PRINT December 2019


Mac Wellman

I would like to briefly mention a new and splendid novel by Helen Phillips, someone whose writing I first encountered when she was a student at Brooklyn College some years ago. Her newest work of fiction, The Need (Simon & Schuster), has recently been published, and it is, in my opinion, quite a strange and wonderful book. Strangely wonderful, I should say!

The story concerns the family of a young woman named Molly and her two children, the toddler Viv and the infant Ben. Phillips describes in a graphic yet unpredictable way the joys and difficulties of being a young mother: breastfeeding, changing diapers, and all the other tiring but exciting duties and demands. Molly’s husband David is away on a trip, so he cannot be of much help—especially when peculiar things begin to occur.

First, Molly thinks she spots a mysterious stranger. Then a truly bizarre appearance confuses and disturbs her and her children: that of Moll, Molly’s double, her other-who (not exactly the kind of creature she would anticipate encountering). Meanwhile, odd objects begin to appear among the fossil plants at the nearby paleo-botanical site where she works: a curious Bible, for instance, in which God is referred to as “She.”

As events become more and more puzzling, Molly deals as best she can. I have never read anything like this book. It is both charming and terrifying, especially because of the ordinariness of the lives and the weirdness of it all, one damn thing after another. The “need” of the title is both absolute and indescribable. Phillips’s book is the most remarkable I have read in years.

Mac Wellman is a distinguished professor of playwriting at Brooklyn College whose recent work includes the novel Linda Perdido (FC2, 2013) and the poetry collection Awe (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019). This fall, the Flea Theater in New York City celebrated him with Perfect Catastrophes, a festival of his plays.