Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

This book comes highly recommended by awards committees, newspapers, and blogs. Some very big names (Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, and Tim O’Brien) provided blurbs, so, as with A Gate at the Stairs, I had high hopes for this novel. I thought it would almost certainly be in the running to become my favorite published-in-2009 novel.

For an excellent perspective on the novel via a review and an interview with the author, you can click over to The Mookse and the Gripes. I found the information regarding Ms. Phillips’ creative process and the development of this story almost as interesting as the book itself. I saw some of the parallels to Faulkner’s work, but Trevor has explored the Faulknerian themes with aplomb so I will leave those, for the most part, be.

There are also hints of Willa Cather, both in Phillips’ hauntingly effective evocation of place and character, but also, in my reading, in more specific links to The Song of the Lark. There is, of course, the link of “Lark” in the title, but more important links too. For instance, in both works, seashells are symbolize far away places, an escape from the small towns in which the protagonists feel trapped.

I used to be different. I don’t know what I thought. Busy all the time, like I planned on being twelve forever. Already Termite’s mother, one of them, best in school, cooking and cleaning at home like a housewife, doing my collections, like I was saving up for something. I collected seashells, not so easy since I haven’t been to the ocean….The seashells I collected were for [Termite]. He likes it when I hold one to his ear.

Further, trains play a prominent role in both novels. More than just a means of transportation or an important element in town life, the trains connect the main characters to the past and to family. In both novels, trains are associated with tragedy, at once binding and severing family relationships. It may only be because I was reading Lark and Termite while listening to The Song of the Lark, but the common elements seemed striking. I cannot imagine Jayne Anne Phillips is unaware of Willa Cather’s work.

Phillips once saw a young boy sitting in a chair blowing on a blue piece of plastic and wanted to write a story about that boy. The boy, she learned, would sit that way for hours. I will grant Phillips that it would have been difficult to place a mentally handicapped boy at the center of her novel without making him special. But, even so, the use of a misunderstood boy who, in the end, can sense things no one else can feels cliché. Lark alone believes Termite knows more than anyone else recognizes and, of course, she is right. Termite has a parallel in Korea, a boy Termite’s father tries to save. This all seems too neat, too contrived, and too obviously put together to pull heart strings, to delineate good guys from bad guys, and to allow for a tidy end.

The more paranormal aspects of the story were also disappointing to me. I do not at all mind stories that are fantastical. The Master and Margarita, Jeannette Winterson’s work, and Jitterbug Perfume are all favorites of mine that involve more than a little fantasy. But I do mind stories that cannot decide whether they take place in the real world or in a fantastic world. This bothersomeness becomes more grating the more the author pulls me into a conventional, natural world and uses fantastic or supernatural elements to tie up loose ends, give the characters some hope and redemption. Partly, this must be a difference of opinion between myself and the authors who write such books on whether such things are fantastical. I do not believe in ghosts, so, when Lorrie Moore puts ghosts in her book, I am put off. Phillips manages the same irritation, but to a lesser extent here. The hints of Termite’s specialness come early, so later revelations are not as grating as in Moore’s work, they do not feel like a deus ex machina.

Aside from this, Termite’s voice is not convincing. For a boy that seems only to mimic sounds, his sections are narrated with too much poetry:

He looks up to say. Their laughter chimes all around while the sky goes up and up. High up the rain is holding still before it falls. It’s going to fall and fall, roaring like the ocean sound in Lark’s seashells that she holds for him to hear. Oceans have waves like a pulse, Lark says, and she puts his fingers on her wrist to feel the tiny beat. The sound in her skin surges but the sound in the shells only circles, coming and going in one curled space. His birthday comes and goes and Lark makes every birthday. Nonie has the candles. The cake comes close and holds still and he sees. The lights jump and the black thread on fire inside each flame is burning small and big, standing and falling, and then the lights go out.

This, to me, seems too intricate and too beautifully rendered to be the thoughts of Termite, a boy who always speaks as if he is a mere mimic. The problem is that Termite seems to have gone beyond language, but the thoughts to which we are given access are full of metaphor and precision, both. Again, Phillips seems to have set herself a difficult task, one that could not be resolved perfectly. Termite is necessarily a special boy. He must be able to think complex thoughts, though he cannot speak them. He must have a profound access to the past, though he seems mindlessly serene watching a blue ribbon of plastic flutter before his eyes. Termite seems both too much and too little.

Despite these truly minor flaws, I enjoyed Lark and Termite. It is an emotionally-compelling work and rife with symbolism. The allusions to other works are fitted in neatly and further Phillips narrative intentions rather than impeding them. Her use of language, as shown in the excerpts, is enviable. The story is an interesting one and, even, important. There is more to the story than the puzzles or even the eventual resolution. Phillips has a grasp of small town angst, dislocation from parents and family, and the essential themes of life. Phillips sureness in developing these aspects pull this book up above any other American novel from this year that I have read so far. I do recommend the book, and highly if you do not share my annoyance with supernatural devices.

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4 Responses to Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

  1. This is a novel that I have circled around for most of 2009 — and your review keeps me circling. Many thanks for the thoughts.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Kevin. It is worth reading, but, if neither Trevor’s nor my review have moved you, I cannot say your time is better spent on this one versus others you have on your list. It is not one of the great novels of our time.

  3. anokatony says:

    Kerry,
    I listened to this novel on audiobook earlier this year, before I had a blog. It always held my interest. I heard the echoes of Faulkner, but didn’t catch the echoes to Willa Cather. Perhaps I would have preferred more Cather and less Faulkner. But for the most part I did like the novel.

  4. Kerry says:

    Tony,

    I think my own making connections between this work and Cather were due to listening to Cather while reading this one. I agree that more Cather less Faulkner would have suited my taste better. Still, as you say, it always held my interest. It is one of the better novels I have read which was published this year. But not the best.

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