Russell Banks: The Sweet Hereafter

To start off, a disclaimer: I do love genre fiction. As even a brief look around this blog will show you, my reading spreads out very far afield indeed, and I enjoy pretty much every type of fiction as well as quite a lot of non-fiction. Still, the kind of fiction that I love the most, that is closest to my heart, is literary fiction; and there are reasons for that which go beyond personal preference. (And, another disclaimer, I’m of course well aware that there are exceptions, that there is genre fiction which is just as deep and ambitious and formally daring as the best of literary fiction. But those are just that: exceptions. (And, disclaimer inside a disclaimer, there is of course literary fiction that plain sucks, and this is not the exception at all. I’m not concerning myself with bad books here, however.)) What distinguishes good literary from most genre fiction is that the former has a layering of meaning, a surplus of significance which the majority of the latter lacks. You can trace this even in fairly conventional realistic fiction, if it is well made like, let’s say, Russell Banks’ comparatively slim novel The Sweet Hereafter.

So let’s take a look at it. After the disclaimers, a warning: It is impossible to make the point I want to make without mentioning details of the plot, so there will be spoilers.

The Sweet Hereafter takes place entirely in a small American town in Upstate New York. It is told in five parts by four different narrators, each of which has his or her own, very distinctive voice – something that Russell Banks handles very well here: The language that the narrators use does not only serves to tell them apart but also contributes to their characterization and to clarifying their relation to the novel’s central event, a school bus accident in which several children have died. The bus driver’s style is chatty as she attempts to distract herself from the terrible moment when she caused the bus to swerve off the road; the voice of the father who lost two children is detached and matter-of-fact as he is still under shock from which he will possibly never recover; the voice of the lawyer who persuades several of the bereft parents into a compensation lawsuit feels like a court address as he battles with the feelings of guilt nagging at him and attempts to justify himself; and the voice of the girl who survived the accident with her legs paralyzed is defiant as she not only copes with her disability but even tries to draw strength and confidence from it.

On its most obvious level, The Sweet Hereafter is a novel about greed and what it does to a community; it shows how an unscrupulous lawyer exploits the loss of grieving parents, and how those parents are only too willing to give in to his seduction (on this level, the lawyer does come across like something of a snake oil merchant and I think there may be reminiscences of Melville’s Confidence Man). The town community is close to breaking apart, and it is only when the parents and the lawyer are forced to relinquish the lawsuit that the town is finally healed. From this perspective, the novel tells a story of redemption and even is, in spite of the tragedy at its heart, quite uplifting in its overall effect.

That on its own would have made for a nice, if possibly somewhat forgettable novel, but there is more to The Sweet Hereafter than that. On another level – a level that is both more general and more individual – it is a novel about the way a single, unforeseen event can rupture apparently settled lives. The event itself – the bus accident – is never directly represented, it is a void, a lacuna that sharply divides everything into a Before and an After. It is probably from this level that the novel’s stems, insofar as the disruptive force of the event is such that even the survivors and the bereaved parents have been touched by death and passed into a different existence, have in some way died themselves. Of course, their hereafter is not particularly sweet, so the title is highly ironic, but even so the romanticisation it denotates marks one way to cope with the catastrophic event. And the novel traces many ways to deal with the disruption the event has caused, not only for its point of view characters but for the whole town; the lawsuit which was at the centre of the first layer becoming just one coping strategy among many on this level. And the ending, viewed from this perspective, is far more ambiguous – while some people do manage to cope with the desaster and its consequences, some are destroyed by it, and it is quite clear that everyone will be bearing its scars. Even Nichole (the surving school girl), who appears to have become a stronger person after surviving the accident has paid for this with the loss of use of her legs, while others sink ever deeper into lethargy and alcoholism.

The Sweet Hereafter, however, is still not done yet, and there is another layer of meaning to be unearthed if one digs just a little deeper, and this layer is mainly concerned with perception. Or more precisely, with the unreliability of perception which is a theme that runs through the whole novel from start to finish, starting with the bus accident itself, which was caused by the driver seeing something on the road which was not there – or maybe it was, we never really find out and remain as much in the dark about it as the bus driver herself. The bereaved father is unable to view the women he was having an affair with the same way as he did before, she has stopped being desirable for him. When the lawyer persuades the parents of the dead children to file a lawsuit he does so by shifting their perception, first by turning their tragedy into a source of possible profit, second by putting the blame for the accident on an instution that would be able to pay compensation. And Nicole has been sexually abused by her father for years, but none of the grown-ups has noticed, or wanted to notice. This thematic cluster culminates when Nicole places her deposition and lies about what she has seen – but although she lies about having actually seen the speed at which the bus was going, she may very well be right about it, as only the bus driver is contradicting her and she is not exactly reliable herself (and not even quite certain about what she has seen, either). So Nichole may be telling the truth even as she is lying, which of course is precisely what novels do – we might see a metafictional twist hidden there, if we were so inclined.

One could probably find more, if one kept looking hard enough for it, but I think I made my point. It is a bit like Zeno’s paradox, the one about Achilles and the turtle – just as Achilles is unable to catch up with the turtle even as their distance shrinks towards the infinitesimally small, there always remains a residue of unresolved significance in a work of literary fiction, a surplus of meaning which may grow smaller and smaller with each repeated reading but never disappears completely and always promises more things to discover.


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