Thursday, April 4, 2013

Douglas Messerli | Something To Be Touched (on Banks' Lost Memory of Skin) by Douglas Messerli

something to be touched

Russell Banks Lost Memory of Skin (New York: HarperCollins, 2011)

In what I believe is his 17th work of fiction to date—two works of which, Relation of My Imprisonment and Family Life, I originally published—US novelist Russell Banks, has created a long humanist-based investigation into our society’s attitudes toward sexuality and its often hypocritical views of what we define or perceive as sexual predators. Yet the work extends into far more complex metaphysical issues concerning questions of what is truth and what is a person’s life story.
     By focusing on a young man in his early 20s called simply The Kid, who loves animals (first an iguana, and then an old dog and an eccentric-speaking parrot), Banks is able to remove much of his audiences’ innate fear and detestation for child molesters, and consider the issue far more rationally than he might otherwise have been able to, particularly given American's almost rabid attitudes toward such offenders. For The Kid, strangely enough, is still a virgin and has technically “done” nothing; his crime is perhaps that he has also done nothing with his life. A lonely, almost abandoned child in his sexually-active mother’s home, The Kid, coming of age, does little but sit in front of the internet, obsessed with heterosexual porn sites. His entire understanding of the world comes creeping in from the edges of these sites and other maternal influences, none of which provides a true perspective on adult experience. Even serving in the military gives him little comprehension of the larger world; a loner even in communal military life, The Kid tries to gain popularity by buying up a large number of sex tapes of his favorite performer, Willow, handing them out to his fellow soldiers, an act which gets him kicked out of out of service.
     Now even more confused and lonely, The Kid begins to participate in a chat room with a young girl going by the code name of brandi18, who admits she is 14, but sexually chats in a far seemingly more experienced and knowledgeable sexual language than The Kid, creating a kind of innate disbelief in her reality. Stupidly, The Kid arranges to visit her at her house, loading himself up with a bag of beer, dildos, and Vaseline for what may potentially be his first actual sexual encounter. What he encounters instead is the girl’s father who, having followed their chat-room conversations, confronts The Kid with the facts, turning him over to the police.
     The inevitable occurs, with The Kid serving prison time and, throughout most of the novel, serving probation with numerous other sex offenders, forced to live under the Calusa Bay, Florida causeway since they cannot find places sufficiently distant from schools, libraries, and other locations in which children live or frequent.
     These sorry and unforgiven individuals live in a kind of unspoken harmony as they attempt simply to survive the police attacks—a result of the locals complaints for their very existence— and the ravages of hurricanes. The men, although hardly speaking to one another and seldom discussing their crimes, still function as a kind of disociated social community that allows them to survive—at least until they are too tired and worn out to want to continue to exist.
     Banks’ portrayal of these men alone is worth the read. And, although Banks does not condone or simplify the villainy of their actions, his portrayal of these men with nowhere else to go, weekly revving up their ankle bracelets so that they might continually be tracked by a society that no longer wants them, is sympathetic and moving.
     Into this lower depths world comes a larger than life figure, The Professor, determined to check out the under-the-causeway society for his social and psychological studies. Coming upon the encampment at the very moment when most of the men have been temporarily dispersed, The Professor discovers The Kid, following him as he shifts location to a seedy outpost named Benbows and back again to the causeway, questioning, challenging, and even helping The Kid to financially survive in return for his answers.
      This “Haystack” of a man, as The Kid dubs the large proportions of his body, is a genius with a wife and two children, but with a past that even he can’t explain. If The Kid’s past is all too familiar, The Professor’s past, we gradually discover, is a compartmentalized world of contradictions as the author reveals his involvement with leftist groups, and as an informant for various government and even international agencies. The Professor’s world is that of 1960s and 1970s politics, interminably complex and rationalized, like something—as The Kid says time and again—out of a novel or a movie. Indeed, at times, Banks’ imagination of this man’s past is so glib it almost seems that he has cribbed from The Man Who Came In from the Cold and other such fictions. But then one doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to know that such individuals did and, perhaps, still do exist.
     Slowly, as the two, an odd couple—the boy a skinny outcast who attempts to dissociate himself from his body and the highly obese man whose life is clearly centered in his heft—develop a kind of relationship, playing out a kind of 2lst century version of Huckleberry Finn and Jim—wherein the scrappy, uneducated Kid weathers all kinds of adventures with the help the wiser slave to his own body and past.
     As The Kid’s true self —if he has a “true” self—is gradually revealed, so does the balance between the two shift, The Professor ultimately insisting the boy interview him on camera, so that he can leave a testimony to his wife. Fearing that elements from his past have gradually come to haunt him, the Professor, with cold recognition, insists that some scandal from his past will be created and that, eventually, he will be found dead, apparently of suicide, after the accuser—individual, media, or police—will disappear, the case dropped. The CD that The Kid produces through the interview is to be given, after his death, to the Professor’s wife, so that she and his children can know “the truth” as opposed to the rumors and lies reported.
     Indeed the Professor is found dead, in the very canal which he has pointed out as a likely place to The Kid. But “the truth” of what the Professor has “professed” comes under even greater scrutiny as he and a new accomplice—a kind of Hemingway-like stand-in for the author himself—enters the scene, The Kid, coincidentally, finding evidence through papers of one of his fellow sex-offenders, that the Professor, under the name Dr. Hoo, may have been deeply involved in child rapes.

