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Cinquième partie : Montagnes Textes

Parker Mountain, or the Geography of Pathos in Russell Banks’s Affliction (1989)

Claire Omhovère
p. 289-298


Les romans de Russell Banks confèrent à la géographie une importance qui va bien au delà des fonctions mimétique et métonymique habituellement remplies par un simple décor. Dès la première lecture d’Affliction, il est manifeste que la géographie ne sert pas seulement à transposer l’espace en images, ni même à fournir un fond à l’intrigue, mais qu’elle contribue pleinement à la cohérence spatio-narrative du roman. Cet article s’attachera donc tout particulièrement à étudier les perturbations qu’introduit la représentation de la montagne dans le régime réaliste du roman. A travers Parker Mountain, Banks convoque en effet les terreurs et aspirations qui s’expriment à travers deux traditions populaires : l’univers fabuleux du conte et le récit de la frontière. Il s’agira ici de montrer comment Banks joue sur les attentes génériques du lecteur pour provoquer une réflexion sur la violence que les sociétés humaines visent à contenir

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1When asked in interview about the relative lack of scholarly interest in his work, American novelist Russell Banks answered that this may be imputable to the critics’ difficulty in addressing texts which cannot be fitted into the interpretive categories in currency:

I think that the main problem was—and it may still be—that I didn’t fit into any easy categories or niches that were the conventions at the time for studying fiction, either as a metafictionalist—although I did write a book that could be construed as metafictional—or as a recognizable realist. It’s not unusual to suffer critical neglect when you don’t fit into easy academic categories [...]. Or if it’s a social category like black writers or gay writers—I don’t fit those categories, either. I’m a white, Protestant, hetero male from New England. So you can’t lock my work or persona into those trendy social, political, and literary categories. (Wylie 750)

  • 1 I fully support Bernard Demont’s view that some writers attribute to geographical representations t (...)

2Few scholars, however, can resist the temptation of novelty, and the tantalizing possibility that innovation may pass unrecognized for lack of adequate attention. This is why I hear in Banks’s surmise an invitation to delve deeper into the fabric of a writing that derives much of its effect from its deceptively naturalistic spatial representations.1

3As early as in Continental Drift (1985) Banks put to remarkable use metaphors borrowed from physical geography, the force of his fiction lying in a prose which boldly welds the poetic with the political. In his writing, elements such as relief and climate are endowed with connotative values which exceed by far their denotative function, an aspect masterfully confirmed in Cloudsplitter (1998). It is again the case with Parker Mountain in Affliction (1989) where the role of the landscape is fully imbricated within the novel’s spatio-narrative coherence. Because the site of the mountain magnifies the confrontations between nature and culture around which the plot revolves, analyzing its representation will lead me to observe the dynamic tensions underlying Banks’s visionary realism.

Fact, Vision and Event

  • 2 The term was coined by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan to refer to the visual cues which become associated wi (...)

4In Affliction, the revelation of the domestic violence that drives the main plot is postponed until page ninety-five, which is considerably late in a book counting no less than three-hundred-and-fifty-five pages. This delay has important consequences regarding the novel’s narrative economy. Its first third is devoted to the minute depiction of a small community in a deprived rural area where public interests lie in the hands of a few aldermen, at the end of the twentieth century. Lawford, "a hill-country village in New Hampshire" (Affliction 75), is a fictional place, and the toponym was undoubtedly chosen for the symbolic transgressions it announces, rather than for the sake of geographical accuracy. Other names contribute to this effect, the Minuit River for instance, as well as the central characters Wade Whitehouse, and his boss Gordon LaRiviere. As for the town’s surroundings, they are identified through ample references to directions and distances. The state capital, Concord, is within driving distance, just as, further south, the cities of Boston and New York whose affluent populations periodically flock into New Hampshire for summer vacations or during the deer-hunting season. The reader has no difficulty evolving a mental map of the area which gains further consistency from the high "imageability"2 of New Hampshire for a North American audience:

That is a tourist’s idea of New Hampshire, he thought, with pine trees drooping over the water and snarls of icicle-laden birches clumped at the edges of eddies and pools, with large snow-covered boulders in the middle of the stream and dark-green water churning, swirling and splashing past and over them, raising a thick white crust of ice at the crest marks. (Affliction 59)

  • 3 "Causality is inferred through simple contiguity, through the dynamics of the logical error singled (...)

