on September 30, 2011
The Kid is all alone in the world, hiding in the shadows under the freeway, part of an ever-growing mass of exiles electronically shackled to a society that despises and shuns them.
But who are these modern-day lepers? And why are there so many of them? What if sex offending is a symptom of a malfunctioning society, and these men are just the canaries in the coal mine, carrying the burden of society's shame? What if the Internet is the snake in the Garden of Eden, and pornography is the forbidden fruit?
In "Lost Memory of Skin," best-selling novelist Russell Banks explores the deeper ironies of a culture that condemns pedophiles even while turning its children into dehumanized sexual commodities. But on a deeper level, the novel is about the profound loneliness and alienation of the digital age, the inability of people to get beyond false facades to truly trust and connect with each other.
To the Kid, no one is real. They are all two-dimensional characters. The Professor, a sociologist who takes a mysterious interest in him. The other trolls under the bridge, who regard each other with wary suspicion. Even his own inadequate mother, who abandoned him when he was arrested trying to hook up with a 14-year-old girl he met in a chat room after years of solitary Internet stimulation.
In interviews, Banks has said that the idea for the book came in part from the encampment of registered sex offenders living under the Tuttle Causeway near his home in Florida. Serving as a jury foreman in a child molestation trial also piqued his interest.
"The guy was clearly guilty," he told a reporter. "But he was basically a confused, stupid alcoholic, and it was so easy to imagine this poor stumblebum, in a cloud most of the time, in a world that has been eroticized to such a degree, sitting there and he's sexually inadequate with his wife, and he's a loser, he's out of work, he has no sense of any power in the world whatsoever, so this beast in him starts to arise."
Although the novel is at moments a bit preachy, I found the enigmatic Kid growing on me as he gradually awakens from the fog of fantasy to claim his identity as a decent human being, albeit one with very few choices in life.
The main character of Banks' new novel, a twenty-two-year-old registered sex offender in South Florida known only as "the Kid," may initially repel readers. The Kid is recently out of jail starting a ten-year probation in fictional Calusa County, and is required to wear a GPS after soliciting sex from an underage female.
The Kid cannot leave the county, but he also cannot reside within 2,500 feet from any place children would congregate. That leaves three options--the swamplands, the airport area, or the Causeway. He chooses the Causeway and meets other sex offenders, a seriously motley crew, who consciously isolate from each other. He befriends one old man, the Rabbit, but sticks to his tent, his bicycle, and his alligator-size pet iguana, Iggy. Later, he procures a Bible.
These disenfranchised convicts are enough to make readers squirm. Moreover, in the back of the reader's mind is the question of whether authorial intrusion will be employed in an attempt to manipulate the reader into sympathizing with these outcasts. It takes a master storyteller, one who can circumnavigate the ick factor, or, rather, subsume it into a morally complex and irresistible reading experience, to lure the wary, veteran reader.
Banks' artful narrative eases us in slowly and deftly breaks down resistance, piercing the wall of repugnance. It infiltrates bias, reinforced by social bias, and allows you to eclipse antipathy and enter the sphere of the damned. A willing reader ultimately discovers a captivating story, and reaches a crest of understanding for one young man without needing to accept him.
A series of very unfortunate events occur, and the Kid becomes a migrant, shuffling within the legal radius of permitted locales. At about this time, he meets the Professor, who the Kid calls "Haystack," an obese sociologist at the local university, an enigmatic man with a past of shady government work and espionage. He is conducting a study of homelessness and particularly the homeless, convicted sex offender population.
The Professor offers the Kid financial and practical assistance in exchange for a series of taped interviews. He aims to help the Kid gain control and understanding over his life, to empower him to move beyond his depravities. They form a partnership of sorts, but the Kid remains leery of the Professor and his agenda. The Professor's opaque past, his admitted secrets and lies, marks him as an unreliable narrator. Or does it?
Sex offenders are the criminal group most collectivized into one category of "monsters." Banks takes a monster and probes below the surface of reflexive response. There is no attempt to defend the Kid's crime or apologize for it. We see a lot of the events through his eyes, and decide whether he is reliable or not.
The book is divided into five parts. Along the way, Banks dips into rhetorical digressions on sex, geography, and human nature, slowing down the momentum and disengaging the tension. These intervals are formal and stiff, although they are eventually braided into the story at large. However, despite these static flourishes, the story progresses with confidence and strength.
