlo DiTripano of Tyrant Books suggested the current title, the book was called, “Never Forget to Not Forgive” reminiscent of the wordplay in Phillips’ watercolors. DiTripano’s brilliant idea only underscores the book’s strength: blurring the line between the real and the imagined by way of a very unreliable narrator.
The book is divided into eleven parts, most of which are then furthermore divided into sub-sections. “Ophelia,” the first story, deals with the narrator’s attempt to give therapy an honest try, at the request of his wife, Cristine. The story is suffused with rich, cinematic descriptions and suspenseful scene work; surreal elements pock the plot, a murky cast of characters give the entire piece an absurdism without any slimy punchline: the narrator goes home and lies to his wife about planning to return.
Phillips’ (the narrator) struggle with truth-telling in “Ophelia” is the first of many more: “Honesty persistently eludes me like a scared child being followed by a white van with curtains on the windows. There is a horror in writing.” The story then veers off into what could be a stray storyline from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. An elegant woman in a red dress reads a vintage fetish magazine in a waiting room. Dr. Leslie Morris, an attractive psychiatrist, has a gun in his office. An establishment, curtained off, is called, “Ophelia.”
Suicidal Realism, the next story, is conversational, reading more like traditional nonfiction. Phillips, quick to cut the expectations, warns: “Here is a story. Here is playing pretend,” and lest the reader forget there’s nothing to read into here, Phillips reminds us again, “Important to remember this is all fiction. Directed to myself or to you—it doesn’t matter. It’s all fiction.” The narrator takes a breath by way of a page break and smirks: “Remember though that writing is fiction.” This is the refrain, which is re-affirmed in a different way each time, that holds up throughout the book.
Numbered subsections of “Suicidal Realism” start with the urgency and looseness of journal entries:
“Today might have been the closest I’ve come to being murdered.”
“It’s terroristic outside today.”
“Right now I’m worried I could be in over my head.”
“Woke up panicked today when I realized I’d be five days short of my prescribed Morphine[.]”
Reading these sections felt voyeuristic, like stumbling on a page you ought to skip out of privacy, sitting behind a one-way mirror. Certainly this is the case for “Unexpurgated Craigslist Ad”—the second story to feature Dr. Leslie Morris—a letter Phillips was banned from posting on Craigslist in search of Hannah Alcorn, a woman he met in a Yahoo trivia chatroom. It’s a love story, comprised of revealing and sentimental details about their relationship. Phillips’ description of phone sex with Hannah, for instance, is both intensely specific, (“[h]earing you orgasm with your hand pressed against the phone like that, to muffle your voice") and intensely tender, (“I could have sworn those were some of the most beautiful sounds the natural world ever produced”).
In another set of hands, the explicit language of the letter, (and a majority of the book) could feel self-indulgent, a lackadaisical attempt to garner a reaction, to shock you into paying attention. But Phillips is a giver of a writer with a knack for eliminating the fine print of his process, a common trait of many artists interested in autobiographical work. “There are no happy accidents in the making of my work,” Phillips said in 2012 interview with Canadian Art Magazine: “I know exactly what the painting is going to be when I start, and that’s how it looks when I finish. In between, nothing happens except execution.”
This collection is exemplary as a masterful bridge between intent and execution. The narrator grapples with memory and through it, reveals a layer of autobiographical work that’s earnest in its portrayal of uncertainty and unreliability. The searing honesty Anthony Bourdain admired in Phillips, the same one Bruce Labruce is envious of, the one Sarah Nicole Prickett believes in, lives in this rigorous self-assessment, the fortunate result of which is Essays & Fictions.