The Need by Helen Phillips
2/5 stars (and I’m definitely being generous here)
So, I have a Master’s Degree in English Literature. I hope that doesn’t sound braggy. Trust me, it’s nothing to brag about. I mean, yeah I’m middle class and my career is A-okay, but I’m not smarter than anybody for having that. For real, I think my degree made me dumber. I can analyze any work of fiction through a feminist, Marxist, post-colonial lens ( I wish I was making that up), but I don’t think that makes me any smarter. It often makes me sound like someone locked in a windowless room with nothing but Judith Butler to read and a bunch of model airplane glue to sniff.
My point is this: academia is ridiculous. It’s stupid, but it’s a special kind of stupid: the pretentious twat flavor of stupid. The same flavor of stupid that Phillips’ ‘The Need’ is.
I was browsing in my public library when I stumbled across this novelized fever dream. The title is great. I love titles that are “The blank” format. I just find them really cryptic and they always grab my attention. Then I read the blurb and it sounded…weird. Weird in a good way. A sleep-deprived mother hears footsteps in the next room and at first she thinks she’s hallucinating. The intruder turns out to be real and she “slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood.”
Hmmm…I thought to myself, this is either going to be awesome or so stupid I have to waste a Sunday trying to put the pretentious fuckery into words.
Guess which one it turned out to be?
The plot is nonsensical. Spoilers ahead. But don’t worry, they are stupid spoliers. I’m sorry if I spoil a stupid book for you.
The intruder turns out to be an alternate version of the main character Molly. The archeology site where she works turns out to be a “seam,” a split in reality where multiverses collide. Molly had already found several artifacts mixed in with the fossils that didn’t make sense. A coke bottle with the letters just slightly different than a usual coke bottle, an Altoids tin just slightly different than a usual Altoids tin, and then, a Bible where God is referred to as “she.” This part is, of course, very much harped on. One of the artsy-fartsy five sentence chapters ends on the line “the divine pronoun.”
Ooohh…ahh…mother is god to a child…how clever…not. This is some r/iam14andthisisdeep shit.
That stupid trying too hard to be impressive with symbolism really backfired on Phillips though. In the reality where God is a woman, Molly’s children are dead.
Feminism=the death of motherhood?
I feel like that’s not what the bald, glaring woman on the book’s back jacket flap was trying to say. Her weird artsy-fartsy-ness wasn’t thought through (spoiler alert-it never is with artsy-fartsy literary writers).
When the alternate version of Molly (Moll) first shows up, she rises up out of the trunk in the middle of Molly’s living room wearing a deer mask. It is later explained to us that Molly’s husband made her a deer mask for her birthday. Why? Who the fuck knows? These characters don’t seem like eccentric weirdos who’d make each other paper mache masks for holidays, even going so far as to ensure the mask is “the right size.” Nothing in the book points to them being this quirky.
I think the author just wanted an edgy surreal visual, but without putting in any of the work for that chilling imagery to make sense. You want a Donnie Darko-esque visual? Then put the fucking work in!
Then there’s the fact that nothing happens. Moll shows up. There is tension. There is an ambigious ending. We’re all supposed to stand here and clap, because otherwise we’re the square dummies who just didn’t get the book’s brilliance.
I hate literary fiction so fucking much. Can you tell?
The chapters were all about two paragraphs long for no reason. So many of the chapters could have been combined. She ends chapters mid-scene and then the scene picks right back up in the next two paragraph chapter.
Now, for the only compliment this writer will get from me: she is a talented writer. Her descriptions and imagery are gorgeous. Her prose draws you in. Her writing is good. It’s the story itself that fucking sucks.
I think it’s very telling that this book is so highly-praised in ivory towers and the surrounding communities. The snooty more-literary-than-thou types love this book. But if you look at the book’s average rating on goodreads, it’s absolutely abysmal. There’s a real disconnect between what the critics say about the book and what the average person says about the book.
But if books are meant to move the human spirit, should you really need a fancy degree to see the value in it?
2 out of 5 stars. Helen Phillips could be a brilliant writer, if she’d stop trying to be so impressive and literary and just write a meaningful story.