Friday, 8 May 2009

'you've saved so much'

Lark And Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips

On reading Trevor's positive review (which began by citing a litany of other positive reviews) and realising that it would give me the perfect excuse to read Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury, it was with a surprising level of confidence that I dived into my first taste of Jayne Anne Phillips, a writer I was completely unaware of previously, famed for her short story writing, this novel coming nine years after her last. I am happy to report that the confidence was not misplaced, this is a terrific novel and actually more than that; the best new novel I have read so far this year.

Phillips makes clear her debt to Faulkner, The Sound And The Fury providing one of three epigrams, 'Because no battle is ever won...' and like that book we are to be told a story from four different viewpoints. It begins in 1950, Corporal Robert Leavitt is an American soldier in Korea during the early stages of the conflict there. Whilst the military strategy remains chaotic the writing manages to find moments of great stillness and beauty almost immediately.

Thatch roofs, saturated by weeks of rain, burn wet and smoky once they're set on fire. Smoke veils the air like souls in drifting suspension, declining the war's insistence everyone move on.
Leavitt has left his new wife Lola at home, pregnant with their first child, and even whilst he directs his troops and a group of civilians away from advancing North Korean troops he revels in remembrance of their coupling. When he stops to help a young girl carrying a blind child in need of assistance with an elder relative he senses something coming, 'something to hurt them all, carry them away', and sure enough the convoy are soon the victims of friendly fire.

The narrative switches here to Winfield, West Virginia in 1959 and we meet two children and their aunt: Lark, a 17 year old girl, effectively carer to Termite, her 9 year old half-brother who can neither walk or talk. Looking over both of them is Nonie whose matter-of-factness about her charge of them belies the complicated history of her own life and that of her sister Lola, wife to Leavitt, and long since dead.
Like Elise says, there's Lark and there's Termite. These children have got nothing to do with Lola, except they came through her to get to me. The one has stood on her own two feet since she was barely up to my elbow, and the other is happy with a piece of dry-cleaner bag a yard long and a few inches across.
Again, as in Faulkner's novel we have sections dedicated to the perceptions of a character cut off from the normal modes of interaction and communication. Termite's senses seem to be wired differently, he feels sight almost like touch, senses the weight and movement of things around and about him. He takes great pleasure from the piece of blue plastic he holds in front of his eyes, the sound and vibrations of the railroad train passing by.
The shapes that move around him are big, colliding and joining and going apart. They're the warm feel of what he hears and smells next to him, of those who hold and move and touch and lift him...Pictures that touch him move and change, they lift and turn, stutter their edges and blur into one another. Their colours fall apart and are never still enough for him to see, but the pictures inside him hold still.
Through Termite Phillips allows herself to display writing which reaches an almost rapturous pitch without it ever feeling like a stylistic exercise. She does this brilliantly by connecting the different sections of her story separated not only by character but by time. As Leavitt lies injured and dying in a tunnel we see echoes from the experience of Termite,
He wants to keep his eyes open, focused, but he's shutting down, losing track, his consciousness manufacturing images as though to compensate for his entrapment, his injuries. The images are vivid and acute, a sensory expansion or avoidance. It doesn't fell aimless; it feels like information, direction cut adrift from space and time.
Leavitt even feels connected to the moment of his child's birth on the other side of the world and as the intensity of the writing increases Phillips has the audacity if you like to connect her characters outside the realms of normal time and experience. I'm making a rather ham-fisted attempt to explain what she makes magical, and crucially without it feeling forced or melodramatic. By drawing parallels between the stories, repeating phrases or images, she manages to connect all points of the novel in the same way a composer finds unity in a vast opus by returning themes and phrases. For the reader this means moments of great satisfaction, often at those moments which are most moving, on realising that all things are connected.

The weight of personal history behind both Lark and Nonie builds a pressure behind their narrative which finds expression in a gathering storm. A stack of boxes in the basement which Lark knows contain her mother's things, and which she has so far been unready to open, lie dormant like Pandora's Box until the violent storm and the flood waters that follow it force her to save and confront them. In fact if I have a criticism it is that the back-story is substantial enough without the flurry of plot-points that come tumbling along with the flood. It is a rather rushed conclusion but understandable perhaps given the kinetic energy which has been building throughout the novel.

As someone skilled in the shorter form there are plenty of arresting images and sentences. The atmosphere literally closes down as the storm closes in, that strange light described first by Lark,
I see that Stamble glows a little in the strange light, and I do, and Termite does. My white blouse, Termite's T-shirt. The afternoon has closed down, gone purple, coaxed and sucked dark by the storm. Pale things look bright.
and then by Nonie in just a few words.
The storm has squeezed daylight to a thin shine...
There are so many other examples I could happily quote all day, the writing is constantly illuminating the dark and conflicted story with shafts of insight, like the bright light that steals through breaking storm clouds and seems to come from somewhere far beyond. Somewhere inspired and magical.


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