Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

What an evocative and enigmatic title Lost Memory of Skin is.  It may have been what drew me to the book originally, before I knew what it was about, along with wanting to read another novel by Russell Banks, a writer I admire tremendously. Lost Memory turns out to be an ambitious, thoughtful, morally complex and deeply compassionate novel, and while it doesn’t always succeed, it’s an amazing accomplishment. I’m glad I read it, even though it was painful.

It has one of the most fascinating and poignant characterizations I’ve read.  The Kid, a twenty-two year old convicted sex offender who has never kissed a girl, is seared in my memory.

The Kid is one of those invisible, lost souls who has nothing going for him. He’s shorter and skinnier than most young men, looks younger than he’s supposed to, lacks education and is totally adrift–the kind of guy other people ignore.  He’s makes foolish and bad choices out of ignorance, innocence, addiction (to porn) and perhaps the deepest loneliness a human can endure.  He’s addicted to watching pornography and masturbating because those are the only times he feels real.  “The rest of the time he felt as if he were his own ghost—not quite dead but not alive either. A dust bunny shaped like a person.”  I found Banks’ portrait of him layered, credible and humane.

The descriptions of his childhood are particularly poignant. It would be too simplistic to label him “neglected,” though he certainly was.  The Kid was raised by a woman who “needs men to want her but she doesn’t want men to need her.  In fact she doesn’t want anyone to need her—not even the Kid although she does not know that and would deny it if asked.  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 turned out.” Continue reading “Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin”

Russell Banks’ Descriptions and “Try Harder”

I’m reading the new Russell Banks’ novel, Lost Memory of Skin, and I’m pretty enthralled with it. I’ll review it here when I’ve finished it.  It’s about a young man known as The Kid who has done time for a sex crime (apparently sex with an underage girl, but I’m only halfway through and it hasn’t been fully revealed yet), has to wear a GPS monitoring device, and can’t live within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might gather—which reduces him to living under a south Florida causeway with other sex offenders.  A sociology Professor doing research on homelessness and sex offenders befriends him…but that’s as far as I’m going to go now with the plot, because that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the book.

I am a big fan of Banks’ robust writing.  I’m conscious as I’m reading Lost Memory of how much I’m enjoying the physical descriptions of people and places, especially how he evokes south Florida, and not the places tourists usually go.  Here, for example, is part of the description of Benbow’s, an old squatters fish camp on Anaconda Key near the sewage treatment plant where the Professor has gone seeking The Kid, who has been run out of his “home” under the causeway by a police raid:

“Beyond the clearing, scattered in the shade of live oaks and palm trees, in no evident pattern and to no recognizable purpose, are a half-dozen unpainted shanties and low, shedlike buildings with corrugated iron roofs. It’s a random-seeming collection of old handmade buildings, most of them windowless and half-open to the elements.  Beyond the buildings a rusted, dented, twenty-foot Airstream house-trailer with flattened tires has been set on cinder blocks.  A hand-painted wooden plaque with the name Benbow is bolted to the aluminum outer wall above the entrance.”

I love this kind of carefully observed physical detail.  Even as I was reading I noticed how pinned to the page I was by it.  Henry James had a term, “weak specification,” where the details are so general, imprecise or vague that the mind skims over the page. Banks’ writing is the exact opposite of weak specification. When I read him, I am seeing so clearly what he describes that I experience a couple of kinds of pleasure.  One is just “being there,” feeling my eyes and mind fully engaged by what he is making me see.  Another pleasure going on at the same time is admiring the actual writing itself.  I noted those flat tires on the Airstream and how they amplified and intensified my ability to see that rusted, dented Airstream trailer, making it all the more vivid, helping me visualize it all the more particularly.  Thinking about the description now, I’d say the description as Banks finalized it is an A description; a B description would be a rusted, dented, twenty-foot Airstream house-trailer… (sans flat tire and cinder blocks); a C description would simply say an old Airstream house-trailer…; and uh oh, a D description would be an old trailer…. Beyond that is writer’s block or should be.

On the next page I marked the following description to study: Continue reading “Russell Banks’ Descriptions and “Try Harder””