Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
Affliction - Russell Banks Some nice descriptions of man's bestial nature, especially likening main character Wade's physical appearance and psychology to, early on, Neanderthal man and later, a bear. The metaphor of the deer hunt had a lot of potential, but I think wasn't fully realized.

However, there were also extended periods of just plain bad writing or perhaps careless editing which, although I haven't read him in a while and my sensibilities may have changed, I don't recall as typical of Banks at all; quite the contrary in fact. E.g., a key paragraph uses the adjective "elegiac" twice; you can't use a word like that twice and get away with it, not even when trying to convey that the narrator is a wanna-be intellectual. There were frequent strained similes that almost worked, but didn't: e.g., burning timbers in a barn "fell in scarlet-and-gold chunks to the dirt floor, where they shattered and splashed like coins." I don't mind the splashing, but coins don't shatter--especially if they are burning. Also, just two sentences before this, we were caught up in the "loud, raucous music to the fire, a crackling erratic drumbeat against the steady howl of the wind...". I'm not connecting these two metaphors, nor connecting them to the action. Wade's father's body is being burned in this fire; shouldn't the language resonate with that?

Finally, the expositional hammer-over-the-head dialogue -- egads. The word "affliction" is used probably a dozen times (I wasn't bothering to take notes) -- ok, ok we get it: everyone's afflicted. Everyone's affected by violence. The causes are horrific and the consequences inevitable. But, in case we didn't get it, we get helpful dialogue to drive the point home, such as this between Rolphe, Wade's brother and the narrator, and Wade:

..." "So when Elbourne told me what Pop had done to you when you, too, were a child, I was suddenly terrified. It may have been a high price to pay, never having been carefree, but at least I managed to avoid being afflicted by that man's violence."
"Wade laughed again. "That's what you think," he said.""

My experience with Banks' psychological studies of violence and catastrophe is that they typically focus on the community as a whole. Affliction goes (or attempts to go) into one character's head. In its attempt to be a psychological study of abuse and environment leading to the inevitable spiral down to a tragic conclusion, it did not succeed because we didn't see enough of Wade's torment--either the cause (the abuse itself) or the effects (we were repeatedly told Wade was violent, erratic -- yet there may have been only one scene in which we actually saw that). Also, there was no suspense. Wade's fixation on Jack was an obvious ruse to convey his increasing paranoia and delusion. I think the intent was to create ambiguity--did he? didn't he?--and therefore cause the reader to vacillate between whether Wade was being unfairly persecuted or was descending into violent madness. The effect was a wash.

The story was told second-hand by Wade's brother, Rolphe--the biggest failure of the book, imo. Even more awkward than an epistolary style, we are told much about Rolphe's method to get the 'real story' even though he was not a first-hand witness to the events. The narration was often intrusive and annoying in needing every so often to reassert why Rolphe knew certain things, and his own perspective on Wade's circumstances.

The POV distanced us from Wade, and from the reality of Wade's violence: that done to him, and that he was about to do. This choice in narration obviously is intentional, and had I liked the book either much less or much more, I'd try to figure out why Banks made that choice. But right now, it's not really worth it.

Another thing: way too much description of the New Hampshire woods. I grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario, I know intimately the psychological and physical landscape of freezing cold and snow for nine months of the year, and the despondency that ensues. Towns where there is nothing to do but drink, fight and fornicate, as the saying goes. Banks' description of this town and these people was well done, yes. But, while intending to be both metaphoric as well as causative of the personalities that survive there, there was too much description that simply slowed down the action. I think I said in one of my status updates that the book felt like what we are told freezing to death feels like: slow, numbing, not entirely unpleasant and with an inevitable certainty to it. After a while, you just don't care any more ... and you slip away.

I'll leave it at that.