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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Book review: 'Impossible Owls' by Brian Phillips 

Phillips takes us from the freezing tundra of Alaska to the “dream city” of Tokyo, and from the cold, grey city of Moscow in 1954 to the sweltering Indian jungle

The book of essays begins with Out in the Great Alone, an account of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins every year in early March from Anchorage in “what might,” Phillips muses, “be the least spectator-friendly sporting event. To follow the Iditarod requires not only a bush plane, but a bush plane equipped with skies, capable of landing on frozen rivers and lakes.” Photo: AFP 
The book of essays begins with Out in the Great Alone, an account of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins every year in early March from Anchorage in “what might,” Phillips muses, “be the least spectator-friendly sporting event. To follow the Iditarod requires not only a bush plane, but a bush plane equipped with skies, capable of landing on frozen rivers and lakes.” Photo: AFP 

Impossible Owls – Brian ­Phillips’ first book – brings together some of his best long-form writing. The ­collection contains eight essays – early versions of five of them appeared in Grantland and MTV News, which criss-cross a variety of subjects. Phillips’s approach to these subjects might best be ­described as investigative journalism-meets-travelogues, real and imagined.

Rather refreshingly, unlike the thrust of much contemporary essay writing, the author’s ­pieces are not exercises in memoir. This isn’t to say that he’s absent from what he writes. Indeed, his keen eye is absolutely integral to his work, as is his presence in each piece. But he remains the narrator, the observer, he turns his investigations outward rather than inward; he never becomes the subject. Instead, he leads us into the hearts and minds of others, and in doing so, opens portals to times, places and lives outside both our and his first-hand experiences.

In the space of just over three hundred pages, he takes us on a tour around the world: from the freezing tundra of Alaska to the “dream city” of Tokyo; along Route 66 and into the TV rooms of small town, suburban America; from the cold, grey city of Moscow in 1954 to the sweltering, damp Indian jungle.

He begins the collection with Out in the Great Alone, an account of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins every year in early March from Anchorage in “what might,” Phillips muses, “be the least spectator-friendly sporting event. To follow the Iditarod requires not only a bush plane, but a bush plane equipped with skis, capable of landing on frozen rivers and lakes.”

Not that this puts Phillips off. He has “always been fascinated by the cold places at the end of the world”, and has spent many happy hours pouring over accounts of polar expeditions. The Iditarod offers those brave enough to enter a chance for similar endurance-based adventure. It’s a sporting event, Phillips writes “that most closely mimics the experience of sustained brutal catastrophe”.

A different kind of physical tenacity is explored in the second essay in the book, Sea of Crises. Travelling to Japan to report on the sumo wrestling, Phillips becomes obsessed with the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. Mishima committed suicide in 1970 by performing seppuku – ritual disembowelment – after a failed coup d’etat the aim of which was to restore the Japanese emperor’s pre-war powers. Although, as Phillips explains, Mishima scholars cite his growing obsession with death as the real reason for his actions, the coup offering the means by which he was able to perish in “dramatic fashion”.

Similar ruminative meandering can be found in Lost Highway. What begins as an investigation of the United States’s history with UFOs – Phillips drives from Roswell in New Mexico, via Route 66, to Area 51 – morphs into a meditation on the absences that lie at the heart of American culture. “The fascination Area 51 exerted, as the vanishing centre of every rumoured cover-up and labyrinth conspiracy theory, was essentially the fascination of a vacancy.” As he continues his road trip, passing through the Hualapai Indian reservation, the author becomes acutely aware of the “feeling of erasure”, the “emptiness” of the landscape means that there are “fewer protective layers between you and American history. That is: You know that a history of invasion, displacement, and – let’s use the word – genocide permeates almost every place you go in this country.”

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One of the delights of this collection is Phillips’s ability to make the unknown familiar and the unfamiliar known. I was worried that his essay about the British Royal Family – Once and Future Queen – would hold little of interest to me when compared to the exoticism of the pieces it sits beside, but he proved me wrong. What makes the piece so interesting is the degree of fictional conjecture. Phillips points out just how preciously the royals guard their privacy, but then he sprinkles the essay with fictions that breach protocol. “My dear, these people are beneath us,” he has Prince Philip joke with the Queen. These forays in speculation are more than just evidence of a skilled writer, they illuminate the subjects.

Phillips’s already impressive piece about the Russian animator Yuri Norstein – who is considered to be the most talented animator of all time, and who has been working on his still unfinished animation of Gogol’s short story The Overcoat for the past 40 years – for example, is all the more affecting due to the propulsive present tense prose. Impossible Owls is layered, narratively organised and analytical on a diverse, often unexpected range of subjects.

Impossible Owls book jacket
Impossible Owls