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For Jayne Anne Phillips, fiction is more than entertainment

Jane Henderson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

ST. LOUIS — "Lark and Termite" is a book by a slow writer for slow readers.

That's not an insult.

Jayne Anne Phillips' novel came out last year, nine years after her "MotherKind."

"I took the time to think it through very carefully," she says.

Praised by reviewers and named a finalist for the National Book Award, "Lark and Termite" has had "incredible word-of-mouth" recommendations, the author says with satisfaction.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reviewer Joseph Peschel declared it "exquisite," and The New York Times didn't seem to overstate matters with "incandescent" and "utterly original."

Phillips, who talked by phone from her home in Boston, is promoting a new paperback edition (Vintage, 282 pages, $14).

The writing is geared toward careful readers who savor lyrical prose. Of the plot, Phillips' simple explanation is that the book concerns a "girl and her brother." But its layered telling, which comes from four points of view, is not something most readers will whip through in a couple of hours.

The girl is Lark, 17, who lives in West Virginia with her aunt. The brother is Termite, 9, who can't walk or talk. Lark understands him even though his "sounds are like a one-toned song."

Termite (derived from "mite" because of his size) owes his creation, in part, to a disabled boy Phillips once saw sitting in an alley in her hometown in West Virginia. The boy was waving a piece of dry cleaner bag, one of Termite's favorite entertainments.

"I wanted to set the novel in a time when his condition would not be so well-documented," Phillips says.

That became the 1950s, with part of the story taking place at the beginning of the Korean War and part nine years later in 1959.

Termite's father is a soldier in Korea who is hurt by friendly fire and takes shelter in a tunnel with refugees, including a Korean girl and her blind brother.

The soldier's story alternates with descriptions of Lark and Termite and their aunt in 1959, but the lack of a straight chronology isn't as confusing as it might seem.

Unresolved war is one of the book's serious topics, as it has been in Phillips' previous work (especially "Machine Dreams," which involved Vietnam). Yet "Lark and Termite" is also about family relationships and whether love can overcome time. She calls it an "extremely hopeful book."

Counterparts to the Korean siblings, Lark and Termite evoke the elemental sky and earth, just some of the subjects of Phillips' rich, sensual prose.

"As above, so below," she quotes with a quick laugh.

Before the soldier is wounded in Korea (the attack is based on the American massacre of Korean refugees at No Gun Ri in 1950), he daydreams about his new wife, believing that "seeing her, wanting her, playing (trumpet) behind her in the club, making love to her days and nights in her rooms that became his rooms, were practice for staying alive."

The earthy elements in "Lark and Termite" are connected and purposeful.

"My work has always been sexually explicit, but not gratuitously," Phillips says. "Sexual feelings are sensory on the page. Just as when you describe the air or smell of food or the smell of a country, it's something the reader connects with in a sensory way."

As director of a master of fine arts program at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., Phillips finds that her writing must wait until summertime before she can give it full attention. In an essay, she once wrote that "teaching shoots writing in the head."

"I think about the book or the project I'm engaged in all the time," she says. "But I really need a kind of space to enter when I'm writing."

Phillips won't predict when her next novel will emerge from that space, although she's working on it.

Don't expect her to rush, though. Believing that good literature acts, in part, as the conscience of a culture, her goal is to examine life closely, and she hopes readers will do the same:

"I think people need to continue to read literature as guidance, as inspiration, as a way of learning how to live and think. Too often they read for entertainment or information, but fewer and fewer people read to understand the narrative of their own lives."

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