Overall, the languid pace of the novel requires steadfast patience, but commitment to it has a fine payoff. Readers are rewarded with a thrilling denouement and a pensive but provocative ending. It inspires contemplation and dynamic discussion, and makes you think utterly outside the box.
on November 2, 2011
Russell Banks has long been considered one of the finest writers of literary fiction in America today. His portrait of the American landscape's dark side and the tortured souls who inhabit it have leapt from the small page to the big screen in award-winning films such as Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter. LOST MEMORY OF SKIN presents perhaps the most challenging work of Banks's career. With controversial and dark subject matter that is expertly handled, he creates a novel that will linger in the memory of its readers long after the final page is turned.
The main characters are not as much "people" as they are symbols and metaphors. With the exception of a few tertiary characters, the central figures here have no names. The protagonist, a convicted sex offender, is known simply as the Kid. In his early 20s, his life is already all but over. Convicted of soliciting sex with a minor, he has done his time in prison and is now forced to live under a causeway in Miami that is inhabited by fellow ex-cons and social miscreants. They represent the sad underbelly of society from which most people avert their eyes; they are the invisible minority.
The Kid is unable to get worthwhile employment, he cannot live within 2,500 feet of where children may gather, and he must wear an electronic device on his ankle for a decade, preventing him from wandering beyond the county limits. Whether the Kid was actually guilty of the crime for which he was incarcerated or set up in a string of potential sex offenders becomes almost irrelevant. The Kid, like most people, has made many mistakes in his life that he wishes he could change. His dark and somewhat perverted impulses have dominated his decision-making process and put him into a situation that seems hopeless.
Then, out of the blue, a local college professor approaches the causeway camp of mostly ex-sex offenders and offers them a deal. He is a sociologist of questionable moral character and full of secrets himself --- but to desperate people like the Kid, he is seen as a potential way out of a life that is virtually non-existent. The Professor offers the Kid and his comrades an opportunity to change their lives by controlling their impulses. In return, the Professor will gain valuable research on homelessness and recidivism among convicted sex offenders.
The Kid and the Professor form a strange bond --- one that is strengthened after the Professor comes to the Kid's financial aid when a police raid all but destroys every possession he had under the causeway. As they begin to build trust, the Professor slowly lets on about his own past --- one that is full of secrets. The Kid is not sure if he can believe the story the Professor has spun about a man who is under surveillance by certain government agencies that wish to silence him. He makes an odd request of the Kid when he asks him not to believe that suicide is the reason behind his death. The Kid reluctantly agrees.
Meanwhile, the Kid aligns himself with the Writer --- a journalist looking to uncover the truth behind the Professor's past. It is during this journey into the Professor's life that the Kid will smack first-hand into a parallel narrative that recalls his own past and questionable moral choices --- and he begins to fear that their fates may be destined to have the same ends.
LOST MEMORY OF SKIN is challenging and profane to the point of pornographic. Yet it is so unflinchingly real that you cannot help but turn the pages as Banks digs deeper and deeper into the psyches that shape the shadowed edges of American culture.
Reviewed by Ray Palen
on November 5, 2011
Someone needs to write a good book about the need to revisit sex offender laws. Privately, everyone who knows about how our legal system treats sexual offenders will admit there are major problems which need to be addressed. (No one in political life will admit it publicly, for obvious reasons.) This novel beautifully sets up a story that illustrates the problem well. Does a very young man, who is not terribly bright, and who has done a truly bad thing (although, in the case, with no actual victim) deserve the same fate as a serial pedophile offender? Banks sets up a great case, backed by a couple of interesting characters, and then disappoints with a loose, poorly organized plot and, for the most part, surprisingly uninspired writing. I found myself wondering if this is another example of book which, due to his successes and reputation of the author, doesn't get the kind of editing it needs.
on October 1, 2011
Let me begin with some biographical information: I live only blocks away from the Julia Tuttle Causeway that inspired this novel and once worked with juvenile male sex offenders. So naturally I had a keen interest in this novel when I heard Russell Banks interviewed on the NewsHour (PBS). For someone who knows the actual geography of this novel, I wish Mr. Banks had not fictionalized all the place names because I really don't see why he would have had to. This all takes place in and around Miami Beach, not Calusa! That is one of two negative criticism. Rampert Road? Oh, dear, not that for Lincoln Road? He doesn't even have Biscayne Bay!
The other relates to the hurricane which never existed as described. But more troubling is this: there is no way a person would drive for hundreds of miles in the eye of a hurricane. Hurricanes, on the whole, travel very slowly. Mr. Banks clearly didn't do his homework on this. In addition he calls it a category 3 but has winds under a 100 mph. That is not a category three.
