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Coper, Doper, Kopman, Spy

By A. E. Weisgerber.

Brad Phillips, Essays and Fictions (Tyrant Books, 2019)

Wary readers might stumble into this book with one big worry: Is familiarity with Brad Phillips’ way of life and art—some awareness of his other output—necessary to make sense of this work?  If not, would ignorance breed misunderstanding? After all, Brad Phillips has spent most of his career as a photographer, visual artist, and provocateur. He’s primarily a graphics man, a bit of a Vancouverly con, a post-modern appropriation artist, and look at him now, writing guileless autobiographical hybrid fiction. What’s a reader holding his debut wildcard supposed to think?

Phillips has written critical essays on art history and art markets, but prior to this collection he is best known for his art and a sizeable Instagram following. Some of his paintings are photo-realist (a series of Patricia Highsmith novels reflected in mirrors, his wife in poses that are, uncannily, both alluring and asexual) and others that are word-based. For instance, a 60 x 48″ oil on canvas, Sad Story/True Story 1988/2002 (2016) which proclaims in black letters on a flat blue background: “Being kidnapped for ransom was incredible for my self-esteem.”

Upon examining the cover of Essays and Fictions, the first thing one notices is a bold sense of style : its stylized coptic lettering, that tell-tale “A,” its punctuating glyphs, the earthy red background a foundation for bright calligraphic flourishes. Perhaps you’ve seen this before. Consider the 1956 Benjamin Kopman edition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  Slipping on Dostoevsky’s jacket is quite the bold boost.  Recently, Eminem did something similar with his Kamikaze cover—a direct design lift from the Beastie Boys notorious License to Ill, art by David Gambale.  It might be wishful thinking to imagine that somehow Phillips will touch upon Dostoevsky’s themes of pride, nihilism, murder, and redemption, but given his known work as an artist, it may be more of a Kopman homage, recognizing great design. It’s a sweet cover in the best basic sense.

 Cracking the book open, what do we have? Phillips’ eleven stories provide plausible autobiography. He’s on trend with current indie lit mavericks who scumble lines between fiction and nonfiction.  Elizabeth Ellen drilled hard down in this genre in 2017’s Person/A.  A newish literary journal, Always Crashing, says in its submission guidelines that it accepts nonfiction, “though we prefer not to be told if it’s nonfiction.” Like Tim O’Brien, in his 1990 groundbreaking collection of linked stories, The Things They Carried, Phillips seems to ask: Can one reconcile past experience with today’s truth? Can fiction operate as a redeemer, a memory sculptor? Although Phillips is not a war veteran, his figurative “Viet Nam”—the place where he copes and masks the truth with this literary mark-making—is his inner-scape of pain management and addiction.

Phillips’ debut is ambitious. But how does it fare? It teeters on the cusp of greatness. He has taken time to think about life and the path he is navigating through it, and found solace, perhaps affirmation, in documentation and appropriation. It’s a memoirsy collection of stories and essays, recollected speeches, fragments, rants, letters-to-be-opened-in-the-case-of-death, and yet the best moments may well be the ones where he provides intentional story structure.

The king of this collection, “Ophelia,” arrives first. It’s fantastic.

In it, a man undertakes a monomythic journey to self-discovery (at least as far as scrip renewal), including an existential bus ride to some Lynchian intersection, where a mysterious BDSM club and  his shady psychiatrist’s den are both located. There are some dream elements, some nightmares, and some desire to undertake action harried by the desire for zero progress. It is, in essence, a story about an endless consumption of services powered by a penchant to waste time, underscored by the pleasure of being scammed while scamming.

Psychoanalyst Leslie Morris may be Phillips’ keenest creation. He has absolutely no intention to tell the truth. His office is papered with false documents, populated by prop women (patients? partners? grifters?) coming and going. The narrator, Brad Phillips, is his patient. With an acute sense of detail and an eye for all the major, minor, and disturbing objects in his doctor’s office, he is no more inclined to be honest. The reader is pulled into in Phillips’ trap as much as Phillips is caught in Morris’s. At one point, strangely alone in the office, Phillips sees a framed picture and is terrified:

The man in the middle was me. I was wearing a sweater I had worn the week between my first and second visit, an old sweatshirt from the Universidad de Salamanca. The women were both smiling, while I was staring somewhat apprehensively at something ahead of me. In the far distance of the photograph I saw a mirror. I picked the photo up and held it closer. Barely reflected but still legible I saw the word Ophelia in reverse, tinted neon red. I took the photo and my file and went and sat in the comfortable chair.

