Noon heat in summer camps

Geoff Dyer explores an extraordinary new novel by Jayne Anne Phillips
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This is one of those novels you start reading again from the beginning as soon as you finish the last page. Not because you enjoyed it, necessarily, but because of the near impossibility of making up your mind about it. Come to that, it is difficult to make up your mind about Jayne Anne Phillips' work as a whole.

After the snazzy, vacuous promise of Black Tickets, her debut collection of fictive bits and pieces, came Machine Dreams, a sustained, densely impressive chronicle of pre- and post-Vietnam America. Another collection of stories, Fast Lanes, which included offcuts from the previous novel, felt like something to keep publishers and public going while she got on with another big novel. A decade after Machine Dreams, here it is, a novel so dense with its own impressiveness as to make you wonder about the foundations of that impressiveness.

It is set in a girls' summer camp in West Virginia in the summer of the early Sixties. More accurately, it is set in July 1963; in late July to be exact. The precise temporal anchoring is stressed at the outset, but the novel floats free of historical circumstance except in so far as the girls at camp are in the midst of a pre-permissive adolescence. Phillips' concerns are anthropological rather than historical; tribal, almost. The swelling sexual urges on the brink of being unleashed are felt more powerfully by being historically corseted by knee socks and wool berets.

Hideous, beast-like, an ex-con called Carmody slouches towards this Eden. Parson, a drifter who shared a jail-cell with Carmody, has followed him into the area. His aura is scarcely less menacing than Carmody's as he watches over a group of four girls, whether to protect them against Carmody or to abet in the universal degradation associated with him remains unclear until the novel's disturbing apotheosis.

The landscape heaving under the camp and crouching round it is snake-infested, shot through with religious gleamings, ominous, heat-drenched, almost a jungle. The same is true of the prose. It writhes and exults and crams your nose with the feel of surfaces and depths, touches your eyes with the reek of light. The air is sentient with nouns become verbs; even in motion a tranced stillness holds sway as verbs stall into adjectives. You don't read this prose; you peer into it. The narrative unfolds and coils through the murk and glare of writing in which even half-tones inflame the eye. Everything is heightened, nervy, lyrical, jagged.

The weakest passages read like writing programme exercises in stream of consciousness. There is a tendency, too, for metaphors to become over-blown (someone tastes "the night in his mouth like a wish, a night so big, so warm and wet and full of air, falling away forever like the sky falls with its stars") or to blow themselves out ( "silent, like a scream too high-pitched to hear").

These are quibbles. Critical energies are better deployed in articulating the overall effect of reading and re-reading this obviously important novel. Here is a representative passage, chosen at random: "It all looks empty in the dim light, swept with a broom maybe, but there is no broom, and the inside has a hay smell like clean dust even in the rain. In the splintering pour of the storm there is such a silence, like a church or a cell, a cloister, empty, and rain courses down the broken glass of the block-paned windows. Some of the jagged glass juts up like tongues, other panes are shattered intact, jewelled in their panes."

Even as you admire stuff like this, it seems to me, part of you is thinking what a pain in the neck it is, this strain of writing that is so saturated in its effects. Lenny, one of the main characters, finds that she "can't believe in any prayer made of words: she understands now that she doesn't believe in words at all." Even in context this sentiment has a false ring to it. As far as Jayne Anne Phillips is concerned - bear with me if this sounds a ludicrous charge to level at any writer - there is nothing but words, nothing but writing. At one point, tellingly, a fish jumps, "flashing like a comma." A few pages later Lenny, swimming, moves "through stripes of cold." Perfect images, absolutely perfect, but after 250 pages even moments like these, where sensation is rendered so precisely, seem simply part of a pattern, an inevitable consequence of a verbal heightening that is largely rhetorical and therefore flattening.

"Concede the heat of noon in summer camps", the novel begins, beautifully, hypnotically. Concede also that while saying a novel is imagined entirely at the level of writing sounds like the highest praise imaginable, it can also suggest a forestalling of the imagination, a falling short.