Russell Banks' 'Lost Memory of Skin': Sympathy for the sex offender?
Share with others:
Deep into his troubling new novel about sex offenders, Russell Banks has a little joke with his readers. It occurs in a conversation between his main character, called The Kid, and a travel writer who has shown up late in this tale.
"I shouldn't be telling you all this," The Kid says. "You're probably going to write about it."
But the writer denies this. "Who'd want to read it? Kiddie porn and child molesters, pedophiles and suicidal college professors? ... I'm just a freelance travel writer, not an investigative journalist or a novelist trying to depress people."
Ecco Press ($25.99)
You get the feeling Mr. Banks wants us to smile to ourselves, confident that we're the kind of superior readers who would not be put off by depressing material. And I did smile. I generally like Russell Banks, author of numerous novels, including "Cloudsplitter," "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Affliction." I like his storytelling and his way of describing particularly American forms of dark nights of the soul.
But even beyond the problem of writing a novel about sexual predators that all but ignores the point of view of crime victims, Mr. Banks has picked himself some tricky material here. He has executed it with mixed results.
The protagonist of "Lost Memory" -- The Kid -- is a 22-year-old recently released from prison after doing a short stint on a sex offense. Mr. Banks keeps details of the offense from the reader for quite a while, and I will, too.
Prevented by law from living near places where children gather, The Kid and his pet iguana take up residence in one of the few spots allowed: under a Florida causeway, with other sex offenders whose families now want nothing to do with them.
One night police descend in what is clearly a photo-op of a raid. In the devastating aftermath, the Kid meets the novel's other main character: a morbidly obese genius college professor whose many interests include studying the homeless. Calculated and congenial, the professor persuades the Kid to submit to interviews about how he ended up in such straits.
Their relationship gets richer as it becomes clear that the Kid's life is in some ways less mysterious than it seems, while the Professor's is significantly more so.
Mr. Banks knows plot, and incorporates intriguing complications to keep the novel building power all the way to the end. But, boy, does he wag his finger at us.
He wants us to see (and we do! we do!) the layers of preposterousness plaguing our nation's handling of sex crimes. We've created a culture that uses sexual images, including sexually suggestive images of children, to sell goods and services. We've also created a culture in which too many children have too few responsible, loving parents. We act surprised and horrified when these kids grow into adults who prey upon others. And we fail to distinguish levels of predation.
Then, after these predators have been caught and convicted, we create lepers of them by putting their faces on the National Sex Offenders Registry and restricting their housing options to almost nothing. Thus ends their ability to do better by society, if they even want to.
Those are the topical lessons in "Lost Memory of Skin." Others, more universal and familiar to novel readers, consider the nature of truth and secrets, about human nature and animal nature.
For me, the prevailingly pedantic tone of the novel could've been mitigated by some different style choices. Go ahead, give the Kid a real name. I don't need it underlined six ways till Sunday that he's a nobody.
All novels are, in a sense, about the author -- what he or she is interested in, what version of the truth he or she wants to tell. The best succeed, in part, by allowing us to forget the author exists.
Despite being packed with characters who are not conventionally sympathetic, "Lost Memory of Skin" never failed to keep me interested. Its social messages are apt and worthy. And, yes, it's gutsy.
But I was ever aware of Mr. Banks just offstage, moving his characters and tweaking his prose with hopes of nudging me toward the Right conclusions. That, in the end, was the depressing part.
First Published October 16, 2011 12:00 am