Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks

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)

Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks

While Banks is one of my favorite authors, I had put off reading this 1998 novel. Who wants to read about John Brown and his violent end? Who wants to relive that history? But I finally picked up this novel, perhaps out of a sense of dedication to Banks, and I was immediately hooked.

Because the work begins with a point of view!

Now, Banks makes clear before the reader begins this work that he has written a novel, not history. So the point of view is that of the narrator created by Banks, which is Owen Brown, one of John Brown’s sons. Owen narrates this story, he says, because he is old and near death, and because he wants the truth to be finally told about his father.

The first truth the narrator establishes is Brown’s commitment to religion, and to the Protestant Bible. Which re-enforces his commitment to honesty, which, in turn, is re-enforced by his strict discipline. The second truth is his blend of ambition and economic incompetence, as both Banks and the narrator seek to firm up the complexity of Brown’s personal, social, and religious convictions.

Frustratingly for Brown, he is too poor to devote all his time to ending slavery. He must first support his family of thirteen. Which leads him into land speculation, at which he is a complete failure and ends deeply in debt. And yet this sympathetic man, who loves his family, and is kind when dealing with others, will completely lose his temper when he feels victimized.

To implement his business ventures, Brown moves from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Massachusetts, a loving but desperate father. Finally, he is given the job of training city Negroes to become farmers; and his two missions come together. This sends him to the Adirondack Mountains, and there is a marvelous description of a long uphill trek with his family and their animals through rain and snow into their new home.

Once in the Adirondacks, Owen moves the emphasis from narrative movement to character, to Brown’s commitment to the Negroes. We see the father’s good heart, with little reference to the violence to come. Meanwhile, Owen reveals a little of himself. Such as what he sees as his weaknesses: that, unlike his father, he has difficulty in seeing black people as human beings, the same as him, and, even more, a difficulty in regarding women as human beings, rather than mysterious persons of the opposite sex. And he also notes that, unlike his father, he does not believe in God.

Which raises a question. Why is Owen the narrator? At first blush, it legitimizes Brown’s portrait by offering a contrast in character. Indeed, after Brown transports one black couple on the Underground Railroad, he thanks Owen for making him aware that he should not kill a bounty hunter. Which is followed by Brown himself defending accusations by the locals against his helping the Negroes. He gives a lengthy church sermon in which he compares himself to a Job who refuses to deny God, despite the evils imposed on him. He will endure, like Faulkner’s Dilsey does.

Gradually, Banks introduces the potential for violence. Brown and his son rescue the newly arrested black couple, and in the process two white men are wounded and a Negro killed. Mercy and justice have their price. Then, Brown and Owen stop in Boston on the way to sell wool in England, and a resentful Owen is beaten by anti-abolitionists he challenges.

But he has acted on his own, and a change comes over him. Then, on the boat to Liverpool, he encounters a girl in despair, and their brief but fascinating conversation awakens him further to his potential, to being independent from his father, even as he continues to believe in him and to support him. And when the father’s strategy to auction his wool in England fails, Owen convinces him to forget his efforts to recoup his wealth and to concentrate instead on his life ambition of freeing the slaves.

The Fugitive Slave Act upset many abolitionists, because any Negro could be arrested and sent South on suspicion of having escaped its owner. Owen (or is it Banks?) speculates that this is what turned his family more radical, more violent, convincing it that it needed to be more active, to stay ahead of the abolitionist curve. Which suggests a rationalization. In any event, Brown sends Owen back to the Adirondacks to run his farm, which is now disorganized.

Owen manages the farm well enough, but then becomes involved with the wife of his father’s black aide, Lyman Epps, a development that is initially not convincing. For it seems to set the stage for some later melodrama. But when Brown, the father, arrives on the scene, he takes over, and the melodrama does not develop. I should have known Banks better.

Instead, there is a dramatic development in a cave that plumbs Owen’s own sense of guilt and sets him on a violent path. Sent to Ohio to forget that guilt, he encounters his brother Fred who, out of his own guilt, commits further violence, this time on himself. With such violence in the family, Owen turns his path west, toward Kansas, where that new territory is a battleground between abolitionists and slave-holders.

Eventually, Brown, the father, also arrives, and the family begins to confront the anti-abolitionists, the Border Ruffians. While the father plans in the name of God, it is Owen who instigates the actual violence, leading their forces through a drunken enemy army and later shooting an enemy sheriff. But his father decides they need to instigate true terror, to show the enemy they mean business. Which Owen, now a changed man, endorses, and leads.

The result is a massacre of five pro-slavery men in Kansas. It is Brown’s conviction that they are about the Lord’s business, while Owen convinces himself that it is to save the Union. That otherwise, the pro-slavery forces will take over Kansas, and their representatives will tip the political balance in Washington to the South, resulting in the North seceding from the Union, the nation split in two, and slavery made permanent.

