Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Complexity of Internet Age Lost in Banks Novel

In his recent novel, Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks tackles three separate subjects: the criminality of sex offenders, morbid obesity, and his apparent love for Florida. There is certainly room for these three themes to become intertwined and accentuate each other. Unfortunately their crossings feel entirely forced and the novel is one of the few I can best recommend as a doorstop.

The protagonists are not awarded with the dignity of names. They are merely the Kid, a young, white adult male recently out of prison for a sex crime, and the Professor, an obscenely fat man who takes a scholarly interest in the ramshackle community of sex offenders living beneath the Calusa causeway. What we are meant to recognize early on is that both men are layered in misunderstandings and concealments. This clearly manifests in the Professor’s gross size, which Banks conveniently chalks up to overindulgent parents who were wowed with the brilliance of their only son, and in the Kid's secrecy about his offense.

It is easy to feel sympathy for the Kid. He grew up as little more than a mouth to feed in his mother’s house and he has a tendency to lavish kindnesses on odd or wrecked animals. His affection for his iguana, Iggy, is both sweetly touching, baffling and his undoing. The Kid basically suffers from a lack of knowhow. He can be viewed as an everyman or middle-man, but unlike other heroes he’s given no particular talents and his dispassionate if vaguely self-aware presence is fostered by an environment in which it’s possible to disappear through the cracks into various byways. The Kid chooses to quench his loneliness with sexual satisfaction and the rampant porn supply on the internet allows him to do so without ever becoming intimate with another person. The dastardly role that the web can play into modern lives is more than interesting in itself but Banks mars the easy vulnerability of his character by repeatedly patronizing him and undermining whatever dignity the unassuming Kid possesses.

The Professor's formula is excess. He is a genius and has ended up as huge fish in a tiny pond and the girth to make everyone take note. His interest in the Kid feels predatory even if it's not and we're expecting to uncover some sort of darkness between his evasions. The expectation is satisfied in the most absurd manner of secret government agencies and years spent as a spy. The Professor is as opaque as the Kid is transparent and the friendship that arises is unlikely and unconvincing.

A novel can be redeemed through its descriptions, either through ripe language or visuals. Again Banks disappoints. Florida never came alive for me. Even when the Kid and Professor are caught in the throes of a hurricane I felt nothing for the crashing waves nor felt the force of the surrounding storm. If Banks harbors a particular love for the complicated culture and environment of Florida he utterly fails to communicate it or to embroil the reader in its complexities.

At no point could I divine Banks’s purpose and I was wholly disappointed by the author, whose books I have previously enjoyed. His effort to uncover the complicated role the Internet plays in our lives today, allowing us to disappear from each other into alternate but not necessarily safer realities, is crippled both by his language and the lack of dignity and thrall in his characters' stories.

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