     Having been paid for his services with a substantial amount of money, The Kid now reveals a deeper aspect of his being, having to face the moral dilemmas of returning the money—wanting no gains from a man who might have participated in these horrendous acts—or to accept the $10,000 cash, allowing him to continue to feed his old dog and eccentric parrot and himself survive for an indefinite period of time. Finally, it depends on what The Kid wants to believe, whether he can make a leap of faith or will return to the cynicism of his self-protective past.
     When The Kid finally discovers that the Dr. Hoo of the emails committed suicide by gunpoint years earlier, he accepts the Professor’s own depiction of reality, which, in turn, permits him finally to begin to perceive himself as a real human being with a third dimension, a moral conscience which has a reality and standing in the world. Returning to the Causeway, The Kid now perceives himself as “guilty,” as a man who has made wrong choices, and he is determined to create a different, more substantial self, while the authorial stand-in moves in with Bank's warmest character, the Professor's librarian wife, Gloria.
     Banks’ issues are profound moral American dilemmas that have no easy answers. At times, for my taste, the author moves too closely to correct thinking, arguing simplistically for the psychological motivations of his figures relating to their lack of self-worth and other societal deficiencies. In his disapproval of the internet addiction of too many children and adults, Banks even goes so far as to suggest that our society, in its endless fascination with the internet and pornography, is being transformed into a world of two dimensional beings—to my thinking a kind clich├ęd vision, a presumption that “pornography” is necessarily at the center of an horrific cultural transformation. In truth, pornography, in one form or another, has been always there. The issues Banks brings forward, however, are important ones, worthy of being thought about with the greatest of subtlety without religious and moral prejudice. And overall, Banks has gone further in helping US readers than most writers to begin to recognize these important issues concerning what to do with people who sexually and socially “cross the line,” Banks suggesting that there may a way to bring them back into society instead of pretending to exterminate them by continued imprisonment or damning them to outcast, leper-like colonies. Despite his recognition of “guilt,” The Kid, is still more innocent at fiction's end than most of us, and is also one of us. Instead of being cast out of our midst should perhaps he should be carefully embraced, something that might have made  him years earlier come to understand that he had a body, that his skin was something not only be pulled upon, but is to be warmly and lovingly touched.

St. College, Pennsylvania, April 2, 2012
Reprinted [in a different version] from Rain Taxi     

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