Review of Phantom Advances by Mary Lynn Reed

by Sep 5, 2023Book Reviews

The stories in Phantom Advances, out now from Split Lip Press by debut author Mary Lynn Reed, are often hard to take. They are filled with yearning—frequently to an uncomfortable degree, and in many cases, they do not have happy endings. But they are able to capture something specific about both female queerness and transience in American culture—the feeling of constantly searching for the perfect relationship, the perfect place, and the perfect life. As these characters move from place to place, and navigate what are often very strong, unexpected feelings, Reed creates a world where incredible pain and incredible joy are simultaneous, and beauty is both in the eye of the writer and the beholder. 

There is a feeling of Americana in this collection, something reminiscent of Jayne Anne Phillips or Denis Johnson, writers from the mid-seventies to early eighties. It’s a wonderful kind of nostalgia, and brings back a sense of a more carefree time, when hitchhikers roamed the interstate and people could pass through each other’s lives without so much constant tracking via cell phones or social media. Even the drugs they take—Quaaludes, for example, feel dated. Phantom Advances could only happen on American soil, but it also has American limitations—most specifically the stigma that its characters face as they inevitably struggle with issues of gender presentation and sexual orientation. 

Of course, homophobia is not unique to the United States, but the way that these characters confront and face prejudice feels distinctly American, as it often takes place in rural environments with recognizable stereotypes, although Reed manages to make these characters new and engaging again. The fear that they feel when rubbing against gender norms is deeply familiar, especially amongst obvious symbols of American culture, such as pool halls, bowling alleys, highways, major cities like Chicago and L.A., and much more. Additionally, many of these protagonists are young, and just beginning to explore their sexuality, adding to the awareness of the stigma and fear that these young women (and occasionally, as in one or two of the stories, trans men) feel. 

With the sense of deeply recognizable and eerily familiar Americana as the backdrop for this collection, Reed is able to create a huge variety of protagonists who are all struggling with similar concerns. Her narrators are usually young, queer women, and they find themselves in many odd situations and settings—championship bowling tournaments, for example, or the high-end art world in Chicago. But their similarities end there—each of them have their own set of problems, and although they all struggle with similar questions, such as how to love, or how to be a mature adult, they feel fully realized even as their stories may be short. Reed is a master of character, and although some of these stories do end abruptly, leaving the ending feeling somewhat unfinished, the characters shine off the page and continue to live on in the reader’s head well after the story has finished. 

Photography is at the center of many of these, as well as mathematics, which makes sense as Reed herself is a professor of mathematics, but these stories are about so much more than capturing snapshots or solving proofs. They are complex reactions to a constantly changing environment, and they move fluidly as their protagonists move from place to place. Some of these stories are more memorable than others—Reed comes from a very condensed, flash fiction-style background, and the brevity of some of these stories is occasionally a bit jarring. At times, some of these moments feel too short, and the reader feels like they want to dig deeper, linger in a moment for just a few more beats, but similar to the camera flash that inspired this collection, the snapshot holds its own weight, and we move on, meeting even more new characters and having more new revelations about the human condition. 

As a collection of queer short stories, it’s incredibly successful—Reed avoids tropes of tragedy, sorrow and melodrama and goes instead for more complicated beats. She shows us lesbian, bisexual, and genderqueer people who have problems in luck and love just like anyone else, and who are struggling with how to define themselves—both in their sexual and gender identities, but also just as young people, trying to become adults. It’s not an uplifting set of stories, but it’s not a negative one, either. Rather, it’s a completely nuanced, human portrayal, something we deeply need as political wars rage against queer people all across America. 

There’s much to admire in this collection. From the instantly relatable yearning of Reed’s young, in-the-closet protagonists who don’t even have a name for what they are feeling, to the confident swagger of her older, more sure of themselves narrators, who travel the highways of United States with nothing but a car and a few bucks in cash, picking up and seducing hitchhikers, this collection has something for everyone, and will appeal to a variety of audiences. Reed has penned a debut which is not just the queer response to the typical heterosexual on-the-road narratives that we want, it’s the book that, in this political climate, we didn’t realize we all need. 


Phantom Advances by Mary Lynn Reed is now available from Split Lip Press.

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