An Existential Thriller With Lots of Breast Milk
Jason DeYoung reviews Helen Phillips’ The Need
Two years ago, in her enchanting book of short stories, Some Possible Solutions (2017), Helen Phillips played an eerie and fanciful game of “what if?”, exploring and unfolding experiences both mundane and unreal. Readers were shown worlds of magic and terror through Phillips’ incisive yet conversational prose, and in one particular story, ‘The Knowers’, she let loose this macabre thought: we have all lived the date of our death many times over, blithely passing it with each calendar turn. Quotidian, almost childlike in its notion — but, phrased in Phillips’ inimitable way, the insight has ironically had more staying power in my consciousness than any stale admonition of carpe diem. Now, with The Need, she has returned to add some clarity, and horror, to a perennial fantasy I’m certain I share with other worn-out parents: what would it be like to have another version of myself for when I’m exhausted by caretaking and/or maddened by my kids’ mischief? (Honestly, I think my boys would be thrilled.)
Helen Phillips, if you haven’t heard of her already, is a bit of a wunderkind. A graduate of Yale University, she is the recipient of the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and her novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, was a New York Times Notable Book in 2015. She has also written a novel for younger readers called Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (2012), and she teaches at Brooklyn College. The Need is her fifth book, and it is one that seems deeply personal: as Vulture points out in its profile of Phillips, the main character in The Need is a woman very much like the author herself, to which she has kindly quipped: “Isn’t all fiction auto-fiction in a sense?”
Twisted and perceptive, The Need is an elegant, tightly crafted novel about a mother, Molly, who is also a paleobotanist, and has found some weird stuff at an excavation site known as the Pit. In the novel’s opening sequence, a stunning work of suspense in itself, Phillips gamely volleys chapters between deft exposition regarding Molly’s finds and quickening the reader’s pulse as Molly, alone with two children both under four, faces off against a home invader. The tall, slightly built stranger who stands in Molly’s living room wears a papier-mâché deer head and seems to know everything about Molly, right down to her ATM code and her fondness for Grüner Veltliner. Creepy, yet seemingly non-violent, the deer-headed character hands Molly a letter that convinces her to leave her children with a babysitter and meet him outside in a car. In the car, Molly is blindfolded, then driven off-site to another location where the blindfold is removed. Molly looks over at the driver and, in a chilling moment of bewilderment, sees herself: “She stared at her self and her self stared at her.” The driver is a doppelgänger.
What we learn is that the doppelgänger has come into Molly’s world through the Pit, the aforementioned excavation site, where other items from a multiverse have also been slipping into our reality for sometime now: a mind-bending plant-fossil; an old Altoids tin that is slightly the wrong shape; a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail; a Coca-Cola bottle with a mysterious font; and, most provocative of all, a Bible that portrays God as female: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness she called Night.” Molly’s team of paleobotanists is using the Bible in particular to drive up ticket sales for the site tours, but in the doppelgänger’s universe the Bible gave one tourist enough reason to blow up the excavation site, indirectly killing the other world’s versions of Molly’s children. Now, after she has been blasted through to Molly’s world, the doppelgänger, who goes by the nickname Moll, wants to supplant Molly and assume her life. She needs it. “You’re evil,” Molly says. “Then you’re evil,” Moll replies.
Moll’s presence creates a kind of mirror that reveals Molly to herself. Molly is both terrified of the threat posed by Moll, but also has an unexpected compassion for the doppelgänger’s loss of family and world. The obvious question is: what would you be willing to do to regain the ones you love the most? Moll is an invader, but she is also an invader who cannot help but feel the most intimate claim on Molly’s children, because they are versions of her own. Moreover, she still produces breast milk and feels the ache of carrying it for an infant she can no longer feed. Hers is a portrayal of motherhood at an extreme, so much so that Phillips herself calls The Need an “existential thriller with lots of breast milk.”
