Russell Banks, Lost Memory of Skin, 2011.
I read this book twice in preparing for our discussion. The first time through I had ambivalent feelings about whether or not it was a significant enough work to warrant spending much time and effort analyzing it. However, during my second reading I was more favorably impressed, and now concur with those critics who deem this a major literary work. The crux of my difference in opinion on the two readings has to do with my interpretation of the narrator(s) of the story. In this commentary, I am going to describe how my interpretation of the narrator changed between my first and second readings.
During my first reading I was puzzled, confused, and unimpressed by the narrator of the story. The narrator sometimes came across as a pompous moralizer or an uptight, and somewhat incompetent, social critic. For me, the experience of reading the book frequently felt less like an enjoyable novel where one inhabits the lives of the characters, and more like I was listening to a sermon or to a lecture in a classroom. Consider passages like this one:
“When a society commodifies its children by making them into a consumer group, dehumanizing them by converting them into a crucial, locked-in segment of the economy, and then proceeds to eroticize its products in order to sell them, the children gradually come to be perceived by the rest of the community and by the children themselves as sexual objects.” (p. 159)
This particular passage is describing the social theory of a character identified as The Professor and a charitable interpretation of this passage might be that The Professor really described his theories with this kind of language, but even if so, it still reads as pretty stultifying prose. If I wanted to read this kind of stuff, I would most likely go find a sociology textbook instead of having it force-fed to me while reading a fictional novel. Even worse, are moralizing passages whose voice seems totally inconsistent with the character who is stating them. Consider the following passage attributed to The Kid, a High School graduate who we are told “had not once read more than the first few pages of any of the books that had been assigned over his entire four years of high school. (p. 222). The Kid is nevertheless able to wax philosophical about the theological implications of the biblical story of The Garden of Eden:
“Maybe from the beginning the Snake was secretly working for God who was mainly interested in testing Adam and Eve because in spite of being all-seeing and all-knowing He couldn’t be there in The Garden of Eden 24/7 to watch over them and protect their innocence. If God was going to trust them to behave themselves and follow His rules when He was elsewhere in the universe they would have to be capable of protecting their innocence from temptation on their own. They would have to be like angels. God probably wasn’t sure they could do that.” (p 75).
So, not only is the narrator of this novel frequently preaching to us omnisciently, but he is putting his philosophical and theological ideas into the mouths of characters in the novel, even characters where the words being put into their mouths do not appear to fit.
The narrator also has the annoying tendency of explaining his allusions to us readers as though we are too ignorant to pick them up on our own. For example, I am reading along on page 187 and come across the phrase, “… the Professor shows up early and checks the place out and is pleased by what he sees.” I read this phrase with pleasure, picking up the obvious allusion to a biblical reference. This pleasure is quickly spoiled when the narrator feels compelled to inform me later in the same paragraph, “The Professor is like God stopping by to visit the Garden of Eden and approving the way his human beings are running the place.” Similarly, I am enjoying the plethora of allusions to Treasure Island until the pleasure is ruined by dialog that makes the allusions explicit (e.g., “That DVD is like Captain Kydd’s treasure, man.” p. 294)
Adding insult to injury, the narrator frequently repeats himself. For example, we learn on page 162 that “The map he copied was the frontispiece in a 1911 edition of the novel Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by N. C. Wyeth.” But just in case we weren’t paying close enough attention the first time, the narrator repeats it for us when he describes on page 193 “the map that the Professor drew from his memory of the map drawn by Robert Louis Stevenson to illustrate his novel Treasure Island.” At the end of my first reading of the novel, I am wondering to myself, Is Russel Banks carefully constructing an important literary work, or is this just a quickly conceived and written hack-work, bereft of careful editing?
All in all, I found there was something odd and off-kilter about trying to figure out the point of view of this narrator. The experience created in the reader (at least for me) was not that of feeling as though one is present in the situations described. It did not even feel as though one was hearing about the events as they are remembered by the characters involved. Even the dialog attributed to the characters often has a false ring to it. It tended to feel more like the narrator is someone who has talked with, and/or interviewed these characters, and is now writing a story about what he thinks happened to them based on these interviews. But the narrator is not very gifted as a writer.
When I got to Section V of the novel, something seemed to change in the point of view. Somewhere within this section I became aware that I was not exactly sure if it was the same narrator. And a new character is introduced, The Writer who works for Outside Magazine. The writer learns about the events that have been described in the first four sections of the novel indirectly, first by spending time talking with The Kid and second by watching videotaped interviews The Kid had carried out with The Professor. The writer is obviously considering writing a story about what happened to The Kid and The Professor. However, The Kid does not trust that The Writer would be able to do justice to the story because “Something about hearing the Writer’s version of events makes [The Kid] uncomfortable: in [The Writer’s] telling the story gets simplified and crude even though everything the Writer says either is factual or if the facts aren’t known is rational.” (p. 372).
The Writer himself later asserts that he is not likely to ever write this story:
“No way I’ll write about it. … Who’d want to read it? Kiddie porn and child molesters, pedophiles and suicidal college professors? Jesus! Besides, I’m just a freelance travel writer, not some kind of investigative journalist or a novelist trying to depress people. I have to make a living. The stuff I write is designed strictly to make people want to spend money on hotels and airlines that advertise in my employers’ magazines.” (p 378)
I go back and re-read the novel from the beginning, this time adopting the frame-of-mind that what I am reading is perhaps a hack Travel Writer’s attempt to tell the story of what he thinks happened to The Kid and The Professor based on what he has learned after the fact. Read from this perspective, I discover that the point of view of the novel no longer seems off-kilter and odd, and those aspects of the novel that I originally thought annoying (the poor editing of repeated sections, the apparent need to feel one has to explain one’s allusions, the clumsy attempts to put moral lessons into the story and into the dialog of the characters) now end up making for a delightful read. During my second read, I am able to engage in the outer-layer fun parts of the novel, such as discovering that several of the place names used in the book refer to tourist attractions in southern Florida, and that the book is full of puns and codes and Treasure Hunts.
So after two readings I am now ready to re-evaluate my initial impressions, and consider the novel to be a carefully constructed complex structure in which a somewhat playful outer-layer framework is used to embed a serious, dark, and important inner story, one that can itself be read on many levels and speaks to many important issues affecting our society. (Some of which I outlined in my previous posting, and several of which came up during our group’s discussion of the book).