Lost Memory of Skin: A Novel

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The Notables: 2011

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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo (Most Anticipated)The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding)The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (2011 National Book Award Finalists Announced)The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table)Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy (William Kennedy’s Long Dry Spell Ends with Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes)11/22/63 by Stephen King (Most Anticipated)The Free World by David Bezmozgis (The Price of the Dream: David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, The Millions Interview: David Bezmozgis)Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet (Most Anticipated)Gryphon by Charles Baxter (Most Anticipated)House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Ham Steaks and Manstarch: Nicholson Baker Returns to the Sex Beat)The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Most Anticipated)The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Most Anticipated)Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Porn, Lies, and Videotape: On Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin)The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’, Wanting it Bad: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides)A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles (Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles)My New American Life by Francine Prose (Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s My New American Life)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (The Burden of Meaningfulness: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King)Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Most Anticipated)Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Most Anticipated)The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (The Favorite Takes Home the Booker)Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (Rock ‘n Roll Malaise: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia)The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (The Impermanence of Memory: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics)Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (The Millions Interview: Karen Russell)Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (The Millions Interview: Eleanor Henderson)The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife)The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (Most Anticipated)Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Most Anticipated)

Porn, Lies, and Videotape: On Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin

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Russell Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, is a descent into a netherworld of convicted sex offenders, banished to the outer edges of a seedy Florida city called Calusa, beside the primordial “Great Panzacola Swamp.” It’s a novel of the ruin and possible renewal of the Garden of Eden, where “maybe the Internet is the Snake and pornography is the forbidden fruit.” It’s a novel about the interpenetration of real and digital skin, and of self-hatred and self-gratification, in their basest and most exalted forms. Banks here is an old American master taking on a new world run not by the gossip and slander of small towns, as in many of his earlier works, but by Facebook and YouTube, Pay-per-View and the bottomless archive of online porn, coursing through communities of individuals who are at once infinitely connected, lost in some huge shared dreamscape, and, at the same time, fundamentally incapable of confronting the reality of other people. As such, Lost Memory of Skin is a pretty harrowing look at loneliness in America today, following the long path away from being “a mere loner” toward being “someone desperately lonely.” The novel leaves us with the hope that, beyond this point, reality might finally begin, even as we get deeper and deeper into the 21st century.

Like most of Banks’ work, Lost Memory is about the inner turmoil of American men. It combines elements of social realism with an intense inquisition into its characters’ collapsing and regenerating inner lives. In many ways, it’s classic Russell Banks, but it’s more than the shift in setting from frozen north to sultry south, and from hushed small town to roiling big city, that sets it apart from Banks classics like Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, and makes it a book that demands to be read, substantially enriching the already-overflowing Banks canon.

Just as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the main character here is a young man known only as “The Kid,” a lost soul that, at the beginning, prefers the apathetic ease of being lost to the hard responsibility of being “found.” He prefers to remain a Kid, despite the fact that he is drifting into his twenties, which helps explain why he never quite accepts the guilt for the crime he was convicted of, as if he and the fourteen-year-old girl he attempted to have sex with were internally the same age, even though externally, in the eyes of society, they very much are not.

Furthermore, like McCarthy’s Suttree, Lost Memory takes place on the bottom rungs of an unglamorous American city, down by the water where trash and sewage pile up and ooze away. Here, the sex offenders live like animals under a causeway because they are forbidden from residing within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might congregate. Also like McCarthy, Banks uses italicized text rather than quotation marks to set off his dialogue, giving the narrative a feverish, melting quality, as if the descriptive prose and the dialogue were all of the same essence. What his characters think and try to conceal, and what they say about themselves versus what others say about them – none of these are separable into an ordered, permanent record. On these pages, lies can take root anywhere and dissembling is the rule rather than the exception.

Although Banks’ world is less sweepingly Shakespearean than McCarthy’s, adopting instead a shaky conversational tone built from scraps of Facebook postings and chat room dialogue, his work, like McCarthy’s, is marked by its insight into American manhood, and its aspirations to permanence beyond time and place. Unlike McCarthy, however, and unlike Banks’ previous novels, Lost Memory of Skin is about sexual criminals rather than violent ones, and so the ways in which it thematizes manhood are different. It’s about men locked in cycles of desperate make believe, men who can only “picture having sex with… people who couldn’t reject them. Like dead people. Or little kids.”

Earlier Banks novels tend to be about the ways in which men commit and get away with acts of violence, in a society that tacitly tolerates them. The sex crimes in Lost Memory are likewise products of American society, but now the tacit tolerance has been replaced with vindictive hysteria. There is a commonly held belief, I think, that violence is not something we all do, and thus, paradoxically, something we can do, when we must, because it’s already contained in its own separate category. Our understanding of sex, on the other hand, because it is such a common part of commercial and private life, cannot tolerate any such deviance. Thus, society produces sex offenders – nurturing the requisite starving loneliness, and then offering the entire pornographic and predatory infrastructure of the Internet to satiate it – while at the same time exercising extremely punitive power over them. The power of Banks’ premise comes from the volatile nature of this paradox.

As Banks construes it, society’s decision to banish sex offenders into its most unseen corners is yet another form of self-deception, a vast cultural unwillingness to engage with other people, as vast as the Kid’s unwillingness to find a mature, reciprocating partner. Thus, the colony under the causeway is a hiding place for what society does not want to see: it’s a deep, police-enforced lie.

More than a study of societal hysteria, what Banks has written is a meditation on the cultivation of lies over time. The truth about the Kid is available online to anyone who has his real name and wants to look him up in the National Sex Offender Registry, and yet, without porn’s lies about sex, his name never would have been in that Registry in the first place.