Yet even as Owen rationalizes the murders as political acts, he compares it to the death he caused in the Adirondacks. He realizes that he intended that death to happen but for it to resemble an accident, and that he later convinced himself that it was. He will also say, in a casual but provocative passage, that the reason he felt love for the Negro’s wife was in order not to love the Negro himself. And since he remains unmarried, we do wonder about his relationship to the Negro cause.

Owen also here addresses his father’s fictional biographer (and the reader), seemingly to emphasize the politics behind the Kansas massacre, and at the same time to explain that his interest here is the internal story of the Browns, not the historic record of the uprising they fomented among the abolitionists in order to preserve Kansas as a free state for the Negroes.

It now becomes clear why Banks wrote this book, through a further rationalizing by Owen, who concludes that because of him the Civil War was fought and the Union saved. This has happened because Owen first went to the Adirondacks to implement the Underground Railroad, then is sent by his father to Ohio, from which, on a whim, he goes to his brothers in Kansas —where his father follows and exerts Biblical authority to free the slaves but where it is Owen who actually leads the family troupe into battle. Therefore, but for Owen, the Union would have dissolved and Negroes remained slaves.

This is a huge conceit on which to build this novel. But it works. And justifies the novel‘s 700+ pages. For this is the personal story. This is where the truth lies, says Banks. Not on the historic record. Of course, I am not the historian to know how much is historically accurate here, and how much Banks has imagined this personal story to substantiate his thesis. Is Owen truly the terrorist behind his father’s violence?

Before the climactic battle at Harper’s Ferry, Banks obviously wants to establish the theme, the meaning, of this novel. With a quote by Owen, he establishes the dual perspective of father and son: “Father’s God-fearing typological vision of the events that surrounded us then was not so different from mine. My vision may have been secular and his Biblical, but neither was materialistic.” That is, both held to the ideal of eliminating slavery.

But son Owen is clearly the main character, and it is his confession we are reading. He has earlier said that one reason he is making the confession is to free the dead from the purgatory he has sent them to by fomenting the violence of their rebellion. In researching his records fifty years later, he has now encountered an old pistol, and he says that after he has completed his confession, “I will, at last, have no longer a reason to live. I will be ready to become a ghost myself, so as to replace in purgatory the long-suffering ghosts this confession has been designed expressly to release.”

And then begins the attack on Harpers Ferry. It has been carefully planned, and seems to begin perfectly, as Brown’s forces occupy the arsenal, the armory, and the rifle factory. But what does not happen is the expected rising up of the Negroes in the area to join forces with the 15 whites and 5 Negroes on the assault. Meanwhile, Southern re-enforcements are heading to Harper’s Ferry from three directions—tragedy advancing from the wings.

Banks ends his long novel on the right note. After Owen imagines the initial assault on Harpers Ferry that he had overheard, he and the author take us back to a climactic meeting in which Frederick Douglass refuses to support Brown’s plea for Negroes to revolt and join the 20-man raiding force.

Owen then climbs the tallest tree, from where he witnesses the arrival of Southern forces, and watches them gradually kill or capture all of Brown’s men. What is less clear is how Owen escapes from that tree. For he is suddenly spotted, and, with bullets striking all around him, he falls to the ground. But apparently the Southerners have been firing from the town, not from beneath his tree, and so when he falls he falls into darkness, picks himself up, and escapes.

The novel also closes with Owen’s speculation of whether he will actually join his father in death these 50 years later, now that his confession is complete. Or whether there is no light, nothing, after death. That his father’s Biblical belief and exhortations were in vain

To sum up, this is not an unusual subject for Banks. Many of his novels have included life not only in upper New York State but also in the South, in the Caribbean, and even in Africa. And it is the relationships between the black and white races that are often the key in those stories. Moreover, Banks himself is from New York State, where John Brown had his base and is buried, and from where he led his assault on the evils of slavery.

The title, Cloudsplitter, also comes from this area. It is a translation of the Indian name for a local mountain, and is turned into a symbol of John Brown himself. For just as the mountain breaks through the clouds, so John Brown broke through the social norms of his era, first by espousing the anti-slavery movement and then by resorting to violence to enforce his reform.

This novel is about history, yes, but it is also about fathers and sons, idealism and reality, clear consciences and guilt, retribution and justice, ends and means, goodness and evil, the devil and God, man’s fate and man’s hopes, and about eternity and an empty future. It is about absolutism, loss, obsession, and about violence as a tool of justice and self-righteousness.

I now read that little is known about the real Owen, making him the ideal person to tell this story, a character that Banks can flesh out to achieve his purpose. Owen loves his father but resents him, believes in him in one moment then steps away, resists his plans then embraces them, claims he wishes to tell his father’s true story but always has himself at center stage, and ranges from a man of action in his youth to a philosopher in old age.

This is a great novel. It is about 19th century America before the Civil War. It is about a family of that era. It is about secular politics against a backdrop of religious zealotry. It is a blend of history and philosophy and human emotions. It is a work of literature whose subject exists on an immense scale, and yet is recreated on a human scale.

