Wednesday, May 27, 2009

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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