Review By Alyssa Greene, as featured in Lambda Literary
In the title story of Phantom Advances, Mary Lynn Reed’s debut short story collection, the teenage narrator looks at her mother through the viewfinder of a manual camera as her mother drives. They’ve just gone to the narrator’s grandparents to ask for help, because her mother, a habitual liar, has lost another job; they’re returning home with money. But though the narrator’s finger clicks the shutter and the machine tries to advance the film, the camera isn’t loaded — there will be no record of this moment.
Such “phantom advances,” moments that seem like progress but don’t necessarily mean the characters have been freed from difficult or oppressive circumstances, define much of this collection. Reed’s stories capture women (who often present masc of center), trans, and gender nonconforming people at crucial moments of respite or pain, regret or possibility. The collection covers stunning geographic breadth, with stories taking place all over the United States. Its protagonists’ backgrounds and circumstances are just as wide ranging: a college dropout working the midnight shift at the L’Eggs factory, harboring feelings for another woman on the assembly line; an aspiring professional bowler with a crush on her teacher; a mathematician whose married ex-lover has taken out a restraining order on her.
Yet for all of those differences, what unites all of these stories is Reed’s interest in her characters’ interiority. Phantom Advances is a book for readers who love complex characters. Each story dwells in its protagonist’s messy, sometimes conflicting emotions. Loneliness and desire are frequent themes: characters often have a hunger to be seen for who they are, to be understood in their full complexity rather than flattened into labels or stereotypes. In “Sitting for Wanda,” Ellie looks after her older sister’s cats and weed plants while growing closer to a boy from her class; the story deftly explores how Ellie navigates the tension between her parents and her older sister (who has disgraced her parents by becoming a groupie), feeling the increasing burden of being cast in the role of the “good child.” In “When Perfection’s at Stake,” Jossa finds herself competing against her former teacher on the Ladies Professional Bowling Tour, torn between her longtime desire for her teacher and her desire to assert herself as a professional and win.
Because the stories in Phantom Advances are all in first person, it’s up to the reader to measure what the protagonist says against what the story shows—in other words, not all narrators can be trusted. As “Photophobia” unfolds, the reader learns that the story of how Tina came to be the proprietor of her bar is not the story everyone in town knows. And in “The Beauty Inside,” Lane dances around the full story of how her married ex-lover, Sylvia, came to take out a restraining order against her, only alluding occasionally to standing outside her house and watching her through the window. The stories lay everything out but never tell the reader how to feel, letting the reader appreciate instead the complex, messy, and at times unsettling inner lives of these characters.
The stories in Phantom Advances capture moments of disruption and recognition; characters’ lives are more likely to shift in subtle, emotional ways than in dramatic upheavals (though there are dramatic upheavals to be had, too). This is perhaps best illustrated by “Leaving Boystown” and “Once in Florence, Alabama,” two stories about the same character that bookend the collection. In “Leaving Boystown,” Dean sets off on a road trip to Florida, spurred in part by a girlfriend’s questions about Dean’s gender identity (Dean never gives the reader a pronoun). And at the end of the book, Dean arrives in South Beach, but the truly decisive moment of that journey has already happened, during a stopoff in Alabama, where Dean spends the night with a girl who says, “You’re a nice boy,” and, “You don’t need anything else.” Dean will never see the girl again, has no contact information. But what the book tells us—beautifully captured by the metaphor of the phantom advance—is that experiencing that moment is what matters, regardless of what comes next.
Alyssa Greene is a writer, fiction editor for Quarterly West, and editorial assistant for the Lambda Literary Review. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Passages North, The Southeast Review, Gone Lawn, MoonPark Review, and Jellyfish Review. Find her on Twitter at @acgreenest.