The modern purgatory of Russell Banks’ new novel is chilling because it is true. Like Banks’ protagonist, the Kid, there are thousands of sex offenders who have been released from jail but are no longer allowed to live in regular society. They wander from place to place, sometimes in camps but more often alone, trying to find a decent living spot more than 2500 feet away from a school, a nursery, a playground, and yet within the county in which they were arrested. Often, men like this bond in shantytowns, held together by nothing more than their common fate. Although these camps may sound contrived, they actually exist. And it is in this disturbing reality that Banks introduces lives and characters that many might like to ignore.
“Lost Memory of Skin” opens on one of these sex-offender campgrounds. Settling at the Causeway, the Kid has at last found, if not a home, somewhere to keep his stuff for a while. The Kid seems innocently naïve but is a registered sex offender. He and his giant pet iguana Iggy live in a tent in the shantytown along with other offenders who sport nicknames like Rabbi and Plato the Greek. The squatters’ village barely gets by on the feeble incomes of its occupants, and Banks tries to evoke sympathy for them, only to undercut it by inserting reminders that these are rapists in legal purgatory who are banned from normal society.
Purgatory—or the “in between”—is a vital concept in “Lost Memory of Skin.” Banks uses a sex offender, someone who is legally in between, to introduce us to the real topic of the novel—how we, as a society, have become trapped in the gap between reality and imagination. “Lost Memory of Skin” is a novel about the evils of technology, in particular the Internet. One character does nothing but “turns and looks the Professor over once, top to bottom, then goes back to the blank TV screen”. The same Professor takes delight in the fact that “it shouldn’t be difficult to answer the question of the Kid’s real name. No need to sit around waiting for the Kid to volunteer it. All he has to do is Google his way” into finding it. Each of the book’s motley characters is affected in a different way by technology, but they all languish under its invisible grasp. More disturbing is what the Internet does to those who are already morally in between. Although Banks takes his time in revealing what actually got the Kid into this mess, he allows the Kid to reflect on the Internet’s involvement. The Kid was first sucked in, according to his telling, by pornography and images on TV.
“Lost Memory of Skin” is also a perverse coming-of-age story. The Kid grows up, in every way, over the course of the novel. He begins to understand his existence as not a sexual one, but as “if he’s outside of all sexual potential ... without an erotic marker of any kind, [with] no sexual past or future.” For a man like this, the allure of young bodies is more a test than an attraction. By bringing this to light, Banks forces difficult questions about how the Kid as sex offender relates to the Kid as person.
Unfortunately, Banks weakens his riveting and disturbing novel by including the Professor. All of the characters go solely by their nicknames, but the Professor lives up to his title so well that it is impossible to imagine any other moniker for him. Banks seems to take a cheap shot at the intelligentsia by parodying their studies of the human soul. As a sociologist, the Professor looks upon the people he studies “scientifically ... like lab specimens.” As a genius, the Professor always believes that he “was smarter than the government agents he reported to and smarter than the people he reported on and needed to prove it”. As a Yale graduate, the Professor is an egotistical snob. While Banks clearly has a vendetta against this type of personality, his caricature of the Professor is so extreme that it detracts from the story’s realism.
“Lost Memory of Skin” offers a penetrating critique of the assumptions that our society makes about the people it casts out. By drawing the sex offender out of his purgatory to prove his moral and intellectual mettle, Banks exercises his impeccable mastery of craft while warning against the dangers of technology. However, by taking purposely “upstanding” men and glaring unsparingly at their worst qualities, Banks too often falls into the mode of the wild-eyed preacher. Rather than allowing readers to decide for themselves, he decides for us “how seriously to take all your secrets and lies.”
—Staff writer Sara Kantor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.