A Family Worth Knowing

Dominique Nabokov
Jayne Anne Phillips, Boston, 1987
Any good reader certainly tries, in Henry James’s phrase, to be one on whom nothing is lost. We constantly adjust our expectations, not seeking to find in Proust the terseness of Hemingway, or in Joyce the headlong action of Alexandre Dumas. But it’s impossible to wholly put aside our genders, our past experiences, and, not least, our often peculiar tastes. For instance, I like the weird-tales fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, I really do, but recognize that many intelligent people find him unreadable—sententiously overwrought and cheesy, a purveyor of altogether too much eldritch ichor. At the same time I generally shun the modern family memoir, particularly those highlighting the author’s dysfunctional childhood and often including sexual abuse, drunkenness and addiction, parental abandonment, divorce, religious mania, war trauma, small-town insularity, handicapped siblings, poverty, and quiet desperation.

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…

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