This is a Review: Some Possible Solutions, by Helen Phillips

May 16, 2016

Helen Phillips blew up the book blogosphere last year with her surreal debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat. While I wasn't blown away by the end of the story, that doesn't change the fact that I slurped down every last sentence of it in under 24 hours. When I heard Phillips had a short story collection coming in May, I jumped at the chance to read more of her utterly captivating writing in a different format.

In many ways, Some Possible Solutions delivers. The collection is sandwiched between two stories that took my breath away. The first, "The Knowers," explores what it would mean to be able to find out the exact date that you will die. Would you do it? If you did it, would you tell your loved ones? Would it change the way you lived your life?

"Isn't it macabre to know that we've lived the date of our death many times, passing by it each year as the calendar turns? And doesn't it perhaps deflate the horror just a bit to take the mystery out of it, to actually know, to not have every date bear the heavy possibility of someday being the date of one's death? I do not know the answer to this question." - pg. 7, Some Possible Solutions

Just as tender for me was the final story, "Contamination Generation." Danny struggles to bring joy into his daughter Lulu's life despite a tense marriage, a crumbling world and overwhelming envy of his wealthy neighbors. He is completely enamored of his daughter, who he believes has the oldest soul of the three of them.

"When Lulu was newborn we called her Muskrat, though neither of us really knows what a muskrat is. It was just that she seemed like a small, mysterious mammal. I remember the way she would arch her tiny eyebrows when I picked her up after she'd finished drinking as much as she could get from Sarah's nipple. ... I have no photograph of this face Lulu used to make, it was far too fleeting to ever catch, but that face of hers, those eyebrows peaked, imperious, disoriented, that is the face of my life." - pg. 217, ibid.

There were many good stories in between the bookends—the autobiographical "Life Care Center" broke my heart, and "Children" delighted me in its bizarre portrayal of the moment you realize that your kids aren't, and never really were, yours—but some others struck me as a bit one-note. There's a lot of melancholy in this collection; I'm not against melancholy, but I started to feel desensitized to and impatient with the same manifestations of sadness appeared again and again. I tried to stretch this collection out over time to avoid this kind of burnout, but I may very well have overloaded myself anyway.

Still, when does every story in a collection land home? Despite some misses, there are even more odd, poignant and (always) readable winners here, and anyone who enjoyed The Beautiful Bureaucrat will find at least a few gems to marvel over.

Many thanks to Henry Holt for sending me a copy of Some Possible Solutions for review consideration! The book will be available on May 31.

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