Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Book Review - Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
Nothing makes me run faster from a book, even a marvelously written book, than the words “coming-of-age novel.” Since Jayne Anne Phillips’ latest book, Lark and Termite, revolves around a seventeen-year-old girl, Lark, and her nine-year-old half-brother, Termite, I put off reading the book for quite some time, and I really can’t tell you what eventually pulled me in. Besides the fact that the book revolves around children (though Lark is on the verge of adulthood) Lark and Termite is relatively short, and I’m a reader who usually prefers big, weighty tomes, like Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. I often feel cheated when I spend $25 or more for a “slim, little volume” no matter how good that “slim, little volume” might be (William Trevor is the exception). Perhaps I finally gave in to Lark and Termite because lately I’ve been feeling the pull toward American literature more than toward European, which was my first choice for more than a decade. I really don’t know what caused me to pick up this book and I’ve stopped trying to figure out why because it doesn’t really matter.
Lark and Termite takes place over several days in two very different places, in two very different Julys, one in 1950, the other in 1959. The book opens in July 1950 in Korea. Twenty-one-year-old Cpl. Robert Leavitt, one of only three members of his group who remains alive, is trapped in a tunnel during the infamous No Gun Ri massacre:
Taejon had fallen. Eighty thousand Republic of Korea soldiers had simply taken off their uniforms and disappeared, dressed in white, and joined the southward flow of refugees. Numerous American kids would have done the same if white clothes had offered any protection. Instead they fled while they could walk, leaving M1s and Browning automatics too heavy to carry.
Besides trying to protect the fleeing civilians, Leavitt also remembers the wife he left back home, a beautiful, vivacious nightclub singer named Lola. Lola was pregnant with Robert’s child when Robert shipped out to Occupied Japan, then on to Korea, and even as Robert lays dying in the tunnel (though it may seem like one, this is not really a spoiler), somehow he knows that, at that very moment, Lola is giving birth to their child, a boy who will be nicknamed (or named, we really don't know) “Termite.”
As soon as he’s born, Termite is sent to live with his Aunt Nonie (Noreen) and his older sister, Lark, in a dying town called Winfield in West Virginia. He’s diagnosed as “minimally hydrocephalic and visually impaired.” In addition, he would “never walk.” He does not talk, but he can repeat certain simple sounds once he’s heard them enough. Lark, however, does not accept Termite’s medical diagnosis, at least not in its entirety. And indeed, Termite seems to have powers that most of us lack. He can feel “smashed air” swirling around him when he is afraid. “Pictures that touch him move and change, they lift and turn, stutter their edges and blur into one another.”
While Nonie, at least at first, isn’t keen on raising a physically and emotionally damaged child, Lark’s delight in her younger half-brother, turns Nonie’s feelings around. And Nonie is, after all big-hearted. A diner waitress, she works for her lover, Charlie, and with Charlie, she’s created a real family for Lark and Termite, a family composed of herself, Charlie, neighbor Nick Tucci and Tucci's sons, and Nonie’s best friend, Elise.
Lark appears to be totally selfless. When she’s not attending secretarial school on the second floor of Murphy’s Five and Ten, she’s baking Termite tricolored cakes to celebrate his birthday (no one seems to know when his actual birthday is), giving him bubble baths, and taking him to listen to the trains leaving the railroad yard. She’s a solitary person, and as for Termite, Lark says, “I’m so used to being with Termite, he feels like alone to me.”
Lark has no idea who her own father is. She cares, she wants to know, but she doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how to find out, and if Nonie knows anything, she isn’t talking. The reader knows only that Lola, the mother of both Lark and Termite, is dead, but we have no idea as to how she died or when. The mystery of Lark’s parentage and what happened to Lola and when form the central questions around which this book revolves, though the book is far more than “just that.”
