Russell Banks

Perhaps because American fiction has always been especially animated by the opposing tendencies toward realism on the one hand and fabulation on the other, toward the "novel" as developed in Europe and toward what Hawthorne insisted was "romance," writers' allegiances to either of these modes often seem as much the real subject of their work as the characters and situations that are ostensibly its focus. Whether a writer is attempting earnestly to capture "life as it's lived" or instead to highlight the difference between fiction and life seems to have a manifest salience more pronounced than in European fiction. Among contemporary American fiction writers, the centrality of the relationship to one or the other of these approaches is often especially noteworthy as a kind of intervention into an existing tradition to which the writer in effect declares him/herself an adherent. Most noteworthy, perhaps, is the case of a writer who appears to shift allegiances, whose work comes to exemplify the very tendency it has previously resisted.

Such a writer is Russell Banks, who commenced his career producing experimental fables and metafictions such as Family Life (1974) and Hamilton Stark (1978) but who with Continental Drift (1985) began writing the increasingly realist and naturalist novels by which he is now most widely known. One might interpret Banks’s “conversion” as either a repudiation of the experimental—or “postmodern”—practices of the 1960s and 1970s in American fiction or as affirmation of the realist/naturalist/ mode as exemplified by Norris, Dreiser, or Steinbeck, but while I believe that Banks does present his later work as a reinscription of sorts of the naturalist tradition, it is no so obvious that this entails an outright repudiation of the nonrealist strategies he himself used in his fiction of the preceding period. The stories told and the devices used in such books as Continental DriftThe Sweet Hereafter (1991), and Rule of the Bone (1995) are undoubtedly more transparent then those in most of the books from Searching for Survivors, Banks’s first book, to The Relation of My Imprisonment (1983), but it seems altogether implausible that such a break from past assumptions about the function of prose narrative would be a complete one, and, indeed, Banks’s neo-naturalist novels frequently enough employ techniques that complicate the relationship between reality and its representation in fiction, that in effect bracket the strategies of naturalism as aesthetic strategies without ever being quite so intrusive as to deflect attention away from the characters or the emotional “content” of the stories being told about them.

Affliction (1987) may be the post-postmodern Banks novel that most fully and most effectively illustrates this hybrid form of naturalism. It offers a portrayal of character, setting, and incident that is arguably closest to “classic” naturalist narrative and that evokes a genuinely affecting “world” recognizable as our own in its pain and suffering. One can read the novel entirely for the traditional rewards of character and plot, remaining mostly unaware of the devices the author employs to contextualize the characters and the story within an existing tradition. But attention to the role of these devices in mediating our response can introduce a degree of contingency to that response, an awareness of context that makes it—the relationship between this narrative and the ancestor narratives that give it an extra resonance—part of the novel’s conceptual canvas. An enhanced appreciation of Affliction both as the story of the downfall of its rural, working-class protagonist, despite his best intentions, and as the story of this story as one of the sort favored in the tradition of American naturalism becomes possible, even if some or even most readers undoubtedly settle for the first.

In his Twayne U.S. Authors series book on Banks, Robert Niemi also notes the crossing of a literary-modal divide in Banks’s career, but he identifies the two competing practices as “socially conscious fiction” and “avant-garde fiction.” It would be accurate enough to describe the bifurcation in Banks’s fiction in these terms as well, although Niemi conceives of the difference it makes in Banks’s work entirely in terms of “content,” specifically as it arises from “the peculiar and enduring mentality of [the writer’s] social class origins” (ix). According to Niemi, Banks is distinctive as a writer “willing and able to write across social boundaries, one who knows how to dolly back for a revealing long shot of the American class structure in its looming totality” (x). In my view, this is much too narrow a conception of the stakes involved in Russell Banks’s transition to “social” fiction, which are as much aesthetic as they are thematic. While it is true that some writers adopted literary naturalism as a way of writing “socially conscious fiction”—Steinbeck and Farrell, for example—to maintain that the first generation of naturalists—Norris, Dreiser, Crane—wrote a kind of fiction that can be adequately characterized as primarily a form of social commentary seems to me to unnecessarily restrict both realism and naturalism to their most obvious documentary functions.

