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Review

The monster in the mirror: Liz Phair tells horror stories

In her freshman year at college, Liz Phair attends a party and sees something that will haunt her for the rest of her life. There is an inebriated girl lying face-down on the bathroom floor with a smear of excrement protruding from her legs. Countless students wander into the room and observe the sight with silent horror. None of them can muster the compassion to push past their embarrassment and take care of the poor girl; they sheepishly flee the scene as quickly as they can. Phair will never learn what happened to the girl, nor will she be able to remove the terrible stain the episode leaves on her conscience. 

By sharing this anecdote in the opening chapter of her new memoir, Horror Stories, Phair makes it clear from the outset that she has not penned a conventional rock ‘n’ roll autobiography. Fans expecting a chronological account of her rise-to-fame or a behind-the-scenes glimpse into her song-writing will have to search elsewhere. Instead, she enlists the medium to anthologise the ‘small indignities we suffer daily, the silent insults to our system, the callous gestures that we make towards one another.’ In the introspections that follow, she casts an unflinching eye upon her experiences of heartbreak and loss, the weird distortions of fame, the infidelity that wrecked her marriage and other assorted traumas.  

In promotional interviews for the book, Phair has attributed her resolve to confront the brutal realities of her past to the sudden deaths of David Bowie and Prince and the rampant mendacity of the Trump administration. She suggests that our increasingly benighted and uncertain times issue a clarion call for the rigorous examination of personal character. ‘Come walk down some dark and mysterious paths with me,’ she beckons the reader. ‘Once your eyes adjust, you’ll see that monsters are only mirrors.’ 

Phair is often numbered among the best lyricists of her generation, so her skills as a wordsmith come as no surprise. The real thrill here is to see her draw out those finely-honed instincts for storytelling in extended prose. In one of the standout chapters, she recounts the strange turn of events that originates from her obsessive flirtation with a supermarket cashier. At first glance, the narrative is not far removed from the themes of romantic frustration that she has famously explored in her music. But when she is given more space to contemplate the scenario, it takes on more complicated and unexpected dimensions. There are a few plot twists that reflect how little we know about the strangers in our midst, and by its conclusion, the chapter becomes a profound meditation on the pain of loneliness and the costs of socially transgressive desire. 

The candid nature of these stories should not distract from the careful craft that Phair brings to their telling. As she confronts her demons, she pays close attention to the details that lend them their most disturbing features. When she repents for her extra-marital affair, for instance, it is not the affair itself that stands out for its narrative power but an awkward brush with a bible-bashing neighbour who attempts to rescue her from her moral trespasses. In another chapter, she poses for a provocative photo shoot that pushes her to the edge of her comfort zone, only to recall a fleeting encounter with a teenage girl who nervously awaits a medical operation that may leave her face disfigured. Phair has a special talent for teasing out the resonance of these little moments without straining too hard to spell out their meaning.

There is a moral significance to the precision with which Phair examines her own mortifications. She never shrinks from the concept of personal culpability, least of all her own. However, she also carries a determination to honour the complexity of human relations, particularly when they have descended into crisis. The chapter on the #MeToo movement takes the reader through a devastating tour of the degradations she has suffered at the hands of everyone from former colleagues to ex-lovers, crazed stalkers and sleazy music executives. But even as she explains the need for sweeping reform, she refuses to blot out some uncomfortable questions about her own responses to the movement’s upheaval. At one point, she describes her relief at having abandoned an album that was meant to be produced by Ryan Adams, thereby distancing herself from his disgrace: ‘I get to have sympathy, because everyone can see how hard he was to accommodate, and my resistance to his control looks like good judgment. It wasn’t, really,’ she admits. ‘I wanted to make that record.’ Such disclosures do not detract from the value of her contribution to the movement; they only confirm the strength of her commitment to tell the plain truth at every stage of its reckoning.

For all the memoir’s preoccupations with suffering, it makes for a surprisingly enjoyable read. Much of this pleasure derives from the author’s mordant sense of humour and memorable turn-of-phrase. When she catches her reflection in the mirror after that risqué photo shoot, for instance, she finds that she resembles a ‘deranged zombie prostitute’. On another level, there is something oddly beautiful about the curiosity she directs towards her darkest moments. Her recollections are often inflected with an oneiric quality; she is the kind of person who pauses during a Manhattan blizzard that almost gives her frostbite to fantasise about animal trappers and packs of wolves roaming the same landscape in centuries past. In the midst of her bleakest nightmares, the power of imagination still provides small glimmers of wonder. ‘There is music in the creaking trees,’ she writes in one passage. ‘Deep beneath our workaday world, we are all dreaming.’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Sebastian Sharp is a recent PhD graduate in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. His thesis dealt with 21st century representations of camp. He has written for the Sydney Review of Books, The Conversation and Limina.

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  1. Thanks Sebastian … I’m immediately driven to chase down the book and if it is half as well written as this review is, it will be worth it.

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