A Review of Impossible Owls, Through the Lens of an Impossible Paradigm

June 28, 2019 § 6 Comments


zz owls_By Amy Wright

Know what I think is refreshing? Clean lakes, blue glass, mint mouthwash, and rain. Also, people who express profound emotion or offer insights earned from hard experiences. What I do not find refreshing as a matter of course are essay collections that avoid memoir. So, when the first three reviews I read of Brian Phillips’ debut essay collection, Impossible Owls, described its “refreshing lack of memoir,” I had to wonder why critics were praising what it wasn’t, rather than what it was.

Apparently, memoirs are so in need of humbling, or memoirists in such need of a comedown, reviewers have to work across genre to accomplish it. I get it; I’ve read bad memoirs too. But I’ve also read paltry sonnets and shoddy detective novels without reviewers lauding those working in other modes for avoiding them altogether.

I suspect there’s more at play than genre bias. And if there were too few reviews of Phillips’ collection, which originated on ESPN’s Grantland and MTV News, I would devote more attention to the book itself. As it is, it seems superfluous to trumpet strengths already heralded in popular venues. Instead, I’d like to call attention to how this book’s reception reflects a bias in publishing.

To appreciate why the “refreshing” descriptor is at odds with Impossible Owls, you need to know that it opens with a reportage on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race titled “Out in the Great Alone.” This thoroughly researched piece details the threats of death to sled dogs, mushers, and any spectator who dares, like the author, to follow the race in a bush plane with a pilot who collects stories of bush plane crashes, and who, according to the book’s acknowledgments, died while leading a training expedition in the Alaskan wilderness.

There are other unrefreshing examples, including “Man-Eaters,” a feature on tigers that have been hunted, killed, and skinned in the jungles of India for over one hundred years; “The Little Gray Wolf Will Come,” an essay into the early work of a Russian animator who fell into a creative block that has lasted over four decades; and “Sea of Crises,” a braided story involving a warehouse fire, a decapitation, and Japan’s cultural shame that the greatest living sumo wrestler was born in Mongolia. Impossible Owls is a provocative, educational, wanderlustful, and beautiful construct, but it is not refreshing.

It is also not published without consideration of a diverse audience. If tiger hunters seem stereotypically masculine, so might the contents of Queen Elizabeth’s handbag, as we learn in “Once and Future Queen,” be deemed feminine. The collection ranges wide from essay to essay, including an investigation into UFO experiencers and a cultural study of sci-fi that Phillips undertakes while healing from a ski accident. Throughout, he does well what nonfiction writers are paid by frequently male editors to do well: he dismisses himself—except to show his hand on the throttle of a plane that he learned to fly in case he needed to land it in an emergency. (I can’t help but read such moments in light of why men are more often solicited for intensive field-research assignments.)

But my issue here is not that Phillips received rare, dream assignments, because he demonstrates the hard work that went into them, but that reviewers fail to notice that these stories are inherently larger than life, and not about him. Instead, they celebrate how Phillips “decentralizes his own presence,” as if centralizing his presence would make sense in this context. Such readings are another form of memoir bashing, which is often misogynistic.

In fact, Phillips does call attention to himself in a number of instances in the book, and not always in flattering postures. He emerges most clearly in the final essay, “Not Your Typical Love Story,” which braids the stories of his grandparents, who drowned together, and an oil baron who marries his niece. Apparently, reviewers who were relieved that Phillips “turns his investigations outward rather than inward” neglected to notice his confession in the final pages.

After his grandparents died, when he was eleven- or twelve-years-old, Phillips went to a child psychologist who asked him if he cried when they drowned. He hadn’t, but he knows that isn’t the right answer. So, he makes up a story that he cried alone in the bathtub, rather than explain how he really felt, which he didn’t trust the psychologist to understand. From there, he begins a search for understanding and the freedom to feel that leads him to the world of books—suggesting, in fact, that Impossible Owls wants to be read as a paean to our capacity to emote and to express ourselves in all the ways we find available to us, which would indeed be refreshing.
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Amy Wright is the author of two poetry books, one collaboration, and six chapbooks. Individual essays appear or are forthcoming in Brevity, Fourth Genre, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, and Ninth Letter. You can find her online at: www.awrightawright.com, and on Twitter @amymwright

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§ 6 Responses to A Review of Impossible Owls, Through the Lens of an Impossible Paradigm

  • Ah! Love that last line. Eye opening review, Amy, leaving this writer/ memoirist/and hopeful nonfiction adventure writer A LOT to think about. Thanks!

  • I loved this book enough to gift it to a former student as a prize for his excellent work in my class last winter.

  • Sarah Freligh says:

    Seems as if, given the subject matter, the book falls more naturally into the subgenre of literary journalism and should have been reviewed thusly.

  • bethfinke says:

    Thank you for this well-written review, Amy. Thought-provoking and, dare I say…refreshing!

  • Max says:

    Yes, it still is the case that every single example of memoir must somehow justify its existence. As if as you said every poor sonnet had to face a comparison to Shakespeare’s sonnets. It’s outdated. We should by now see that there are good memoirs and there are not so good memoirs just like every other genre. I think we’re still working with narrow understandings of what memoir is. We don’t define novels narrowly. There’s still work to be done.

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