On Contact: ‘Foregone’ – the power of fiction
Russell Banks in books such as ‘Continental Drift’, ‘Affliction’ and ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ has long chronicled the struggles and inner torment that come with being a member of our dispossessed working class. In his new novel, ‘Foregone’, he turns his lens on the inner life of artists, in this case a well-known documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife. Fife, who fled to Canada, supposedly to avoid the draft, is dying from the ravages of cancer. He is confined to a wheelchair, wracked by pain, pumped full of medications, and unable to eat solid food. His final desire, in front of a camera, is to expose to his wife of 40 years the lies and myths that he has spun to create a fictional persona, perhaps a curse of all who become public figures. He confesses in his final hours to two previously failed marriages and two children he left behind before fleeing to Canada, not to avoid the draft but to escape the emptiness and purposelessness of his existence. The novel explores the tricks of memory, the way proximity to wealth suffocates and corrupts us, the mutations of self that estrange us from those we once knew and loved, the deep fear we all have of being unloved, and the heady idealism that is at once the charm and curse of youth.
Russell Banks’s new book is ‘Foregone’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss Russell Banks' new novel, "Foregone."
Russell Banks: It's a novel, so you get this information, not in a redacted form, but in forms of his behavior, in terms of his behavior, and in bits and pieces, and you gradually accumulate enough insight through that means to understand then his later behavior, the flight to Canada, to flight out--away from his marriages, and so forth. His fantasies about becoming a poet or a writer, and so forth. You begin to understand that more--I hope more profoundly than you could just simply by a report on a redacted kind of psychological profile, or something of that sort. I mean, that's the power of fiction, is that it lets us into the complexity of a human consciousness, of human life--a human life, a single one that's maybe, in some ways, representative. And--but all the--all the contradictions and complexities of that are made available to us bit by bit, piece by piece, until it coheres. And we trust a novel to do that, when we begin it, you know. We don't need to know the whole story, in fact, we know that to get the story, we're going to have to read the whole book. And it's the great pleasure of writing novels, it's the great pleasure of reading novels, is that you are able to do that.
CH: Russell Banks' books such as "Continental Drift," "Affliction," and "The Sweet Hereafter" have long chronicled the struggles and inner torments that comes with being a member of our dispossessed working class. In his new novel, "Foregone," he turns his lens on the inner life of artists, in this case a well-known documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife. Fife, who fled to Canada, supposedly to avoid the draft, is dying from the ravages of cancer. He is confined to a wheelchair, wracked by pain, pumped full of medications, and unable to eat solid food. His final desire, in front of a camera, is to expose to his wife of 40 years the lies and myths that he has spun to create a fictional persona, perhaps a curse of all who become public figures. He confesses in his final hours to two previously failed marriages and two children he abandoned before fleeing to Canada, not to avoid the draft, but to escape the emptiness and purposelessness of his existence. The novel exposes the tricks of memory, the way proximity to wealth suffocates and corrupts us, the mutations of self that estrange us from those we once knew and loved, the deep fear we all have of being unloved, and the heady idealism that is at once the charm and curse of youth. Joining me to discuss his new novel, "Foregone," is Russell Banks. So, I've read a lot of your books, not all of them, but this seems to be a bit of a departure. Is this the first time you've explored the inner life of an artist? We should be clear, he starts out, by the way, as a writer, although I love it because he loves the idea of writing, but not actually writing, so he spends all of his time doing research. That is something we can probably both relate to. But I'm curious as to--as to--is this a kind of new exploration for you?
RB: Yeah, it is, you know. And also, I've drawn more heavily on my own autobiography, in a sense, than I ever have in the past. In the past, I've stayed away from the details of the data of my own life, pretty much, and I've not written about an artist or someone who claimed to be an artist at all, or the making of art, or--but in this case, I decided, look, I'm--so I mean, I was writing the book, I was 79, I'm now 81. But--and I'd like to try it, it's a kind of book that I have admired and liked, but never tried to write myself. Also, I think--Chris, this is a book I wouldn't have written, couldn't have written, wouldn't have thought to write 10 years ago. I would have maybe tried to write another book like "Affliction" or something, or "The Sweet Hereafter," as you said. But instead, I took a pause here and said I'll try to write a book that actually uses these materials of my own life, and tries to use--explore the unreliability of memory and the necessity of it, especially as you become elderly as I am now. You're more conscious and certainly more aware of both those facts, they--the need for regathering your life into a coherent narrative, if possible, and presenting it to those who you love and who you hope love you back in the one hand, and also the difficulty of that, facing and accepting the difficulty of doing that, and how unreliable your own memories are. So it was--so yeah, it was a book--as I said, I would not have thought to write or wanted to write 10 years ago, but felt the need to right now at this point, and having done that, but don't need to do it twice. I'll move on from here, but I'm pleased and glad to do it, and confront a few mysteries of that more particular to this point in my life, and try to penetrate them through the writing of a novel. I was also interested in--very much in the--in the political events that lie behind his movement to Canada, to avoid the war and the whole issue of refugees versus immigrants, which is very contemporary today, and was very important in the late '60s, early '70s, vis-a-vis, in particular, Canada, and its willingness to accept people--Americans who were fleeing from the draft and from military service, and granting them refugee status for that in Canada. So there was a lot to--the material that drew me in, and much of that material did indeed come from my own life and my own youth.