Furthermore, to claim that the acuity of its “social observations” adequately accounts for Affliction’s narrative power, that it achieves this power most importantly through Banks’s ability to “dolly back for a revealing long shot of the American class structure,” would be equally simplistic. Banks takes the novels of Dreiser and Norris as his touchstones, not those of Steinbeck and Farrell, and like Sister Carrie and McTeagueAffliction is concerned with more than the “class structure” that circumscribes its protagonist’s life possibilities, however much those possibilities are circumscribed by forces beyond his control, or even his comprehension. As such scholars as Donald Pizer and Michael Davitt Bell have illustrated, “naturalism” was for the first American writers to adopt it an intensification of realism that allowed them to get even closer to “reality” by revealing its constituent forces observable only in the way they work themselves out through narrative. The nature of these forces is portrayed in the major naturalist novels as broadly philosophical, strongly biological, partly psychological, unavoidably sociological, but certainly not centered on the “American class structure in its looming totality,” in the politicized terms advanced by Niemi.

All of these factors underlie as well the portrayal of Wade Whitehouse and his misaligned fate in Affliction, although no one of them fully accounts for Wade’s troubled life. On the philosophical level, Wade seems to be caught up in a cycle of decline, an irresistible descent into deeper irrelevance and the diminution of his sense of himself as a man it entails. If this is not necessarily his pre-ordained fate, once the assorted misfortunes—Wade’s divorce and his subsequent estrangement from his daughter, his exclusion from the investigation into an “accidental” hunting accident (Wade is the town’s part time police officer), which leads to further sleights to his authority, the death of his mother and the rekindling of father-son conflict it provokes—begin to press fully on Wade with their interlocking weight, the unrelenting pressure to which he ultimately succumbs begins to seem deliberately directed toward him as part of some preestablished plan rather than simple bad luck. Wade Whitehouse’s claim to his place in the universe is being cancelled.

To some extent (and Banks is actually rather courageous in framing Wade’s dilemma so squarely in these terms at a time when “masculinity” is at best an embattled concept), Wade is portrayed explicitly as a man whose sense of his own masculinity is under assault and whose response to the diminishment of his role as father and ostensible authority figure is largely an instinctual one, the result of biological and psychological imperatives over which Wade has no effective control. That Wade wants to be a good father to his daughter seems readily apparent, but he also seems to have no plausible conception of how to do this, and his fumbling efforts to maintain a connection with her only exacerbates the problem and fuels Wade’s increasing desperation. Similarly, Wade’s already dubious status as the town’s lone policeman is further eroded through his interactions with Gordon La Riviere, town bigwig and Wade’s boss, and with Mel Gordon, who defies Wade’s attempt to cite him for a traffic offense and who, along with La Riviere, Wade believes is involved in arranging the hunting accident that killed union boss Evan Twombley, Gordon’s father-in-law. His frustration with these challenges to his masculine self-image, although never exactly expressed by the narrator directly, again leads him to self-destructive actions he seemingly can no longer avoid.

Before Wade Whitehouse descends irretrievably into his final rage, however, he experiences another unwelcome reminder of his precarious place in the world of masculine power relations. His mother’s death is a traumatic enough event, but ultimately its most damaging effect on Wade is that it draws him more closely into his now widowed father’s orbit, which revives old animosities and elemental conflicts from Wade’s violence-laden childhood. Not only was Wade’s father prone to alcohol-stoked outbursts of violence against Wade and his older brothers, but the atmosphere of dread and intimidation he created clearly hasn’t dissipated, either in Wade’s continuing encounters with him or in the shadow it has cast over Wade’s life in general. Wade makes the mistake of assuming more responsibility for his father following on his mother’s death—for which in his negligence Glenn Whitehouse is mostly to blame—and this renewed proximity only brings the long-simmering hatreds and resentments between them to the ultimate conflagration of the novel’s conclusion. Wade’s own incipient capacity to inflict great violence, whether inbred or conditioned by the destructive environment in which he had to live, can no longer be contained as he kills his father and sets the body alight, then shoots the man he suspects of carrying out the hit on Evan Twombley, Wade’s own ostensible best friend, Jack Hewitt.

It is certainly possible to see in the disaster of Wade Whitehouse’s life sociological ramifications of various kinds, to take Wade’s life as a case study in working-class frustration or rural decline, but to focus first of all and most directly on the sociological in Affliction is to fail to understand Banks’s ambitions as a novelist, which, to judge only by his previous work, incorporates the social but doesn’t begin or end there. Bank’s work has consistently been characterized by a more than cursory attention to form and style, a reluctance to settle for a single formal strategy or stylistic signature. Works as diverse as Hamilton StarkContinental DriftThe Relation of My Imprisonment, and, following AfflictionThe Sweet Hereafter and Rule of the Bone, are united in their apparent determination to try out different narrative strategies and points of view, as well as the various stylistic performances appropriate to such strategies and perspectives. It is apparent enough that Banks has a “subject”—life as lived by working-class people in the American northeast—to which he regularly returns, but over the long run this subject really functions more as the means to a series of aesthetic variations than as an obsessive effort to produce “social fiction.”

