Black Market Babies


No one wants you if your memories dominate your every activity. No one
wants a rememberer,” Claire Phillips muses in her first book, Black Market
, as though she were ashamed at the very condition of being a writer. Where does
the novel’s urgency come from if not memory, however refigured and fictionalized?
Phillips’s resistance to this might explain why the novel holds us at arm’s
length with jittery digressions and ex nihilo characters who appear, disappear, and switch
names, all the while clutching to their hearts secrets they are “desperate to
keep hidden.”

Heather, Iris, and Lavender are college freshmen who discover they
were separated at birth; afterward they try to piece a life together, dipping into
the collective muck of their upbringings. Nearly everyone in this novel (including
Helvetica Thistle-Brun, the girls’ feckless sociology professor, and Sid Sabor,
who tries to exploit their story for the media) has given up, or has been given up
as, a baby; the problem is that Phillips inventories such accounts instead of vivifying
them. The novel is supposed to be, one guesses, about the loveless rubble of contemporary
life–where allegiances to 7-Eleven, or Shark, your heroin dealer, are stronger
than bloodlines–but ends up skimming its own bright surfaces.

Phillips clearly has strong feelings for the Nathanael West of Miss
and A Cool Million, but her characters have none of the rootedness
or charm of his, and her satirical effort has little of West’s poignance. The best
scene in the book comes far too late for most readers, when Helvetica tells Iris how she
got pregnant and decided to sell her baby on the black market. These passages are
empathetic, and stirringly imagined: “I remember dialing the phone and watching
the numbers rise from their holes to climb my long fingers like little
spiders.” This part of the story–where memory is allowed–is so good
that if Phillips stops substituting a prickly tone for excellent writing, her
forthcoming second novel, Lona Single and the Twin Towers, may be well worth a