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Publication: Review of Contemporary Fiction
Author: Motte, Warren
Date published: April 1, 2012

Thomas Phillips. Insouciance. Spuyten Duyvil, 2011. 135 pp. Paper: $16.00.

'Tis the season for May-December romances, judging from this novel and from Vincent Almendros's Ma Chère Lise, which just appeared in France, at the Editions de Minuit. The latter puts on offer a dalliance between a private tutor and his fifteen-year-old tutee. Thomas Phillips sails a bit closer to the wind, however, inasmuch as here it's a stepfather and a stepdaughter who are having an affair, right under the nose of their companion and mother, respectively. Tolstoy would have been proud, because this is one family that seems certain to be unhappy, come what may. Yet the proportions of this novel are anything but Tolstoyan. Phillips puts into practice an economy of expression that recalls that of his first novel, Long Slow Distance (2009). He is also a composer of minimalist electronic music, and there is something distinctly musical about the pace of this story, as Phillips moves it suavely along, developing thematic harmonies here and there, adding grace notes tactfully, modulating its volume, pitch, and timbre. "It always feels a bit like teetering on the edge of being prosecuted, planning a trip with Bénédicte," muses the narrator, in full-on Humbert Humbert mode. Of being a heartbreak away from arraignment, for some taboo-breaking crime, for some despicable criminality, then committing yet another crime, the new parolee who soon commits a bank robbery." Thank goodness for taboo, without which there would of course be no crime. Taboo drives the narrator, just as surely as it drives this narrative world; the way this couple flaunts taboo is intended to fascinate us, to keep us rapt with a sense of looming disaster. Thank goodness for crime, too, without which there would be no punishment. And clearly enough, punishment there must be, because that's the way a well-regulated world works, after all. Yet at the end of this tale, one might ask who is the object ofthat punishment, and if indeed the punishment fits the crime. Phillips leaves those questions pleasingly open, closing his novel with a rich minor chord. [Warren Motte]

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