The naturalist narrative can thus be seen as one such variation. Banks attempts to adapt the form to the circumstances obtaining in the rural northeast rather than Chicago, San Francisco, or the Bowery of New York, and to the changes in literary sensibility that have ensued between the end of the 19th century and the end of the 20th. Even critics who aren’t otherwise happy with those changes, who hold up a writer like Banks as one who sustains the possibility of social realism, tend to acknowledge that Affliction isn’t simply a re-animation of 19th century realism. Niemi refers to Banks as a “postmodern naturalist” (151). Fred Pfeil, who describes Banks’s early as “pointlessly obsessed with narrational experiment” and “formalistically hollow,” nevertheless finds that in Affliction “Banks avoids the twin dangers of a mere ‘sociological’ accuracy on the one hand, and a voyeuristic sensationalism on the other, through a wise combination of elevating and distancing techniques” Pfeil associates with Brecht (77). Pfeil believes these techniques are used to strengthen the novel’s political resonance through avoiding sentimentality, but at the same time, the very devices Banks employs to create the novel’s “distancing effects” make Pfeil object to its narrative strategy as too intrusive.

One of the ways in which Banks alters the inherited narrative method of naturalism is to assign the narration of Wade Whitehouse’s story to another character involved in that story, Wade’s younger brother, Rolfe. Although Rolfe is thus technically a first-person narrator, for the most part he relates the story from a removed and detached perspective, presenting his narrative as the result of his own research into his brother’s disappearance and the circumstances preceding it. The narrative thus assumes the tone of a carefully arranged chronicle—Rolfe is himself a history teacher—that also allows Rolfe to occasionally pause and interject a kind of free-floating, philosophical reflection reminiscent of the authorial commentary in, say, Sister Carrie, but, since it originates in the character’s discourse, more suitably integrated into the narrative proper:

. . .in the fifteen years since I last spent a Halloween [in Lawford], which is to say, since I was in high school, the place has not changed much. In fifty years it has not changed much. But visualizing the place, going there in memory or imagination, is not something I care to do. I studiously avoid it. I have to be almost tricked into it or conjured. Lawford is one of those towns that people leave, not one that people come back to. And to make matters worse, to make it even more difficult to return to, even if you wanted to go back—which of course no one who has left the town in this half century wants to do—those who remain behind cling stubbornly as barnacles to the bits and shards of social rites that once invested their lives with meaning: they love bridal showers, weddings, birthdays, funerals, seasonal and national holidays, even election days. Halloween, as well. A ridiculous holiday, and for whom, for what? It has absolutely no connection to modern life. (5)

Pfeil asserts that passages such as this mar the novel’s otherwise “splendid narration”: “Suddenly, the beautifully pitched detachment of the rest of the novel turns into portentous, unpersuasive flailing” (80). But it is hard to accept that the novel could exhibit a “splendid narration” at the same time it’s narrator is “flailing” and is someone the reader cannot “believe in or care about. . .as an individual character whenever he is roped into the plot” (80). Pfeil believes that “for the most part. . .we can forget he’s supposed to be the source of what we read” (80), but this can hardly be the case. How can we forget that the voice narrating the story of Wade Whitehouse is Wade’s brother, who has shared some of Wade’s formative experiences but who has lived apart from Wade for long enough that Wade has himself become mostly just a voice on the telephone? How can we forget that this vexed relationship substantially determines both the portrayal of Wade and his environment and the manner in which Rolfe relates these particulars?

Pfeil wants Banks to have written a novel whose point of view represents “an expository near-omniscience” (78), but this is not in fact the novel Banks has written. There are indeed many extended passages in which Rolfe narrates the action in the “studiously detached” way Pfeil thinks is appropriate to the Brechtian social fiction he wishes Affliction to be, but it seems at the least rather inconsistent to celebrate this mode of narration when it appears to be what it isn’t—a disembodied third-person narration—but to condemn it when it reveals its actual source in a potentially unreliable narrator. Pfeil asserts that he is unable to believe that “Rolfe can know all he’s saying or [can] execute this masterful narration” (80), but this fails to account for the possibility that Banks wants us to question whether his narrator “can know all he’s saying,” or at least to consider that the mode of narration presented to us is itself relevant to our perception of the narrative. Surely a writer of Russell Banks’s skills would not deliberately undermine his “masterful narration” by substituting “unpersuasive flailing” for no apparent reason.