5Referential reliability, however, diminishes as Rolfe Whitehouse, the Boston-based narrator edges toward his narratee and settles for a confessional tone involving his audience in the reconstruction of the events which caused his elder brother Wade to kill their violent father, torch the ancestral home and disappear over the line into a Canadian winter. Whenever the narrator reflects upon the process of organizing bare facts into narrative, he emphasizes the cognitive role of the imagination: "I do not, in the conventional sense, know many of these things. I am not making them up, however. I am imagining them. Memory, intuition, interrogation and reflection have given me a vision, and it is this vision that I am telling here." (Affliction 47) His brother Wade Whitehouse shares the narrator’s ability to visualize events he never actually witnessed. Wade, for instance, thinks he can clarify the dubious circumstances of Ewan Twombley’s death on Parker Mountain: "Wade put himself behind Jack’s eyes [...] Wade watched again as Twombley caught sight of the deer below [...] First from behind Jack’s eyes, he saw the huge buck [...]." (Affliction 127) From the scene he recreates, Wade infers that the union official did not die in a hunting accident, but was murdered by his guide Jack Hewitt. In the narrator’s rendering of the events that took place on Parker Mountain, the restriction of point of view to the perceptions of the protagonist similarly causes a shift from the realistic to the visionary: "Jack lifted his head, and for a few seconds he stared at Twombley’s chest, and then he raised the gun and aimed it and fired." (Affliction 79) Although the sentence is devoid of any syntactic ambiguity, most readers are likely to fall prey to the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, and infer causality (Twombley died because of Jack) from a sequence of unrelated actions.3

6Nowhere is the line between fact and vision thinner than in the ultimate confrontation between Glenn Whitehouse, the abusive father, and his estranged son:

His father stood over him, a chunk of rusted iron pipe the length and thickness of a man’s arm in his hands: the man was huge, an enraged giant from a fairy tale with legs like tree trunks, and above his enormous chest and shoulders filled and made solid with calibrated rage his head nearly touching the rafters of the barn [...].
Wade crouched and twisted away from the colossal figure of his father; he turned
like a heretic prepared for stoning; he saw and in one motion grabbed and clutched the rifle barrel with both hands and with the weight and force of his entire body uncoiling behind it swung the thing—the heavy wooden stock sweeping in a quick powerful arc from the frozen ground into the air—and smashed it against the side of his father’s head, whacked and broke it from jaw to temple: the crack of bone, a puff of air and a groan, Oh! and the old man fell in pieces and died at once, eyes wide open—a leathered corpse unearthed from a bog. (Affliction 342-343, my emphasis)

7The use of the indicative mood, unqualified as it is by any modal or mark of subjectivity, endows Wade’s perceptions with the irrefutability of hallucinations. Again, the narrator puts himself behind the character’s eyes and effectively transforms facts into story material. The interpolation about the giant, the analogy "like a heretic," and the final metaphor assimilating the father to a prehistoric sacrificial victim introduce a figurative dimension into the account which troubles the transparency contrived in realism. The fight is detached from the plane of rationality and recast into a fabulous and mystical confrontation which, far from ensuring the immediate legibility of the event, turns parricide into a mystery.

8At this turning point in the novel, the narrator’s involvement in the fabrication of story is all the more obvious as before recounting this scene, Rolfe Whitehouse has just made a conspicuous pause to point out the difference between "fact" and "event": "Facts do not even make events. Without meaning attached, and without understanding of causes and connections, a fact is an isolated particle of experience, is reflected light without a source, planet with no sun, star without constellation, constellation beyond galaxy, galaxy outside the universe—fact is nothing." (Affliction 339) The metafictional aside foregrounds the task of the narrator as creator. It draws attention to the shaping force of narrative which transforms facts into events by inserting them into the story’s connective tissue. Likewise, analyzing the representation of Parker Mountain in Affliction is likely to clarify the process through which a geographical fact is invested with meaning, and a mountain starts to function as story material.

