By Michael Collins
Laura, the narrator of Siobhan Phillips’ Benefit, describes her dissertation as “focused on characters in Henry James at the periphery of the narrative” such as Fanny Assingham in The Golden Bowl, who “has little money and no children. She therefore can do nothing herself. She stands on the sidelines and talks about what other people are doing” (72). Notably, this passage could also function as a plot summary novel from the somewhat lost perspective Laura herself occupies for much of it, if, that is, if we add Laura’s addendum:
Viewed another way, Fanny Assingham is not peripheral to The Golden Bowl. It is she who introduces the impoverished Italian prince and the rich American daughter. It is she who sets the whole narrative in motion. At some point, Renata wrote at the end of one of my dissertations chapter drafts, you may wish to consider whether your description implies a stronger indictment of narrative structure. But I didn’t want to indict anything. Certainly nothing I was working on. (75; italics original)
Laura’s impressions of the relative importance of a “minor” character and the injustices visited upon her by class structure are a mere whisper of the widespread social injustices Laura’s research projects in the novel will explore, ranging from the brutal sugar trade’s accumulation of mass fortunes, to the treatment of characters “at the periphery” of modern wars and the refugee crises they caused. The quote from Renata also foreshadows much of Laura’s intuitive and creative “research” that will be published as the novel itself, which follows Laura’s reorientation toward her evolving guiding principles and her extensive reconsidering of the perspectives of other characters previously kept at the periphery of her own life.
The novel begins as Laura is “not renewed” at an adjunct teaching position, which sends her on various explorations of potential sources of income. By necessity or unstated wish, this time period also seems to call Laura toward reconnecting with friends; in fact, the first few chapters are individually structured around meeting various members of her former cohort of Weatherford fellows at Oxford. Laura’s narration of these meetings, often eviscerating all varieties of social contrivance, shows her to be an incisive reader of humans as well as texts:
Heather’s relationships with men: numerous not frivolous. They were always deliberate, even if sometimes casual. She did not do one-night stands or flings. She went on dates; she dated, sometimes several people at one time. Sean and I are going to brunch. Matt is taking me to a jazz concert this weekend. I told her, I don’t know anyone else who actually dates. Dating helps you meet people. As if that’s a good – Laura you’re terrible. Heather was smiling. I know I am, I said. Don’t mind me. Keep doing everything exactly as it should be done.
I think you need to be very beautiful to do everything exactly as it should be done. Also, you need to have money. (54; italics original)
If, however, Laura undertakes an informal inquiry into narrative structure, she does so intuitively and relationally – and her own assumptions are revised along with anyone else’s, particularly those involving the importance she places on the perspectives of others. Through this process she learns that her friends do not view her as a foreign object, but rather with respect, as in Caroline’s description of their time at Oxford: “[Y]ou were sort of assessing everything all the time. That’s why you weren’t part of things. Mark and I talked about it once. He had this idea that if he passed muster with you, he would be okay” (288). This seems to be a discovery for Laura, although it has long been apparent to the reader that Laura’s narrative voice is indeed continually assessing everything, an interesting way in which Phillips’ narrative strategies allow us to see Laura concurrently from interior and external views. It helps us to perceive an interesting complexity Laura’s character: Her assessing gaze is also regularly turned debilitatingly inward, so much so that she relies on observations of and interactions with her friends and mother as one primary source of grounding in navigating her professional crisis.
In an interesting formal development, the middle chapters are structured around improvisational forms of writing, including a narrative structured around a false dichotomy between novels of incident versus novels of character that was dismissed by Henry James, whose rebuttal she highlights: “the only classification of the novel that I can understand is into that which has life and that which has it not” (242). This more esoteric doctrine seems an elusive goal compared with her sometimes comically self-aware diary: “Today I thought again about how I should use this record, this journal. I am doing it wrong. I should write more about my day-to-day life, my ordinary actions. I should not write about what I am learning or reading. That goes somewhere else” (110). Writing things in the “wrong” places, in turn, becomes the form of a later chapter that interrupts and juxtaposes attempts at biographical imagination of the founders of the Weatherford fellowship with her own process of moving out of her mother’s house. In seeking out a form that “has life” narrative structure is obliged to morph with and perhaps to a degree facilitate the unfolding life of the narrator – or, seen another way, perhaps, a narrator who is opening to a broader array of experiences carries into their writing a curiosity to experiment with the perspectival and expressive potentials of new and different forms, even those that seem “wrong.”
