From the opening pages of Affliction:
“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. . . . There are kinds of information, sometimes bare scraps and bits, that instantly arrange themselves into coherent, easily perceived patterns, and one either acknowledges those patterns, or one does not.”
“For most of my adult life, I chose not to recognize those patterns, although they were patterns of my own life as much as Wade’s. Once I chose to acknowledge them, however, they came rushing toward me, one after the other, until at last the story I am telling here presented itself to me in its entirety.”
“For a time, it lived inside me, displacing all other stories until finally I could stand the displacement no longer and determined to open my mouth and speak, to let the secrets emerge, regardless of the cost to me or anyone else. I have done this for no particular social good but simply to be free.”
“. . . facts do not make history; facts do not even make events. Without meaning attached, and without understanding causes and connections, a fact is an isolated particle of experience, it’s reflected light without a source, planet with no sun, star without constellation, constellation beyond galaxy, galaxy outside the universe—fact is nothing. 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 regard 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.”
“Without Lillian, without her recognition and protection, Wade would have been forced to regard himself as no different than the boys and men who surrounded him …deliberately roughened and coarse, cultivating their violence for one another to admire and shrink from, growing up with a defensive willed stupidity and then encouraging their sons to follow. Without Lillian’s recognition and protection, Wade, who was very good at being male in this world, a hearty buff athletic sort of guy with a mean streak, would have been unable to resist the influence of the males who surrounded him.”
Affliction, by Russell Banks, is a beautiful, brutal telling of one man’s demise. The cause? Life! Wade Whitehouse is a man who has reached middle age – nothing in his life even closely resembles the dreams and expectations he had for himself – he is filled with disappointment, resentment, anger and pain. Find me someone who isn’t!
Wade is everyman. He is a strong, physically powerful, former high school star athlete. He peaked at 20 and has spent the last twenty years in a gradual descent – an almost unnoticeable decline in every area of his life. In Affliction, we are privy to his every thought, desire, and disappointment as his life, and all its failings, come to a disastrous end.
The amazing element in this story is that we are able to be inside Wade’s head – to understand the collected hurts that have created the man. How wonderful this would be in real life. To understand the heart and mind of that guy who cut you off in traffic, the insecurities of the couple who continually tell you about their “awesome” life, to know the depth of the hurt and fear felt by the bully waiting at the bus stop or the fear of failure that keeps your hard driving boss up at night.
How much better would we treat each other if we knew this information? How much more empathetic could we be – more patient, loving, understanding and forgiving.
Life is complicated. Every action we take is often a culmination of lessons, hurts, events, experiences, wins, losses and memories that we have accumulated over a lifetime. We react in certain situations in a certain way because of a single event in our childhood or a lifetime of watching (and absorbing) one of our parents behaving in the same way.
What aging, and for most of us, maturity, teaches us is that everything is more complicated that it appears. The immature, when they witness a transgression, or sin, immediately judge the person. They are uncomfortable with ambiguity – with the idea there is more to what they see and hear than meets the eye.
Modern living – survival – often requires that we classify one another – place others in convenient boxes of “understanding” – this allows us to function in the world – we know who we should interact with, who we should avoid and where we “belong.” Our world is ruled by the ego – by ambition, envy, greed, lust, pride and the never-ending need for more of everything. We are slaves to these thoughts, desires and impulses and they have become the rulers of our lives – it is for want of things (status included) that we work too much, love too little and view one another as connections rather than people. We dismiss one another if we believe they are beneath us or not relevant to our “climb.” We pursue, “network,” with those we hope will help us take another step toward our wants and dreams. To what end?
We have reached an imbalance. We live in beautiful homes, we have full pantries, we have clothes, we are loved, we are educated and we live in safe communities – but we see none of this! Many of us see only what we are missing – a bigger home, nicer restaurants, better clothes, more vacations, second homes – we do not see our blessings, we are merely striving for more because more can be had.
Yet, all around us, men – like Wade Whitehouse – suffer deeply. This is the heart of a man revealed for all of us to see, know and understand. We need to begin seeing one another, caring for one another, loving one another and reaching out in support. We each desire to be accepted and loved, as we are –completely – not based upon accomplishments, achievements, titles, income or status. True love is to reveal one’s self completely and be accepted as such – this is the dream of every man.
Also, if you are not a big reader, the film version of Affliction, starring Nick Nolte, was tremendous. He was perfect in this role and truly embodied the pain and longing that Wade Whitehouse evoked in the book.
Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.