Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Book Review: Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks

I was browsing through the Kindle store looking for a new book to read when I stumbled across “Lost Memory of Skin” by Russell Banks. I hadn’t read Banks before, but I had heard good things about some of his work. I took a look over the description of the book and I thought it sounded like an absolutely terrible book to read. It says quite clearly in the book’s description that this book features a castaway sex offender living within a community of castaway sex offenders. We’re not talking about an inviting read here… but you DO know what you’re getting yourself into, and I thought I’d like to see whether Banks could pull it off.

In the first part of this book, I was less than encouraged. In fact, I was utterly uncomfortable. Maybe my discomfort should have foretold this book's gripping nature? More on that later. For the first part of this novel, I really don’t think Banks knew what he wanted to do. You sort of have to ease a reader in gracefully to a book on this subject matter. Not many folks swan dive smilingly into an ice bath.  Banks attempted to get us used to the temperature of this novel by putting up Rorschach-like flash cards of “the Kid” our featured sex offender. The flash cards, written fragments, captured moments in a sex offenders ongoing life, in his past, in his mind. It’s not all that pretty, and we emerge feeling unsympathetic for “the Kid” and certainly uneasy with his story. Where was this book going?

Then comes our second screwball character, a hyper-intelligent (genius) Professor who has taken a keen interest in the boy, his blight, his daily life and future improvements to all of the above. Why? I don’t know!! I really don’t. But the parts that followed sure gave me enough to think about.

In my desire to not like this book, I found myself reading through squinted eyes, reading with the tv on, reading while doing anything else to allow myself to believe I didn’t like it. But I read nonetheless, and I couldn’t put it down once the story got rolling, if only to have some questions answered:

  • Who was this Professor fellow, and why, if he was so incredible intelligent, was he wasting his time on the sex offender kid?
  • Who was this sex offender kid? Did he do something really terrible? How terrible is what he did, even after I knew what it was? I mean, afterall, he WAS a convicted sex offender, right, doesn't that mean no matter what he did, it's still very, very terrible?
  • What made this kid do what he did? What makes any sex offender do what they do? Given what they’ve done, can there be any good in them at all?
  • What would YOU do with a community of sex offenders, unable to live within 2500 square feet of a place where children will be, basically leaving very few places for them to live at all?
Banks doesn’t try to answer these questions. He isn’t writing a message on morality. He leaves it to the reader to decide all of these things and I’m fairly certain each reader could easily fall on any part of the spectrum with their answers after reading this book. I do think Banks builds one character (“the Kid”) who is real enough to make us want to gaze into his life, sympathetic enough (eventually) that we ask the question about “whether any good can be salvaged from his life” despite what he did... and another character so surreal and out there that we almost have to watch, just to see what happens next, as anything is possible and we don’t know whether to believe the best or the worst.

The most important thing Banks does in this novel is get us asking the questions.

Banks definitely makes some mistakes in this book. There are times when his writing sweeps off on grand tangents that add nothing to the overall story, as if because he got us thinking he was entitled to our attention (Chapter ONE of Part V is a perfect example of this). Some details of the Professor are stretched so thin it’s hard to allow him a space in the ultra-real world created by the gravity of the subject matter of this book. At times, the story is so ambiguous it seems wishy-washy, almost demanding some moral comment and seeming somewhat thin for the lack of one.

But we easily forgive him, because we want to know what we’re watching. Is it the creation of a symphony or a snowball slowly descending into hell? More questions…

Towards the end of the novel, a nameless travel writer is introduced… I think he gives us what is supposed to be an “unbiased look” at the situation, or at least a fresh pair of eyes for a fresh read. About the writer, Banks writes:
“He doesn’t want to find himself trapped in dark self-designed delusions: he’s all too familiar with his affection for bad news and conspiracies. It’s had a negative effect on his career.”
In this part, the writer is trying to formulate an opinion about the enigmatic genius Professor when presented with some details that would allow him to view the Professor in a very negative light. But it is the reader's willingness to see good in people that has kept us reading this long, that keeps us holding onto the small bit of hope that we have that there really IS some good in these people. And, ultimately, the writer knows from his past experiences how easy it is to gravitate towards bad news and conspiracy theories and the conclusions they lead us to; how that has had "a negative effect on his career". So he rejects that thinking and allows himself to believe the good, to “freeze his disbelief”. He says to “the Kid”:
“What you believe matters, however. It’s all anyone has to act on. And since what you do is who you are, your actions define you. If you don’t believe anything is true simply because you can’t logically prove what’s true, you won’t do anything. You won’t be anything. You’ll end up spending your life in a rocking chair looking out at the horizon waiting for an answer that never comes. You might as well be dead.”
It’s about a close as you’re going to get to any truth or clarity in this one. As close as you’ll get to the answers to your questions… which are simply what you BELIEVE to be true, as influenced by the novel you’ve read and how you process it. Good enough for me, and I think good enough for you too.

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