So the Kid is trapped in the midst of this network of lies. A “white guy in his early twenties,” unemployed and estranged from his single mother, he shares plenty of traits with typical Banks characters: he’s an alienated outsider, looking into society with a mixture of fear, disdain, jealousy, and longing. He’s self-taught and self-reliant, determined to maintain “strictly enforced surface relations with people.”

From telling others that he’s just returned from Afghanistan, to disguising his real name like a paranoid ex-spy, the Kid hides behind smaller lies to mask the giant lie that hovers over him: that he does not know who he is, nor even how to be certain that he’s alive and not dead. It is this larger lie that recoils from the nuances and ambiguities of love and sex, and craves pornography’s static, one-sided comfort. While online, he’s connected to the outside world and everything in it, and yet, at the same time, he’s profoundly alone, lacking even his own company. He cannot imagine what to do while not watching porn, and, while watching it, he hangs suspended between worlds, imagining himself participating in the virtual sex act on his computer screen, while actually participating in a very different act just in front of it.

Although in many ways “an Innocent,” he is in no way innocent. He is, rather, like all the men under the causeway, both a victim and a victimizer. He has been victimized by his mother’s indifference, by a school system that failed to reach him, by the military, which discharged him for giving away a few porn DVDs, by “brandi18,” the young girl he went to visit who told her father to ambush him when he arrived at her house, and by the justice system that sentenced him to ten years of exile for a single offense. Victimization is a common theme in Banks’ fiction, especially the victimization of children by adults, and the ways in which this both stunts moral development and also, frighteningly, stimulates it, as if the very process of passing into adulthood were necessarily one of being victimized by the adults who’d passed that way before.

The Kid’s fall into damnation is hard and sudden: the moment he shows up at brandi18’s house, it’s all over. After being burned on his first attempt to reach out, it will be a long time until the Kid works up the courage to try again. The process by which he begins to do so makes for a dramatic coming-of-age story, but what really fleshes out Lost Memory’s considerations of truth and falsity is the Professor, one of the most intriguing characters in all of Banks’ fiction. When he appears beneath the causeway, ostensibly to study the Kid as part of a project on homelessness, and begins to coerce him into giving candid, taped interviews, the novel shifts toward exponentially weightier mystery.

Morbidly obese and colossally brilliant, the Professor’s ideal life is “one with no witnesses,” lived “at the extreme outside edge of human interaction.” Addicted to binge eating alone in the middle of the night, and unshakably convinced of his right to tyrannize everyone he encounters, the Professor introduces something grotesque, even bizarre into the novel. His disquieting effect exceeds even that of the worst and most unrepentant of the sex offenders.

Like the Kid, who comes under his wing but never learns whether or not to trust him, the reader has to scramble to keep up with the Professor’s constantly changing intentions and explanations. He is not the Kid’s foil, nor his double, nor, quite, the novel’s antagonist, although he fills all of these roles. A walking “quarter ton of flesh,” he’s at once an almost unbearably physical presence, and also a specter, someone about whom so little can be known that even the fact of his existence feels tenuous and provisional. Ultimately, he becomes a kind of gross manifestation of the unknowability of absolute truth, as hard to reach in reality as the porn actresses deep in their digital lair.

Like the Judge in Blood Meridian, who has a similarly threatening hand in helping or forcing McCarthy’s Kid to grow up, and like the victimizing adults in other Banks novels, the Professor serves as a highly unstable model of adulthood. Because of this, he stands as living proof of the inherent instability of being an adult, the acceptance of which may itself be the rite of passage that the Kid must undergo. Through his failed efforts to establish the truth about the Professor, the Kid begins to appreciate how maddening uncertainty can be, and to devise some rough belief system to preserve his sanity against this.

When real danger starts to infect this uncertainty, a sense of acceleration and impending cataclysm gathers, especially after a hurricane wrecks the colony under the causeway. As the Kid sees it, the hurricane is “like Noah and the Flood.” It is, essentially, the bottleneck through which the novel’s spirit must pass. It is also the culmination of a long series of biblical motifs that underscore the Kid’s attempts to move from guilt and willful blindness into innocence and self-recognition, aided by his discovery of a Bible in the tent of a deranged former senator. These motifs sharpen Banks’ portrait of the causeway colony as a land of lepers, or a polluted Garden of Eden (much like the snake-infested Panzacola Swamp). One could well see the Kid’s move away from porn, through the limbo of his exile, and finally toward the possibility of love, as a journey away from idol-worship and into a sturdier, harder-won religious faith, one as crucial today as ever before, but also harder than ever to arrive at.

During one of their interviews, the Kid asks the Professor, “You ever wonder why they call them skin mags and skin flicks, by the way? …I mean they’re not really skin, they’re just pictures of skin. The only skin they get you touching is your own.” Pondering this question, we come to see that the novel’s title refers not only to the Kid’s distance from reality at the moment of his crime, but also to a hope that this lost skin – his own and that of others – might not be forever lost, but might one day be “remembered,” or found for the first time. As the hurricane recedes and the Professor’s fate rushes toward him, snaring the Kid in its undertow, the novel approaches its harsh but by no means hopeless conclusion. Still under the causeway but beginning the work of climbing out, the Kid leaves us with the possibility that he may one day emerge from the Internet’s murk of avoidance, and accept the difficulty of reckoning with other people, understanding at last that the price of not doing so is more than he can pay.

Tuesday New Release Day: Ghosh, Banks, Kennedy, La Farge, Warner, Roth, Greenblatt, Orlean, Franzen

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It’s a big week for new books. Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke is now out, as is Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy, Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge, and The Funny Man by John Warner, who recently appeared in these pages. Philip Roth’s American Trilogy is getting the Library of America treatment. (Capsule previews of all of the preceding titles are available here, incidentally). New in non-fiction is Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern and Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin. And out in paperback: none other than Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

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