By Joel Cuthberson
NOTE: I tried pitching this “review” to various sites in 2018, but it’s more or less a close reading of a great collection of essays. You should buy the book in question.
The great war on high culture was concluded sometime before I was born, but certainly before I went to grad school and taught English majors the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar and Brother Ali. Anything can explain who we are, the common as well as, if not better than, the highfalutin’. For a while now, Harry Potter has been the preferred example for anyone lamenting this collapse into monolithic (because indiscriminate) cultural tastes. Politics is a game of Who’s the Real Voldemort, while “What’s your House?” is the new “What’s your sign?” The last Halloween party I attended we were sorted into Hogwarts Houses via a clever candy reveal. It was fun. It was also possibly the only book reference that everyone in the room was guaranteed to share.
What’s mentioned too little, though, is how the ubiquity of Harry Potter analogies not only infantilizes political discourse, but flattens the books, too. The more they’re bandied about as trinkets of bad allegory, the less appreciated they are as coming-of-age adventures. Sites like Twitter and Reddit, and the bloggers and journalists shaped by their popularity, truck in passion projects. Whatever is most loved is most broadcast, dissected, allegorized. The internet thereby instantiates our post-high-culture mindset, training us to consider everything seriously, which is often edifying, but is at least as often homogenizing. Even J.K. Rowling couldn’t resist tweeting that “Voldemort was nowhere near as bad” as Trump in 2015. Over a quarter-million Twitter accounts re-tweeted.
Enter Brian Phillips’s Impossible Owls, a collection of literary essays that shifts among subjects sometimes esoteric, sometimes mainstream, but always irradiated by Phillips’s own intelligence. Popular as well as obscure, his subjects are enlivened with stakes that often feel personal, and if not personal, then borderline existential. He even makes time for Harry Potter, arguing that Rowling “took the aesthetic of old-fashioned English boarding-school life and placed it at the center of a narrative about political inclusiveness.” Harry Potter can be discussed intelligently and politically, it turns out, just not by people who aren’t Brian Phillips.
Phillips’s particular brand of dissection, his broad interests honed to finite focus, is what might happen if Reddit’s democratic tastes were submitted to the rigors of New Criticism. Any cultural and philosophical arguments are never allowed to swamp a given piece’s title attraction. “Man-Eaters” is about tigers, or at the very least the people searching for tigers. “The Little Gray Wolf Will Come” is as informative an essay on Yuri Norstein, a slow-working genius animator, as you’re likely to find. We meet sumo wrestlers, UFO believers, oil tycoons, and read about the X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, his pop-cultural treatises some beautiful bastard of TV recaps as imagined by the world’s most relatable PhD candidate. American political life is easily understood through the X-Files, but first one must speak from within the logic of the X-Files, and not from any external anxieties.
In Phillips’s dual-profile of the Queen of England and the Duchess of Cambridge, his design becomes Rachel-Cusk-esque. How do you profile people so endlessly exposed by cameras and gossip and yet utterly garmented by mannered privacy? The Queen is literally unapproachable, so Phillips designs his profile as an outline which draws limits around who the Queen might be. Each section fills in the space around her: “Her City,” “Her Handbag,” “Her Daughter-In-Law Who Is Dead.” It’s the essay where Phillips himself is least present and yet where he experiments most with free indirect. Never mimicking the Queen, Phillips allows himself to fall into the speech patterns of her husband (and others): “After Elizabeth married him, [Prince Philip] began finding himself in new countries, odd, uncomfortable places, meeting chieftains and suchlike. Damnable odd fellows!” We come to know the Queen by intuition and speculation, the only way she’s allowed herself to be known her entire reign. It’s a profile by way of negative space which never feels short on positive details. It’s tabloid as literature; Twitter-hype as POV-virtuosity. Phillips even features a tabloid photographer he meets along the way to make the point plain: they’re both there for the same people, if not for the same reasons.
But for all his formal brilliance, Phillips’ work seems most easily summarized as disarming to the point of enlightening. He’s especially good at picking the right moment to let his presence round out a scene. While traveling to see the greatest sumo-wrestler of all time, he confesses cryptically that, “I was in crisis and I was evading it.” This initial tidbit—never explained—invites our focus on the sumo assignment to waver, which Phillips exploits in order to discuss how he can’t stop thinking about literary giant Yukio Mishima, a tangent that concludes with Phillips trying to track down the man who completed Mishima’s famous seppuku. This is an essay about sumo wrestling! We follow similar digressions in the opening piece on the Iditarod, as well as in the third essay, which is about Roswell, Area 51, and the nature of ecstatic beliefs. No diversion would be possible without Phillips’s varying degrees of self-exposure. In Roswell, for instance, he wonders why he can’t stop lying all the time (about what or why, we again don’t know), but only to underline how the ecstatic might appeal to the desperate. For whole spells of the collection’s best essays, in fact, Phillips’s state of mind is the unspoken topic, not only giving shape to the writing, but often bleeding from structure to surface.
