Sunday, January 15, 2012
I'm not ashamed to name-drop: I hung out with Russell Banks a few times back in '93, I believe. I was in the MA in English program at Temple University. The MA had a focus in fiction writing and Banks was a visiting writer one semester. Hanging out with Russell Banks and Toby Olson several times when when I was an aspiring writer was a special opportunity, and though I never actually pursued being a writer after grad school I still think fondly on those days. At that time Banks was working simultaneously on Cloudsplitter and Rule of the Bone. "Rule of the Bone is my leisure time, my fun," he said. "Cloudsplitter is my work."
Rule of the Bone is leisure writing? Have you ever read Rule of the Bone?
But here's Banks with a new novel, Lost Memory of Skin. It reminds me of Rule of the Bone because of the voice of its narrator, but the book ranks with Banks's most complex moral fictions as well. As befits the author of books like The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, his latest is rather discomforting.
The novel's narrator is called The Kid. Usually if a book's narrator is called The Kid I'm in for a good read. Sam Delany's astonishing dystopian novel Dhalgren had a narrator named Kid. Toby Olson's magical (sur)realist novel The Bitter Half had a controlling consciousness called The Kid (although sometimes the dog's consciousness took over). My high expectations for The Kid-narrated novels were met and perhaps exceeded by Lost Memory of Skin.
I'd have to be in top blogging form to review this book fairly, and I'm not in top blogging form. I did 400 pushups today and drank a half bottle of Lirac watching the Ravens game. Not top blogging form. But here goes!
All the characters in this book are archetypes. The Kid, The Professor, The Wife/The Widow, The Writer. The last archetype's physical description is quite obviously a reference to the real writer's author photo on the book jacket. The Kid is guilty of a grotesque crime, a sexual crime against a minor, and he is wearing a tracking bracelet for the first of 10 years. The Professor muses about weighty matters such as the causes of homelesses and the plight of sexual predators after conviction and their near-inevitable eventual homelessness. The Wife/The Widow I'll not discuss, and The Writer is a kind of deus-ex-machina who drops in to help make manifest the various threads of moral ambiguity at play in the narrative.
So Banks, fearless in the face of deep ethical questions, uses pornography and pedophilia and questions of freedom and responsibility to create a probing exploration of what America's promise has become. We've gone from shining city on the hill to I dunno what, but Banks could tell you. Everyone's trying to get back to Eden but they're distracted by porn and cell phones.
I'm sorry--I owe this book more than this treatment. Too much vino! It's really good, however. I also recommend The Relation of My Imprisonment.