Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
Ecco, HarperCollins, New York, 2011
Borrowed from my local library. A 2011 New York Times Notable book.
I first discovered Russell Banks when a friend and I went to see The Sweet Hereafter. It was a film that had me wanting to read the book, a rare occurrence. Since that time I’ve read several novels by Russell Banks and enjoyed them. There is always an undercurrent of tension that runs through his work, like the hidden currents in a rip tide poised to drag away an unweary swimmer. He is willing to look at things we often turn away from.
In Lost Memory of Skin Banks writes of a part of our society we would rather hold distant and separate from our lives. Under a causeway in a coastal Florida city there is an encampment. Men convicted of sexual crimes, having served their sentences and been released from prison, live there. It is the only place in the city that is 2,500 feet from anywhere that children might gather. Here we meet the Kid, twenty-two years old and just released on parole. He is camped out with other offenders, a mixed group thrown together in the only place in the city where they can legally live. The Kid is lost, knows he messed up. Still a virgin, he’s been charged with a sexual crime through his own stupidity. He’s figuring things out, trying to learn the rules.
He likes the distinction: there’s good and there’s evil. Evil is worse than bad. And it’s a lot worse than merely dumb or unlucky or illegal. That’s what makes God’s rules superior to all other rules: if you break one you’re not just dumb or even bad, you’re fucking evil! You have knowingly disobeyed God. To be evil is to be bad in an extreme way – sentenced to life without parole and locked up in hell for eternity when you die. If you believe in hell, that is. Which the Kid does although he does not believe in heaven. Same as with God whom the Kid believes in when things go right but not when things go wrong. Which doesn’t make him an atheist exactly or an agnostic. Just inconsistent. From page 75.
As the Kid struggles with who exactly he is he is approached by a huge man who claims to be a professor wanting to do research on the homeless, on sex offenders. As they spend time talking we learn some of the Kid’s back story.
Raised by an uncaring mother, left alone to fend for himself, he discovered online porn at a young age. His only comfort an iguana named Iggy, he soon looses himself to the small screen. Completely emotionally detached from others, he lives with the “lost memory of skin” that is pornography on the internet. Time spent talking with the Professor, a man who has his own secrets and compulsions, allows the Kid to gain some understanding of his past as well as some possibilities for the future. He begins to understand that there may, in fact, be a future.
Now slowly he’s starting to realize that he might not be exceptional but at least he’s important for being who he is, that he’s not really like the mass of mankind from the beginning of time whose entire lives and everything they chose to do or not to do is determined by their givens, the conditions and circumstances they were born into and the people they found there to accompany them in life. Until now the only living creatures who seemed to care what he did or thought and were therefore affected by his actions and thoughts were Iggy and Einstein the parrot and Annie the dog as if the Kid wer closer to being reptile, bird or four-legged animal then a human being alive and conscious in time with a beginning, middle and end to his life, all three parts existing simultaneously in each separate part. His subjective life – his accumulated memories, wishes, fears, and reflections in the last few days – ha started taking on an importance to him that it had never held before. And consequently he’s begun to have a new interest in the subjective lives of the people who are connected with him starting with the Professor but including the men who live alongside him under the causeway. Even the Shyster whose story up to now he has had no desire to know since he had no story of his own to compare it to. From pages 225/226.
Russell Banks is willing to shine a light on characters who do despicable things out of ignorance and he offers readers a way to view these characters compassionately. We live in a culture were we choose to spend a lot of our time online in one form or another, disconnected from reality and plugged into the internet without really weighing the risks of such a choice. Nothing makes this clearer to me than the growth of online pornography and the complacency that surrounds it. Lost Memory of Skin is a novel about this culture, about American society in the early part of the 21st century. It will be in my top 10 list for 2012.
Mr. Banks states that he often writes about “the unintended consequences of good intentions”. There is a wonderful interview about the writing of Lost Memory of Skin here.