Russell Banks and Contextualized Naturalism


I find this arti­cle, linked from Con­ver­sa­tion­al Read­ing, fas­ci­nat­ing. While dis­cussing Rus­sell Banks' book Afflic­tion, Daniel Green posits some rea­sons why Banks, often read as a real­ist or nat­u­ral­ist in his lat­er work, is actu­al­ly con­tin­u­ing along the path on which he began, as an exper­i­men­tal or large­ly post­mod­ern author who now uses the tools of real­ism toward the same gen­er­al ends.

Here are some short excerpts from the Green essay:

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.

And this:

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.

I have much more to say on this in the future, as one of my pre­oc­cu­pa­tions is dis­cov­er­ing a way to write about my pre­ferred sub­ject mat­ter in my own writ­ing and read­ing habits–rural lit, grit lit, Appalachi­an, and oth­er sub­jects often dis­cussed as 'region­al' writing–while con­sid­er­ing tech­niques from the 20th cen­tu­ry, the post­mod­ern or avant, or what­ev­er you like to call it. I'm not well-read in the­o­ry despite my degrees, so I like­ly won't be writ­ing about the kinds of things schol­ars do, but rather con­sid­er­ing how real­ism works on its terms, and try­ing to con­fig­ure what I can sal­vage from this century's lit (mod­ernism on, let's say) into cre­ative work that encom­pass­es both the way I expe­ri­ence the world personally–why else write?–and the ele­ments I can add that will help my work do jus­tice to the com­plex­i­ty of the con­tem­po­rary world and human expe­ri­ence in the con­tem­po­rary world.

I should say too that my inter­est in rur­al sub­ject mat­ter came fron Banks' Con­ti­nen­tal Drift, anoth­er of his fine nov­els that I read in my junior year of col­lege. It was only after that I came to Andre Dubus and Lar­ry Brown and a thou­sand oth­ers that formed my opin­ions and bias­es and gave me leave to write about some­thing I knew.

So, more lat­er.

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