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The Sounds Are Not the Flowers

By (February 1, 2009) No Comment

Lark & Termite

By Jayne Anne Phillips
Random House, 2009

Few things pose so complex a challenge to the novelist as simplicity, and it’s amazing how elaborate a writer’s prose will become in the attempts to represent it. Take a paradigmatic example:

They came on. I opened the gate and they stopped, turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off of my face, but the brilliant shapes were going again. They were going up the hill to where it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in, I couldn’t breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright whirling shapes.

This is of course a patch from Benjy’s soliloquy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. 75 pages of this, whisked promiscuously with flashbacks, are provided in order to convey that Benjy misses his sister. What the convoluted section always conjures in my mind is one of those Rube Goldberg devices that takes thirty bizarre steps to pour a glass of water.

Faulkner was a genius with an epic imagination, but he wreaked absolute havoc with the English language. The characteristic boldness with which he inhabited the perspective of a 33-year-old retarded man was matched, just as characteristically, by his motivating urge to use Benjy for the purposes of rhetorical experimentation. What emerges isn’t naturalism but sleight-of-hand, a maximally complicated means of communicating a hopelessly rebarbative storyline; what’s shared isn’t the feeling of being Benjy but the frustrating and ultimately frustrated charades-game of trying to figure out what Benjy is saying. (“Trying to say it” is one of Benjy’s stream-of-consciousness stutters, but it’s a false projection since it can’t be that he would be aware of his incapacity to talk.)

Onward through The Sound and the Fury to Flowers for Algernon to Peter Carey’s 2006 novel Theft, this has been the incongruous presupposition upon which so many have approached the mentally disabled: because we find them hard to understand, their mindstates must be fractured and bewildered; a lack of intellect takes the form of a lack of clarity.

The irony is that the mentally challenged character of the contemporary novel is also the manifestation of that traditional literary emblem of purity and uncluttered sweetness, the holy fool. These were Tolstoy’s exalted “sillies,” in envy of whom he repudiated nearly everything he ever wrote. This was Dostoyevsky’s epileptic Idiot, conceived as a “positively good man.” Just as the grudging acceptance of Darwin’s pivotal conclusion that humans are just another species of animal has licensed writers to explore the consciousnesses of animals without necessarily incurring the charge of anthropomorphism, the imperfectly grasped nuances of neurology have established a sliding scale of mental soundness. “Few of us are not in some way infirm, or even diseased,” diagnosed William James.

Countless novels have therefore sought to extract universal experiences from the narrowed parameters of schizophrenia, aphasia, Capgras delusion, Asperger’s syndrome, autism, and other like maladies. All are scientifically sanctioned versions of the holy fool, but the acme of innocence is found, with animals and infants, in the severely retarded. To be truly pure is to be untongued; yet to us, and to writers in particular, living outside of organized language can only herald chaos. So the world of the simpleminded is rendered paradoxically incoherent. The habit of obscuration and mutilated syntax for such perspectives is a response to the fear that the presence of a complete sentence marks a person as irredeemably sophisticated. Doubtless one of the first things Eve did beyond the walls of Eden was correct Adam’s grammar.

Jayne Anne Phillips’ delicate new novel Lark & Termite begins with an epigraph from The Sound and the Fury and features a retarded child nicknamed Termite. Termite is hydrocephalic, but a more revealing picture of him comes from his devoted sister Lark:

He’s so quiet, listening. His open hands in my lap barely move, so faintly, like his thin fingers touch a current of air I’m too thick and gross to feel. The undersides of his fingers are white as alabaster, unlined between the knuckles, like he’s always just been born. There’s a faint pink blush under his skin. When he has a fever, his skin gets dappled.

Termite can’t move about or talk (although he parrots human speech and other noises in sometimes uncanny ways), but he’s acutely sensitive to external stimuli, albeit in inscrutable ways:

He likes motion. He likes things on his skin. He’s alive all over that way. Nonie [his and Lark’s aunt and guardian] says I put thoughts in his head, he might not be thinking anything. Maybe he doesn’t have to think, I tell her.

When we first meet Termite, he’s engrossed in blowing on a strip of blue ribbon; he likes listening to the radio and being pulled around in a wagon and watching trains pass; he has a little toy, a piece of porcelain shaped like the moon, which he can sit and rub in perfect contentment for half the day.

The novel’s well-executed plan is in enwombing this purity within the Rust Belt setting of small-town Winfield, West Virginia in 1959. Lark is in secretarial school and Nonie (Lark and Termite were raised by her but are the children of her sister Lola) works at a diner; in addition to caring for Termite and keeping him from the clutch of Social Services, they have been active in raising the children of a broken family in the neighborhood. Their days are correspondingly grueling and undramatic, mostly occupied by laundry and food preparation. Termite’s gift is to radiate his innocent alertness upon the drudgery of daily chores. “He reminds me there’s a clear space inside the chores and the weather,” Lark says, “inside cooking and cleaning and taking him downtown or to the river, inside the books in my room and Winfield and the alley, and typing words on machines at Miss Barker’s. It’s quiet in that space.”

Quietude is godliness in Lark & Termite and Termite is its fragile deity. Even Solly, Lark’s hormonal, motorcycle-speeding love interest is approvingly described as having a “wild quiet” about him. The charm of Lark’s narration is in the numinous beauty she ascribes to commonplace sights and sounds:

…[Termite] sits so still that I can hear what he hears. The give of the stairs, like an easing. My footsteps across the broken basement floor to the storm-cellar stairs, five stone slabs that open out into the yard. Even with the lilac bushes on one side, heat and light pour through like syrup.

