Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Dearest Drifting Darling, or, Let Us Now Praise Russell Banks

About two years ago, I finished Russell Banks's Continental Drift. It was midsummer, and I was killing a half an hour before meeting a friend. After I reached the end of the novel, I sat, winded, honestly feeling as if I had been punched in the stomach. The book had filled me up and then knocked it all out of me.

I finished The Darling, his most recent novel, three weeks ago and felt similarly devoid of wind, but not as though it had been knocked out of me, more that the novel had been deflating me in the process. The Darling is as strong a novel as Continental Drift; it's less sweeping, more character-driven, has some of the same weaknesses and many of the same strengths.

Banks' lyrical prose and his ability to evoke settings are, in my experience, unparalleled. I've read five of his books (he's written thirteen or so); The Sweet Hereafter and Cloudsplitter are about as powerful as the two listed above and just didn't jerk me the same way viscerally, and while Rule of the Bone kind of sucks, it does the same beautiful job of evoking the Adirondacks and Jamaica that several of the others do. Banks makes experience into character, can show his characters developing with their understanding of and relationship to their settings, can humanize landscape and make humans into landscapes. Continental Drift takes place in upstate New York, Florida, the Caribbean, and Haiti, The Darling in New Hampshire and Liberia; I haven't been to all that many of those places, but Banks is one of those writers who honestly makes you travel. You're in the story, and you are where the story is.

He also writes about the non-neutrality of whiteness from a white perspective better than any other writer I've encountered. Continental Drift and The Darling are books of an explicitly, macrocosmically, contemporary political nature, which not all of his works are, and while I've only just now realized that the majority of my favorite works of fiction are explicitly macrocosmically political, that wasn't what drew me to them and wasn't what kept me in them. In the main, it was the specificity with which he engaged the whiteness of his white characters, and developed whiteness, particularly American whiteness, as something real and concrete beside characters of other races. In Banks' writing, whiteness is not a collection of absences, it's an aspect of many characters' lives that a white writer has taken the time to observe (within and without himself) and to develop.

Continental Drift, a third-person novel, alternates chapters between the experiences of Bob Dubois, a white man from the Adirondacks who's decided to run, with his wife and children, away from his circular, empty, midlife-crisis life as an oil burner repairman in search of something better, and Vanise Dorsinville, a young black Haitian woman who is running, with her baby, her adolescent nephew, no money, and no English skills, away from Haiti and towards America. The novel delicately demonstrates the way in which each creates the other's world, and the devastating consequences of the skewed levels of power in those creations. The Darling, by contrast, is a first-person novel telling the story of Hannah Musgrave, a white American woman born to wealth who joins Weatherman and spends years living underground. By an accident of fate, she ends up living and marrying in Liberia, raising sons and chimpanzees and inhabiting a world that makes no sense to her; Banks closely observes the danger in her lack of comprehension, and in her perceived control and actual lack thereof. Hannah believes, with some logic, her actions caused the vicious civil war that tears Liberia; when she's told that it was inevitable, that her choices were not themselves the tipping point, she's at least as disappointed as she is confused and relieved. Banks manages to question race relations, political affiliations and what smaller-scale human needs they serve, the uses of art and narrative, the expansions and limitations of sex and sexual attraction, and provide paths to address these questions without forcing answers upon us

Everyone needs a writer like Russell Banks, the world needs him, but in the context of my racial thoughts these days he's particularly speaking to my whiteness and to what it means. White people need someone proving concretely and viscerally to us, from our own perspective, that what we don't understand still matters. That is the assumption that drives white supremacy, in both the formal/distancing and the casual use of the term: the assumption that what we do not understand is unimportant and cannot change us. Continental Drift and The Darling both use subtle means to demonstrate how egregiously wrong that assumption is. While I can't say I've read the entire library, I don't see anyone else doing what he is in fiction, and I honor him for it. He's good enough to make us ask these questions, and he's responsible enough as an artist to do what he is good enough to do.


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