The Mountain Figured and Disfigured

9There is quite a difference between the "hills of Cow Hampshire" (314) where a Parker Mountain does rise to the mighty height of four-hundred-thirty-three meters in Strafford Country, and the Parker Mountain in Banks’s Affliction:

Parker Mountain, or seven thousand acres of it, which is essentially all of it, is more hill than mountain. But because it is a monadnock, a single lump of dirt and stone disgorged whole by the retreating glacier, it bears no geological or visual relation to the White Mountains farther north and east or to the Green Mountains west and south, and thus—more or less isolated in a lumpy bed of lesser hills and ridges—it stands out and does indeed resemble a mountain. Parker Mountain, then, and not Parker Hill, seemed to the white people to be an appropriate name, more so at least than the Abenaki name for it, which early maps translate as Place of the Serpents. (Affliction 50)

  • 4 Following Henri Mitterand and Bernard Demont, I am using the term "spatio-narrative" in reference t (...)
  • 5 Augustin Berque coined the term "proto-landscape" to refer to ancient perceptions of the environmen (...)
  • 6 In an earlier passage, Rolfe Whitehouse similarly described "glacial corrugations like heavy-knuckl (...)

10This passage underscores the difference between landform and landscape, the latter being understood as a textual representation sustaining the spatio-narrative coherence of the novel.4 Here, fastidious references to the area’s geomorphology do not suffice to create verisimilitude. It is quite the opposite as geographical detail leads to the evocation of a landscape unlike any other. As he distinguishes the monadnock from nearby mountain ranges, particularly the White Mountains, the narrator rules out the possibility that the reader may identify Parker Mountain with the aesthetic and ideological legacies of the Hudson River School. His drawing attention to the hill’s usurped name also works against the mental association of Parker Mountain with any bold contour or profile. In fact, two different ways of apprehending the environment overlap in a description combining scientific detachment with the fabulous associations found in the proto-landscapes of oral cultures.5 The verb to "disgorge," for instance, anthropomorphizes the erosion process through a metaphor evoking the intervention of giants, a popular explanation for any geological oddity before the consequences of glaciation were properly understood.6 The translation of the hill’s Abenaki name—"Place of Serpents" rather than the less formidable "snakes"—similarly evokes a presence quite inimical to men.

11But the elevation of a common-place hill into a fabulous mountain requires more than passing associations with ancient beliefs. The transformation is effected through the fictional topography which opposes Parker Mountain to the Minuit valley where the houses of the village huddle together on the river’s eastern bank. "Four miles west of the center of Lawford on the north slope of Parker Mountain" (Affliction 95, my italics), the Whitehouse farm stands conspicuously vulnerable to the intemperance of men and climate, on the very limit where the order of civilization abuts on the wilderness—"the place of the wild deer, and hence, by tacit understanding, the territory beyond the reach or authority of English common law." (New 29) A twofold reference to the word’s etymology and to the orientation of frontier imagination are therefore conjoined in the location of Parker Mountain where all the novel’s spotting and stalking takes place, the fate of the deer intersecting with the twin plotlines that lead to Jack Hewitt’s death and Wade Whitehouse’s disappearance.

12On the other side of town, Mountain View Trailer Park, where Wade moved after his divorce, is an apt counterpoint to the Whitehouse farm. The trailer park represents another liminal zone where geography fulfills a double role as fact and event. In true realistic fashion, it indexes the political and social exclusions marking off Wade as a loser. But geography is also endowed with a malevolence of its own, almost an agency, against which the residents have no defense: "It was the place most exposed to the cold winds that swept off Parker Mountain and, picking up speed as they crossed the lake, banged like hammers against the tin sides of the unprotected trailer before swooping on toward the White Mountains beyond." (Affliction 53) Here, the valley and the mountain introduce the bipolarity of American frontier narratives in the novel. The fictional topography overtly alludes to frontier history through the toponym of "Saddleback Ridge," the escarpment leading to Parker Mountain (Affliction 50). And the plot will indeed confirm that hunting on Parker Mountain causes a displacement to a space and time where, in Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous words, "for a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant." At a deeper level, however, the opposition between the valley and the mountain also harks back to the foundational dichotomy through which all human societies distinguish the inside from the outside (Tuan 32-36). The formula finds its most persuasive expression in fairy tales where no house is ever safe enough to resist the brutality of nature when it strikes, either in the guise of wolf or whirlwind. Should the audience be impervious to such echoes, the narrator overtly refers to the abstract landscape of Grimm folktales in four important occasions. In the incipit, the audience is asked to think of Lawford as "a village in a medieval Gennan folktale" (Affliction 2). Such is the model guiding Wade’s aspirations when he imagines a home for himself, "a warm bright spot in the middle of the cold dark forest" (Affliction 135), and later a suitable partner, "the woman whose presence in his life, in this old house way out in the woods, would help make Wade’s life a proper father’s life [...]." (Affliction 219) The image recurs in the dénouement when Rolfe evokes "a Teutonic village in the mountains" (Affliction 340) in relation to the legacy of violence which has afflicted the Whitehouses—or White people’s households—since time immemorial. The double entendre is here impossible to miss. And the paradigm is finally confirmed when the son about to rise against his father sees the old man transfigured into "an enraged giant from a fairy tale" (Affliction 342).

13What inflection does the generic inscription of the fairy tale give to the novel’s realism? The answer, of course, is likely to vary depending on the aesthetic aspect we want to emphasize. In terms of characterization, references to the tale reinforce verisimilitude, as they identify the terrorized child surviving in the adult character. Yet, this is not quite what the narrator intends his audience to consider when he pauses to reflect on his story’s generic underpinnings:

[O]ur stories. Wade’s and mine, describe the lives of boys and men for thousands of years, boys who were beaten by their fathers, whose capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth and whose best hope for a connection to other human beings lay in elaborating for themselves an elegiac mode of relatedness, as if everyone’s life were already over. It is how we keep from destroying in our turn our own children and terrorizing the women who have the misfortune to love us; it is how we absent ourselves from the tradition of male violence; it is how we decline the seductive role of avenging angel: we grimly accept the restraints of nothingness—of disconnection, isolation and exile—and cast them in a cruel and elegiac evening light, a Teutonic village in the mountains surrounded by deep dark forests where hairy beasts wait for stragglers and deer thrash wild-eyed through the deep snow and hunters build small fires to warm their hands so as to handle their weapons gracefully in the cold. Wade’s life, then, and mine, too, is a paradigm, ancient and ongoing, and thus, yes, I do know the rest [...] and I will tell it to you. (Affliction 340)

  • 7 See, for instance, the list of examples that can be consulted on < (US E (...)
  • 8 On his choice of the novel’s title and epigraph, Banks comments in interview: "It came from Simone (...)

14The narrative voice assumes authorial accents as it reflects upon the efficacy of genre, and the contribution of form to meaning-making. Neither is the "paradigm" of the tale merely invoked for the distancing its "elegiac mode" allows, nor for the abstraction resulting from the transposition of singular facts into formulaic events. The tale also instills into the Whitehouse story the ferments of a timeless aspiration for justice in the face of "the immorality of reality" (Jolies 192). As André Jolies explains, the folktale is informed by an "ethics of events" which determines the organization of story material and culminates in an ending asserting the naive morality of how things should be (Jolies 188-190). This orientation stands in contradiction with the realistic novel which, because it is centered upon an individual and the gaining of agency, is likely to propose an ethics of action. Affliction, however, is less concerned with praxis than with pathos, a shift in focus announced as early as in the novel’s epigraph, a quotation by Simone Weil: "The great enigma of human life is not suffering but affliction." Here, the philosopher introduces a distinction between terms many will consider interchangeable. The consultation of several corpus databases suggests that the difference between them is not merely a matter of degree.7 Although the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "affliction" as "great suffering," the nuance differentiating their usage seems to lie in the absolute lack of agency—and therefore of responsibility—which "affliction" and its derived forms express. This may be the reason why the latter term is often associated with the intervention of either Fate or God, meddling with the life of an innocent victim, as in the Book of Job.8

The Revelation on Parker Mountain

15Does an ethics of events, as opposed to an ethics of action, ultimately prevail in Affliction? Or, put otherwise, what happens on Parker Mountain? The tale’s resolution, Wade’s fight with the giant, finds an unexpected sequel in the confrontation which opposes Wade to his friend and rival Jack Hewitt, on the northern slope of Parker Mountain. Convinced that Hewitt was paid by the mafia to shoot Twombley before he could testify about possible links between trade unions and organized crime, Whitehouse decides to take the law into his own hands and chastise the alleged murderer. As he follows Hewitt’s trail towards the summit. Wade’s progress is described in terms that adumbrate a mountain epiphany. Standing above the valley, he embraces his whole life—blazing farmhouse, sleeping town and trailer park—in one panoramic glance (Affliction 348). The narrator’s partiality for the vocabulary of the sacred—Lake Minuit is lying flat like "a frozen wafer" (Affliction 346); his brother smiles "as if a beam of celestial wisdom had entered his brain" (Affliction 348)—is another indication that a revelation is at hand. And finally it does happen:

Behind [Jack Hewitt] the travois bumped along, causing the deer’s carcass to lurch back and forth; its head, overweighed by the large rack of horns, lolled back against the ground, bloody mouth agape, black tongue extruded, wide-open eyes opaque as onyx, and a thin broken trail of blood dribbled over the trampled snow behind.
When he rounded the bend in the trail, Jack looked up to see how far he still had to go, and he saw the man with the rifle and saw that he was aiming the rifle at the centre of his chest [...] Jack recognized him at once. (
Affliction 349)

16The encounter between Wade and Jack is eerily modeled on the formula the narrator sketched out earlier on: "deep dark forests where hairy beasts wait for stragglers and deer thrash wild-eyed through the deep snow and hunters build small fires to warm their hands so as to handle their weapons gracefully in the cold." (Affliction 340) The tale’s paradigm, however, is not operative when set in parallel with the mountain scene. Although the correspondence is blatant enough in terms of setting and plot, its perception yields no insight into the moral value of an ending in which the participants’ roles have become muddled: friends cannot be told from foes, the hunter from the hunted, and stragglers from hairy beasts. The latter pair is perhaps the most intriguing because the most unstable of all, insofar as the term "straggler" may equally refer to the buck, to Hewitt, or to Whitehouse, the three of them having strayed behind in various races to the top—the summit of a mountain but also the summit of a career and sentimental life in the case of the two men. Ultimately, the tale’s matrix yields ambivalent metaphors which have lost their consolatory powers of clarification.

  • 9 Three references to blood on snow signal the gradual yet irrepressible surge of violence in the nov (...)
  • 10 Atwood further notes that, even more frequently than tragedy, pathos is the dominant mode in Canadi (...)

17Just as the paradigm of the fairy tale fails to give a moral orientation to the ending, the shooting which settles the account in so many American frontier tales is also denied its formulaic efficacy. Both the killing of the deer and Jack’s subsequent death are left outside the frame of narrative, each ellipsis inscribing a blank exactly where such stories usually reach their climax. In most American hunting stories, Margaret Atwood has famously argued, the interest tends to be centred on the hunter, not on the animal protagonists: "They are Nature, mystery, challenge, otherness, what lies beyond the Frontier: the hunter wishes to match himself against them, conquer them by killing them and assimilate their magic qualities, including their energy, violence and wildness, thus ‘winning’ over Nature and enhancing his own stature." (Atwood 74) To the American model, Atwood opposes the Canadian formula in which the killing of the animal is presented not as the outcome of a quest, but as a tragedy, "because the stories are told from the point of view of the animal." (Atwood 75) Banks’s Affliction subscribes to neither model but rather turns them against each other. The deer’s dribbling blood inscribes on the white snow a signature which metonymically relates the animal to the novel’s innocent victims and prefigures Jack’s imminent death.9 But no causality can be inferred from the facts whose sequence merely asserts the senseless, yet seductive contagion of the violence that culminates in the description of the buck’s wasted beauty—"bloody mouth agape, black tongue extruded, wide-open eyes opaque as onyx." Yet, the pathos10 aroused by the euphonious isolocons is dispelled on the following page, in an epilogue which further denies readers both the reassurance of genre and the satisfaction of plot.

18In the end, the narrator reluctantly concedes that, indeed, "there was no motive [...] the links between Jack and Twombley [...] existed only in Wade’s wild imaginings—and briefly, I admit, in mine as well." (Affliction 351) The epilogue reveals that all the plot connections the characters imagined ultimately boil down to business connections. Property changes hands, investors get richer and advertising hype turns the area into "Parker Mountain Ski Resort" (Affliction 353), a dream attraction for the tourist crowd. The deflation caused by the change in generic regime, from vision to fact, from fabulous wilderness to tourist resort, from tale to realism is an unexpected source of disarray. The disappointment we feel when the mountain is brutally returned to the proportions of a hill—real estate for the building of condominiums and a pool-and-pavilion complex—should therefore encourage us to question our expectancies in fiction, and perhaps also, our taste for blood.

19Affliction puts remarkable strain on the reader’s trust in the protocols of the tale—and its avatar, the frontier narrative—by overtly invoking their effectiveness only to foreground their subsequent failure to arrange certain facts into meaningful events. In the absence of a consolatory fiction, and in an ultimate attempt at producing a narrative, Rolfe Whitehouse reproduces a clipping found in the local newspaper:

Local Man Sought for Questioning
Lawford, N.H., Nov. 15. In a related series of events over the weekend, two men were killed in this peaceful upstate town of 750. The body of Glenn Whitehouse, 67, a retired millworker, was pulled from the ashes of his bam, which burned to the ground Saturday in a fire of dubious origin. Whitehouse had been killed by a blow to the head, authorities said.
The body of the second man, John Hewitt, 22, the town police officer, was found by State Police Captain Asa Brown in the woods of nearby Parker Mountain where Hewitt was deer hunting. According to police, he was shot once by a high-powered rifle. Hewitt was the hunting companion of Massachusetts union leader Ewan Twombley, whose accidental death here was widely reported two weeks ago.
Police are searching for Wade Whitehouse, 41, the son of the first victim. Hewitt had recently replaced the younger Whitehouse as town police officer. Brown said, "We have plenty of evidence. The man didn’t even try to hide his tracks."
Townspeople are shocked by the twin killing, the first murder in Clinton County in more than a decade. The suspect is believed to have left the state in a burgundy Ford pickup owned by Hewitt. A nationwide manhunt, with Canadian authorities cooperating, is under way. (353-354)

  • 11 Throughout the novel, Jack Hewitt and his girlfriend are repeatedly described as Wade and his forme (...)

20None of the elements in the news item is unknown to the reader. Because the sparse rhetoric of the press pares data down to a minimum, one cannot miss the punctual efforts made to invest the report with the coherence necessary to inform events. As a result, singular facts are introduced as "a related series of events," and the two murders become one "twin killing." The journalist is nevertheless at pains to identify a single motif and falls back on the predictable motivations of revenge and frustrated ambition which turn losers into villains. Once again, sequential order is interpreted as a causal relation informed by the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. Deceptive as it is, the logic derived from the succession of facts underlines one interesting coincidence. The phrase "twin killing" certainly has no explanatory value, but it draws attention to the kinship between Glen Whitehouse’s and Jack Hewitt’s deaths, between domestic violence and frontier violence, the former being presented as the latter’s uncanny double.11 Yet, the ideological implications of the pairing are not explicated by the narrator who, still groping towards a form of understanding, assures the narratee that, should his brother eventually be arrested, "[t]he story will be over. Except that I continue." (Affliction 355)

  • 12 Cloudsplitter is an obvious case in point. Violence is often gendered as male in Banks’s writing. T (...)
  • 13 "Nonetheless, the facts of a life, even one as lonely and alienated as Wade’s, surely have meaning. (...)
  • 14 André Jolles’s theory does not take in consideration the frontier tale per se, as Formes simples wa (...)

21The narrator’s final intimation that violence is not logical but contagious, that although it is neither rational nor accountable, its very irreducibility fuels the impulse to shape the facts of a life into narrative, is echoed in all of Banks’s fiction. His oeuvre may indeed be read as an extended meditation on the "tradition of male violence" (Affliction 340) that runs deep in American history.12 Entrusting a historian with narrative responsibility allows Banks to foreground the problematic task of configuring facts into events. This process, Rolfe Whitehouse tells his audience, requires the ability to set up "connections."13 In the novel’s context, the image evokes the ancient rituals—Halloween or the seasonal hunt—through which violence becomes externalized and the community’s bonds reinforced. The word also recurs in relation to Alma Pittman whose job as the town’s clerk is to "collect the taxes and fees, and in that way connect the town to the larger communities the county, the state and even the nation and make the people of Lawford into citizens, make them into more than a lost tribe, more than a sad jumble of families huddled in a remote northern valley against the cold and the dark." (Affliction 180, my emphasis) The extrapolation pits the geography of American democracy against a setting as forlorn as the northern wastes which Rolfe imagines his ancestors to have roamed for centuries, before they migrated to the New World, taking along with them the rituals, tales and mental landscapes that would help them survive in a brutal environment (Affliction 56-58). In the novel’s fictional topography, Banks’s Parker Mountain therefore rises at the confluence between two popular traditions—the folktale of Northern Europe and the American frontier tale.14 The generic connection has momentous consequences. It refutes the promise of absolute beginnings sustaining the master narrative of the New World. And by the same token it also stresses the perpetuation of the forms of injustice which crush the disenfranchised. After domestic and frontier violence have devastated individual homes and the community’s social space, the tale is returned to the mundane proportions of a hard news story in the local paper. So, no ethics of events ultimately prevails in Affliction, but instead the outrage most audiences are likely to feel when an ending jerks them awake instead of lulling them to sleep.

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ATWOOD, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Fiction. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Ltd, 1972.

BANKS, Russell. Continental Drift. 1985. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 1999.

BANKS, Russell. Affliction. 1989. Toronto: Vintage, 1997.

BANKS, Russell. Cloudsplitter. Toronto: Random House, 1998.

BANKS, Russell. The Darling. 2004. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2005.

BERQUE, Augustin. Les Raisons du paysage de la Chine antique aux environnements de synthèse. Paris: Hazan, 1995.

DEMONT, Bernard. Représentations spatiales et narration dans les contes et nouvelles de Guy de Maupassant. Une rhétorique de l’espace géographique. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2005.

DVORAK, Marta. Ernest Buckler: Rediscovery and Reassessment. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2001.

FAGGEN, Robert. "The Art of Fiction: Russell Banks", The Paris Review, 40 (147). Summer 1998, 50-88.

FERRE-RODE, Sandrine, Hélène QUANQUIN, and Christine LORRE, eds. Comparer les USA et le Canada. Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, forthcoming.

TUAN, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

TURNER, F. J. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. ed. and intr. George Rogers Taylor, Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1972.

WYLIE, J. J. "Reinventing Realism: An Interview with Russell Banks", Michigan Quarterly Review 39 (4). Fall 2000, 736-755.

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1 I fully support Bernard Demont’s view that some writers attribute to geographical representations the status of active agent Greimas identifies as "actant," a structural role only full-fledged characters usually enjoy (Demont 499).

2 The term was coined by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan to refer to the visual cues which become associated with a given setting. The imageability of New York has achieved a world-wide currency through the circulation of pictures of the Manhattan skyline (Tuan 204-205).

3 "Causality is inferred through simple contiguity, through the dynamics of the logical error singled out by scholasticism under the term post hoc, ergo propter hoc. As Roland Barthes argues in ‘Introduction à l’analyse des récits,’ the groundwork of narrating is the confusion between consecutiveness and consequence. We inevitably tend in any sequence to interpret what come after as having been caused by." (Dvorak 66)

4 Following Henri Mitterand and Bernard Demont, I am using the term "spatio-narrative" in reference to the interdependence of spatial representations and narrative economy in fiction where geography has a prominent structural function (Demont 57).

