Brian Trapp: It’s often said that fiction make us feel less lonely. However, growing up with a disabled twin brother, I often found novels to be a lonely place. Where were the stories about brothers like mine? Families like mine? Stories that depicted the severely disabled as more than objects of pity? This year, I made it a point to read a lot of fiction about disability and discovered Jayne Anne Phillips’s wonderful novel Lark and Termite (2009), a National Book Award finalist.
The novel mostly follows Lark, a headstrong teenage girl, and her wheelchair-bound, disabled half-brother, Termite, as they grow up in an isolated town in late 1950s West Virginia. Another narrative strand transports us back nine years to a tunnel in Korea as Termite’s father slowly dies in one of the first massacres of the Korean War. What makes this novel fascinating is Phillips’s rich exploration of non-normative consciousness. We follow the father as he goes from strong and able soldier to a dying and dependent man, time slowing, his senses shutting down. But Termite is the real achievement, named so because, as his sister says, he moves his fingers like an insect with antennae, “in himself like a termite’s in a wall.” His thoughts rendered in a lyrical close third based on rhythm and sound, Termite notices things that the other characters don’t: the sounds of ants, the color of the sky, the warm rush of air. He cannot talk, only repeating what others say, but Phillips is mysterious with just how much he understands and communicates, as he interacts with people with his eyes and a bell on his wheelchair.
If you haven’t already suspected it, this is very much a rewriting of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and hits some of the same themes: a sister’s sexual awakening, suicide, a disabled brother threatened with institutionalization. Except in Phillips’s hands, this story is much more accessible and affirming. And instead of Benjy’s simple-sentence narration, a “tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing,” Phillips writes Termite’s POV with a Morrison-like lyricism, making you want to experience the world through his mind. If all this weren’t enough, there’s also some magical-realist elements. You guys like ghosts, right? But for me, the best moments were in the breathtaking intimacy between the siblings. As Lark says about her brother: “I’m so used to being with Termite, he feels like alone to me. He’s like a hum that always hums so the edge of where I am is blunt and softened.”