Aches in Fiction

In response to my post on Tuesday about various ailments missing in fiction, a reader sent me a note reminding me about the horrible toothache in Russell Banks’s Affliction. The story, you’ll remember, revolves around a middle-aged man’s steady descent into murderous paranoia; the toothache he suffers from makes things worse. I leafed through my copy of the book to find this memorable passage, where Wade extracts the painful tooth with a pair of pliers:

He uncapped the bottle of whiskey and opened his mouth–it hurt just to open it–and took a bite of whiskey the size of a tea bag and sloshed it around inside his mouth and swallowed: but he felt and tasted nothing, no grainy burn in his mouth or chest; nothing except the cold steel ripsaw of pain emanating from his jaw. He opened his mouth wider and touched the beak of the long-handled pliers to his front teeth, pulled his lip away with his fingers, forcing a cadaverous grin onto his mouth, and moved the pliers toward the dark star of pain back there. The jaws of the pliers angled away from the handles, like the head of a long-necked bird, and he managed for a second to lock them onto one of his molars, then released it and clamped them onto the adjacent tooth. He withdrew the pliers and set them back down on the bench. The pain roared in his ears, like a train in a tunnel, and he felt tears on his cheeks. (…) He set the bottle down on the toilet tank and looked into the mirror and saw a disheveled gray-faced stranger with tears streaming down his cheeks look back at him. He opened the stranger’s mouth and with his left hand yanked back the lips on the right side, then took the pliers and reached in. He turned the face slightly to the side, so that he could see into it, pried the mouth open still further, and locked the pliers onto the largest molar in the back, squeezed and pulled. He heard the tooth grind against the cold steel of the pliers, as if the tooth were grabbing onto the bone, and he dug further into the gum with the mouth of the pliers and squeezed tightly again and pulled harder, steadily. It shifted in its bed, and he moved his left hand into place behind his right, and with both hands, one keeping the pressure on the tooth, the other lifting and guiding the pliers straight up against the jaw, he pulled, and the tooth came out, wet, bloody, rotted, clattering in the sink. He put the pliers down and reached for the whiskey.

Of course, the toothache here serves a metaphorical purpose, and there really is no symbolic meaning for mine (that I know of.)

And now I must go back to bed, to take care of my own affliction, the flu.

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