Laura’s experiments with more process-oriented modes of writing, dovetail with her extensions of “research” to include a variety of excursions into previously unexplored pockets of consciousness and society. Meditation helps her to perceive her work as a mirroring, albeit in a backhanded way: “[I]t turns out my thoughts are not like clouds in the sky. They do not drift. They gnaw. My thoughts are rats in a field of sugar. Rats, I read, are one of the few animals that not only survive but even prosper when fields are cleared for cane” (96). Reconnecting with friends from her time at Oxford also allows her – and the novel itself – the benefit of their perspectives cultivated in other fields, integral to complicating the work of both. Greta, a professor intently focused on supporting students, quips, “You don’t need to be a trained anthropologist to know that gifts are all about power” (142). Whereas Caroline summarizes her field of “Development”: “It’s a bunch of people who wanted to do some good, and realized they couldn’t, and kept going anyway” (283). I’m focusing more on Laura’s evolution of consciousness in this piece, but the historical and ethical conversations, clustered to a degree around the other characters’ specialties, are each significant in their own right, as well as providing context for Laura’s troubling meditations. The rats have real teeth, and, significantly, they sometimes visit the meditations of other people.
These exchanges of disappointments, disillusions, and apprehensions point to another interesting aspect of these social reconnections, the delicate manner in which Phillips shows the other characters to be Laura’s friends, almost despite Laura’s wishes to remain at an observational distance. The other, also notably understated, side of Laura’s aversion to sentimentality, though, seems to be that she is a generally polite and compliant friend.
None of this obviates the litany of psychological and historical demons Laura faces, beginning with those created by her lumping together of social structures and their evils: “Anything you do is part of something, some institution, system, way of operating, and all of these ways are founded on cruelty or heading for a crash or they have no use for you” (156). Her ideation also cuts off what she perceives as her potential paths of retreat from this quagmire: “I know that failed academics are supposed to find refuge in imagination; they are supposed to realize that books are more important than scholarship about books. But they’re also supposed to find refuge, the failed academics, in life; they are supposed to realize that the world is better than any words. I don’t want either part of this contradiction” (209). Oddly, this thinking bottoms out in a realization that, though negatively experienced, is quite grounding: “I saw for a moment what I was. How I was. Exactly how wrong, how petty, driven by illusions I didn’t even admit, cowering under the generosity of others, my own indecision, my own ineffectual inconsequence, counting on that” (264). Leaving aside the self-indictment of “failed academic,” which is barely justifiable as a criticism, Laura’s comments, if we’re individually being honest, are true for most of us and the social structures that contain us. A subtle achievement of the novel is its balancing of social critique with awareness of the shadow aspects of the consciousness through which they are processed and articulated.
Laura is aided in this process by a bit of sanguine wisdom from her dissertation advisor, Renata, through which she develops a more intricate understanding of the “countercultural” work of “scholarship” (292) and a more complex and intersubjective understanding of the dynamics between story and character, based in no small part on a reconceptualization of her own character and story:
It was the feeling of taking things in; it was the feeling of needing more – information, words, understanding – and of having more and not enough and then again needing; it was the feeling not of wanting to work but of wanting to learn. It was not a moral feeling. Selfish rather. But so utterly distant from myself at the same time. How badly I had served this desire, and yet how faithfully it continued nevertheless: That was something to trust. (297)
This ownership of her passions constitutes a complex enough understanding of “selfish” to be characterized as self-knowledge, and its realization carves a place for the novel as a pluralistic and interdisciplinary research story in which the personal equation forms a shifting figure and ground with the various subjects of study. Laura is, after all, among many other things, the narrator. Not to be excluded from this achievement, the work’s literary forebear Henry James tacks on his own again reread writing advice to such posterity: “One must save one’s life if one can.” (296).
You can find the book here: Benefit
Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines. He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.