I have not read such an important novel as this in many, many years. And to think I almost did not pick it up. (June, 2015)

Hamilton Stark, by Russell Banks

This early 1978 novel appears to be what is called metafiction. It is certainly Banks luxuriating in the possibilities of fiction. It is also a young author applying all that he has learned about the craft of fiction, as well as much of what he has learned about human relations. One senses that Banks is attempting to stretch the parameters of the novel. Or at least how far he himself can go.

The result is a novel that pays as much attention to technique as to content. That is, an interesting portrait of a middle-aged New Hampshire loner is probed from a variety of geographical, anthropological, psychological, and philosophical viewpoints. Not to mention that author Banks is writing a novel about an author who is writing a novel about a local named A, whom he calls Hamilton Stark in his book, and then learns that the subject’s daughter is writing her own book about her father, calling him Alvin Stock. And from her book Bank’s narrator appropriates much of his own content.            

Nor to mention that the narrator keeps confiding to the reader how he is constructing his novel, how he will provide certain information later, for example. Which in turn is Banks confiding how he is constructing what we are reading. As a result, we are often reading about these characters twice removed, a narrative about a narrative.            

The novel begins with the narrator calling unexpectedly on an old friend he calls A—not wishing to identify him, apparently New England reticence. He does not find A, but does find his car with three bullet holes in the driver’s side window. The rest of the novel consists of various characters speculating about what has happened to A, and in the process creating a portrait of A.            

Banks hints at the elusiveness of this novel by having his narrator immediately postulate three possible explanation of what has happened to his friend; and this, he says, is what prompts the narrator to start his novel. And like many a novice novelist, the narrator thinks it helpful to explain A’s (Stark’s) backstory. Thus, we read the geography and history of his town, then about his ancestors, then the story of his various relationships with his father and mother, his daughter, and finally his five wives. None of this advances the story of A’s fate, of course, and we soon realize that it is really the portrait of the missing man, Stark, that interests Banks.

Indeed, the remainder of this novel is that portrait, that backstory of a man who was selfish, incommunicative, and a loner. And hated by everyone, starting with his 26-year-old daughter Rochelle. As the narrator learns that Rochelle has already attempted to write her own novel about her father, about an Alvin Stock, as he appropriates some of her work with her approval, and as the novel delves further and further into Stark’s backstory, a structural problem surfaces. The story keeps moving backward, rather than forward. And this backstory is largely narrated, rather than dramatized, Which is a pity, for the dramatized sections, with their movement and dialogue, are particularly good.

Of course, this narrative (rather than dramatic) approach allows Banks to have considerable control over how he presents the man’s portrait. He can offer the salient points, without paying attention to the chronological order. Moreover, his narrator frequently tells the reader there is additional information he will reveal later; but if this is in order to create suspense, this strategy did not work for me. Also, inhibiting my interest are a few lists, the most obvious being the chapter, 100 Selected, Uninteresting Things Done and Said by Hamilton Stark. All these lists are simply Banks toying with his subject, and showing off to the reader; and in this particular chapter I skipped the last 75 uninteresting things.

What is interesting, in the absence of discovering what has happened to Stark, are his relationships with his father, his five wives, and his daughter. None of them like him, for he has treated them crudely or unfairly. But the narrator does not feel the same way about him. He admires Stark for being in control of his own life and enjoying that life—his guns, his drinking, his women.

Later, through the narrator’s friendship with a character named C, we probe abstractly, and a little too deeply for me, the intricacy of the relationship between men and women, as exemplified by the life of Stark. This appears to be the author expounding on his own knowledge, as much as it is the characters probing their understanding of human relationships as they apply to Stark. The idea is that women try to raise in men feelings of guilt, and this explains the attitude of Stark’s mother toward him. In fact, Banks gives this theory an ironic twist, when his narrator has an affair with Rochelle, and she then gives him a sense of guilt for using the material from her novel that she had previously agreed to let him do. But one cannot ignore that this irony is developed in a footnote that runs eight pages—as it shows Banks again playing with structure in order to squeeze in a mere sidelight.

While this portrait of small-town New Hampshire life is quite well done, this novel also lacks for me an emotional impact. Because it has been conceived on an intellectual level. This is revealed by its emphasis on both structure and the narrative technique—an approach that interposes that second plane of reality between the reader and Stark—a plane that hinders the reader from identifying with the emotions of Stark, or even that of the narrator. The inconclusive ending also re-enforces this impression, as if the author does not care what happens to Stark, that his point has already been made.

Of course, Banks might reply that the purpose of the novel is the portrait, and not what actually happened to the subject. But for me, that reveals an author too much immersed in his craft, and not enough in his characters. It is as if he understands the complexity of human beings, but is not yet able to, or else does not yet care to, convert that complexity into richly dramatic events. (April, 2014)