Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks
by Robert A. Parker
This 2011 work is an excellent, provocative novel, with sociological and philosophical depth. After a while, however, it becomes difficult for the reader to get his footing, because it has two major characters, and it is unclear which one is more sympathetic and which one we are to be oncerned about. Not that these are ordinary characters, for the Kid is a virgin and yet a convicted sex offender and the Professor is a garguantian fat man, a genius who claims to have once spent years commiting illegal acts undercover for the government.
At first, it seems to be the Kid we are to identify with, not least because we are curious about how he is both a virgin and a sex offender. Then the Professor arrives, claiming that one of his undercover agencies is out to kill him before he betrays its secrets. He is, conveniently perhaps, researching a study of homelessness among sex offenders, and offers to help the Kid adapt to society. This reader’s focus was thus confused, because after being committed to the Kid, along comes the Professor as a much more interesting person, and one confronting a much more dramatic situation.
The novel is so interesting not because of any confrontation between these two characters, but because of the confounding situation each one is in and the mutual support they give each other. It is also interesting because Banks both draws a portrait of the underside of society through the Kid and suggests an underground society through a man who may or may not be what he appears to be. This is why the reader identifies off and on with each character. Until death intervenes, and we realize who the main character is.
All of this takes place in a vividly described southern state, much of it where a mangrove swamp meets the Caribbean. But while it is a specific, concrete world, it is not identifiable on a real map. Which does not matter. Because what matters is that it brings alive the reality of an underside of life hidden beneath a causway, hidden from society.
Yet on another level, reality is a key element that gives philosophical depth to this novel. For Banks continually juxtaposes the fake world of reality, represented by internet pornography, to the real world the Kid confronts. Indeed, Janet Maslin in her exellent New York Times review explains that the title refers to how “real flesh has been supplanted by the virtual kind.” She also notes Banks description of an internet culture “lost in the misty zone between reality and imagery, no longer able to tell the difference.”
Beyond this difference, Banks gets the reader to probe different realities by wondering how the Kid is a sexual offender without having had sex. And whether the Professor really was a secret government agent. Indeed, Banks even introduces a metafictional element. So, just as the Professor has created a story about his former life, Banks has created the Kid’s story within this novel. With the implication being if we agree to the reality of the Professor’s story, we should agree to the reality of the Kid’s story. More, that is, than its reality in this novel, but also its reality in the reader’s world.
This parsing of reality also evolves at the end as Banks through the Kid explores the difference between shame and guilt. Throughout the novel, the Kid’s fascination with pornography has been a part of his character. Indeed, this is what had led him into being arrested for a sexual offense. And for this he has always felt the guilt of being a bad person. But at the end, he discovers a difference between guilt and sheme. And realizes that what he has felt is shame for what he has done, which is the reaction of a good person. Which is what he is. Whereas guilt is what a bad person feels. Which he is not. And so he now faces his future as a convicted sex offender without guilt.
Banks also builds a fascinating discussion around the truth of the Professor’s past. Should the Kid believe him or not? Banks introduces a Writer at the end who prompts this discussion, for he believes the Professor’s story, while the Kid does not. For a while, I thought this Writer might play a role in the novel’s outcome, but eventually it is clear he is there to serve a certain function for the author. The discussion revolves around the difference between knowing something is true, having proof, and simply believing it is true. And the same question, of course, is being asked of the reader. Does he believe the Professor’s story or not? The Writer urges the Kid to “believe.” Which is to imply not spiritual belief, but a belief in mankind.
I had thought that Banks was going to leave that question unanswered at the end. But for the most part he answers it. He does, however, unnecessarily complicate the issue at the end. For he suddenly introduces emails from another character that opens up a possibility of a different secret life of the Professor, one that convinces the Kid that his friend’s backrground story is not true. Then the outcome of this pulls the rug from under the Kid’s belief. However, while I was not convinced by this sudden complication, Banks might have felt it necessay to make believable the Kid’s final decision.
One should note here Maslin’s perceptive comment: “the Kid’s growing capacity for self-knowledge becomes a driving force [as Banks] coaxes the Kid from helpless innocence to enlightened dignity, from all-consuming shame to glimmering self-knowledge.”
Helen Schulman’s Times review then broadens our view: “Banks remains our premier chronicler of the doomed and forgotten American male, the desperate and the weak, men whos afflictions and antagonists may change over the years but whose fundamental struggle never does.”
This is an unusually successful novel in its blend of drama, human characters from the underside of life, and an indepth probe of both human psychology and philosophical meaning. It is less an exploration of American society, even with the changes wrought by the computer, than an exploration of the internal lives we all live. A life of survival and hope. A life of guilt and shame. A life of reality and lies. A life of human contact and human denial. It is a marvelous achievment, one of the author’s finest works. (January, 2016)