Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Advantages of Breathing" often Intangible, Elusive

The title of Lydia Peelle’s collection of short stories, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, addresses the silver lining rather than the bulk of her tales. Reasons is about the lives of people who seem to have sufficient grounds to call it quits.
The people Peelle examines are grasping at the bottom rung. There is the obese taxidermist who has recently lost his leg, the unenthused carnie, and the girls whose summer fearlessness astride a duo of ponies is soon swallowed by the perilous dares of fast cars and drugs. The voices of these characters are not whining or sorrowful, but the dullness of loss or emptiness moves alongside them.
The despair arises from the common tragedies that disrupt life. A separation from the loved and familiar; a fork in the road and the doubt accompanying the new path; an attempt at escape and its loneliness. The upheavals are not revolutionary, and yet Peelle dodges the mundane. She probes deeper and brings to the surface people’s facets. Peelle’s characters are caught at the bottom of the hierarchy and amidst the hesitancies of their position.
The narrators have the mark of introspection even when they can’t see their own lives clearly. Despite the seemingly aimless drift that directs many of these characters, they remain fully rooted in life. Most are hoping to break free from where they stand. It is less dissatisfaction that drives them than a notion that there just might be something else. Some are desperate to escape, some merely wonder if they should.
There is another thread that runs through these stories aside from flight. In each of the Peelle’s tales there are animals at the center or skirting the periphery. Somehow the chanced glimpse of a tail or the silent winging of a bird in flight imbues Reasons with an atmosphere that feels particularly American. There is the mysterious, menacing presence of a panther, the myth of the thunderbird, a communion with horses, goats, and reptiles. Peelle’s characters are comforted or haunted by these creatures, be they tamed, feral or mythic. The ubiquitous appearance of animals stabilizes Peelle’s stories. The inclusion of other creatures and acknowledgement of their awareness, suffering and empathetic capacities, diffuses the bleakness of the stories, lending a universal sensitivity to the tales rather than the rampant self-absorption that can stem from human narrations of disappointment.
The animals are embodiments of fears and desires. They read people for their essence when others are blind. By and large the people are lost or foundering and while the animals do not quite provide direction they offer support of a sort and an alternative. Resolutions are unattainable and far from the point in Peelle’s collection. The stories conclude with possibilities rather than answers, and the possibilities are rarely heartening.
In the small spaces of Peelle’s stories, only slices of her characters’ personalities are revealed. Everything shown is cast in the shadow of where their lives have brought them. Despite there being an absence of a visible light at the end of the tunnel, Peelle manages to situate the reader alongside her characters without provoking despondency. It is less a note of empathy that she strikes than one of thoughtful observance. Little of the circumstances of these people’s lives drew parallels with my own, but something kept me afloat despite the weight of what was being experienced and despite the absence of novelty. The impetus to continue forward was quite unidentifiable, but there was a reason.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Lark and Termite" Proves Exceptional

Writing about this particular book was a challenge. There are myriad, untried ways to pick at a flaw; innovative praise defiant of cliché proves more difficult. Lark and Termite, by Jayne Anne Phillips, is, in a word, superb. The characters were ones I had never met before. With the narrative moving fluidly between locations in America and Korea, the uncertain map of these people’s lives brings the reader into contact with new perspectives, tribulations and joys. Phillips handles the demanding intricacies of her characters and the importance of their stories expertly. The narrative is startling corporeal even when it crosses the boundaries between the seen to unseen, the proven and the understood.
The novel opens in Korea alongside Corporal Robert Leavitt. Transferred from a post in Japan to Seoul, Leavitt finds himself tangled in the confusion of the Korean War. Due to its situation between WWII and Vietnam, the Korean War often gets lost in the shuffle of transformative, twentieth century events. It appears as a minor blip on the screen of history compared with the involvement of the world in the 40s and the revolutionary rage of the 60s. A blip if you weren’t there, excruciatingly real to the soldiers and refugees whose lives were destroyed by death or by survival. Merely witnessing the atrocities devastated just as certainly. Entering into the head of Leavitt, Phillips brings this screeching reality to the surface.
Ten years later, the petals of other characters’ stories unfold around Termite, Robert’s son. Termite was born unable to walk or speak and he participates in the world on an indeterminate level. His awareness is quantified differently by his observers. He is tranquil and perceptive, exhibiting a deep response to the sounds around him. Lark, his half sister, ascribes more to him than their aunt Nonnie, though both women care for him with the depths and heights of dedicated love.
Nonnie is the novel’s pillar of strength. For reasons initially unrevealed she is caring for both of the children of her inexplicably absent and incapable younger sister, Lola.
Lola is never seen head on. An image of her is constructed through the lenses of those shattered or made whole by her. Lola is depicted as a force. For Robert she is the constant for him to cling to on the battlefield. He calls up a gentle, pungent procession of memories of their love affair. Moments both carnal and tender. And in the context of the bodily and mental destruction he is facing, they are wrenching. Even in these scenes there is a hint that Lola’s entirety is not simple, but Robert’s resonance with her lends a profundity to her person that might not be grasped through another’s perception.
Every relationship in Philips’s novel possesses a multitude of gradations. No one is simply a lover, brother, mother or aunt. This awareness of overlap in human rapports constructs the reality in the narrative. And within this reality, Lark’s relationship to her brother is situated. Philips crafts an incredible connection by these two. They are linked through the blood of their mother but Lark’s affinity for her damaged brother exceeds sisterly bounds. Lark reads the emotions of Termite without effort. But ultimately her awareness of his conscience merely corroborates his interior, Philips allows Termite his own lens.
The story is measured and Philips navigates time and her broad array of voices with ease. I left one character with reluctance only to find myself caught up in the intricacies of the next. Stratums of understanding exist in this novel and its richness caused it to figure as much more than a blip on this reader’s list.