In The Yellow Wallpaper , Charlotte Gilman Perkins first introduced me to the concept of synesthesia, the odd, kinetic sensation of having the senses cross pathways: Being able to ‘feel’ a color, hear images, or smell sounds. Perkins links this strange neurological condition with the protagonist’s ‘hysterical depression’. The character’s exact cause of her synesthetic sensations is debatable.
Jayne Anne Phillips, fearlessly following Perkins’ example, uses synesthesia to render and decipher the fractured psyche of a presumably autistic child in the novel Lark and Termite . He can feel ‘smashed air’ and the bright blue of a waving ribbon. It’s an interesting technique that certainly allows a window inside a shuttered mind. And it works well most of the time. It can be awkward and clunky and redundant, but when effective, the description and inner monologue of Termite is a thing of beauty.
Phillips truly hits her stride developing the meandering, shifting plot. There is the story of Leavitt, a young musical talent fighting in Korea. There is Lola, his pregnant wife, whose thoughts and small, sweet mutterings of love and distance are projected straight to Leavitt’s mind. The main characters, Lark and Termite, are developed and revealed throughout the course of the novel. How Phillips reconciles and connects these plot segments is stunning and wholly original. The moment a young soldier dies in Korea, he can feel the explosion of labor as his baby son is born. Lark notices how the ‘dimpled water stands in the tracks of the alley, and I’m staring out the screen door, feeling the rush of breath falling water makes,’ and Leavitt sees a tunnel in West Virginia ‘reflected in the moonlit surface.’
The story is a rich read. It’s pockmarked with symbols and parallels and foreboding. The reader is carried along on sounds and smells and Phillips’ unique rhythmic writing. Between the lines, the reader can hear echoes of Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Kerouac, and Carson McCullers but her writing resonates a voice fully her own.