LOST MEMORY OF SKIN
“Lost Memory of Skin” is a major new work by Russell Banks destined to be a canonical novel of its time. That is not to say it is without problems. It engages the reader in one long wrestling match. It is sometimes marred by condescension. But it delivers another of Mr. Banks’s wrenching, panoramic visions of American moral life, and this one very particular to the early 21st century. It tells of a plugged-in, tuned-out Internet culture “lost in the misty zone between reality and imagery, no longer able to tell the difference.” And it explores the terrible, dehumanizing consequences of choosing to live this way.
“This is how a good man loses his goodness.” That was the thought that made a masterpiece out of Mr. Banks’s “Continental Drift,” and it is one to which he has frequently been drawn. In “Lost Memory of Skin” it surfaces at full force in a character who is called the Kid. He is in some ways as unremarkable as his moniker. “The Kid is one of those people who have made up the mass of mankind since the species first appeared on the plains of East Africa two or three million years ago,” Mr. Banks writes. As a Cro-Magnon or Russian serf or an American Indian unacquainted with Europeans, he would have faced many dangers. But none would have been as elusive, unreasonable and devastating as the Web has been in destroying his past and poisoning his future.
As “Lost Memory of Skin” begins, the 22-year-old Kid walks into a library. He wants access to a computer. He wants to confirm that, yes, his real name appears on the National Sex Offender Registry. His whereabouts are public knowledge too, since it is a condition of his parole that he wear an electronic ankle bracelet and not allow it to run out of battery power. And although he lives in Calusa, a big city that sounds like Miami, his place of residence is determined by geography. The places in Calusa where sex offenders can stay — 2,500 feet from anyone under 18, as the law stipulates — are the uninhabitable outskirts of the airport and a makeshift camp under a causeway that they call home.
Early parts of this novel introduce the camp’s other residents. All are sex offenders except for Iggy, who is an iguana. Iggy is the creature the Kid loves most in the world, and it is a world that includes his mother. His mother didn’t know the Kid’s father for long. She had a lot of boyfriends who found the Kid inconvenient. And she abandoned him once he committed his crime, although Mr. Banks is slow to reveal exactly what the Kid did or why he did it. “Lost Memory of Skin” unfolds suspensefully, deriving an eerie moral tension from the question of just which laws the Kid actually broke. He knows, in his at first exaggeratedly innocent way, that Man, God, the Army and Shakespeare are each responsible for laws of some kind. But he has no idea which is which.
When Mr. Banks gives the Kid access to a Bible and lets him read Genesis and imagine Adam as a homeless man and his mother as Eve, this book is poised to preach. Now and then it does. But it also turns gripping and stays that way. Along comes a huge, strange character calling himself the Professor and espousing a strictly sociological interest in the Kid’s troubles. All we know, from bizarre scenes like the one describing the Professor standing before a full refrigerator like a conductor before an orchestra, is that he cannot be as harmless as he seems.
Mr. Banks depicts the Professor as “a man with two bodies, one dancing inside his brain, a hologram made of electrons and neurons going off like a field of fireflies on a midsummer night, the other a moist quarter-ton packet of solid flesh wrapped in pale human skin.” In the interests of so-called research, he gradually coaxes the Kid to explain why he was forced to leave the Army and exactly how damaging the Kid’s addiction to online pornography has been. The title, “Lost Memory of Skin,” refers to the way real flesh has been supplanted by the virtual kind. The Kid is still a virgin and knows more about the touch of iguana skin, and the lousy acting of performers in porn films, than he does about anything human.
Poor Iggy. He is wrenched away from the Kid early in the book. The scene in which he disappears is a reminder of how profoundly gut wrenching Mr. Banks’s writing can be. When catastrophic weather hits the Calusa camp midway through the novel, he creates a scene of unforgettable anguish, very reminiscent of such moments in “Continental Drift,” in which characters simply reach the end of their capacity for hope and struggle. The rest of the city can follow FEMA guidelines for emergency preparation. The lost souls with whom the Kid lives have no such option. “When you are in fact not a member of the citizenry,” Mr. Banks writes, you are not equipped for self-preservation.
In a book with strong echoes of “Huckleberry Finn,” with the Kid as the Professor’s idea of Huck “long after he lit out for the Territory, grown older and as deep into the Territory as you can go,” the Kid’s growing capacity for self-knowledge becomes a driving force. Mr. Banks coaxes the Kid from helpless innocence to enlightened dignity, from all-consuming shame to glimmering self-knowledge. Mr. Banks also draws narrative urgency from his vision of a world in which sex offenders slide downward on the Internet’s continuum. When he charges his monitor battery, “the Kid feels intimately connected to the millions of other convicted sex offenders,” as if they were all “trembling leaves on the branches large and small of a vast electrical tree that casts its shadow across the whole country.”
This book expresses the conviction that we live in perilous, creepy times. We toy recklessly with brand-new capacities for ruination. We bring the most human impulses to the least human means of expressing them, and we may not see the damage we do until it becomes irrevocable. Mr. Banks, whose great works resonate with such heart and soul, brings his full narrative powers to bear on illuminating this still largely unexplored new terrain.