The quiet core also brings out the best in Phillips’ prose, and there’s a tremendous artisanship to the domestic scenes in the first half of the book. The place details and character quirks are so precisely delineated that you get the idea she wrote the book while inside the house she decribes, surrounded by her cast of characters. Look how sensually attuned Lark is in this eventide passage:

I open the bathroom door wide and see Termite in his chair, turned away from me toward the chimes, sitting very still. His white blond curls and fair skin and pale blue pajamas glow in the dim kitchen. There’s no air, not a breath, but the chimes move in their tiny circle like a dream, like they’re in thrall to a magnet or a thought. The kitchen window holds a space layers deep above the stony shine of the alley. Lights have come on in the houses, people move in the lit-up spaces. The Tucci’s frame two-story is nearly dark, and I hear Joey’s car before I see it, hear the slice and slide of gravel.

(Chords are being sounded here similar to those in the madrigals Marilynne Robinson has composed for her outwardly mundane world in Gilead and Home. Readers who liked those books are bound to enjoy Lark & Termite, and perhaps even more Phillips’ 1984 masterpiece Machine Dreams.)

Phillips’ calm and delving description is likewise the strength of the powerful Korean war scenes that interlace the story in Winfield. These involve Corporal Robert Leavitt, Termite’s father who, we learn, happened to die the day Termite was born. He was killed in an apparently factual incident at a place called No Gun Ri in a northern province in South Korea, in which American soldiers, North Korean POWs, and local villagers were mistaken for combatants by frantically retreating Americans and strafed by fighter jets before being massacred by ground forces as they hid in a tunnel. Leavitt takes a wound to the spinal cord and spends his final skewed and protracted hours immobile in the tunnel, being tended to by a Korean woman. Dying, Leavitt too is innocent, and Phillips endows him with hyper-tactile sensitivity. Like Termite, he is profoundly alert to the movement of air and the vibrations of sound:

Leavitt can’t see, but he feels the displaced air move and separate, thick and viscous as honey disturbed with a spoon. He hears patterns of sound, dappled and distinct. It’s the sound of the stream, murmuring in the ground under them, to the other side of the dense wall. The water sighs and rattles and crosses the road at the far end of the tunnel.

The parallels between the spliced stories are overt and extremely effective. Just as the slaughter at No Gun Ri sets a startling hitch in the slow gait of Lark and Termite’s life, Termite’s preternatural quiet focuses and intensifies what might have been a jarringly decontextualized war atrocity. Such balance isn’t always upheld – too much serendipity is compressed into the final chapters and the book feels somewhat unnaturally hastened to its conclusion. But most of Lark & Termite is a satisfyingly well-crafted fugue blending the keenest shared sensations of living and dying.

Such a feat is enough to recommend this novel, but it must also be said that Phillips has been unable to resist the temptation of giving us chapters from Termite’s languageless point of view. And in these, the sins of the Faulkner are visited upon the innocent child.

Actually, Lark and Nonie have an ongoing argument about the depth of Termite’s intellect. Lark is convinced he can understand more than people credit: “he’s got a rhyme and reason,” she thinks. “We only see the surface, like when you look at a river and all you see is the reflection of the sky.” It’s a mystery Lark can only hope to express with similes, and yet there is something persuasive about her conviction. Lacking language, Termite still must be governed by some orderly system, since tranquility and wholeness emanate so tangibly from him.

It would be enough to register those emanations, but Phillips succumbs to trying to root out the mystery with language, the thing fundamentally alien to it. It’s like describing the world of a blind man with nothing but visuals. All the gaudy tricks from The Sound and the Fury are consequently on display, most obviously the obscure, claustrophobic imagery and the breathlessly rolling clauses strung together with a multitude of “ands” and “buts”:

Lark names the flowers and he says the sounds but the sounds are not the flowers. The flower is the shape so close he sees it still enough to look, blue like that, long and tall, each flared tongue with its own dark eye. Then the shape moves and the flower is too close or too far. The shape becomes its colors but he feels Lark touch it to his face and lips like a weightless velvet scrap. The flower moves and blurs and smears, he looks away to stop it disappearing.

These chapters also mix real-time with italicized flashbacks, although it’s never clear what, if any, emotional connection Termite has with these memories, or if they’re really his. (They’re about Lark’s early sexual encounters with Solly—mirroring Benjy’s memory of his sister Caddy and her boyfriend kissing on a swing—and so seem to be more of a literary hat-tip to The Sound and the Fury than anything of, well, significance.) Most oddly, these chapters simply repeat from Termite’s perspective the events we’ve already heard from Lark and Nonie.

All this contrived complexity suggests another difficulty in portraying the purely innocent: without the tacked-on ornamentation, these figures are boring to read about. Benjy spends his day waiting at a gate for his sister; Termite can happily absorb himself for hours by blowing on a piece of ribbon. Even if Phillips were able to unlock the vault to his consciousness, we wouldn’t be interested in what we found. She has no choice, then, but to fill the space with dubiously projected memories.

Unfortunately, she also fills the space with something even more dubious than that. Sketchy but insistent mystical powers begin to be attributed to Termite near the end of the novel. Lark has spent the book patiently and reverently observing her brother, trying to get a feel for the patterns of his consciousness; and then in a stroke Phillips can’t resist explaining him, with some folderol suggesting telepathy and metempsychosis that she might have pulled from the New Age section of a bookstore.

All this is very briefly done and only somewhat blemishes the fine work that marks the majority of Lark & Termite. But it is telling that even so meticulous a craftsperson as Phillips should be susceptible to exploiting her holy fool. It may ultimately be that the simpleminded are difficult to portray because it’s so easy for writers to imprint themselves and their dearest held wishes onto them. Those characters can’t speak up for themselves or point to the tenets of realism if they’re falsely used. As in real life, it’s nearly impossible to just let those characters be.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.

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