"Lost Memory of Skin" is my second Banks novel, so I know his style of writing in "Contintental Drift" was not that of the dispassionate reporter, but in this new novel it works so well for this novel centered around the Kid, a twenty-two-year-old wearing an ankle monitoring device and "living" under the causeway with dozens of others who have been labeled sex offenders, all of them under a type of house arrest but without the house. So typical of this state which rightfully earns all the satire about its so-called governance!
This style works because the Kid has cut off all feelings for others, even for his pet ignuana, Iggy, the perfect metaphor for the novel since the Kid, like Iggy, is able to change colors metaphorically in order to survive. This sentence on page 72 is a perfect summary: "The Kid is good at keeping in cages the things that trouble his mind." But we are given full access. And it is a very troubling mind.
Chapter ten is truly brilliant--well, all of them are, but this one especially so. The Kid, for the first time, begins to read the Bible, starting with the story of Adam and Eve, a story that leads the Kid to analyze his own situation with his unmarried mother who... Well, I won't tell you that! But I will reveal this sentence: "The Kid wonders if it's possible that this whole tree of knowledge of good and evil thing was set up by God as a kind of prehistoric sex-sting with the Snake as the decoy." Wouldn't that make for a fascinating sermon topic for some right-wing fundamentalist preacher!
When you begin the novel, note Gloria carefully. The novel takes on a new life with the advent of the Professor. But I don't want to give anything away.
By the way--or maybe not so by the way--Russell Banks' sentences are just so wonderful and often lengthy but without commas. And it works! Comma, begone!
This is not a novel that will shock although it is a novel that digs deeply into many of the issues the sex offenders have as well as the aspects of society that make life difficult for them.
on October 15, 2011
I think it could be difficult to give too much praise to Russell Banks' story of a young man condemned by society while seeking and discovering his way in it during his general exclusion from it. Exercising great compassion and understanding for his characters, especially the "evil" ones, Mr. Banks offers a tale that could be considered a great Christmas (or Christmas-like) gift for readers.
It's essential for a satisfying human life that we love ourselves, love others, and are loved. This story shows the costs of lacking those three aspects of love, while showing that little, if anything, separates us from each other due to our individual flaws, frailties, and foibles. Despite our irresponsibility, guilt, and shame, we deserve understanding, compassion and love. The ability to grow, the ability to become more aware of self, and more fully human, can co-exist despite isolation from others, and condemnation by so the majority.
Mr. Banks has given me a gift with Lost Memory of Skin. If you're willing to suspend judgment, criticism and previous ideas about human behavior, you may gain much, and enjoy much, through the considerable achievement of this important and deeply felt story.
This is a monumental achievement by one of America's finest writers. The "Lost Memory of Skin" is a book that will linger with you long after you've finished the last sentence. The story tackles tough subject matter, convicted sex offenders, sexual objectification of young people and the digitization of erotic content in a manner that doesn't lecture the reader. It does so with tremendous nuance that make stereotypes and simplistic judgements impossible.
At the heart of the story is the Kid, an early 20s sex offender living in a homeless encampment under a causeway in South Florida (Miami disguised as "Calusa") with other convicted sex offenders. Undoubtedly, the first couple of pages yield the normal disdain for the Kid because how else could you feel about a convicted sex offender. From this initial judgement and associated stigma, Banks slowly peels away the onion around the Kid --- his familial, social and economic circumstances --- until we are left with a far different perspective of a much more complex character. Only someone at the top of their craft could credibly build empathy around this type of character, blurring the lines between guilt and innocence, good and evil.
Shortly into the novel, we are introduced to the Professor, an obese genius with a shadowy and cryptic past, who is now a professor at the local university. There he studies and researches homelessness and more recently homelesses among sex offenders. An uneasy relationship builds between the Kid and the Professor -- is it exploitation, pure research with an eye toward better public consciousness and understanding of cause and effect of these two conditions or something else. Once again, Banks has full command, dropping enough crumbs for the reader without leading them to the meal. The truth is never what it seems for the characters and the reader, revealing more than meets the eye with each passing page while further obscuring other things.
In the last third of the novel, Banks adds an extra element of suspense and drama that had me on the fence for a while. I initially was quite skeptical of the plot twist and convinced myself it was not going to work, resulting in a big letdown and disaster from such a promising and brilliant beginning and middle. Well, I was certainly wrong. Banks effortlessly brings this last plot twist effortlessly back in a way that is remarkably true to the story and larger themes of the story without neatly wrapping a neat bow on each and every difficult question.