The novel, according to Phillips, arose out of an exploration of the complicated emotions associated with motherhood “and the ethical implications of loving one’s offspring with such instinctual force.” “The Need,” she adds, “hinges on the intersection of motherhood and moral responsibility.” Quite knowingly, Phillips skillfully depicts the strident dualities of motherhood juxtaposed with all the little quirks and charms of raising children. In the opening chapters we find this sketch of everydayness, as Molly quickly pumps breast milk at work, then tidies herself up: “[S]he need[s] to deliver the milk to the mini fridge and transform from one kind of person into another, pull herself back together before the tour” of the excavation site. For Molly there is a lot of role-shifting, from mother to professional, professional to wife, wife to lover, lover back to mother, mother to protector, protector to employee, and so on. Her days are constantly changing and challenging. Even in the novel’s early pages, Phillips dramatises this abrupt switching of gears as the narrative tugs us back and forth between humdrum work and the terror of Moll’s first visit to Molly’s home. These are visceral pages that will grab readers by the throat and demand they witness motherhood in all its messiness.
Yet in spite of Phillips’ artful techniques and the compulsive readability of her narrative, I can’t help but take issue with a number of shortcomings and deflections in The Need. While the first quarter of the book features incomparably crafted pages of terror and suspense, the novel dies down considerably in the next two quarters. A low-level menace hunches in these chapters. Will it attack? A mélange of tiring scenes of home life and psychological torque eventually give way to a bittersweet act of love and an ambiguous conclusion. The novel is, in fact, fulfilling its internal logic, paying off the promises of its plot — but, conceived as-is, its “thrill,” so to speak, cannot help but come out slightly diminished. A loving mother’s touch softens most wounds, and it does the same here. Consequently, following on from the rush of the opening pages, the sluggish latter part of the novel makes the book feel lopsided.
This might have been prevented, because there are moments when The Need reads as if Phillips diverted her story away from its own narrative potential rather than digging deeper into it. Possibilities shine through unanswered questions. For instance, why were there not more doppelgängers coming through the Pit? Why was Moll the only one blasted out of her world? Where’s the version of the woman who blew up Moll’s excavation site in Molly’s world? And why does the novel not explore Molly’s husband’s reaction to Moll? He is treated almost as a non-entity, falling into a narrative void: he is conveniently travelling for most of the book, yet calls in daily and comes home briefly toward the end. His absence feels like a device, although it actually wouldn’t present such a problem if Molly didn’t talk so much about her desire for him. And since they clearly have a loving relationship and no pre-existing communication problems, the weakness of his presence feels odd given Phillips’ many opportunities to include him.
Then again, I could be wrong about these avenues of exploration because the overall effect of the story is to reconcile the feelings and facets of motherhood in symbolic action — so that to take issue with it at all seems off-putting, even to myself. Yet somehow these missed opportunities — including Molly’s unwillingness to figure things out despite her otherwise scientific readiness to search for answers — stretch the credibility of the surface narrative and detract from the symbolic one, the one that Phillips otherwise so brilliantly deploys. Maybe this is just a backdoor way of wishing there had been more novel to The Need.
The writer Benjamin Percy coined a term a few years back, calling his own novel The Wilding (2010) a “shnovel” — not quite a novel, not quite a short story. That’s my overall sense of The Need, too. It’s too long to be a short story, of course, but it also doesn’t seize the novel’s potential for expansion and fine detail; it is something that definitely falls between the two forms. Given its own play with notions of form, with doubling and blending, this might be part of its purpose. Motherhood itself is an experience that bends old selves into new shapes, each woman remaking herself to fit the role, each parent left to find a footing and method of dealing with a new identity. It’s a situation rich with conflict and possibility. But, for me, as enjoyable and fast-paced as The Need is, there’s just not enough here to repay the reader’s investment. Phillips is a gifted writer, with the short story in particular, and I wish The Need had found its home in a shorter form instead of being stretched so thin.