Of a character in her powerful new novel, Lark and Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips writes, “She’s forgotten nothing and is fiercely herself.” It’s a sentence that comes complete with its own GPS tracking system: It leads you straight back to the novelist herself.
Phillips, too, seems composed of equal parts memory and fierceness. Her work is never still, rarely satisfied. Her words may seem quiet and docile on the page, but if you look a little closer, you’ll realize that the story is actually jumping around in a frantic, fretful state, as restless as guilt. She has done in Lark and Termite what she did in previous novels such as Machine Dreams (1984) and Shelter (1994), which is to take a relatively simple, straightforward tale and twist it into something luminous and haunting and singular.
This is Phillips’ first novel in almost a decade, but it doesn’t feel tardy or excessively fussed over. It feels fresh. It feels as if it has been taken straight from the griddle and is still too hot to touch. And because it deals with issues over which people have been arguing for centuries—family and war—the novel’s raw immediacy is really quite spectacular.
Lark and Termite is the story of an exceedingly complicated family living in a small West Virginia town, but it’s also the story of a young man who finds himself in the middle of a war—the one in Korea, the one that predated Iraq and Vietnam, the one that Americans have sometimes forgotten about.
Lark and Termite is about what happened to Robert Leavitt in his final hours before he was killed in that war, and it is also about what happened to those he left behind. And it’s told with a kind of barely controlled fury: the fury of righteous anger at lies and half-truths, and the fury of just being really ticked off at fate’s lousy timing.
Phillips serves it all up with a prose that sparkles and startles with outside-the-box word choices. She has always been a brave, headstrong, reckless writer, but this time she has abandoned even the idea of safety and just plunges right in. She’s going to tell us what it feels like to be under fire: “Fear and anger turn in his gut like a yin-yang eel, slippery and fishlike but dimly human in its blunt, circular probing, turning and turning, no rest.”
And then she pulls back from the individual experience and gives us the long, studied view, the historical one: “He commands a platoon now and he sees that war never ends; it’s all one war despite players or location, war that sleeps dormant for years or months, then erupts and lifts its flaming head to find regimes changed, topography altered, weapons recast.” Korea? Maybe. But other places too.
Lark and Termite, however, is not ultimately a war book. Its real home is the home front. Phillips intersperses Leavitt’s vivid battlefield recollections with the story of the son he never met: Termite, a special-needs child who is being raised by Lark, Termite’s older sister. They live in a burnt-out Appalachian burg in the late ‘50s, a place of frequent floods and economic instability. Their aunt, Nonie, works at the diner and tries to jury-rig a family from the human odds and ends that she has picked up along the way.
Similarly, Lark and Termite makes a whole and complete entity out of scattered, disparate parts, out of multiple narrators and changing perspectives. Phillips seems to realize, better than many other writers—and better than a slew of legislators and census-takers—that the word “family” is not stable, not settled, never at rest. It resists any final definition. Family can be Mom and Dad and kids, or it can be something else too. It can be anything that people want it to be, that they fight for it to be.
That’s an easy concept to state, but it’s a very hard one to portray, because lives are always in flux, always in motion. Defining such a thing is like trying to capture a firefly without harming it. Lark and Termite succeeds because it refuses to come to any conclusions. No homilies are allowed within the ragged patch of land upon which Phillips pitches her little tent of plot and personalities. There are secrets and surprises—but no aphorisms, no tidy lessons.
Phillips, a native West Virginian, is an English professor at Rutgers University. She divides her time among New Jersey, New York and Boston. But she has never forgotten her childhood, or who she is, or why she writes. She writes for the same reason that Lark draws: “I look at Termite,” the character tells us, “and I draw, shading closer and closer to what I really see. I draw the way he moves, sitting so straight, focused so sharp and true there’s nothing else. He reminds me there’s a clear space inside the chores and the weather, inside cooking and cleaning up and taking him downtown or to the river, inside the books in my room. ... It’s quiet in that space.”
In the quiet, Phillips brews thunder and magic.