Book Review - Jayne Anne Phillips summons Faulkner in Lark & Termite

Time folds upon itself in this National Book Award-nominated novel

Monday January 4, 2010 10:00 am EST

On July 26, 1950, Corp. Robert Leavitt is leading a frenzied retreat in rural Korea. On July 26, 1959, his orphaned son Termite is sitting under a tree in West Virginia waiting for a rainstorm. Inside the house, Termite's half-sister Lark is baking him a birthday cake. In Jayne Anne Phillips' National Book Award-nominated Lark & Termite, time keeps folding back upon itself, conjuring and coinciding with moments of history and memory. Alternating between a few late summer days at the beginning and end of the '50s, the novel shifts perspectives among family members unmistakably altered by passion and war.

Unable to walk or talk, 9-year-old Termite is cared for by his older sister and aunt Noreen. When the novel switches to his perspective, the visions are prismatic, twisting images into distorted shapes and blurs of color. Though cut off in some ways of communication, Termite's deeply in tune with the corporeal world around him. "He sits by the window and hears the faint roots of the grass in the berm of the alley, long veiny threads that reach deep in the ground to drink where no one sees."

Though the intersecting passages from 1959 make it clear Leavitt will die in Korea, his story is taut and engaging. Phillips lyrically evokes the Korean landscape through his perspective: "The heat is dense, thick, and the rice fields at dawn are bright green emanations, alive with the sticky fragrance they call night soil. ... The ground breathes." Dressed in mud-caked khakis, Leavitt assists frantic villagers as they retreat from the violent approaches of the North Korean People's Army.

As the scene descends into chaos around him, Leavitt lets his mind wander to the life he left behind. A talented trumpeter, he would've played in a jazz band if he hadn't enlisted "on impulse." His time in basic training at Fort Knox led him to Lola, a jazz singer and mistress at a brothel near the Army base. By the time Leavitt shipped out to the Pacific, they were married and she was pregnant.

Wounded in the leg by friendly fire, Leavitt takes refuge from an air strike with others in a tunnel. The incident is mirrored in 1959 when Lark and Termite are forced to take refuge from an epic storm and flood. Leavitt's story is woven with details from the No Gun Ri massacre, an incident during the Korean War in which American planes and soldiers knowingly killed a disputed number of unarmed civilians. This history certainly feels accurate, but historical accuracy is beside the point. The invented characters and the fabricated moments threaded through this history are the focus, so artfully real and recognizable that Phillips may in fact have a celestial ability for creating humans.

Phillips has a remarkable touch with her sentences, filing the end of her long, nearly melodic runs with a short, sharp edge. "Solly stands in the space and turns Termite in slow circles until they're dizzy. They lie back along the hedge inside the twisted white and the laurel leaves under them go back and back. The dark leaves hold the dark, rustling all night, awake." Turn to any page in this novel and you'll find a passage equally polished.

Phillips' dense lines are cut from a recognizably Faulknerian cloth. Italicized memories interrupt present-tense introspections; the past is never past but always, ceaselessly present. Echoes of The Wild Palms and The Sound and the Fury can be found in the alternating, mirrored stories and distorted perspectives. This is no ersatz modernism, though. Phillips has found a way to adopt the style and weave her own contemporary voice through it. Lean, focused moments of realism flow in this stream of consciousness; Phillips' distinct voice trumps her influences. Lark & Termite is a novel worthy of Faulkner, but it's not one he could have written.

Lark & Termite by Jane Anne Phillips. Vintage. 14.95. 304 pp.

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