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Lost Memory of Skin: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 27, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2011: In Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks plays peek-a-boo with the reader lifting each corner just enough to wonder at what may lie underneath. When we meet the Kid, he is grappling with his public status as a convicted sex offender, living under a Florida causeway with other men whom society finds “both despicable and impossible to remove and thus by most people simply wished out of existence.” Enter the Professor, with his genius IQ and massive physical presence, eager to prove that men like the Kid have been shaped by social forces and are capable of change. The pair seem diametrically opposed yet share a “profound sense of isolation, of difference and solitude…,” held hostage by their secrets in this morally complex and thought-provoking story of illusions and blurry truths in a novel that that hums with electricity from beginning to end. --Seira Wilson
“Destined to be a canonical novel of its time... it delivers another of Banks’s wrenching, panoramic visions of American moral life, and this one very particular to the early 21st century... Banks, whose great works resonate with such heart and soul, brings his full narrative powers to bear.” (Janet Maslin, New York Times)
“Banks may be the most compassionate fiction writer working today… Lost Memory of Skin is proof that Banks remains our premier chronicler of the doomed and forgotten American Male.” (New York Times Book Review)
“Banks’s enormous gamble in both plot and character pays off handsomely…By the end, Kafka is rubbing elbows with Robert Ludlum, and Banks has mounted a thrilling defense of the novel’s place in contemporary culture.” (The New Yorker)
“One of our finest novelists gives voice to the unspeakable…[A] compelling story” (O, the Oprah Magazine)
“His boldest imaginative leap yet into the invisible margins of society… Lost Memory of Skin is a haunting book.” (Wall Street Journal)
“Among contemporary writers giving voice to America’s beleaguered working class, Russell Banks may have no peer…this oddly unsettling, beautifully crafted novel…raise[s] fascinating issues.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“Banks reveals the two [characters] with tenderness and trenchant wit, in a story that, not surprisingly, plumbs the depth of human despair and resilience. If that prowess is predictable, Skin is bound to leave you shaken and strangely reassured.” (USA Today)
“Mr. Banks knows plot, and incorporates intriguing complications to keep the novel building power all the way to the end.” (Pittsburg Post-Gazette)
“Russell Banks really does know how to pull his readers into a dark, dark world only to deliver us into the light.” (Boston Globe)
“Banks is in top form in his seventeenth work of fiction, a cyclonic novel of arresting observations, muscular beauty, and disquieting concerns… a commanding, intrepidly inquisitive, magnificently compassionate, and darkly funny novel of private and societal illusions, maladies, and truths.” (Booklist (starred review))
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Eventually he finds himself under the protection of an eccentric mountain of a man with a prodigious intellect and a social scientist's interest in the causes and consequences of sex offenders. Both the Kid and the Professor are, to put it mildly, social outliers, and their intertwining stories are meant to illuminate--well, something, but it goes from a little confusing to a confusing mess as the story unfolds. If Banks has something to say about the causes and consequences of sexual perversion, it seems to be a retread of the tired trope about rape: It's not about sex, it's about power. Only here, the emphasis is on the instigator, whose existence is so starved for efficacy that, somehow, he gets all sexually weird, or something. And let's not get started on the fat professor who weighs over 500 pounds and is smarter than practically anybody alive but who, now that he's no longer a spy (yes), is a pretty good guy with resources that beggar explanation, given that he's just an adjunct prof at a regional university.
The Kid never did anything very bad to deserve his fate; actually, he didn't do anything at all, so don't worry, you won't have a problem sympathizing with him. Or the gross professor, either. If Banks manages to tickle your urge to feel outraged by society's endless capacity for getting it wrong when dealing with misfits, you might even enjoy the book. But I wouldn't count on it.
It's also a story about a man called "The Professor" who befriends the Kid. The Professor is a professor of sociology at nearby Calusa State University. He tells the Kid that he'd like to interview him as a part of his research on people like the Kid, how they live, how they can construct lives within the constraints they are required to live under.
I won't spoil the story -- part of what I like about the novel is how it unfolds, how we, along with the Kid, piece together what is going on little by little, and, in the end, still can't be sure. We don't know much about the Kid either at the beginning -- we don't even know what his actual offense was until about halfway through the book. As a reader, my own sympathies for him develop as well as I learn about him. After all, he is a convicted sex offender, not a very sympathetic figure. But as he unfolds the story, Banks gives us a chance to see the Kid's life from the inside out, giving us the basis for seeing ourselves in even such an alien and ruined character.
The Professor is a bundle of misdirection -- stories about himself, told to the Kid, to his wife, and to himself, that don't fit together and that seem to conceal each other as if each were the cover story for the others. But this is the story of all of us to a greater or lesser degree. We recast our actions and the events in our lives through explanations, sometimes self-serving, sometimes just different by way of the need for some kind of explanation. The Kid's own story about his offense carries a similar fog of uncertainty. No one explanation is the right one -- they all swirl in an ambiguity we cannot resolve by simply paying closer attention to the facts.
But what the Kid's encounter with the Professor does, along with a devastating storm that destroys the causeway settlement, is produce in him an urgency for resolution to counter this inevitability of uncertainty. You can't wait to know before you act -- where knowing is impossible, you must decide, believe, and act. By the end of the book, that's what the Kid does.
If I find any fault with the book, it's with the explicitly philosophical conversations between the Kid and a reporter he meets toward the end of the story. Up until that point, the story tells itself, unfolding bit by bit. But many of the thoughts about knowledge, uncertainty, and the act of belief or resolution I mentioned above are spoken in dialogue between the Kid and the reporter. One of the great advantages, I think, of novels over philosophy is their ability to show rather than to say, to let the point unfold in a reality akin to real life rather than to simply state it and argue for it. That may only be a quibble with the book. I enjoyed it.
Besides the character development, the book's main theme is very out of the ordinary and makes you consider reconceptualizing your perception of sex offenders. That's a strong statement, I know, but take a moment to think on this.
A lot of the current talk about ending mass incarceration has focused on giving more leeway to non-violent offenders. This makes sense, for it is appealing to the general public and is more politically correct. However, ostracizing violent offenders doesn't necessarily solve the problem and promotes the idea that prison is not for rehabilitation but purely for punishment.
This book dives into this very idea by humanizing sex offenders, which is itself a feat. Like many, I do not have any warm feelings for sex offenders, particularly as a woman and given the current judicial system and cultural climate that leaves rapists unpunished. However, this book challenged my conceptions of these ideas and definitely has me seeing things less in black and white, and more on a spectrum of grey.
I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a different sort of read and is interested in having their views challenged on a seemingly straight forward topic.
Most recent customer reviews
This book gets one star from me because he killed off the iguana! I was so pissed that I quit reading it after that.