Listening for the Heart: On Brian Phillips' "Impossible Owls"
I admit, with some degree of embarrassment, that I once looked up The New Yorker’s Wikipedia page. I can no longer remember why. On one of its pages, someone used a detail from an Ian Frazier profile as an example of the magazine’s tendency to reveal the unlikely or unexpected detail. Frazier wrote about a bear attacking a man in Wyoming. Instead of describing the size or fearsomeness of the bear—its jaws, its teeth, its maul—Frazier focused on the moment the bear lies on top of the man. For an instant, the man feels the bear’s heartbeat and realizes that their hearts are beating as one.
This passage reminds me of Brian Phillips’ Impossible Owls, the author’s debut essay collection from FSG Originals, for a few reasons.
The first is that Phillips is a master at exactly that precise yet unexpected detail. In “Once And Future Queen,” a profile of both Elizabeth II and the Duchess of Cambridge, he describes Prince Charles’ “age-mauved cheeks” as operating by the same principle through which ice can be scalding—it’s as if he had “burned himself by spending too much time in the rain.” In “Lonesome Highway,” an essay that’s part road trip and part riff on alien abductions in the American southwest, Phillips drives through downtown Roswell the day before Easter. There he comes across a man dressed up as Jesus Christ, a trail of disciples behind him. “In the rearview mirror,” Phillips writes, “I watched Jesus look both ways before crossing the street.”
Another reason I think of Phillips is because I can no longer locate the Wikipedia page that mentions Frazier’s bear.
In “Out in the Great Alone”, the book’s initial essay and one of its strongest, Phillips travels to Alaska to cover the Iditarod. Within the essay, he describes the early 20th century Arctic explorers as the last generation “to live with the old intuitive belief that the world went on beyond the part of it that their civilization had discovered. That there were meaningful blanks on the map, terra incognita.”
One person’s terra incognita is another’s home. Phillips knows that. He knows as well the dangers and pratfalls of the white guy in the wilderness narrative, the essayist-as-explorer that, if not done with care, can consider landscapes and peoples as sight unseen and otherwise blank. Phillips travels often in these essays to landscapes and cultures—a tiger preserve in India, a sumo wrestling tournament in Japan—that risk being exoticized. Yet the angle of approach in these essays is never directed towards any terra incognita. You get the sense that Phillips is listening for the heart. The fact that he does not find it is the reason his collection works so well.
Which is why the vanishing Wikipedia page feels fitting. Phillips’ guiding tenet seems to be that the world is still full of things you can’t find. The more you see the world, the more it hides or becomes inscrutable. The more information one has at hand, the less definition one is able to provide.
That Phillips’ essays never quite arrive at their destinations then feels intentional. In “Lonesome Highway,” Phillips ends at the entrance to Area 51, where he can go no further. In “Sea of Crises,” the essay on sumo wrestling and Yukio Mishima’s suicide, Phillips writes of his fondness for Japanese stories’ tendency to “cut away at the moment of extreme crisis” to instead focus on “a butterfly, or the wind, or the moon.” At the end of his own story, Phillips has tracked down the man who helped Mishima commit seppuku and stands outside his apartment building. The essay stops there. We never do learn if Phillips knocked—only that it was a cloudy day so that he did not “see the moon.”
Phillips decentralizes his own presence in these essays. At the same time, he doesn’t pretend his presence has no effect. Often, as in his excellent profile of the Russian animator Yuri Norstein or the essay on the Queen, a sense of surveillance makes the work tick. Phillips stations himself as watching from above, an unseen hand taking notes and refreshing YouTube videos. Other essays hinge on his finding the precise yet unexpected detail in his own self: Phillips has a marvelous time providing a close reading of the 2012 movie The Wrath of Titans, which he goes to see alone, on Ambien, and with a broken wrist. On rare occasion, these details can feel less fresh: the preoccupation with Donald Trump and the 2016 election in “Lonesome Highway” lacks bite. The self-deprecation that begins “Out in the Great Alone” is funny, yet its rhetorical move—underselling one’s self initially in order to have the reader buy into that self later on—occurs commonly enough among a set of essayists (John Jeremiah Sullivan does it in “Upon This Rock”; David Foster Wallace does it in pretty much everything) that it feels as formulaic as the invocation of the muse.
The idea of what can’t be found plays an important part in “But Not Like Your Typical Love Story,” the book’s last, longest, and most ambitious essay. It’s a gorgeously intricate and layered essay, one that concerns the disappearance of Lydie Marland and the drowning of Phillips’ grandparents when he was young. Marland lived in Phillips’ hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma, as the niece and later the wife of the oil baron E.W. Marland. When the essay finally connects its strands, it’s not necessarily in the way one might expect. That’s not a bad thing—perhaps we’re too groomed on serial detective shows that we miss the chance to appreciate a connection that stays looser, that’s more of a gesture than a narrative’s vise. Yet the essay, although it feels lived-in and impeccably researched (one gets a kick out of seeing Phillips take displeasure from others’ shoddy record keeping), registers just short of fully felt. We’re still trying to see who is seeing. Or maybe I just missed the moon.
Most of these essays were culled from Phillips’ days writing for Grantland and MTV News. What makes a good collection? There’s a tendency, especially with a book where several pieces lived previously in magazines, for a collection to feel thrown together, a miscellany that stands on the backs of one or two standouts and several adjectives—“far-ranging,” “unconventional”—slapped onto the copy material in the hopes that the rest will cohere. Why not, if that’s the case, just seek the pieces out in their original forms?
Yet there’s a pleasure and freedom to miscellany, to the way that an essay or essayist can pop up anywhere yet remain familiar and identifiable. It’s a bit like how the formula of a James Bond movie requires the spy to appear, inexplicably and often without prior knowledge, in three or four locales. It’s a silly comparison, I know; I imagine not many self-respecting or self-deprecating essayists are likening themselves to James Bond. This includes Phillips, whose excellence and suppleness derives not from a formula, but from finding the resistance within formulas. A good collection, a collection that gets it right, feels aesthetically and vocally unified. Yet it also feels capable of anything, including the shedding of that unity to better suit its desires. A consummate collection—a collection such as this one—finds its self everywhere at once, yet always questioning what that self is.