Med­i­ta­tion on a mas­sacre’s dis­tant vic­tims

Don An­der­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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