As Phillips weaves back and forth from parallel stories in Korea and West Virginia, she gives five narrators their turn to tell us about the events. There’s Robert, of course, and Nonie and Lark, but even the absent Lola and the nearly mute Termite have their say. In her novelistic structure, Phillips echoes Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury. In fact, Termite’s intensely poetic and sensory sections will definitely remind readers of Benjy Compson, though this is an easier novel to follow than Faulkner’s masterpiece. And, if Termite’s sections are to be taken at face value, and I believe they are, this physically and mentally challenged little boy lives in a world of crystal clarity that most will never experience:
He can smell the soap and the rain. The rain comes closer and the wind is in the morning glory vines, swaying them like a skirt. Water pounds and clatters into the bathtub and pours from the kitchen spigot and the night smell settles warm against the house, close against it like one animal against the other. The cold sits on the floor and breathes, one low shadow that folds and settles and stirs like smoke when Lark turns and walks.
And, also like Faulkner, and perhaps Toni Morrison, Phillips uses repetition to reinforce her theme and imagery. In both Korea and West Virginia there are tunnels, railroad bridges, boys who sense things others can’t see, people who have a special relationship with sound, pencil drawings, older sisters caring for damaged brothers, and more. One of the most repetitious devices employed by Phillips is that of sound. As Robert is still in Occupied Japan, learning Korean, he thinks, “Meaning didn’t matter; the real content of the words was in the sound itself.” Later, in West Virginia, Lark says of Termite’s ability to imitate people even though, he, himself cannot speak, “Things just sound more like music in his version. Sounds instead of words.”
The result of all this isn’t magical realism as some readers have indicated, but a book whose focus is deeply spiritual, a book about the mystical connections that human beings who love one another can, and sometimes do, share. Phillips’ voice is dark and sometimes bleak, but it is passionate and poetic regarding human ties and family relationships. As you read, know that the key to unlocking this book’s many parallelisms lies in this one sentence: “People forget that a soldier's death goes on for years — for a generation really.”
The overlapping of the two stories, the one in Korea and the other in West Virginia could have been clumsy in the hands of a lesser writer, but in this book they work and they work beautifully. This is overlapping and poeticism reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. Few can do it, but when it’s done well, it’s gorgeous. Only once does Phillips make a misstep, and that misstep comes near the book’s end and feels like a plot contrivance rather than a deeply spiritual connection, but in a book this well written, I found I could forgive one single misstep in plotting. The only other misstep, as far as I’m concerned, lies in Lark’s total selflessness regarding Termite. I found I could forgive this, too, as the story in West Virginia only covers a span of days, not weeks or months.
The atmosphere in Lark and Termite is one of threat and dread. Anyone conversant with world history will know how the No Gun Ri massacre ended, and in the West Virginia sections, the town is readying for a massive storm and a flood of nearly biblical proportions. We also wonder if Termite will some day be harmed by a pack of neighborhood bullies or a pack of wild dogs. And which is worse – the bullies or the dogs? Will Lark escape the unwanted attentions of Nick Tucci? Will Children’s Services be successful in removing Termite from Lark’s care? How many of Winfield’s citizens will survive the coming flood?
Even with all this doom and gloom and all these questions to be answered, Lark and Termite is far from a “page turner.” This is a very introspective, interior book. It’s a book for readers who value gorgeous, insightful writing and intricate literary architecture over plot because there really isn't much plot to speak of. It’s not the easiest read, either. Phillips never underestimates her reader’s intelligence (save for that one instance near the end), and as with Toni Morrison there are holes and spaces in the narrative the reader must fill in. Some readers may not like that, but still, no reader is going to come away from this book feeling cheated because Phillips does bring her narratives together in a satisfying conclusion.
In fact, by the time we reach the end of Lark and Termite, we can only echo Robert Leavitt’s words as he lays dying in a tunnel in Korea: “War never ends; it's all one war despite players or locations, war that sleeps dormant for years or months, then erupts and lifts its flaming head to find regimes changed, topography altered, weaponry recast.”
Yes, Robert, that’s true, and as we learned in Lark and Termite, everyone’s war, as you said, is just a little different.
Recommended: Only to those who love introspective, interior books that lack a clear-cut plot. Be aware that this book is very slow in its middle section, but picks up pace again near the end. If read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and hated it, you're bound to hate this book, too. On the other hand, if you love The Sound and the Fury, then you might not think this book measures up. Don't compare, just read Lark and Termite for its own sake.