Robert Niemi is more tolerant of Rolfe’s role in assembling and relating the text that is Affliction, noting that “without his mediation Wade’s story would surely lose psychological and moral depth” (161). But Niemi is closer to identifying Rolfe’s most essential task when he observes that Affliction is “a meticulous narrative reconstruction of a subject that is absent from the outset” (151). One could say that the novelist a “reconstruction” insofar as Rolfe has pieced together as much information as he can gather and presented it to us as a coherent narrative. However, it is precisely that the story concerns “a subject that is absent from the outset” that makes Rolfe’s version more than a “reconstruction.” In his brother’s absence, both from the current scene altogether and in effect from Rolfe’s life since he went away to college, Rolfe is as much constructing as reconstructing Wade’s story, imagining Wade himself as much as simply documenting his actions. Rolfe’s “meticulous” style of narration only and additionally highlights Rolfe’s sense of himself as an author patiently putting together what he hopes will be a compelling narrative that stands up to scrutiny as a verbal construction, apart from the opportunity it provides Rolfe to reflect on his brother’s decline and fall.

It is entirely consistent with our experience of Rolfe’s narration to say that he represents a muted version of the self-reflexive narrator to be found in metafiction. Rolfe interrupts the story from time to time, calls attention to his meticulously constructed narrative, precisely in order to remind us that an objective, omniscient rendering of the final days of Wade Whitehouse is not possible, that not even Wade’s brother knows him well enough to give us an unquestionably accurate portrait of him. We do not encounter the “real” Wade Whitehouse in Affliction because the real Wade Whitehouse is ultimately a stranger to Rolfe and we must make do with the Wade Rolfe is able to conjure from his “research” and his own memory. The only way in which Rolfe Whitehouse is able to invoke his older brother Wade is to make of him a fictional character that can then be seen to manifest those qualities and influences Rolfe believes might explain Wade’s actions.

This does not mean that we respond to Wade Whitehouse as something other than a recognizably “human” character into whose circumstances we can imaginatively project ourselves as readers without having our attention explicitly turned away from Wade’s dilemma and toward the means of representing that dilemma. Ignoring the means of representing Wade and his story does seem to me a willful denial of the relative complexity of Affliction’s narrative scheme, but the novel is certainly not metafictional to the extent that we must suspend our belief in the representational illusion Banks still wants us to maintain. The novel is about Wade Whitehouse, not about its own status as fiction (although its status as fiction can appropriately be considered), and our response to Wade can be as complicated as our response to actual human beings. Indeed, an important measure of the success of Affliction would have to be precisely the degree to which we do finish the novel feeling some combination of compassion and horror toward Wade, regarding him as a human being in all of his multifarious and often contradictory traits and behaviors. Any consideration of form, style, or narrative technique would for most readers be a way of extending our perception of this character, not of reflecting on the artifice of fiction-making.

Banks’s variations on the naturalist plot and naturalist narrative method in my view make Affliction a more artful novel than most of those written by the proto-naturalists, but must its art be an obstacle to a full engagement with the characters that art helps bring to life? One of the consequences of Rolfe’s self-regulating narration is that by the time Rolfe himself steps out as an active character to attend his mother’s funeral, he has already impressed himself on us as a character whose struggle to understand the forces shaping his brother’s life is also the attempt to understand the forces shaping his own. Among the strongest of these forces is the formative influence exerted by Glenn Whitehouse, a character most readers must experience as unpleasant in the extreme but who is nevertheless portrayed with a bestial immediacy that eliminates all distance between readers and characters, making the artifice of character-creation seem a trivial consideration. Yet it is of course the “meticulous” way in which Banks has employed such artifice that builds these characters into the memorable figures they are, just as his equal skill in the elaboration of plot and evocation of setting works to create the very sense of realism in Affliction that critics such as Fred Pfeil value in it most highly.

If Affliction calls more attention to its own artful construction than Sister Carrie or McTeague, it is also finally more convincing as a representation of both character and setting, as well as more credible as a narrative depicting true-to-life events than either of these novels. However compelling they are in their unrelenting adherence to their own narrative logic, neither of them can really described as telling stories that are altogether plausible as realistic reflections of ordinary life. Both could accurately be called melodramas, even if the melodrama mostly succeeds in supporting some pretty substantial thematic weight, and both have fairly obvious stylistic limitations of a kind that only intensifies the melodramatic effects, finally calling attention to the storytelling process even more persistently than does Rolfe Whitehouse’s much less rhetorically embellished style. The invoked worlds of these novels are vividly rendered, but they exist to further the portrayal of characters subject to the influences of “environment” more than they serve as depictions of a setting meant to be aesthetically realized in and for itself in its mundane particulars.

