Book Review: Some Possible Solutions, Helen Phillips (2016)

May 30th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Tales With Teeth

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.)

Once something I wrote made the judge of a contest indignant. He wrote, “This is something that this woman should share with her husband alone, if with anyone, and probably not even with him.”

If there’s one passage that best encapsulates Some Possible Solutions: Stories, it would be this.

Helen Phillips’s second collection of short fiction is vulgar, imposing, and (at times) weirdly funny: all of which I mean as a compliment. Phillips sees your appeals to smile and act like a lady and raises them with the shocker – flashed while sporting an oh-so-snarky smirk, of course.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the author’s penchant for bodily fluids and other gross things (“Flesh and Blood,” I’m looking at you!), the eighteen stories in Some Possible Solutions deal with Very Adult Matters: marriage and parenthood; growing up and growing apart; watching your parents age, sometimes ahead of their time, and the cosmic betrayal this entails; loneliness and (too much) togetherness; and sometimes smothering societal norms.

While I found the collection entertaining enough, I often felt left in the dust, unsure of what to think or how to interpret what I’d just read. Many of these stories are downright surreal. Usually when reading anthologies I’ll take notes, assigning a starred rating to each piece and summarizing it briefly to help with the coming review. My notes for Some Possible Solutions? Kind of a mess. See, e.g., “Game,” “How I Began To Bleed Again After Six Alarming Months Without,” and “The Worst,” the summaries of which read “I have no idea!,” “WEIRD.,” and “WTF,” respectively. I wasn’t even sure how to rate a few of the stories. That said, I didn’t give any story less than three stars, and even these are enjoyable reads.

My favorites are those with a science fiction/dystopia bent, some of which conjure the mojo of Margaret Atwood (her short stories, if not her novels). Several of these seem to share a common setting: either a sterile yet dreary domed city, removed from the natural world thanks to climate change; or a polluted and dreary city, removed from the natural world because there is no longer a “natural” world, period.

In “R,” twin sisters Rose and Roo are sent away when they experience something they shouldn’t, a phenomenon that hasn’t existed in their urban landscape for some twenty years: the wind kissing their skin. Dancers in a brothel, the girls grow apart when placed in a more nurturing environment. Yet Rose will find that there’s simply no going back. “The Beekeeper” seems set in the same world, if not the same city. After girls start disappearing from the city without a trace, Maebh’s parents hire the narrator to take the seventeen-year-old to the family’s ancestral farm for the summer. But the calamity seems to follow them, as the bees begin to vanish too. Last but not least, “Contamination Generation” features a bleak cityscape, marked by poverty and pollution, which further adds insult to injury by allowing the excesses of wealth to exist next to those on whose backs it’s been built. Danny and his wife Sarah spend much of their leisure time peeping through a hole in the wall, spying in their well-to-do neighbors, the Stanhopes (who can afford three children instead of just one!). Before Steve has the hole sealed up, he gives Danny a seemingly-magic white seed. But is hope a gift or a curse in this world?

I also quite loved “The Joined,” in which astronauts visiting an alien planet find themselves fusing with the natives – who look human, just fuzzy around the edges. At first we on Earth were appalled – until we weren’t: “The hermaphrodite craze consumes our globe.” “The Joined” feels like it’d be at home in an Ursula LeGuin collection. “The Knowers” is pretty great, too, if a bit of a tease. If you could know the date of your death, would you? And how might that knowledge affect your life, and that of the people in it? And the titular “Some Possible [Romantic] Solutions” is wicked fun. Do you choose an android male, a sex toy given voice? Maybe a second wife is more your thing? Or how about burning the whole institution to the ground?

I have to admit, as much as I loved these stories, even here I felt like I was only peeling back the top of many layers. This is heavy stuff, but maybe that’s your thing? Personally this collection comes in around 3.5 stars for me – better than okay but not without some frustrations – yet if surreal fiction is your thing, it might be in the 4-5 star range. Phillips is nothing if not imaginative – and biting.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: One of the solutions in “Some Possible Solutions” is taking a second wife/group marriage – and her name is Anna. In “The Joined,” Earthlings find their other halves on an alien planet – hermaphrodites separated by Zeus – and have the option of fusing with them to become one. The Rs in “R” – Rose and Roo – appear to be victims of sex trafficking, raised as they were in a brothel. The narrator in “The Beekeeper” is genderqueer; zhe wears a hood and trousers, has an unspecified gender (whatever that means), and notes that most people mistake zher as asexual. However, zhe begins to have romantic feelings for Maebh, the seventeen-year-old girl zhe’s been hired to babysit and protect for the summer.

Animal-friendly elements: The married couple in “Some Possible Solutions” is vegetarian. I’m not 100%, but I think “fishing” is described as “torturing fish” in “Life Care Center.”


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