We are thus given teases of who Phillips might be: a lively, wandering eye that has emotions and self-deprecates; someone who gives what he sees a personal context, but who remains distant as an object of the work itself. By design or accident, though, the essays evolve from the strictly assigned to the personally infused. While he’s always present in the writing, even inserting himself to better contextualize certain moments of triumph or wonder, his life slowly becomes one of the subjects, rather than the lens. With “In the Dark: Science Fiction in Small Towns,” Phillips becomes explicitly autobiographical, exploring the big ideas of popular sci-fi as grounded in his own small-town life. Thus, while “Mulder and Scully [uncover] monsters in the timberlands of Oregon and Virginia and Maine,” Phillips drives around his own small town as a teen telling “stories about the murderous spirit who haunted the Indian reservation in the form of a beautiful woman.” Mulder, Scully, and Phillips are all trying to understand the same country through that country’s hidden paranormal. Once, Phillips even attends a church retreat where an angel possibly dances with his girlfriend. Details are fuzzy on that one as he showed up late and wasn’t himself born again.
This gradual disclosure of Phillips’s life appropriately climaxes with the final essay, ostensibly a reflection on Ponca City’s quirkiest legend, Lydie Marland. My own confession: My brother was born in Ponca City. When Phillips describes swimming in a lake built by the Corps of Engineers, I was suddenly there with him. I was in my own Oklahoma lake, where my family spent childhood summers, where my grandfather grew up noodling. I have whole books planned around this lake, its combination of fear and nostalgia, and yet here I find another writer there before me.
To the book’s benefit, I believe my intense reaction was merely a concentrated form of what any reader might experience. I recognize Ponca City by name, the dusty Oklahoma scenes, the fear of nixies in the water from a parallel life, but that doesn’t negate Phillips’s significant gift for self-utility. If reading is often narcissistic—to what extent does this relate to me?—imagine the dangers of actually writing memoir, even the memoir-adjacent. The very premise smacks of self-regard. My life and thoughts, among all ye denizens, deserves recording. Plenty of personal nonfiction reads that way, but never Phillips. His focus is outward even when it’s inward.
His feature on Lydie Marland makes this perfectly clear. The essay also serves as an incredible portrait of Phillips’s grandparents, but they are not the stars of the essay. Lydie Marland is the star, or is presented as the star, even when she’s not a given section’s headline. The simple wonder of this trick is that Phillips leverages the given noteworthiness of other people or phenomena to elevate a more average, but no less meaningful, experience. Namely, the experience of the rest of us. Most of us haven’t been abducted by aliens, hunted tigers, married an oil tycoon, become the Duchess of Cambridge. Most of us are barely adjacent to these events, but of course we are adjacent. In this YouTube-addled age more than ever, we all exist in some resonant state of observation and reaction. Hence the ending to his profile on the British Royalty, which focuses on a First Nations Canadian and her awkward insistence to Prince William that she’s been watching him his whole life. She knows him, she thinks, and she’s not exactly wrong.
This is memoir and biography to the tune of democracy. Phillips highlights some of the more fascinating moments of his personal history, but it isn’t a flabbergasting history. The story of his grandparents was published as an excerpt in the New Yorker, and while the tale of their deaths and his reaction remains moving, it’s not the tour de force as found in Impossible Owls. What Phillips discovers in his out-sized subjects is apparent meaning displaced by lived encounter. The story of Lydie Marland radiates importance: her disappearance, her marriage to her adopted father just before he lost all of their money, and then her reappearance years later. She’s alive during Phillips’s youth, her old mansion the site of his high school dances as well as a lonely series of excursions he makes in the throes of dust-town blues. That must mean…something, right?
Standing in Annie Dillard’s shadow if not in her lineage, Phillips goes beyond reporting the strangeness of the world. He isn’t simply recounting Japanese history or detailing the wildness of Alaska, but giving shape to their airs of transcendence. The final essay in particular—but, really, the juxtaposition of such different essays throughout—rhymes formally with Dillard’s For the Time Being. Through biography, history, and even glimpses of memoir, Dillard explores spiritual significance in the face of material indifference. Implicit where she’s explicit, Phillips has the same gift for size, for moving from the impossible facts of the world to how those facts land on the individual. In Dillard, these facts include mystics and the Terracotta Army and deformed newborns and the piles of dead we all move through as if billions of humans don’t affect our singularity (and, maybe, they don’t!).
The subjects of Impossible Owls are never as plainly philosophical, much less spiritual, but Phillips is also trying to explain how people find meaning, and how they miss it. Technology drifts in and out of the essays’ focus, but it’s hard not to view the entire collection as haunted by our own age’s virtual cloud of unknowing. We have never been more connected, never more certain of our isolation as evidenced by the scrolling infinitude of people who aren’t us. We can know about anything, but any knowledge gained is continually squeezed through the same limited tubes, denuded of all but the impression of vast variation. The world is big; the internet is small. Traveling among UFO true believers, Phillips muses that, “What overwhelms is not the meaninglessness of the universe, but the coexistence of an apparent meaninglessness with the astonishing interconnectedness of everything.” If there’s a better one-sentence summary of life online, I have yet to hear it.
Throughout these essays, however, Phillips isn’t overwhelmed. He understands the Iditarod is a death dance: “When everything can vanish, you make a sport out of not vanishing.” He understands sumo-wrestling is relationship manifest as defense: “There are many crimes a sumotori can commit. The worst is revealing too much.” He even understands the allegorical significance of Star Trek: “[T]he Enterprise crew is conservative as a matter of method and liberal as a matter of objective. They sail through the universe with colonialist confidence sticking up for postcolonial principles.” In almost every piece, he’s a guide to the exotic and grandiose, but which by dint of his self-awareness become necessarily personal, a transformation itself nearly mysterious, if not precisely spiritual. The essays, in plain words, transcend their content. It’s a masterclass in how to appreciate anything, in how to compare the high with the low with the personal, and maintain each point of contact’s integrity.