Biography Books Genre Short stories Writing

one long flinch

I’m reading Julie Phillips’s biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. It’s excellent and I’m entranced.

In the beginning I was merely interested, because I found it tough to relax into the biographical form as Phillips practices it. Having spent this semester working on (among other things) Austen’s use of modal verbs, I was struck and a little annoyed by Phillips’s use of “must” and “should have,” her reliance on conditional forms to buttress psychological claims about Sheldon. That choice reminded me, not pleasantly, of the more biographical bits of the Gilbert-and-Gubar style of feminist criticism — another critical mode I view with sympathy and support but can’t help quibbling with, either. Phillips’s “musts” seem, at times, to push too hard to nail down the unknowable:

She also acquired a .38 revolver, which she either bought or was given by Bill at a time when a sensational carjacking and murder had made the New Mexico roads seem unsafe. It was this gun, acquired for self-defense, that Alice claimed Bill had used against her. (She also once suggested that she had used it for a game of Russian roulette.) Nonetheless, she kept it. Later in life, whenever she was depressed enough to think of killing herself, she always pictured doing it with the .38. The gun must have given her a sense of power over death. [James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, 96]

That pithy last sentence! Why? It’s a shove from drama into banality. It flattens an ambivalent and interesting and totemic-seeming fact.

I’m quibbling, as I said — the book is just wonderful, and the psychologizing conditional statements either grow fewer, or integrate more smoothly into Phillips’s thoughtful and careful treatment of Sheldon/Tiptree, or both. (I’ll have to reread it to tell; right now I’m too grabbed by it.) But I wish that, in the early chapters, Phillips had allowed more of Alice’s ambivalence to remain unencapsulated.

More on this later, when I’m done with the book.

ETA: I read the last half of the book in a happy rush yesterday and this morning, and while I stand by my quibbling, I think the whole thing’s delightful. The primary sources make up a great portion of the book’s brilliance — Sheldon/Tiptree wrote wonderful letters — but Phillips does a beautiful job, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *