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A Continuity of Voices in Russell Banks’s A Permanent Member of the Family

Une continuité de voix dans A Permanent Member of the Family de Russell Banks
Anne-Laure Tissut

Résumés

Comment se fait-il que certaines œuvres semblent s’adresser au lecteur de manière si insistante ? Cet article entreprend de fournir quelques éléments de réponse en mettant en avant la notion de « voix du texte ». En prenant pour exemple le recueil de nouvelles de Russell Banks A Permanent Member of the Family, il explore les modalités selon lesquelles le lecteur trace, à travers le texte, un chemin singulier et changeant, façonné par son histoire personnelle et sa sensibilité autant que par les potentiels du texte. À travers l’étude du devenir du texte, dont le statut d’objet en apparence figé est remis en question, on espère approcher la complexité de la représentation mentale à laquelle il est fait référence chaque fois que le titre d’une œuvre est prononcé.

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  • 1 My translation of the following: “[L]a fabrique de la liaison, la fabrique du mouvement et la fabri (...)

1Why do certain works seem to address us compellingly? Is it because we can identify with the characters? It seems safe enough to assert that even in the most memorable reading experiences, it is hardly ever the case that the characters are anything like the readers. What is it then that they may identify with, or relate to? This paper suggests that readers may in fact relate to a mesh of voices, whose multiple resonance comes to inhabit them in the form of “a continuity of voices” that I will tentatively call the “voice of the text.” The notion is put forward here as an image allowing the reader to view the literary text as a process implying a network of interactions. It will be studied through the example of Russell Banks’s collection of short stories A Permanent Member of the Family (2013), chosen for its realistic style, which favors the reader’s personal engagement with the stories’ contents while defusing the possibility of identifying with characters – at least in the long run, since characters change from one story to the other. This article endeavors to show how the impression of a “voice of the text” produced by Banks’s collection actually relies on features that are not specific to realism but, rather, pertain to the very possibilities opened up by a poetic – or literary? – use of language. In fact, such a voice seems just as likely to spring from fragmented, experimental works as from more conventionally realistic ones. Drawing inspiration from Jean-Paul Goux’s seminal essay La Fabrique du continu, where prose is defined as “the making of relation, the making of motion and the making of voice,”1 this essay offers to examine how, in Banks’s collection, the three aesthetic tenets identified by Goux are conditions of the reader’s adhering to the book.

2What processes are involved when a reader feels personally addressed by a text? While identification with the characters is not necessary, there might still be a kind of projection (allowed by the work) onto one’s life and being, involving a questioning of one’s identity and modes of thinking, behaving and reacting – similar to the process of “refiguration” theorized by Paul Ricœur in Temps et récit: readers who originally feel de-familiarized by reading then freely invest the fictive world offered to them, thus extending their perceptive possibilities and creating meaning in their lives through a reorganized vision of the elements those lives are made of. Marielle Macé, in Façons de lire, manières d’être, comments that “to interpret the text is to understand oneself in front of the text” (Macé 2011, 127). This article contends that the reader may feel drawn into such a complex, dual process of simultaneous erasing of identity and identification through the “voice of the text,” the nature of which must now be defined.

  • 2 According to Derrida, voice in Husserl is the answer to the difficulty of telling consciousness and (...)
  • 3 The notion of the physical voice as having its source inside the speaking subject yet being project (...)

3Voice in a text is not limited to the physical manifestations of a voice as expressed in direct speech for instance, nor to references to voice. It also pertains to the reading process itself, viewed as an intimate exchange which is not a dialogue nor a soliloquy though it borrows from both. The voice that seems to arise from a reader’s encounter with the text is partly the product of their interpretation of the text. Derrida’s analysis of the notion of voice in Husserl’s work may prove helpful here as we attempt to offer a more specific definition of the “voice of the text.”2 The phenomenological voice is neither physical nor sonorous; rather, it is the intention that brings words to life; it continues to speak and be present to itself – to hear itself – in the absence of the world. Although what is here called the “voice of the text” radically differs from the phenomenological voice – be it only through the intervention of the text as an external object and a provider of elements coming to be integrated into the reader’s conception of the text – a number of similarities may still be noted. If one admits a sketchy view of reading as an interiority projected outside or relating to its outside3 – the text and what it represents – even after the text is no longer concretely present, reading could be considered as partaking of the autonomous presence of consciousness to itself, that implies the world even in its absence – to roughly paraphrase Derrida’s analysis in La Voix et le phénomène (Derrida 1967, 15).

4Much as the notion of voice in Husserl develops from a tension (according to Derrida), likewise tentative definitions of the voice of the text often build from sets of oppositions, between body and text or the spoken and the written, between the material and the abstract or again between meaning and sensations. Claire Fabre, in Effets de voix, has argued that voice results from a complex network of tensions (Fabre 1994, 130), thus highlighting the unstable, dynamic quality of the notion. Noëlle Batt, in the same volume, suggests that the voice of the text emerges from the combination of three phenomena: style, as a network of syntactical and semantical features also endowed with sonorous and rhythmic materiality; the voice effect, or the action of this style upon the reader who is thereby led to a poetic mode of listening; the meaning of the text and its resonance at other levels of the text, corresponding to linguistics, style, genre, topics and symbols, and being unearthed by the reader’s action of linking or relating (Batt 1994). The voice of the text thus dynamically emerges from the interaction between these three phenomena occurring in three distinct though interpenetrating fields. More recently, Peter Szendy again defined the voice arising from silent reading through a combination of three elements, which he calls “the minimal triangulation of reading” (Szendy 2022, 12, my translation). According to Szendy, silent reading, as an interiorized version of the form of reading out loud that used to prevail, always involves at least three parties: “as I read, I let a voice uttered for you go through me, even as it feels that you and me make one with this voice speaking in us and for us” (ibid.). Such a triangulation may open within readers the necessary space for them to be changed by their reading experience, as well as for meaning to emerge through an interpretive process that is necessarily subjective and influenced by the reading circumstances.

5For Batt, “the meaning of the text” (Batt 1994, 27) derives from the resonance of its topics and recurring formal patterns at various levels, all of which form what could be called the reader’s mental image of the text – an image made up of textual fragments merged with pictures that keeps shifting, even after they have put the book down, whenever a given phrase or word returns to the reader’s mind under the stimulus of their current experience. Such a fluid, fragmented image could be what readers have in mind when thinking of a book, hence the radical diversity of visions they may have of the same book, meaning something unique and different to each reader, and subject to change depending on the moment of reading in the readers’ lives. Arguably, in literature, fluctuating meaning partly derives from the equally fluctuating voice of the text, while communication – relying on more straightforward messages – would probably not allow for the emergence of a similar “voice.” Indeed, the voice of the text seems to partly spring from a singular use of language that includes idiosyncrasies and language deviations, a form of what Barthes called “writing aloud” (“l’écriture à voix haute”), a “language lined with flesh” (“le langage tapissé de peau”) which articulates body and language (Barthes 1973, 88-89, my translation). In the present reader’s experience at least, it is impossible to feel called – let alone caught – by a text in the absence of a remarkable quality in the rhythm, stress and syntax patterns of the illusory voice arising from that text.

  • 4 According to Noëlle Batt (quoted by Pascale Poulain), voice is “the critic’s job” (Poulain 1994, 70 (...)

6One may bring a provisional conclusion to the present attempt at defining the voice of the text by suggesting that it corresponds to a specific mode of listening to a text, coupled with the reader’s active reunion of several elements from the text: on the one hand, those having been deliberately created by the author; on the other hand, a pattern of stresses and echoes emerging from the visible topics and concerns of the text, its atmosphere and tone, as well as from the interest and sensibility of the reader having perceived the text as addressing them. In other words, voice is invented by the reader – “invented” in the now obsolete sense of found out, discovered, especially as a result of a search or endeavor – in response to the text’s forms and topics, its stress patterns (what the French would refer to as “accentuation”): readers weave networks of repetitions and echoes, both visual and sonorous, following the text’s structure.4 The emergence of voice is thus favored by silence – “the necessary silence for voice to resonate,” as noted by Claire Fabre about Carver’s fragmented syntax and the many full stops in his stories (Fabre 1994, 132, my translation). It may be argued that the format of the story collection discussed here allows more opportunities for resonance because of the breaks between stories, and because of these stories’ open endings.

  • 5 The Sweet Hereafter (1991) stands as an exception here as it focuses on ordinary people (involved i (...)

7A Permanent Member of the Family is the last of six collections of short stories by Russell Banks. It was published in 2013 between two novels – Lost Memory of Skin (2011) and Foregone (2021) – quite late in Banks’s career, with only one novel to follow – The Magic Kingdom (2022) – before Banks’s death on 7 January 2023. While in his novels Banks often imagines characters involved in major moments or crises of world history,5 here he follows ordinary people engaged in their daily routines, most of them marginalized in one way or another, and nearly all struggling with aging and loss. These characters often deal with their frustrations as they are torn between, on the one hand, their aspirations and desires and, on the other, their fear of being judged by the community to which they belong, at least officially. In terms of forms, all the stories in the collection begin in medias res and have open endings that create the necessary silence for voice to resonate and for readers to project their own imaginary scenarii upon the text.

  • 6 All following quotations are taken from the same short story collection.

8If one tries to unearth from Banks’s collection some of the not immediately visible relations that contribute to the phenomenon of voice of the text, a number of recurring concerns appear that are either deliberately emphasized by the author or foregrounded as the result of the reader’s own exegesis based on his or her own (more or less conscious) preoccupations. Delusion is one of those recurring concerns that the reader may relate to in this particular collection – and, for that matter, in Banks’s whole oeuvre. It is illustrated, for instance, by aging Conrad’s sense of honor as a “Former Marine” (Banks 2013, 7)6: although Conrad has turned into a bank robber, he keeps a stiff upper lip through pretense in front of his three sons, all of whom are involved in law enforcement. Kind-hearted, lonely Billy, who talks to his “Invisible Parrot” so as to resist madness and sate his craving for human relationships, provides another such example. As to Ventana, who is marginalized for being a Black woman from the lower classes, she realizes her little worth in the community’s eyes when she accidentally finds herself locked up in a car dealer’s parking lot under the threat of a ferocious watch dog, after trying to buy a used car – her first one ever – in which she has placed all of her faith and savings (“Blue”). All three characters illustrate forms of self-blinding that are at least partly induced by an individualistic society governed by the laws of profit.

  • 7 “She was a worn-down fifty, […] with a lot of mileage” (ibid., 187).

9Even though delusion in the stories is not explicitly – and not always – associated with aging, it often seems related to the difficulty experienced by the characters to accept their diminishing abilities. Throughout the collection, aging is manifested through recurring references to the pain caused by daily motions (ibid., 167), decaying or damaged organs (“Transplant”), “worn-down” looks,7 hearing aids (“Former Marine”), and the deaths of fellow beings or animals which, as if metonymically, send one back to the prospect of one’s own coming death (“Snowbirds”, “The Outer Banks”).

10Delusion appears as one of the side-effects of being alone and may, in turn, contribute to the characters’ growing isolation. In “Former Marine,” Conrad is reduced to small talk with the waitress and the synthetic messages received from his hearing aids (ibid., 3). In “The Invisible Parrot,” Billy is engaged in conversation with his imaginary parrot perched on his shoulder. Ventana, who is isolated racially and economically, believes she has developed a relation of trust with the fierce watch dog when in fact the dog eventually lashes out at her and bites her. From these stories, a chorus of endurance and broken dreams may be heard: in “Christmas Party,” dreams of a baby lead a sterile couple to break up before the newly remarried wife adopts an African baby; in “The Green Door,” we encounter a desire for a life of performing as the aging, disillusioned bartender gazes at disco-star Cher’s chorus (ibid., 218). Despite the disappointments and pain brought about by life, the characters retain an interest in others and their stories, or discover said interest, as is the case for Howard in “Transplant:” after having resisted meeting the young widow of the donor whose heart saved his own life, he finds himself weeping as he draws her close to him and they remain motionless in each other’s embrace while she listens to his (and her dead husband’s) heart (ibid., 64).

11The stories stage many a situation in which a narrator listens to another’s story, often paying attention to the speaker’s “grain” of voice (to pick up Roland Barthes’s term), as is the case in “Searching for Veronica,” whose female secondary narrator is said to have “a nice whiskey-and-cigarette voice” (ibid., 189). Indeed, in Banks’s collection (as with most short stories, whose format allows little space to develop portrayal), characters are barely described physically but come to life mostly through their voice, both internal and external, their thoughts and spoken words. In “Searching for Veronica,” the primary narrator – revealingly called Russell – while listening to Dorothy’s story also acknowledges his interest in “the way she told it” (ibid., 189).

12Attention to others in dialogues develops not only through the explicit meaning of words (i.e. the communication function of language), but also through individual, fluctuating tones and rhythms (i.e. the phatic or performative function of language): in the collection, the link between speaker and listener relies on modest and discrete manifestations that are likely to suggest emotion while avoiding pathos, thanks to the distance introduced by an emphasis on the materiality of language.

13But how can these material qualities make up the phenomenon of “voice” in the text? How does “voice” differ from other stylistic features or from style in general, which, according to Noëlle Batt, is but one of the three aspects of voice? First, I would argue, through its oral dimension, or relation to the spoken (aloud or in one’s head), and its being related to and dependent on breath. Voice is thus vulnerable, but also malleable, and may go through a whole range of rhythms and sounds, tones, stress patterns and accents; secondly, one may argue that voice is perceptible in a text for its power to create relation – hence the reader’s sense of being addressed, concerned, as the text seems to “speak” to them. What is called upon in the reader does not so much have to do with interests and concerns as with less conscious motivations conveyed as if surreptitiously – at the very least, indirectly – or through suggestions – in keeping with what Barthes refers to as the “signifiance” (i.e. “significance”) mode – and emerging from reading as an intimate encounter: in some cases, when the “grain of voice” is perceived (Barthes 1982, 236-244), reading almost becomes an erotic relation, as readers verbalize the text and recreate it in their mind while the text comes to inhabit them. “Voice” thus seems to refer to a complex process involving several parties into a fluid, unpredictable interaction that continues long after the reader has put the book down. Along those lines, voice would then vary with each reading and pursue its variations in the reader’s memory.

14In Banks’s collection, readers may find themselves responding to the stories most intensely when encountering a number of language deviations or detours, all related to powerful emotions. Conrad’s complaining about his sons’ careless silence is conveyed through litotes: “I wouldn’t mind any kind of news, actually” (“Former Marine,” Banks 2013, 5). Likewise, in “The Outer Banks,” the female character’s emotion after the couple’s dog has been hastily buried in the sand shows in a perversion of speech amounting to closure: “She spoke slowly, as if to herself” (ibid., 170. The most blatant distortion appears in “The Green Door” through the disease of one of the regular patrons of the bar, creating an awkward comic effect:

Enrique folds his paper and says, ‘Back the fuck off, white bread, or I’ll cut your fucking nuts off.’ […] Enrique furrows his brow like he’s going to cry. He looks first at me, then at Allyn, and says, ‘Jesus Christ, I don’t know what made me say that. I’m really, really sorry, man. I got this disease, it’s like a kind of autism and makes me say shit I don’t want to say. I apologize, man.’ (ibid., 219)

15Is this a statement about the conventions of dialogue and the acknowledged need for decorum sometimes barring truer feelings? Or could the “disease” point towards the warping of discourse caused by the power and seduction relationship almost always involved in a dialogue? The collection abounds in examples of daily conversation that are similarly rife with clichés, or at least predictable turns of speech and ready-made phrases, which to some extent constitute claims of power. As a favor to the black woman who is kept waiting by the Chinese cashier, Billy in “The Invisible Parrot” blurts out: “Hey, Missus! You got payin’ customers here!” (ibid., 161). In “Big Dog,” Erik’s delivering the news of his having been awarded the McArthur is met with passionate, clichéed expressions of admiration that soon turn out to actually convey spite and envy. Much to Erik’s embarrassment, Ted begins: “If you don’t mind my saying, man, the truth is, you have a kind of forceful openness that attracts grace”; to which Erik retorts “That’s bullshit. I’m just lucky is all” (ibid., 108). Then Joan jumps in: “No, Ted’s right […] It’s what they call magnetism. Or charisma. You’re blessed with it, lovey.” Another of Erik’s falsely modest protests soon follows (“Come on, it’s a fucking lottery…”) before Raphael comments, in his typically sarcastic way, that “God, next you’ll be washing his feet” (ibid., 108). As the friendly party degenerates into a fight unearthing frustrations and jealousy, controlled, decorous language veers into an unbridled expression of desire, aided by unrestrained drinking. Throughout the collection, predictable language contrasts with a singular, individual discourse that offers its gold nuggets to the reader’s eyes and ears.

16Although Banks’s A Permanent Member of the Family belongs to the genre of realistic fiction, amply tapping the field of ordinary conversation, it offers many a striking phrase – as indeed ordinary conversation also does to an attentive listener (which Russell Banks definitely is). Banks carries out a specific work on clichés that, up to a certain point, is reminiscent of Carver’s. In Carver’s stories, according to Claire Fabre, ordinary conversations are represented rather than transformed, which may create a deviation effect for any reader expecting a mending or repairing action from fiction, aimed at intensifying meaning potentials or simply emphasizing effects (Fabre 1994). In the dialogues of A Permanent Member of the Family, stylistic elaboration remains unobtrusive, and silences are numerous, thus allowing words to reverberate and their material qualities to come out whether they are common, banal words or words endowed with the power of arousing uncommon images that bloom out and shift as in a kaleidoscope.

17“Snowbirds” is one of those remarkable images that give its title to one of the stories and reappears in “The Outer Banks.” The story is about a retired couple who decides to visit the places they have been dreaming of: “There were no children or grandchildren or other close family – they were free as birds. ‘Snowbirds,’ they’d been called in Florida and out in Arizona” (ibid., 167). Yet the freedom and lightness present in the image is tainted by the shadow of aging and a narrowing down of possibilities. Theirs is the ultimate freedom before being relieved of the weight of living, as discreetly hinted at by the unexpected lightness of the dog’s dead body: “He kneeled down and gently lifted the dog in his arms, surprised that she was not heavier” (ibid., 169). Associated as it is with death, lightness acquires connotations of vulnerability that twist the potentially joyful image of birds. This is all the truer for readers previously struck by the opening of the story entitled “Snowbirds,” where the beginning of George and Isabel’s vacation in Florida is marred with the former’s sudden death, which leaves his widow to explore alone a newly acquired “free[dom]:” “Then, barely a month into that first winter, at the end of his fourth tennis lesson at the Flamingo Park public courts, George dropped to his knees as if he’d won the final at Wimbledon and died of a heart attack” (ibid., 65). The kneeling posture, evocative of a supplicant and later echoed in “The Outer Banks,” here connects triumph with death.

18Many of the striking phrases that may stay with readers long after they have read the collection thus combine antagonistic connotations or qualities such as, for instance, beauty and pain: such is the case with the expression “sting your heart” – to be found twice in slightly different forms in the story “Lost and Found” after its first appearance in “Christmas Party” (ibid., 39) – which may have gone unnoticed the first time, until it is repeated in “Lost and Found.” This is how Ellen describes to Stanley her feeling of being “alone in the world” when they meet at a professional convention and almost have an affair: “‘Crowds can sting your heart when you’re alone in the world. Like me.’ He liked that phrase, ‘sting your heart.’ Not something Sharon would say” – Sharon is the wife to whom Stanley decides to remain faithful although he took Ellen to his bedroom (ibid., 178). Years later, when Ellen and Stanley meet again at a similar convention, the suppressed memory returns to him. He explains to her:

The truth is, I didn’t want to remember. […] I didn’t want to remember what I lost that night. And what I found. I wanted to forget that too.’
[…] he hears himself say, ‘My heart got stung. I could feel it beating, and for the first time in years, maybe in my whole life, I knew I was alive.’
‘And it scared you.’
‘It’s like, if you know you’re alive, you know you’re going to die.’ (
ibid., 183-184)

19The power of the phrase is now made explicit, as is its association with life and death. Stanley has unconsciously assimilated it over the course of the years so that it comes back spontaneously, in a slightly different form. Such a phenomenon may be emblematic of the readers’ possible experience: because its originality is pointed out by Stanley and because it is repeated at the end of the story, the remarkable phrase with its stressed monosyllables is likely to remain in the readers’ memory, possibly to undergo a number of variations and resurface later in their thoughts or speech, thus enriching their vocabulary.

20The phenomenon occurs again more at length in “Searching for Veronica” when the narrator, Russell, finds himself increasingly uncomfortable with the story he has been listening to while waiting for his plane. Indeed, Dorothy is explaining how she had to get rid of Veronica, the young junkie whom she took under her protection and hired as her baby-sitter, and for whom she has been searching ever since:

That’s the way it goes down with junkies. They live in their own private story, even when they’re not high. They make up and shape reality with their jones, and if you buy even a small part of it, your own reality gets infected by it; until their jones is yours too, and all the time twenty-four-seven you’re thinking about whether she’s high or not, telling the truth or not, or if she even knows the truth. It’s like a virus. Their sickness becomes your sickness. The only safe response is to quarantine yourself off from them, don’t listen to word one of their elaborate explanations for their actions or inactions. Assume everything is a lie and just throw them out of the house. Even if it’s your own kid. Which is what I did.’
‘You mean Helen?’ I asked her.
“No, Veronica!” (
ibid., 200-201)

21Eventually Russell blurts out:

‘You’re not looking for Veronica or Helene,’ I said. ‘You’re looking for someone else, someone the three of you did a very bad thing to. Someone whose name you haven’t revealed yet. And that’s what you’ve been trying to tell me tonight. And trying not to tell me.’
‘I’m only telling you what I know, Russell.’
‘That’s why you scare me. It’s like you said about Veronica and junkies like her. They live in their own private story, even when they’re not high. You said it’s like a virus. Their sickness becomes your sickness. You said the only safe response is to quarantine yourself off from them. You said to assume everything is a lie. And that’s exactly what I’m doing now. Good night,’ I said, ‘whoever you are. Wherever you are. Whatever you’ve done.’ (
ibid., 206)

22While trying to escape the contagious confusion of identities that has been growing between story-teller Dorothy, the junkie Veronica and Dorothy’s daughter Helene, the narrator Russell also realizes that the woman in whom he has been increasingly feeling interested may be a murderer. In a comic metafictional twist, Russell acknowledges the contaminating power of words as well as their potential destabilizing effects upon one’s sense of identity by quoting Dorothy’s words verbatim and, in yet another twist, by following Dorothy’s advice – “Assume everything is a lie” (ibid., 200-201) – or at least, tyring to do so, as the memory of the story is bound to haunt the listener.

23This infectious power of words may actually account for a number of deliberately maintained ambiguities or uncertainties within the collection. At the end of “The Outer Banks,” as the couple tries to look ahead and plan more visits, they come up with a blurred picture only imperfectly covering the certainty of coming death:

Ed said, ‘We could keep going, y’know. Head for Cape Canaveral, check out the Space Center and all.’
She said, ‘They shut the space program down, I thought.’
‘I guess maybe they did.’ (
ibid., 171)

24Indeed “The Outer Bank” symbolizes the ultimate limit – an idea that may also be read in the very title of the collection, a posteriori, once the reader has grown familiar with the stories: how can one be a “permanent” member of the family unless, of course, one is a dead member? In the face of their common, sobering knowledge of their own mortality, the characters still try to go on living, or to “continu[e] to wait,” as is said of Betty, the nurse who drove reluctant Howard to meet the young widow of his heart’s donor; after having waited for a while, convinced that the meeting was to be brief, Betty got back into the car and, as the end of the story puts it, “continued to wait” (ibid., 64). Characters each in their own ways struggle to cope with the hardships of life and receive hope and comfort from moments of tenderness.

25Tenderness is visible in the already mentioned gesture of carrying a being in one’s arms, as in “The Outer Banks,” where it conveys all the solemnity of the dog’s death and burial and function as a harbinger of its owners’ deaths. As a recurring posture, embracing points at least towards two other stories: “Christmas Party,” in which Harold grabs his ex-wife’s adopted baby and makes for the door, and “Transplant,” which ends on a lasting embrace between Howard and the donor’s young widow (ibid., 64). Together these make up a tableau of endurance, a tribute to life as against the death statuary evoked by the dead dog seemingly “carved of wood” in “The Outer Banks” (ibid., 169). Two major elements in the world of Banks’s collection are combined here: tears and listening, or the expression of life’s sadness along with its antidote, or at least the possibility offered to any human being of registering such sadness to then try to use it as material in one’s own life and transform it.

26In A Permanent Member of the Family, tears appear in particularly intense scenes, as in “The Outer Banks” when the couple discusses what to do with the dead dog and Ed turns to find that Alice is crying: “He looked at his wife, as if for a solution. She was crying, though. Silently, with tears streaming down her pale cheeks, she cried steadily, as if she had been crying for a long time and had no idea how to stop” (ibid., 168). The long alliterative sentence, with its repeated consonants “s,” “t” and “r,” seems to convey a form of primitive outburst or cry, a growing, endless flow once released. Then Alice asks:

‘But what are we going to do?’
‘About what?’
‘Oh, Ed. About Rosie. This,’ she said and waved a hand at the rain and the sea. ‘Everything.’ (ibid.)

27The fact that “This” is immediately followed by “Everything” in Alice’s speech brings together the categories of the determined (“This,” whose reference is not, however, made explicit) and the absolute (represented by “Everything”); except that, for the reader’s benefit, the pronouns are separated by the evocation of her hand’s motion (“and waved a hand at the rain and the sea”), conveying a sense of her expanding despair over both space and time – and the time needed to read the words between “This” and “Everything.” The impact of Alice’s words does not come so much from their meaning as from their rhythm and the tone that may be imagined to them – exasperation and concern, springing from her sudden awareness of the gravity of the moment and the value of life. Again, “significance” is at work here (rather than signification) through Alice’s way of addressing her interlocutor for the sake of catching his attention without saying anything specific. When she asks “But what are we going to do?,” does she mean about “[t]his” or about “[e]verything”? Or is she asking how we, as human beings, ceaselessly make up new ways of coping with adversity and the outrageous fact of our finitude, how we “beat on, boats against the current” (Fitzgerald 1926, 172)? In other words, how can literature help?

28Scenes of embrace and tears in Banks’s collection seem to encapsulate both the sadness of life and its joys, a whole range of emotions in their vibrant intensity. As emblems of endurance, they may bring to mind Toni Morrison’s evocation of the slaves’ songs in Beloved:

They sang it out and beat it up […] They sang the women they knew; the children they had been; the animal they had tamed themselves or seen others tame. They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.
And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again […] Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr. Death, they smashed his head. (Morrison 2005, 128)

  • 8 In Bayard’s view, such relating activity follows an incremental dynamic, as indeed links tend to pr (...)

29The healing powers of voice would then seem to rely on its ability to create relations and even sometimes a community, or at least a sense of belonging. If culture as defined by Pierre Bayard’s in his essay Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus8 corresponds to an ability to develop links between works of different times and geographical areas – as part of an attempt to acquire a global perspective rather than accumulating data about individual works – then culture may allow for both a creative and an affective relation to individual texts, which the readers appropriate to develop a singular and changing vision of them. Hopefully, “the voice of the text” as a notion can help emphasize the collaborative nature of reading and the unconscious elements and processes that contribute to the emergence of what each reader calls the meaning of the text or even the text itself, for instance when one refers to Banks’s collection by its title. This unconscious part includes what has not been planned by the author in the text, and on the reader’s side, the traces left by their past in their minds and bodies, traces which may become perceptible under the effect of features and elements in the text that come to resonate with them. Thus, imaginary, rearranged and sonorous versions of texts resound through the bodies and minds of readers like the lyrics of a song – “as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings,” to quote again from Barthes (Barthes 1977, 181-182).

30Phrases such as those already mentioned – “sting your heart,” “free as birds,” “that and the way she told it,” “I guess maybe they did,” “She was crying, though,” “It’s like, if you know you’re alive, you know you’re going to die,” or again “Assume everything is a lie” and “This. […] Everything” – these are but a few of the word combinations that make it possible for the collection to go on living in the reader, giving rise to a variety of intense sensations and feelings, broadening the range of their perceptive possibilities as well as their vocabulary of emotions and ideas, to become an integral part of the music of their lives.

  • 9 “[C]es valeurs d’écriture que voudrait saisir l’expression de continu” (Goux 1999, 8).
  • 10 “[L]e transfert dans un objet quelconque des qualités essentielles de ‘ce que c’est qu’écrire’” (Go (...)
  • 11 This remains true (although to a different degree) in A Permanent Member of the Family since the re (...)

31For a “voice of the text” to arise remains but a possibility (not a certainty) of the narrative text, but it seems unlikely to arise at all in the absence of an aesthetic project ruling over the writing whose “values” Goux aims to explore through the image of “continuity.”9 For Goux, continuity is what the writer reaches for through the act of writing: not the topic of the book but the “transfer into an object of the essential qualities of ‘what it means to write.’”10 Whether it emerges from a book that is fragmented or, on the contrary, ostensibly and seamlessly fluid and whole, the “voice of the text” may still be perceived by the reader as expressing an urge to relate –  to create a coherence within oneself and to reach out to others – while addressing, albeit sometimes in a subterranean way, the excruciating questions of life and death, because reading, like writing, is an art of time that, according to Goux, plays against time, as well as with time and in time.11 The “voice of the text” could therefore be viewed as a myth accounting for the mysterious yet perceptible transgression of the material limits of the text, allowing for delayed, vicarious human exchanges in pleasure, fear and sometimes even illusion – as the readers’ sense of having understood the meaning of the text (and, in some cases, even the writer’s intentions) may well amount to self-deception. But isn’t such a delusion a part of the stories we live by? The diverse voices arising from Russell Banks’s A Permanent Member of the Family forcefully call upon readers to question their own desires, fears and modes of relating to others through an examination of the ways in which they inhabit language, while offering them the comfort of a warm, benevolent and non-judgmental look upon life and its oddities.

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Bibliographie

Bayard, Pierre. Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 2007.

Banks, Russell. A Permanent Member of the Family. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013.

Banks, Russell. The Sweet Hereafter. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Barthes, Roland. Le Plaisir du texte. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973.

Barthes, Roland. L’Obvie et l’obtus. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1982.

Barthes, Roland. “The Grain of the Voice.” In Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press, 1977.

Batt, Noëlle. “À la recherche de la voix de son texte.” In Effets de voix. GRAAT 12 (1994): 17-27.

Derrida, Jacques. La Voix et le phénomène. Paris: P.U.F., 1967.

Fabre, Claire. “J’entends Carver.” In Effets de voix. GRAAT 12 (1994): 129-138.

Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin, 1950 [1926].

Goux, Jean-Paul. La fabrique du continu. Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1999.

Le Breton, David. Éclats de voix II. Une anthropologie des voix. Paris: Métailié, 2011.

Macé, Marielle. Façons de lire, manières d’être. Paris: Gallimard, 2011.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. London: Vintage Books, 2005 [1987].

Poulain, Pascale. “Between Style and Voice: ‘Annie Dillards’ Hermeneutic Oscillations.’” Effets de voix. GRAAT 12 (1994): 57-71.

Ricœur, Paul. Temps et récit I. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1983.

Szendy, Peter. Pouvoirs de la lecture. De Platon au livre électronique. Paris: La Découverte, 2022.

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Notes

1 My translation of the following: “[L]a fabrique de la liaison, la fabrique du mouvement et la fabrique de la voix” (Goux 1999, 8). One must note that Goux is in fact revisiting Paul Valéry’s definition of poetry, offering to extend it to prose.

2 According to Derrida, voice in Husserl is the answer to the difficulty of telling consciousness and language apart and thus also to the risk of introducing the mediation of language into the immediate presence to oneself that consciousness implies or even amounts to.

3 The notion of the physical voice as having its source inside the speaking subject yet being projected outside is already problematic as regards the delimitation between inside and outside. David Le Breton in his 2011 essay Éclats de voix reminds us that voice is not simply the outward expression of one’s interiority nor of some intimacy of the body (Le Breton 2011).

4 According to Noëlle Batt (quoted by Pascale Poulain), voice is “the critic’s job” (Poulain 1994, 70.) It is the critic’s concern and comes from the critic’s work of relating various aspects and elements of the text to one another.

5 The Sweet Hereafter (1991) stands as an exception here as it focuses on ordinary people (involved in a community crisis) and on the community’s reaction (a concern that is also perceptible in A Permanent Member of the Family).

6 All following quotations are taken from the same short story collection.

7 “She was a worn-down fifty, […] with a lot of mileage” (ibid., 187).

8 In Bayard’s view, such relating activity follows an incremental dynamic, as indeed links tend to proliferate and come more easily once the process has started. Culture would thus amount to a capacity to locate works in relation to others, through comparisons meant to enhance both parallels, points in common and individual specificities. It also amounts to locating oneself, in relation to works and other readers, through an activity of linking and mapping that contributes to the development of a community, of works, authors and critics (Bayard 2007). Thus, literary research involves self-discovery, along a complex process of immersion, comparison and projection at both stages of reading the text and writing or talking about it. One may discover or find confirmation of specific interests, sources of unease, as well as some enlightenments about the reason for having chosen the work under study.

9 “[C]es valeurs d’écriture que voudrait saisir l’expression de continu” (Goux 1999, 8).

10 “[L]e transfert dans un objet quelconque des qualités essentielles de ‘ce que c’est qu’écrire’” (Goux 1999, 9).

11 This remains true (although to a different degree) in A Permanent Member of the Family since the relation to time in a short story collection differs from that created in the longer format of the novel which is the focus of Goux’s essay.

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Anne-Laure Tissut, « A Continuity of Voices in Russell Banks’s A Permanent Member of the Family »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 35 | 2023, mis en ligne le 14 novembre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/15268 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/sillagescritiques.15268

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Auteur

Anne-Laure Tissut

Université de Rouen Normandie - ERIAC (EA 4705), en délégation au LARCA (CNRS UMR 8225)Anne-Laure Tissut is a Professor of US Literature at the University of Rouen, France, specializing in contemporary US Literature, aesthetics and intermedial studies. Her research focuses on reading, voice and translation. She is the author of numerous translations and has translated works by Paul Auster, Percival Everett, Angela Flournoy, Nick Flynn, Laird Hunt, Jerome Rothenberg, Adam Thirlwell, Steve Tomasula, and Margaret Wrinkle.

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