I took out a cigarette and lit it, staring at nothing, unsure of what I was thinking. I looked at the photograph and my file again. I ashed my cigarette on the carpet. Then I saw and reached for a very large ornate Africanesque clay pot—the staple of any therapist who wants you to know he’s cultured—and I pulled it off the shelf. I put it on the floor in front of me and continued to smoke, as I used my lighter to set my file on fire. First, I lit the edge of the cardboard, then I tilted the file so that the flames attached themselves to all of the paper within, and I deposited it in the bowl.

I took the photo of myself out of the frame and lay it on top of the burning file. I watched the image of myself curl and ripple then turn to smoke and begin to rise out of the bowl. Small black embers floated gracefully then vanished. When I finished my cigarette, I put it in the bowl and sat there until everything had burned away.

This story sets Phillips’ tone (toward the subject of himself) for the rest of the collection. There is fear, self-loathing, and humor (including a great Pen Collector running gag), and Phillips explores the real struggle between desiring notoriety vs maintaining privacy. Big themes swing at his head, like bike locks whipping dangerously close to his temples, but he is in charge. Or this world, and those weapons don’t make contact. Yet.

Another strong scene comes in “The Barista, the Rooster, and Me.” The title sounds like a joke with a set-up and punchline, but it’s about anger, about how when people put selfish demands on neighbors—to lower music, to tolerate intrusive pets—there are consequences. There are short fuses burning all around, working in and against our favor.

Finally, there’s a great nod to Patricia Highsmith, a girl who loved her con men if ever there was one, in the penultimate story of the collection, “Deep Water.” Here, the Brad Phillips character takes action to eliminate a person who has secret information on Phillips.  (Sidebar: a long time ago there was a Gary Indiana story called “Pillow Talk” in Bomb Magazine. It has a line in it I’ve never forgotten: “You’re brilliant and you’re handsome, but deep down where the icky fish of your mind really swim, you’re sick.”) So, now there’s this guy who knows something about Phillips, something Phillips can’t handle facing, and rather than avoid this threat, Phillips lures his mark into an olive grove (drolly, the grove is located in Sezze, Italy, the Italian headquarters of Tyrant Books) and deploys a Highsmith solution. “I lifted the rock far over my head, bringing it down with all my strength and the kindness of gravity….”

As a collection, there are remarkable moments.

Finally, three other random things arose in the reading of this book. I put the text down to look up “cold water extraction” techniques, something Phillips gives passing mention to, and discovered opioid addicts do this to avoid inevitable liver damage.  The word “scrutiny” also triggered a lot of thought, to the point of seeking its etymology and learning “Perhaps the original notion of the Latin word is ‘to search through trash,’ via scruta (plural) ‘trash, rags’ (‘shreds’).” Knowing that made me happy to continue reading, feeling somewhat vindicated for thinking there was a bit of trash-picking in the process. I also found myself thinking about another recent ode to narcing up, Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. But only because deploying the word argot is to Phillips as pilly is to Moshfegh.

As a project that stands somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, one might wonder if Phillips’ debut is more satisfying as a set of stories or as essays. I found it satisfying as both. As essays, each is focused on memories and meaning-making. These are all very personal, particular experiences that speak to the larger human experience. Yet Phillips is also freewheeling enough to follow where his mind wanders. There is, for instance, this scene in “Boo Hoo in Three Parts” where he encounters and parties with his junky father’s decaying corpse. Believe me, that story haunts. But these are essays that clearly evoke places and times, populated with characters who are inconsistent in the way good fiction should be. Phillips is a fiction writer, writing in a style so close to what we often expect from nonfiction, that a reader cannot tell what is true or not.

I had a chance to attend a reading from Essays and Fictions in Brooklyn this past November. In person, Phillips is slender and angular and friendly. Dressed in a simple gray tee, a gold chain, and workman’s pants, he delivers a quiet, almost tentative reading of his own words. His body language telegraphs discomfort, his tall frame cants back and leeward from the mic, his head and its shaggy shingle of bangs, salt-and-pepper, crick occasionally toward a shoulder. He is a soft reader, eyes down, and in a beautiful open space, the audience listened quietly in return. “My job is to make paintings,” he began from “The Dumb Tide.”  “I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

It’s easy to like Phillips’ honesty as an essayist, and a storyteller.  He doesn’t have to be one or the other. As a matter of fact, as he says in “Suicidal Realism,” he wants to live a life spent “scattering behind me paintings and writing and women’s underwear as I go.”

A. E. Weisgerber is a teacher, editor, and hybrid writer from Orange, New Jersey. Awarded first place for features from the Society of Professional Journalists, she’s a Reynolds Journalism Fellow, and 2017’s Frost Place Scholar. Items in DIAGRAM, The Alaska Star, Yemassee, Structo, + SmokeLong Quarterly. She reads for Wigleaf’s Top 50@aeweisgerber anneweisgerber.com 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 21st, 2019.