In these precursor narratives, setting is created—in the case of Dreiser, through the accumulation of quite specific detail—in order to provide their characters with a plausible background against which to follow the working-out of their fates. In Affliction, setting is in effect built around and for its characters, as a realm they fully inhabit and that comes to have its own distinct character and integrity. Banks seems more intent on evoking his small New Hampshire town with a comprehensive realism that can itself serve as a focus of aesthetic interest. The environmental influence represented by this community is not just asserted but is revealed through the details and actions the narrative systematically accumulates. At the end of the novel, Rolfe meditates on the changes brought to Lawford in the wake of Wade’s disappearance and the economic exploitation Wade suspected all along was behind the events contributing to his downfall, concluding with the observation that, following the arrival of the new ski resort, “The community as such, no longer exists; Lawford is a thriving economic zone between Littleton and Catamount” (353). The downfall of Lawford and, by analogy, small towns like it in the American northeast, is arguably as much the subject of Affliction as the individual fate of Wade Whitehouse; certainly the degradations to which Lawford is subjected, economic and social, are echoed in those Wade must endure. In this way, the novel doesn’t really succeed unless the portrayal of setting is painstaking and can be regarded as an aesthetic achievement in its own right.

Affliction is a “socially conscious novel,” but it is also an aesthetically conscious one, and the latter level of consciousness seems to me a necessary precondition for the former to be attained. Affliction succeeds because it is most immediately concerned with its own integrity as an aesthetic construction. Rolfe Whitehouse is “meticulous” in his exposition because his creator is meticulous in his use of the narrator’s situation and sensibility to fashion a well-made novel that might attract readers interested at least as much in the art of fiction as in an anatomy of the “American class structure.” Such readers are only more likely to consider the “social” implications of fiction that seeks to realizes some purely aesthetic ambitions, that first of all withstands scrutiny as literary art. Social “relevance” in fiction arises as a resonant effect of narratives that are compelling in their storytelling, the execution of which is the writer’s first obligation. “Relevance” is a quality a work of fiction possesses in addition to it primary achievement as a credible aesthetic creation, at least if the author of the work hopes it will survive its motivating but transient “subject.”

Affliction will survive into the next generation of readers because Russell Banks is able to make the novel relevant in this way. In the long run it will be valued, I believe, for its perfectly-paced storytelling and skillful deployment of point of view, for its formal appropriation of the naturalist narrative such that what was a loosely connected set of realist narratives embodying, in various degrees of novelistic skill, a determinist worldview becomes freshly shaped into a preeminently skillful narrative that could be described as distilling the common tendencies of literary naturalism into a kind of quintessential form. It will be valued for the “relevance” of its story about the vulnerabilities of rural communities and abiding effects of male rage, to be sure. However, since these vulnerabilities are not likely to decrease any time soon—if anything, they are more likely to increase as such communities continue to become less self-sustaining—and since the pressures contributing to male impulsive behavior will also probably remain in force, Affliction will be most relevant to the interests of readers who read fiction for its engagement with abiding dilemmas and persistent conflicts rather than ephemeral “issues.”

These readers may not perceive an untraversable breach between Banks’s “formalistic” early work and his later social realism. Banks did not simply cease showing concern for form and technique and start focusing instead on “content,” on producing “social fiction.” He continued to be occupied with the effects of form through the twinning of narrative strands in Continental Drift, with the influence of voice and point of view in Rule of the Bone and The Sweet Hereafter. In Affliction, he is self-conscious about form to the extent that he has appropriated the naturalist narrative and attempted to give it more aesthetically elegant shape. He has incorporated into this novel some of the self-reflexivity associated with postmodernism but does so by amplifying the self-awareness exhibited by his otherwise in-frame narrator. In neither case, however, does he force the reader to be self-conscious about the artifice employed or about the reader’s own role in the game of suspending disbelief. Ultimately, Affliction shows Russell Banks not so much rejecting the aestheticism of his early fiction as tempering it, using it to create a work of fiction whose artfulness does not eclipse substance but makes it possible in the first place.

Works Cited

Banks, Russell. Affliction. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Bell, Michael Davitt. The Problem of American Realism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Niemi, Robert. Russell Banks. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.

Pfeil, Fred. Another Tale to Tale: Politics and Narrative in Postmodern Culture. London: Verso,     1990.

Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth Century American Literature. Carbondale:     Southern Illinois UP, 1966.


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