Russell Banks talks archetypes and underdogs
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In Sunday’s Arts & Books, book critic David L. Ulin talks to Russell Banks about his new novel, ‘Lost Memory of Skin.’ Banks is the author of ‘The Sweet Hereafter,’ ‘Affliction,’ ‘Continental Drift,’ ‘Cloudsplitter’ and ‘Rule of the Bone.’ Here is more of the conversation.
Jacket Copy: ‘Lost Memory of Skin’ is a realistic novel, but it also plays with archetypes. None of the characters are named but rather go by more general designations: the Kid, the Professor. In some sense, even they don’t know who they really are.
Russell Banks: I was trying to use the conventions of realism to tell the story but also to lift it off the page and make it a bit more universal and archetypal. Once I got going with the Kid and the Professor, I just felt this was going to work, that I could do this all the way through. It’s the same reason I didn’t call the city Miami, even though it clearly is Miami -- if I call it Miami, then I’m stuck in a level of social realism that I don’t want to get held down by. Even though I love the conventions of realism and the tradition of it, I don’t want to be limited by that. But on the other hand, I don’t want to write something hyper-real or surreal or meta-real, or anything of that sort, which takes off from the page and never gets grounded in reality again. So I wanted it to hover somewhere in between the two, and tell a story that would have the flavor of a fable and the feel of a fable, and yet be rooted in our everyday, mundane reality. That was one reason why I never gave him a name. Once I had gotten 50, 100 pages in, and he still was called the Kid, I was quite comfortable with it, and that meant everybody else was going to be treated more or less the same way. It’s funny the way names do that. Pretty soon, the person becomes the name. And by the time you get very far into it, it would be shocking any other way. So he is the Kid.
JC:It also allows you to play with the fabric of reality a little bit. There’s that scene late in the novel when the Professor is driving in the eye of the hurricane for hours and hours.
RB: And the babes on blades early on who float up into the sky. Stuff like that you couldn’t do if you didn’t have this kind of slightly bent reality. You can’t get away with it unless you establish ground rules that permit it. It’s a way of being aesthetically coherent throughout, of trying to find the zone of realism where those things are possible but it’s still grounded in reality. What we call realistic fiction, it’s not a rigid formula. There’s this tremendous expanse between Zola and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Where do you want to land on that? What band, of all the bands that exist between Zola and Garcia Marquez, do you want to work? Then you find that zone and you try to make the whole thing consistent. My zone was somewhere in the middle, where I thought: This is where I want the novel to exist.
JC: There are echoes between ‘Lost Memory of Skin’ and novels such as ‘Continental Drift’ or ‘Rule of the Bone.’ Most unexpected, perhaps, is the reappearance of Dolores Driscoll, whom we last saw in ‘The Sweet Hereafter.’
RB: There are some characters you just don’t want to let go of. You keep wondering, what the hell ever happened to them? Dolores is one. I always liked her and I always wondered what had happened to her. But it wasn’t really a return to ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ or to ‘Continental Drift’ or ‘Rule of the Bone.’ It was just ... in a way, I think of it as an extension, a continuation of those books and those stories and those characters. And I suppose some of the archetypes too, which do exist in those books. Here we have the adolescent male who’s on a quest for meaning in what otherwise seems like a meaningless life and he has an older guide, who’s not quite trustworthy ...
JC: Yes, and because of this we never quite know what’s truth and what’s illusion, even when the characters speak for themselves.
RB: Exactly. So how do you find meaning, how do you find the truth? That’s one of the Kid’s quests. He had to think in ways he’s never thought before. And the fate of the Professor presents him with an epistemological problem: How do I know what I’m supposed to know about reality? At the beginning of the book, the meaning of his life doesn’t extend beyond today. By the end, you hope, anyhow, that he can think ahead nine years.
JC: Your fiction often has a social component, a sense of literature not necessarily as a corrective but as a window. That’s true here, as well. RB: I don’t have a program or an agenda. Or an ideology, for that matter -- as a writer. But as a citizen, I obviously have a politically engaged imagination. And inevitably the work is going to reflect that. It isn’t as if I sit down and try to use fiction to advance any agenda. But I know I can’t escape my view of the world. It’s in every choice of detail, every arrangement of a scene, every description of a character. They’re all going to reflect that, for better or worse. I think this is true of every writer, whether they intend it or not. Even those who claim to have no politics still end up with a political perspective.
JC: Because even the claim to have no politics is a political stance.
RB: It’s a stance. Exactly. You can sense, I’m sure, my sympathies and my antipathies. It’s not too hard to see them. They’re not that radical, though. It’s conventional sympathy for the underdog. Hell, what writer worth his or her salt doesn’t have sympathy for the underdog? Isn’t that the point? Even Henry James had a certain sympathy for the underdog. He didn’t know much about them ... .
JC: It’s a reflection of reality.
RB: It’s pretty inescapable. These are not happy pills, these books. I think they reflect my own view, of course -- inescapably, whatever you write ends up reflecting your view of the larger world.
JC: You’ve called the novel the most democratic form of literature. But why not extend that to all of fiction? What about the short story?
RB: You really can’t live inside the head of another human being long enough in the short story. I’ve always felt the short story is much more closely related to lyric poetry than it is to the novel. Both happen to be written in prose, and they rely on some of the same tools, like dialogue, scene and so forth, but they have a very different relation to our experience of time, our subjective experience. When you start a novel, part of the point is to forget where it began. A novel imitates the flow of time. So, 75 pages into a novel, you can’t remember where it began. And that’s the point: Just like in your life, you can’t remember where it began. Whereas with a short story, it’s the opposite. You have to remember where it began when you get to the end, otherwise it doesn’t work. Just as in a poem or in a sonnet, if you don’t remember where it began, the last couplet doesn’t really make sense. When Poe describes the proper length of a short story as being short enough to read in one sitting, what he was really talking about was not forgetting where it began.
-- David L. Ulin