Russell Banks’ new book examines familiar themes
It’s early on a brisk morning in September, and Russell Banks is standing in front of the Marriott Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, smoking his first cigarette of the day. In a few hours, he’ll be onstage at the Brooklyn Book Festival, across Adams Street in Borough Hall Plaza, but at the moment he’s a little tired — the result of a late night with his friend, novelist Paul Auster, a longtime Brooklynite.
Still, at 71, Banks looks fit, hair and beard white and close-cropped, eyes sharp behind a pair of frameless glasses that sit like windows on his face. Wearing a blazer, carrying a galley of his 12th novel, “Lost Memory of Skin” (Ecco: 417 pp., $25.99), he chats briefly with a reader, then stubs out his cigarette and moves back inside, taking the escalator up to the hotel restaurant.
Banks is in Brooklyn to kick off the book tour for his new novel, the story of a 22-year-old homeless sex offender known only as the Kid. Although it takes place, for the most part, in the Kid’s shadowy world, the novel is primarily about the inability to connect, to find a place for oneself in a society that seems increasingly disembodied. “That’s what the title is referring to, in a way,” Banks says. “There’s a lost memory of the physical reality of other people’s beings; the digitalization of the body has occurred.”
Certainly, that’s true for the Kid, who spent three months in jail for an indiscretion with an underage girl. Even before he got into trouble, he was addicted to pornography, addicted to the computer, alienated from the people around him, alone and adrift.
“This is not an uncommon condition,” Banks suggests. “Especially among young males. Or even middle-aged and older males. There has been this gradual creep over the last several decades, so that where there was once a sharp line between fantasy and reality, especially regarding the erotic, there’s now just a fuzzy gray zone between the two.”
Such a tension has been a factor in Banks’ fiction going back 25 years or more. His 1985 novel “Continental Drift” revolves around a 30-year-old repairman named Bob Dubois, who throws over his old life in New Hampshire to move to Florida, with unexpectedly tragic results. A similar impulse motivates “Rule of the Bone” (1995), in which a 14-year-old runs away from a treacherous home situation to fend for himself: This is, in many ways, a parallel story to the one Banks tells in “Lost Memory of Skin,” a narrative about what happens when there’s nowhere left to turn. What both books share, Banks suggests, is a sense that “the structures and the bonds of society have broken down to such a point that [the main characters] end up as pariahs and totally marginalized.”
As to where this comes from, he continues: “Maybe I have a vision of society as being so fragile and the bonds of community, the attachments, being so easily broken — in fact, being almost nonexistent — that you end up either faking your life or living on the margin. Both Bone and the Kid are like that.”
To make the connection explicit, he weaves a couple of references to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” into the new novel; “Rule of the Bone,” after all, was “very explicitly an hommage to Twain,” as Banks admits. But there are other resonances also — to his 1991 novel, “The Sweet Hereafter,” whose school bus driver character, Dolores Driscoll (herself no stranger to tragedy), makes a brief cameo in these pages and, most important, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” which establishes many of the archetypes on which “Lost Memory of Skin” depends.
“There’s this older male figure, who’s sort of outsized and is endearing and nurturing, but also a little threatening,” Banks explains, referring both to Long John Silver and his own character of the Professor, a heavyset sociologist who takes an interest in the Kid. “And this young kid who’s innocent and not innocent. Jim Hawkins is really interesting — he’s not sweet and innocent but subtler and more complicated, closer to how we imagine ourselves when we’re young. So there are a lot of parallels to Stevenson’s book, more than to Twain or my own Huck Finn.”
For Banks, this relationship between books is as “vivid and inescapable” as the act of storytelling itself. “My life,” he says, “was changed by literature, almost more than anything else I can point to. It’s the guiding star for me. All I have is the entire body of the stories, of the poems, the plays, the literature that have existed for as long as human beings have been preserving their stories. So I can’t avoid it in my work.” Yet equally essential is the power of literature to evoke empathy for other lives.
That’s a key component of “Lost Memory of Skin,” which can’t help but touch on issues that are discomforting, even taboo. “I knew I was entering material most people rarely speak about,” Banks says, “and when they do, they speak about it in absolute terms. But you can’t do that if you’re writing a novel. You have to be forgiving and compassionate and look for shades of gray.”
The book was inspired, in part, by news coverage of an encampment of registered sex offenders living under Miami’s Tuttle Causeway and also by Banks’ experience, a few years earlier, as a jury foreman in upstate New York.
“The trial,” he recalls, “involved a guy accused by his 10-year-old daughter and her friend of having exposed himself to them and fondled them. It was the first time I ever had to confront this reality in a personal way. The guy was clearly guilty. But he was basically a confused, stupid alcoholic, and it was so easy to imagine this poor stumblebum, in a cloud most of the time, in a world that has been eroticized to such a degree, sitting there and he’s sexually inadequate with his wife, and he’s a loser, he’s out of work, he has no sense of any power in the world whatsoever, so this beast in him starts to arise.”
What Banks is getting at is the democratic impulse of the novel, the way “it breaks down the barrier between the self and the other, which is the basis for democracy, the basis for humane society.” That’s a broad claim for the power, or the role, of fiction, but it’s one that Banks’ career has borne out. From the beginning, he has been concerned not just with character but also with the intersection of character and society, the question of how circumstance helps shape identity.
This is the situation with the Kid, who comes out of “Lost Memory of Skin” if not redeemed then a bit more self-aware, conscious of his choices if not quite his desires.
“It’s epistemological,” Banks says — of both this novel and the novel in general. “It tries to deal with one key question: How do we know what we know? Basically, it’s trying to validate the subjective experience of an individual. That’s why it’s the most democratic form in literature, because it raises up to the level of significance the subjective experience of an ordinary human being.”
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