Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips (2009) Knopf (2009) 254 pp
My first new book of 2009 set a high standard I hope is met by many more books written this year. Lark and Termite received an extremely positive review from Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times daily. Just a couple of weeks later, The New York Times Book Review, which runs independent of the daily book reviews, also gave a positive review. On that same day, The Washington Post printed yet another positive review. Who can resist reading such a highly praised book? Who can know if that praise will set up unattainable expectations, making the book less than expected, and therefore disappointing?
The book begins on July 26, 1950. On the other side of the world from where he left his pregnant wife Lola, Corporal Robert Leavitt is directing a group of soldiers and Korean civilians in a plan to help the Korean civilians escape advancing North Korean forces. As he walks, Leavitt straddles two worlds: the immediate, urgent world of the war and the march and the vaulted, dreamy (indeed, visionary) world of home where his wife is expecting the child to be born any day. The narrative shifts from one world to the other almost seamlessly, rendering an almost halucinogenic effect similar to what I felt in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (O’Brien, incidentally, said that Lark and Termite is the best book he’s read in the last five years). And even as the narrative of what’s going on in Leavitt’s head, Phillips keeps the reader focused on the setting by pausing the narrative with haunting descriptions:
Smoke veils the air like souls in drifting suspension, declining the war’s insistence everyone move on.
While directing the civilians, Leavitt sees a young Korean girl holding an apparently blind and perhaps handicapped Korean boy. The girl is refusing to walk because next to her is an old Korean woman who refuses to move. The girl cannot handle this old woman and the young child. Leavitt, disregarding the instructions he had just voiced to his men (“Monitor, do not assist.”), goes over to help. The narrative pauses, momentarily, as the young boy is briefly introduced. There is no doubt the boy is blind, as his eyes are covered by a blue film. However, the boy seemed hyper-aware of what was going on and sensed before anyone the coming onslaught.
Moving quickly, edging through, he feels the boy’s small body go rigid, his apprehension heighten to a nearly audible pitch; Leavitt imagines the clear, high tone of a tuning fork struck in midair. It’s that kind of focus, emotionless and pure, so sharply true that nothing else exists.
Bullets fly all around as U.S. planes begin strafing the area, wounding Leavitt as he runs with the three Koreans into a tunnel where they become trapped by paranoid friendly fire. When Leavitt is wounded, the borders between reality and halucination disappear and the boundaries of perceived reality give way to another sensation of reality.
The book then proceeds to July 26, 1959, and introduces three other main characters who will narrate portions of the book. Lark, Termite, and Nonie reside in West Virginia. It doesn’t take too long before we understand the family dynamic. Termite, now nine, is the baby Leavitt never gets to meet. He’s severely handicapped. Some characters don’t believe he understands a thing about what is going on. Lark, however, believes he does even if he doesn’t experience it in the same way and even if he cannot express it the same way. Lark, seventeen, is Termite’s half-sister, Lola’s daughter from another relationship. Nonie is Lola’s sister, and all we see suggests that Lola is out of the picture and that Nonie has been raising both children as if they’re her own.
She chuckles and shakes her head. “Poor Lola, gone so long and still the elephant in the room. She got what she wanted, in a way. Well out of it and still pulling the strings.”
“There aren’t any strings,” I tell Elise. “There’s just what happened.”
“There’s Lark,” Elise says, “and there’s Termite.”
She offers me a cigarette and I take it. We stand here smoking, adjusting to the heat.
There are several ties to William Faulkner throughout the book. Indeed, one of its three epigrams is from The Sound and the Fury. And like that novel, Lark and Termite divides its chapters into discreet narratives from the perspective of one of the main characters — and one of the characters is severely handicapped. Also, a running theme in Faulkner is the tie between the generations. However, where Faulkner seemed to focus on how the sins of the fathers affects later generations, Phillips shows a more touching and perhaps deeper connection between the generations. In her novel, the characters seem to feel each other across the ether of time and space. This renders an effect that is at once haunting and touching. Here is a small passage where the connection between Termite and the Korean boy is particularly apparent:
Gently, she turns the boy’s head so that his gaze falls unseeing on Leavitt’s face. The uneven blue of his pupils is impenatrable, depthless and cloudy, but the blue seems quietly, deeply lit. The blue never wavers. What does he see behind it. Shadows. Sounds. Leavitt doesn’t ask but the boy inclines his head as though to answer.
And now, to Termite’s time:
There’s a picture inside the roar, a tunnel inside the tunnel. He’s been here before and he looks deeper each time and he sees. There are sleepers everywhere, bodies crowded together. The bodies are always here, so many of them in the tunnel when the train roars across above, bodies spilled and still, barely stirring. The train pulls and lifts and shows them and lets them move. They know he sees them but they cannot see or say. No sounds, just the roar, lifting them with their eyes still closed, turning them over like the pages of a book.
Also, much like Faulker, the events in the novel remove themselves from the sphere of straight narrative and become something not so much abstract as mythical. A tunnel is a womb and a tomb. A pending rainstorm brings a scourging and purging flood. One is struck by the power of such images. Further, music and sound run through the novel just as much as the words on the page. Phillips utilizes the feel of sound and injects it into the books form, giving the novel some wonderful texture.
Jayne Anne Phillips has graciously agreed to answer a few questions I put to her, but she’s been busy on her book tour and has not been able to finish the interview quite yet. Hopefully in the near future her interview will appear here.