Review: Lark and Termite

Total immersion
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 29, 2009

090130_lark_main
PLASTIC ART: Phillips wields words as if they were a physical substance — like paint or wood.

Lark and Termite | by Jayne Anne Phillips | Alfred A. Knopf | 272 pages | $24
"Language Immersion" is the name of a program set up by the US Army in Korea just prior to the North's invasion of the South. It plays a part in Jayne Anne Phillips's new novel, and the term also might describe elements of Phillips's style, in which the meaning and the music of words combine in a fugue-like poetry. Immersion in language didn't help much in turning back the North Koreans, but as practiced by Phillips it invokes individual souls, re-creating their worlds and the love that binds them.

Like her Machine Dreams, which she wrote 25 years ago, Lark and Termite tells the story of a family torn by war, the narrative related through alternating points of view, in chapters labeled with the characters' names and taking place over the course of several years. In the new book she tightens the structure, condensing the story into two parallel four-day periods — July 26-28 and a coda on July 31 — set nine years apart and separated by thousands of miles but connected by a kind of metempsychosis. Some characters and their relationships remain ambiguous until the end. Ties of blood and language and maybe a touch of the supernatural conjure a mystic connection, one made credible by Phillips's precise rendering of setting and voice.

Voices like that of Corporal Robert Leavitt, a young trumpet player (the resemblance to Pruitt in From Here to Eternity might be intentional) enlisted into the above-mentioned military program ("Language Immersion Seoul only deepened Leavitt's belief in language and sound as the only tincture of reality") because of his "tonal familiarity" and "auditory sophistication." These don't help much after the Communists sweep over the Yalu River, routing the thin UN and South Korean defenses. It's July 26, 1950, and Leavitt takes charge of a platoon escorting refugees through the chaos to safety, his consciousness flooded by horrific details and illumined by memories of his pregnant wife, Lola.

Exactly nine years later, 17-year-old Lark, spirited and formidable, is tending to her half-brother, who's nicknamed "Termite," she thinks because "he's in himself like a termite's in a wall." Their mother and father are gone and it's left to their Aunt Nonie to raise the two siblings, helped and hindered by a loosely extended family in the town of Winfield, West Virginia. A storm is brewing, however, and not just a pathetic fallacy, to threaten the fragile mûnage.

Lark's first-person account is level-headed and lyrical (all the characters share a gift for similes), providing necessary exposition and a burning edge of nascent awareness and sexuality. But though he's half-formed, paraplegic, near-blind, pre-verbal, and prone to echolalia, Termite in his third-person stream-of-consciousness chapters tends to hear and see things more clearly than the others, penetrating to the true nature of such talismanic objects as an orange feral cat, blue strips of plastic, a perfume bottle shaped like the man in the moon, and an albino man who claims to be from Child Services.

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