Post-Discussion Commentary on Lost Memory of Skin: Better the Second Time Around

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).

Ron Boothe


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.

2 Responses to Post-Discussion Commentary on Lost Memory of Skin: Better the Second Time Around

  1. gil4or says:

    About point of view, if one goes by the conventions of literary tradition, it is clear in Lost Memory of Skin an omniscient at work because the storyteller is able to invade anyone’s mind he wishes. It seems limited, though, in the early scenes to the Kid’s mentality, watching what happens and thinking about life from this character’s viewpoint. However, soon the mother’s beliefs intervene (“She believes that she loves her son and has done everything for him that a single parent could and has sacrificed much of her youth for him and therefore cannot be blamed for the way he’s turn out.” p.14) and we feel the narrator is clueing us into an unreliable character, no matter what she believes. Later, we get glimpses of how the homeless neighbor The Rabbit thinks about the Kid (“The Kid can be a generous little bugger sometimes.” p. 34.) Even the voice, the informality of diction and other stylistic facets, seems to fit the personality in focus in any particular scene. So it’s not going to be unusual if the Professor waxes philosophical about the state of the world when he is the main personality and mind dominationg the chapter or scene.

    The problem of enjoying a fictional work by having to read it twice to figure out who the Other of a double narrator might be is the job of most academic critics. Whether Banks is playing this illusive game I can’t be sure, but I was concerned, as Ron points out, about the obviousness of allusions. The repetitions of points already made totally escape subtlety as though the author (the Voice beyond the narrative persona) did not trust that readers today would catch the point. While contemplating Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” I came upon a similar matter of a double narrator, or double voice. In that work the narrator is at first very supportive, writes in admiration, of Gustav Von Aschenbach as a reputable author of significant works used as models of composition in German schools. However, the somewhat neutral omniscient narrative voice changes as Aschenbach’s emotional condition deteriorates from one controlled by reason to an irrational fixation on the boy Tadzio. Before long a morally superior tone enters the narration; the narrator ridicules his “hero” in a harsh descriptions for losing his good sense, thus distances himself from the character he felt he knew well and in whose psyche he had been embedded.

    Most authors want to teach and preach, but the sermonic style may grate on modern tastes. Russell Banks is very serious about the thematic subject of his works and sociological commentary is not unusual in his novels. Sometimes one has to wax rhetorical to properly vent. Take this example from “The Sweet Hereafter” in which the angry voice of the protagonist, Mitchel Stephens, the troubled lawyer seeking help for children injured in a bus accident, rails against the loss of children:

    “We’ve all lost our children. It’s like all the children of America are dead to us. Just look at them, for God’s sake–violent on the streets, comatose in the malls, narcotized in front of the TV. In my lifetime something terrible happened that took our children away from us. I don’t know if it was the Vietnam war, or the sexual colonization of kids by industry, or drugs, or TV, or divorce, or what the hell it was; I don’t know which are causes and which are effects; but the children are gone, that I know. So that trying to protect them is little more than an elaborate exercise in denial. Religious fanatics and superpatriots, they try to protect their kids by turning them into schizophrenics; Episcopalians and High Church Jews gratefully abandon their kids to boarding schools and divorce one another so they can get laid with impunity; the middle class grabs what it can and passes it on, like poisoned candy on Halloween; and meanwhile the inner-city blacks and poor whites in the boonies sell their souls with longing for what’s killing everyone else’s kids and wonder why theirs are on crack.” (p.99, HarperPerrenial ed.,1997)

    Whoah there, Mitchell! — Or is it Russell? Is this ever letting it rip!? Though this sermon is ranted through Mitch’s persona, I still feel Russell Banks is intentionally trying to bang a stultified audience on the head with this commentary. When, therefore, the Professor soliloquizes about the state of things in his lecture voice, we as readers should be able to adjust to the truth or fact of it. The Professor is after all at his wits’ end in “Lost Memory of Skin.” (What more difficult problem is there in our time than solving the homeless problem?) Even so, I think the best way to get ideas across to an audience is to secrete them in the midst of fictional drama, rather than deliver them through a formal academic lecture or peer reviewed article. Sometimes the Writer, playing deus ex machina, may throw himself about somewhat erratically, drifting far off the course of desirable styles when he wants to elucidate a theme. Some writers are impatient. Russell Banks is, in my mind, an angry man, like Mitchell, concerned for the Lost Children, for the plight of sorry victims like the Kid. Like Mitchell, the Professor’s a loser not a winner. What a daring project Banks set for himself to have such an unfortunate, pathetic sufferer as his hero. The tragic hero, after all, as we’ve seen in many of our club’s readings, is the crank and the loner, never the winner.

    In philosophical terms, is the Kid a hero? I have wondered whether our readers considered the Professor a hero or just a pathetic character.

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