As it happens, Lark and Termite—the first novel in nine years by the much-admired Jayne Anne Phillips—closely conforms to the above description. In fact, Phillips’s fiction as a whole trades regularly in just these painful social currencies. In the striking early short stories of Black Tickets (1979)—which includes an internal monologue by a teenaged girl who seduces young boys (“Lechery”), a subtle Chekhovian story about the desperation and sexual loneliness of a mother and daughter (“Home”), and a short tone poem in prose about orgasms (“Slave”)—Phillips builds on the gritty, even grotesque social realism of Raymond Carver, that era’s master of the down-and-out.
A few years later, her ambitious family chronicle, Machine Dreams (1984), charted the gradual breakdown of a post–World War II American family and the final devastating blows delivered by the Vietnam War. Her previous novel before this new one, MotherKind (2000), focused on blended families, the strains on a marriage of pregnancy and childbirth, and the care of a dying parent. All these books—as well as her others—bear the strong impress of personal experience, even as Phillips’s biography makes it clear that she’s lived a lot of what she writes about.
Her recurrent theme is, in the largest sense, family life, often the tense bond between mothers and daughters. This is a rich subject, and many of our greatest novels have been similarly domestic. Nonetheless, some readers, especially some male readers, tend to shy away from books about such emotional connections, spurning them as essentially “women’s fiction.”
From this viewpoint, Lark and Termite might be prematurely, and wrongly, dismissed as merely the kind of thing that Oprah Winfrey gushes about. In fact, anyone, male or female, who seriously cares about reading novels will find Lark and Termite to be intricately and beautifully composed, absolutely assured in its telling, but also deeply strange and full of mystery. At times, it reminded me of that other idiosyncratic contemporary classic about women and family life, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980). With both books, however, one does need to appreciate a certain deliberate artfulness, verging on artiness.
Consider the structure of Phillips’s novel. The main events occur on July 26, 27, 28, and 31 in two different years: 1950 and 1959. There are twenty-one chapters, with four principal narrators—Leavitt, Lark, Nonie, and Termite. The novel opens in 1950 with twenty-one-year-old Corporal Robert Leavitt in Korea, leading a group of fleeing villagers away from a war zone. As he does so, he thinks back to his early life, his passion for the trumpet, and his love for Lola, the somewhat older jazz singer he had married just before going overseas. The two are crazy about each other, and Leavitt knows that his wife is about to give birth to their baby. While Lola already has an eight-year-old daughter from an earlier, short-term relationship, that child, Lark, is in the permanent care …