Cannonball Read IV: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
Lost Memory of Skin is the powerfully and consummately written story of the Kid and the Professor. The Kid is a paroled, homeless sex offender living amongst other paroled sex criminals under a bridge in a Florida city, the Professor a sociologist who has taken an academic interest in such communities. Banks' writing is forceful and clear, challenging and evocative. He slyly instills in the reader unexpected sympathies and subtly hints at characters' true natures without even a trace of heavy-handed exposition. This is a painfully contemporary novel about technology, alienation, justice, relationships, identity, and the most uncomfortable social questions. It is about the way a person presents himself and the way a person misrepresents himself. Above all it is about the questions people do not want to ask, the people they do not wish to think about, and the uncomfortable characteristics of humanity that society chooses not to grapple with on any coherent or honest terms. The Lost Memory of Skin emphatically answers some of these questions and creates a sympathy with characters society labels irredeemable while leaving other questions unanswered, a profound absence of commentary that beckons the reader to fill in the gaps that Banks has so artfully not-constructed.
The Internet is consistently referred to as something that connects people. I can order an artisanal cheese from France or send a buddy in New York a video of a newscaster saying "fuck" on-air. Connections, sure, but connections without intimacy, without physicality or a shared presence. Lost Memory of Skin probes the space between the Internet's massive social connectivity and the unavoidable fact that every path on the Internet ends with one single person staring at and manipulating a machine. There is a potent undercurrent of isolation and alienation that can be traced in discussions about the Internet; sure it makes available, at the click of a button, anything that money or time can offer. It does this while eliminating the human element of any transaction. The ease of access to the Internet's massive resources is celebrated as somehow bringing people closer together, which is problematic, if not false. A remote connection to some massive network of data decipherable through certain arrangements of pixels does nothing to enhance actual social contact. The Internet is never present to any individual; it is never here. It is where things go "when they're no longer here - onto the TV screen, the radio report, the Internet, someone else's reality and thus no longer real at all."
Communication and interaction online is always an abstraction and, often, it is isolation masquerading as societal involvement. The protagonist in Lost Memory of Skin, the Kid, recognizes this, wondering "why they call them skin flicks" when "they're not really skin - just pictures of skin," and "the only skin they get you touching is your own." Sure - Gmail and Twitter provide a medium through which people communicate; what is MilfHunter? What is one's relationship with a person if the only interaction one has with them occurs digitally, a relationship based entirely on the arrangement of pixels? A person online can present themselves in which ever form suits them best. At one point the Kid recalls the fateful moment that permanently renders him the worst kind of leper - a sex offender - is lost in a moment of completely spurious connection and authenticity with a teenage girl (known only as brandi18) that is one of the few passages in the book where the Kid seems gratified. It is also a brilliant encapsulation of Banks' challenging, paradoxical writing: the Kid shoots for a tone with brandi18 that is "sincere and confidential...despite the falsity of almost everything he told her." The Kid's only genuine and enthusiastic human connection in the book is recounted sadly and plainly in a first person narrative that ends, predictably, with the Kid face down in a suburban lawn with an overzealous cop's knee between his shoulderblades.
The Kid's interaction with brandi18 touches on another recurring motif in Lost Memory of Skin: Banks' characters' monikers echo his thoughts on the massive inadequacy of simple names and simple identities. Nicknames abound; there is the Rabbit, the Professor, Froot Loop, Ginger, P.C., and others. These are men whose very names are toxic; men who are, at any given moment, one Google search away from becoming repulsive, unemployable, untrustworthy, and unwanted. Their sex crimes, whatever they may be, have caused them to be exiled, castoff from society. Their names are tarnished, rotted, and ruined - such burdens that they must focus the bulk of their energy on existing unnoticed and in the shadows. The most dishonest of all the names is the only name repeatedly given in full in the book; Larry Somerset is a character who has fallen from a position of some prestige in Florida's state legislature after being arrested for attempting to purchase the sexual services of two young girls from their mother. "Larry Somerset" was merely a construct, a character, a veneer cast over a shockingly ugly reality. Larry Somerset's false identity is infinitely more repulsive than that of the other men living under the bridge for it's superficial respectability and his more tangible authority. He becomes "the Shyster" to the other sex-offenders camped beneath the bridge, a name far more fitting than the one printed on his birth certificate.
The Professor is the embodiment of Lost Memory of Skin's ambiguity on questions of identity. At no point in the novel does the Professor appear not to be hiding something, and at no point does he deal with anyone in a manner that does not feel like an intentional obfuscation or misdirection. The Professor is a physically massive man. He is beguiling, half-friendly, half-aloof, eminently present when he is present in the book. He is immensely smart, immensely well read, an obsessive, analytical, objective, distant...he is professorial. The problem with the Professor is that he has compartmentalized or shut off every significant period in his past from the other one to such an extent that "one wouldn't recognize the other." He exists under one identity at a time only to shift, absolutely and irrevocably, to another. Or so he says - even the seemingly honest portions of his narrative leave doubts in the reader as to the Professors forthrightness even with himself. The Professor is the one character from whom a reader would expect a reliable narrative. And yet it is he (and not the homeless sex criminal) who constantly leaves the reader feeling manipulated, used, and caught up in some sinister mechanism.
Then there is a question that follows any sweeping pronouncement about a certain age or generation or ethnicity or group or what-have-you: is it really any different than anything else? Does it make any sense to set them apart? Sex offenders (a term that is so socially loaded it becomes impossible to define on a personal level) are perceived to be subhuman - even in prison they are scum. It makes sense in a visceral, unthinking way, sure, but people are just fucked up, inadequate people, after all. Where is the line drawn that separates a sex offender from the non-sex offending portion of the population? Even under the bridge the community of sex offenders divides themselves into a hierarchy: in the books' slang "chomos" (child molesters) and "kiddie-fuckers" are the lowest of the low - a group it is hard to feel any sympathy for. Banks wants to challenge this - throughout the course of the novel grew the sense that the inability to sympathize with others (even the despicable and the lepers) is the most crippling failure possible on a societal level. That pederasts and rapists and their ilk are written off as morally wrecked sickos is a failure of sympathy and imagination that allows otherwise reasonable people to view them as subhuman. This is always a mistake and it always casts far too wide a net; a theme that wraps back around to the vagaries of identity: you cannot hate someone absolutely because you cannot know them absolutely and you cannot trust someone absolutely for the same reason.
I'd recommend the Lost Memory of Skin to anyone with an interest in contemporary American literature, fiction about social outcasts, fans of Franzen, McCarthy, and Kafka, and anyone who is horrified and fascinated (in a horrified way) by the fact that To Catch a Predator was a successful TV show.
(Note: Any purchases made through the amazon.com links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)