5 Augustin Berque coined the term "proto-landscape" to refer to ancient perceptions of the environment in which the physical setting is not perceived as distinct and distant from the spectator (Berque 39-40 and 59-60).

6 In an earlier passage, Rolfe Whitehouse similarly described "glacial corrugations like heavy-knuckled fingers reaching down toward the broad alluvial valleys and low rolling hills of Massachusetts and Connecticut." (Affliction 61)

7 See, for instance, the list of examples that can be consulted on <> (US English) and <> (British English).

8 On his choice of the novel’s title and epigraph, Banks comments in interview: "It came from Simone Weil. I felt that every other name for it, like domestic violence, or male violence, if you want, or child abuse—those terms were too reductive and simplistic and weren’t descriptive, finally. They didn’t describe the condition the way the word affliction did, which implies something greater than a disease, but still a disease. It has a moral dimension, too. An affliction is a blood curse, in a way, a blood disease. I wanted all of those associations. I couldn’t get at the condition without a metaphor that was large enough and suggestive enough to handle it. I needed a religious term, almost." (Faggen 7)

9 Three references to blood on snow signal the gradual yet irrepressible surge of violence in the novel’s closing section. The motif originates in the clot of blood Wade spits after removing the decayed tooth that has been plaguing him since the opening of the novel (Affliction 298), it recurs first when Wade smashes his daughter’s nose (Affliction 338), and again in the description of the deer’s dead body (Affliction 349).

10 Atwood further notes that, even more frequently than tragedy, pathos is the dominant mode in Canadian animal stories: "Tragedy requires a flaw of some kind on the part of the hero, but pathos, as a literary mode simply demands that an innocent victim suffer." (Atwood 75) The remark is valid for Affliction, a novel which alludes in complex ways to the existence of an alternative culture north of the boundary line. I have devoted some attention to this particular aspect of the novel in "Sous influence: la géographie canadienne dans Affliction de Russell Banks," forthcoming in Ferré-Rode et al.

11 Throughout the novel, Jack Hewitt and his girlfriend are repeatedly described as Wade and his former wife’s younger alter egos. When he seduces her, Wade fights Hettie Rodgers’s resistance arguing: "‘It’s all right. We’re not who we are. I’m Jack, and you’re Lillian.’" (Affliction 311)

12 Cloudsplitter is an obvious case in point. Violence is often gendered as male in Banks’s writing. That’s why his latest novel to date, The Darling whose heroine is a former activist who becomes involved with Liberia’s dictatorial regime in the 1990s, marks an interesting evolution.

13 "Nonetheless, the facts of a life, even one as lonely and alienated as Wade’s, surely have meaning. But only if that life is portrayed, only if it can be viewed, in terms of its connections to other lives: only if one regards it as having a soul, as the body has a soul—remembering that without a soul, the human body, too, is a mere fact, a pile of minerals, a bag of waters: body is nothing. So that, in turn, if one regards the soul of the body as a blood-red membrane, let us say, a curling helix of anxiously fragile tissue that connects all the disparate nameable parts of the body to one another, a scarlet firmament between the firmaments, touching and defining both, one might view the soul of Wade’s or any other life as that part of it which is connected to other lives. And one might grow angry and be struck with grief at the sight of those connections being severed, of that membrane being torn, shredded, rent to rags that a child grows into adulthood clinging to—little bloody flags waved vainly across vast chasms." (Affliction 339-340, my emphasis)

14 André Jolles’s theory does not take in consideration the frontier tale per se, as Formes simples was written in the 1930s, at a time when American popular literature had not yet received the attention it deserves from literary scholars. It seems to me, however, that the "ethics of events" which Jolles believes to inform the folktale also operates in the frontier tale. Elaborating on this aspect may throw light on the morphology of the frontier tale and the sentimental adhesion it elicits from its audience.

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Bibliographical reference

Claire Omhovère, « Parker Mountain, or the Geography of Pathos in Russell Banks’s Affliction (1989) », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 289-298.

Electronic reference

Claire Omhovère, « Parker Mountain, or the Geography of Pathos in Russell Banks’s Affliction (1989) », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 25 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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