December Selection: Russell Banks, Lost Memory of Skin, 2011

At our meeting on December 8 we will discuss:

Russell Banks, Lost Memory of Skin, 2011.

I picked this book because I saw a review in the New York Times calling it
“a major new work by Russell Banks destined to be a canonical novel of its time.”

I have not read any of Banks’ earlier books. Two things I know about him are that he is known for creating characters and situations full of “moral ambiguity”, and I really like the Atom Egoyan film The Sweet Hereafter (1997) that is based on an earlier Banks novel.

As we prepare for our discussion of this book, here are some topics I would like everyone to think about.

This book is chock-full of thematic and character parallels, allusions, symbols, moral lessons, and coded puzzles. Too chock-full perhaps; something we can discuss at our meeting. I provide a few examples here, and one of your pre-discussion assignments is to fill in these lists with others.

Here are a few examples of parallel characters and themes:
1. The most obvious is that the lives of The Professor and The Kid have many parallels.
2. The narrator suggests to us that perhaps The Kid should not have been allowed to have pets, and that The Kid’s Mother perhaps should not have had him.
3. The Kid trusts Iggy; Iggy is killed. The Kid trusts The Rabbit; The Rabbit commits suicide. The Kid trusts Brandi8; The Kid ends up designated as a sexual predator for life. The Kid comes to trust The Professor; The Professor is either killed or commits suicide. And I was intrigued near the end of the novel with the question, Should The Kid trust The Writer?
4. One of the chapters states that The Kid’s life parallels the history of The Seminole Indians.
5. The Kid’s ankle bracelet parallels the manacles worn by the prisoners seen working at the park. And these seem to be related in some way to the locks used by The Kid to secure his bicycle and by The Professor to secure himself to his van when he commits suicide.
6. The Kid was caught in a sting operation. The Sheister was caught in a sting operation. Perhaps The Professor was caught in a sting operation. And perhaps all of us, except by luck or the grace of God, could have been caught in a sting operation based on acts we committed when young.

Here are some examples of allusions I noticed in the book:
1. Treasure Island throughout (Benbow’s, pirates, treasure maps, etc).
2. The Bible, in particular the Genesis story of The Garden of Edan, the Serpant, Paradise and Hell, and discussions of God’s Law versus Man’s Laws of good and evil.
3. There are many implicit allusions and at least two explicit references to fact that Kid’s life has some similarities to Huck Finn.
4. There are several implicit allusions and at least one explicit reference to Heart of Darkness.
5. There are several allusions to Russell Banks’ earlier novel, The Sweet Hereafter, including the character Dolores Driscoll. (I am curious to hear from those of you who have read other Banks’ novels, whether or not there are obvious allusions to some of his other work).
6. There are allusions to Moby Dick, most directly in the descriptions of the Professor’s van being pulled from the water, Like a Harpooned whale.

A listing of possible symbols used in the book could run for pages. Here I will simply list two of the most obvious. Please come to the discussion prepared to discuss other examples.
1. The Professor is obviously too big to be considered simply as a single character in the story. He is used as a symbol for, among other things, God, Do-gooder social scientists who think they can remake society for the better, and all of us who carry around secrets about our pasts.
2. The Kid, in addition to being an actual character, is a symbol for our society and its values, including the expanding role of the internet in forming our consciousness, the pervasiveness of sexual imagery and pornography, the literal and figurative ways that technology now allows us to be “connected” with others and also allows corporations and governments to monitor our activities.

I am also interested in the significance of the structure of the book. The facts are laid out to us in 5 sections (Why not 1, 2, or even 100?) each of which has several chapters. Some chapters describe events “in the present”, others give background information about events that happened in the past to both The Kid and The Professor, and some chapters include a combination of both kinds of information. Most of the information in the book is provided to us by a narrator (more about that below), with interspersed snippets of dialog. However, some of the chapters are completely dialog (the interviews). How does this structure (the organization and order in which the information is presented to us) relate to the story being told? Are there parallelisms in structure and prose that match up to the parallel themes of the book?

Probably the question that intrigues me the most about the book has to do with the narrator. He (I am going to refer to the narrator as a male although I suppose it could be a female) comes across frequently as a pompous moralizer, constantly lecturing or sermonizing to us. Is the narrator perhaps The Writer (of “Outside” magazine). I think The Writer would potentially have access to all of the information that is revealed to us in the book. Or is the narrator someone else, and is it even the same narrator in every chapter of the book? Is the narrator trustworthy? Why does he repeat himself so much, and why does he feel compelled to talk down to us readers in a condescending way, making allusions and symbols explicit as though we are too ignorant to pick them up on our own. For the same reasons that a joke teller who feels he has to explain his jokes is usually not very funny, a narrator who feels compelled to explain his allusions and symbols is not very impressive. Obviously, a writer with the skills of Banks could have created a narrator that lectured to us in a more subtle way such that it was not annoyingly apparent that we were being lectured to, and who made references and allusions without explaining them to us, and who did not repeat himself so much. So I assume Banks had some purpose in mind with this choice of narrator, but I am not sure what that purpose is. Hopefully some of you will be able to enlighten me about this issue during our discussion.

A final thing that interests me about this novel is the suggestion that it contains a mystery that can be solved by a discerning reader. All of the allusions to Treasure Island would automatically make one curious as to whether the author had playfully included clues that would allow us “find the treasure”, i.e., to solve some of the issues that would appear on first reading to be ambiguous. The clever inclusion of codes and puzzles throughout the novel furthers that impression (e.g., The Professor committing suicide by using a combination lock that he knew he would not be able to figure out how to open if he changed his mind at the last minute when his van entered the water, the address where the van entered the water being “Lock one-oh-seven”). Finally, Banks plants two specific messages into the novel informing us readers that, unlike real life where the truth is often ambiguous, in novels the truth can often be discerned by a careful reader. That makes me think there is a treasure to be found for the reader willing to take the time and effort to break the codes in the book. I haven’t found it yet, but haven’t looked very hard. I am not sure how much time to spend on this because perhaps Banks is just playing with us with these passages and sending us on a wild goose chase. My hope is that I will not have to figure this out because some of you who are more clever than me will have already figured it out and will fill in the rest of us during our discussion!


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2011 Selections, Lost Memory of Skin and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to December Selection: Russell Banks, Lost Memory of Skin, 2011

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    Following our discussion of Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin, I provided additional “post-discussion” information about this selection in a new post.

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