There are some parts of the book that left a terrible pit at the bottom of my stomach, one in particular at Benbow's where a video shoot is ambiguous enough but unnerving that I was nervous about where Banks was going to take it. Once again, I'm glad this was from the pen of someone as skilled as Banks.
"Lost Memory of Skin" is what great fiction is all about --- it is so engrossing you cannot put it down, it creates three dimensional characters, evokes a rich tapestry of place and time and tackles tough issues of the day with purpose but without lecturing or suggesting answers are simple.
on October 25, 2011
Lost Memory of Skin is my first introduction to Russell Banks. I'm not sure how I have avoided him all these years, but I will be going back to check out some of what I missed.
Banks certainly didn't pick an easy topic in Lost Memory of Skin. His focus is on convicted sex offenders who, out of necessity, form a loose-knit community of men living under a Florida causeway. Under Florida law, the men must remain in the county while at the same time remaining 2,500 feet from any school, daycare center or other places where children gather. That leaves the men few options: under the causeway, in a swamp or at an airport terminal.
Among the modern-day trolls beneath a bridge is Kid (few of the characters go by real names in the book, adding to Banks' themes of truth and identity). Kid is a 22-year-old registered sex offender who can pass as a teenager. He was addicted to Internet porn and in his first and only attempt to reach out to what he thought was a real person is swept up in a sting, sent to jail, labeled a sex offender and is forced to wear an ankle monitor for 10 years. Kid is no noble Jean Val Jean, but neither is he truly a monster. The opening chapters of the book that detail Kid's life as a modern pariah are fascinating, despite the often bleak subject matter.
Into Kid's life steps the other main character, a morbidly obese sociology professor who wants to interview the Kid and turn him and his fellow causeway castaways into productive citizens. I'm guessing that many of the people who have problems with the book are more likely to stumble over the Professor than the Kid. For one thing, the Professor's addiction to food are described in more lurid detail than the Kid's addiction to porn. As a result, the Professor comes across as more grotesque than just about any other character.
And then there's the question of agendas. Is the Professor really what he seems? What does he really want from the Kid? Eventually the two build enough of a rapport that the Professor is able to start organizing the men beneath the causeway. They establish rules and choose leaders in the hope that if they can police themselves they can avoid future brutal police raids. But before the changes can fully take effect in the tiny community, disaster in the form of a hurricane strikes.
To say more about the plot would be to give too much away. Suffice it to say that before the story is over we're confronted with the issue of identity and truth and how the two don't always fit together.
I really enjoyed this novel, despite a few eye-rolling moments. Banks sometimes get a bit heavy-handed and pendantic when he writes about America's revulsion to sex offenders despite society's and the media's sexualization of young children. It's a good point, but could have been handled in a less preachy manner. And then there's a new character introduced in the last portion of the book who strains credibility and seems to have been written solely to steer the Kid through some murky moral matters. Overall, Lost Memory of Skin is one of those books that may be uncomfortable to read at times, but makes you confront issues you felt you'd never consider.
on February 18, 2012
I've never read fiction about a convicted sex offender before, and that's why I was intrigued by this book. You grow to empathize with the protagonist (a sex offender), though you must constantly question him and everyone else around him. I liked the mystery in this book, the fact that nobody was quite what they seemed.
For me, this didn't go anywhere. The characters don't show any development, and OK, maybe that's the point, but I got bored. When the strangeness with the Professor began I was intrigued, but that also went nowhere. I wish I knew more about the other sex offenders the Kid lives with, rather than hearing repeatedly about Kid's mother or vague ramblings about the surroundings.
I am glad I read this, but I won't read it again and would only recommend it to a certain type (patient, empathetic, introspective) type of reader. I think Banks could've done a lot to move the plot along and get the reader more involved.
Russell Banks is in my opinion one of our greatest living novelists, and i've devoured almost everything he has written. 'Lost Memory of Skin' his new novel, may be his best since the brilliant 'Cloudsplitter.' As other reviewers have already noted, this novel deals with sex offenders, whom for the most part society has deemed justified outcasts, and he attempts to humanize them and carefully and slowly unveil the complexities. The fact that Banks chose to tackle this subject shows that he is willing to provoke and ask his readers to think long and hard about difficult issues. The fact that he doesn't pass judgement makes this book even more brilliant. I am hesitant to say too much without giving away plot details, but suffice to say that this is a page turner in addition to being a condemnation of the American justice system. It took me under a week to read it, I simply could not put it down. Mr. Banks should be applauded for yet another brilliant addition to his canon, and we as readers should be grateful for Mr. Banks for continuing to provoke and make us think about the complicated issues in this country!