by: Tara Knoll
When I participated in the last session of Professor Waxler’s fall-cycle ’11 Changing Lives Through Literature program, held at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth campus, the participants discussed Russell Banks’ Affliction before their graduation from the program.
Though I had observed Waxler’s program before, I was still surprised by the participants’ emphatic reactions to the text. One participant pointed to a moment in which a child suffers from his parent’s mistakes, explaining that the scene, “burns a hole in me.” Another expressed his frustration with one of the characters, for, “he had all the time in the world to help his brother, but he didn’t.” I was also still surprised to find my own reactions to the text both enforced and called into question by the discussion, as various participants introduced perspectives and questions that hadn’t occurred to me in my reading of the novel.
Affliction is a story about storytelling. Ostensibly the story of Wade Whitehouse, a troubled, middle-aged, part-time cop who lives in a small New Hampshire town who struggles with alcoholism, depression, and the loss of his family, Affliction is told from the perspective of Wade’s younger brother, Rolfe. Rolfe has long-since escaped the small town of Lawford and his dysfunctional family, while Wade remains. Rolfe tells the story of how Wade tries to reassemble his life one November; “all he really wanted” was “to be a good father,” and to be a “good man.”
Despite his good intentions, however, Wade gets caught up in an obsessive search for the truth regarding a hunting accident; a search that propels his internal and external dissolution and ends with his committing several tragic crimes and, subsequently, disappearing. Banks subverts our expectations when the pseudo-detective figure degenerates into the criminal whom he seeks. But this story isn’t all about Wade, and Rolfe concedes: “Oh, I know that in telling Wade’s story here I am telling my own as well….”
Though I found myself identifying with Rolfe as the narratorial voice and the more distant character from the action taking place, many participants strongly identified with Wade and disliked Rolfe. “Wade’s just trying to be a good parent. I can feel for what that’s like,” one participant explained. Another elaborated, “Wade is a better person than Rolfe. At least he stayed to battle his problems, at least he tried to make things better.” Others admired Wade, in a sense, as “from the beginning he never wants to be part of someone else’s story,” while still others “feel bad for him” because “he wants so bad to be a good dad but doesn’t know how because of how he’s raised.” My initial view of Rolfe as a character was intensely complicated by our discussion. Did he break free from, or abandon his family? Was his leaving courageous, or cowardly? Now I’m not so sure.
The identification with, and sympathy for, Wade that marked the discussion provoked questions of inevitability. Professor Waxler asked, “Is Wade destined for a kind of victimage?” One participant pointed out that his impulsiveness predisposed him to certain problems: “Wade doesn’t think, he just reacts.”
What is the root of Wade’s dilemma? As Waxler observed, our discussion mimicked Wade’s obsession: the more we think about it, the more difficult it is to grasp the truth. Since the book is written from Rolfe’s hindsight perspective, it was tempting for me to view Wade’s downfall as unavoidable. Waxler’s prompts and the participants’ observations both took this issue up and caused me to question it.
A strikingly inescapable extension of the question of the origin of Wade falling apart connects Wade with his violent and alcoholic father. Several participants emphasized that Wade “is trying to be a good son to his father” even after he has become an adult, yet, he’s frighteningly, “becoming like his father.” In a powerful scene, Wade erupts in anger against his daughter. When the heat subsides and his daughter has left, Wade notices his father standing alongside the decrepit house—observing, grinning. Rolfe imagines his father’s thoughts: “the son finally had turned out to be a man just like the father.”
Waxler notes that this scene illustrates a disconcerting reformulation, even distortion, of the parental blessing. Is Banks suggesting that at some level a child still wants the acknowledgment and blessing of the parent, even if at the same time he hates everything that the parent represents? The question is a troubling one. While I found myself reflecting on my role as a daughter, many participants connected their roles as son or daughter with their roles as a parent.
Judge Kane argued against this suggestion of inevitability vis–à–vis generational inheritance. “A blood tie can be broken,” the judge asserted. “You can find your own place, be your own person—it wasn’t inevitable.” As we all struggled to pinpoint what caused Wade’s life to fall apart and whether or not his ultimate downfall could have been avoided, many participants called attention to the way language works in the novel to achieve this sense of spiraling out of control in tandem with Wade.
There is a pointed madness in Banks’ deliberateness, and several participants wondered if Wade was really losing his mind. I hadn’t considered this interpretation before, and the hints of it in the text underscore the richness of Banks’ language. One participant highlighted the effectiveness of the language: “I felt crazy after reading it.” Several others felt uneasy with “how long it took [Banks] to get to the point.” The lengthy paragraphs of description and the incisively illustrative quality of Banks’ writing frustrated some, pleased others, and seemed to engender in all of us a building sense that “things are going to be okay…but then something collapses.” Banks’ postmodern exploration of time and chaotic transitions between geographical and temporal locales added to the sense of confusion, inviting us to identify with Wade. “It can be difficult to follow,” one participant noted. “You’re always jumping to someplace else.”
At the heart of this jumping is Rolfe’s control as narrator. Throughout the discussion, each one of us either reflected on or voiced aloud the recurrent question—how do we really know any of this? Slightly defensive and earnest in his explanation as to his seeming omniscience, Rolfe responds to the hypothetical question of the reader by asserting, “I do not, in the conventional sense, know many of these things. I am not making them up, however. I am imagining them.” Rolfe establishes a new dimension of story telling, yet his narration implicitly wrests control away from Wade.
“Wade is pushing through and trying to make his own story, but he doesn’t have the power, and no one will let him,” one participant contended. I stopped writing as this observation was made. I was struck by how it really gets to the heart of the struggle faced by each participant who is working their way through the court system and trying to reassert and reformulate their place outside of their docket number designation or charges faced. As we all explored our relationship as readers to the story, it became clear that Rolfe used the narration of another’s story as a means to better understand his own.
Narration’s ability to channel self-awareness extends past the realm of writing, in Rolfe’s case, and applies to readers, too. Just as Rolfe narrates Wade’s story in order to comprehend his own, so too did everyone present at the Changing Lives discussion appropriate the stories in the novel as a means to approach broader issues of society and all of our roles within it. Whether the participants identified with aspects the story—the difficulties of the court system, of being a parent, of starting over—or recognized their distance from it, the power of narrative was universal. As one participant observed, “You can be rich, have a good life, whatever, and one thing could make it spiral out of control.” Both the novel and the discussion produced a humanizing, universalizing effect.
While some saw the conclusion of Affliction as hopeful, perhaps an indication of Rolfe’s ability to “exorcise” Wade’s story (which is his own “ghost life”) and move on, the language itself is unclear. Rolfe tells us that, unless Wade is caught, “The story will be over. Except that I continue.” We don’t know whether Rolfe continues in a brave sense, reasserting his agency and control over his own life, or in a despondently cyclical sense, obsessing over Wade’s past and his own culpability. In taking up the story of Affliction, we as readers ascribe our own meaning to Rolfe’s ambiguous declaration. In so doing, we realize Wade’s unfulfilled desire to assert, as stated by one participant, “It’s my story. I’ve got control.”