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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Lark and Termite

It's instructive that Jayne Anne Phillips uses an epigraph from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury before her novel, Lark and Termite. Faulkner, in his "tale told by an idiot," uses a mentally handicapped character to observe portions of the sordid Compson family story. Phillips also uses a narrator who can not express himself in the normal fashion, but the story told is not nearly as gothic as Faulkner's.

Told from a variety of viewpoints, Lark and Termite is the story of two siblings in 1959. Lark, a seventeen-year-old girl, cares for her younger brother, who was born hydroencephaletic and with spina bifida, so he can not talk or walk. They are raised by their aunt Nonie, a waitress, and they all live in a small town in West Virginia. Lark and Termite share the same mother, but their fathers are different. Lark doesn't know who hers is, but Termite's was a soldier who was killed in Korea.

That soldier, a Jewish kid from Philadelphia, is one of the focal points of the story, as he gets pinned down by friendly fire while helping refugees. This is intertwined with a momentous day nine years later, when a flash flood hits the small town, and Lark discovers her parentage and the fate of her mother.

Lark and Termite is a curious combination of styles. On the one hand, it is very literary, as one would expect a book that echoes back to Faulkner might be. The language is very ornate, particularly those sections that are from Termite's point of view, as he perceives things in sounds and images rather than words. The sections of the book in Korea are also very vividly rendered, but in swaths rather than precise language.

On the other hand, those sections narrated by Lark and Nonie are far more traditional, and at times reach into melodrama. I wouldn't call it cheap melodrama, but it's on the sudsy side. The portions that deal with the flood are very suspenseful, but I almost couldn't believe it when the book, which heretofore had been high-toned, went for the ploy of a character finding her own birth certificate and seeing who her father was. There's also the death of a character that, though emotionally satisfying, seems an easy way out. I suppose it was inevitable, once looked back upon, but a bit eye-rolling nonetheless.

I did find Lark to be a wonderful character. Many of these characters are trapped--Termite is so named, Lark says, "I think he's in himself like a termite's in a wall." Lark, though willingly, will always be caring for Termite. Nonie is in a long-term relationship with Charlie, the owner of the restaurant where she works, but they can never marry as long as his mother is alive. These characters are so fatalistic that it can be oppressive to read about them, but they have good humor. There are some folksy lines like, "Giving a person like Lola the looks she had was like giving a baby two fistfuls of dynamite," or "A person would feel sorry for Gladdy if she wasn't so hard to feel sorry for."

But then there are times when the book veers into magic realism. We don't quite know what the albino social worker is all about, or the connection between Lark and Termite's mother and an orange cat that is always around. This takes the book a little too far into preciousness. I wanted more of the simplicity of the story that Lark was telling. In fact, an entire book of just her voice might have been better.

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