Meditation on a massacre’s distant victims
DEVOTEES of Jayne Anne Phillips, who was born in 1952 in West Virginia, have waited nearly a decade since MotherKind for her new novel, Lark and Termite , and a quarter of a century for a successor to her 1984 triumph, Machine Dreams , which observed one American family from the Depression through the Vietnam War.
Lark and Termite does something comparable with the Korean conflict. They have not been disappointed. This novel has been rapturously received by Junot Diaz, Alice Munro, Tim O’Brien, Robert Olen Butler ( the last two know their Vietnam) and even The New York Times’s usually implacable Michiko Kakutani, among others. It is essentially a domestic novel, set on two continents, of astonishing delicacy and complexity. It is as much an imagist poem as prose fiction.
Phillips attaches three epigraphs to her novel. One explains the etymology of ‘‘ gook’’, drawing attention to the novel’s concern with the relation between words and the world; another, from Rodgers and Hart’s My Funny Valentine , highlights its concern with jazz and with speech; and the third, from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury , speaks of battles and the illusion of victory, drawing attention to Phillips’s intricate connection with Faulkner, particularly in terms of their concern to give voice to the disenfranchised and marginal of the world.
Lark and Termite are half-siblings. In the novel’s present, 1959, she is aged 17, he nine. Termite is severely physically and mentally handicapped ( terms the novel would not accept, leaving them to social workers), unable to speak or walk.
Lark cares for Termite, so called because even as a baby he was ‘‘ so small for his age that Nonie [ their aunt] called him a mite, then Termite, because even then he moved his fingers, feeling the air. I think he’s in himself like a termite’s in a wall’’, Lark reflects.
The novel is dedicated to, among others, ‘‘ Cho, infant boy, born and died in the tunnel at No Gun Ri, July 1950’’. No Gun Ri prefigures the Vietnam War’s better-known My Lai massacre. Writing from the perspective of Termite’s father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, Phillips recreates the horrors of the No Gun Ri massacre of 1950, when American infantry fired on their own troops and South Korean refugees in North Chungcheong Province. This massacre was the subject, in 1999, of a contentious Pulitzer Prize-winning expose by the Associated Press.
Leavitt dies, shot in the spine by ‘‘ friendly