CH: Well, in the book, it's a lot more savage, because Fife talks about the lies and the betrayals. He uses very harsh words. And what's interesting if you have a Haitian caregiver who is just not buying this orgy of self-indulgence that Fife and the camera crew, it centers in a day in his life. And there's a kind of magic realism quality to it by the end because you're not even sure, he thinks he's been talking for, I can't remember, six hours or something. It's only been an hour. By the end, you don't even know what he's actually said or hasn't said because, of course, he's dying, and then you have this mercenary film crew that wants to film him as he's dying, boy, that's journalism to its core. But I thought the book was--I mean, I thought--I think the power of much of your work is you don't romanticize, you come out of the working class, your father was a plumber, you yourself, there's--we'll talk about the scene where you flee. What'd you call it? What'd you call Colgate? Rumford College? Where--which is autobiographical I happen to know. But you're really harsh. You're really, really harsh on the inner life of the rider and the artist. And I don't think you're talking about a singular figure. I think you're talking about the pretentions of the artist, if I'm not wrong.
RB: No, you're not wrong. I think you're right. The pretentions to--of a leftist Liberal as well, because that's what he is, and that's his reputation in Canada is based on, and his a self-satisfaction is based on that. And, you know, and I'm always also trying to reveal and examine the mix of motives that often generate what we think of in public life as civic action, as activism, as even radical or progressive kinds of behavior, because he certainly would be characterized that way, he is characterized that way, his life is seen through that lens. But yeah, we are--learned over the course of the narrative, that in fact he had many different conflicting motives for his actions. And sometimes it was just circumstantial that he ended up in the beginning. The first film that he makes is purely by accident that he exposes the testing of Agent Orange on Canadians and New Brunswick, and--Brunswick, Canada, back in the--in the '50s even, through the cooperation between the Canadian government and this American CIA. So--but he does--discovers that by accident, not because he's a good investigative journalist like you. It's--so, yeah, I am trying to--I don't think expose is the right word, just trying to reveal, dramatize, make coherent the mix of motives that accompany all our public behavior, even that which seems most altruistic, and politically-conscious.
CH: Well, but all public figures you reduced to cartoon figures, it's a kind of short-hand, a quick short-hand by which you describe, or a person in a public--on a public platform is described. And then you have a vested interesting in continuing it, so one of the issues in the book is his flight to Canada, what we learned quite learned in the book, that he was in a draft dodge or he--what did he take, I can't remember, amphetamines or something, but you can explain that he was rejected for the draft by his own manipulation, his own kind of destruction of his physical health so that--and of course, he pretends to be dimwitted and everything else. But you can--but of course he has dined out for 40 years on this noble flight from--to Canada.
RB: Right, right. Now, there is that scene where--when he's young and he's recounting the story first to the reader, and through--recounting it to the young Bobby Zimmerman, young Bob Dylan, and the young Joan Baez sitting in a cafe--a bar, sitting in a bar in Boston. He's telling the story of how he--how he beat the draft and all, and the--or the difference between Zimmer or young Bob Dylan's response to it and the young John Byers's response to it is very telling and revealing, I think. Zimmerman thinks it's really cool, what he did, and Baez thinks, "Oh, wait a minute, if you got out and the guy behind you had to fill your place, and she finds it a form of cheating," and of course, that later becomes an issue when she arrives in Canada to give a concert, and all the ex-pat Americans expect her to celebrate them, and instead she scolds them for not staying in the United States and going to prison like her husband, David Harris, and argues actually, quite in some sense, I think, realistically, that if--there were 60,000 of you here in Canada. If you sit--stay at home, all 60,000 of you, you would have ground the war machine to a halt because you're almost all white, you're college-educated, middle-class, and your parents would not have allowed you to go to jail, and--instead of--they would have stopped the war to keep you out of jail. So there's a lot of politics behind it as well, that emerge from the life of my--not heroic hero. I want to say anti-heroic.
CH: When we come back, we will continue our discussion about the power of fiction and the novel, "Foregone," with the author Russell Banks. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our discussion about the novel "Foregone," and the power of fiction with the author Russell Banks. So I want to get into what you do in the book about the idealism of youth. There's a scene which I know is autobiographical, where the Fife--the protagonist decides to leave college while it's snowing to hitchhike to Florida. I know you did this. You tipped your hand by calling yourself a war memorial scholar. That is a scholarship both of us received at Colgate University. You walked out on yours, I kept mine, but you're quite sensorial about that moment, which I thought was interesting. So talk--you can talk just quickly about the moment and then how you deconstruct it in the novel.
RB: Uh-hmm. Yeah, well, he--yeah, he walks out. He's--he leaves the college for reasons he can't explain, until he invents a reason which is, the reason he left is in order to run off, to join Fidel Castro in Cuba. He sort of pops out of thin air when he's being interrogated by his mother, and by the minister of the--her mother--his mother's minister from her church, and he's forced to explain why he's really leaving college behind this wonderful fellowship, and so forth. So the question of why is he leaving is really not answered in that moment. You have to, I think, dig into the novel and dig into his relationship with his parents and his earlier years previous to this, and his own sense of inadequacy as well which was, in many ways, a class inadequacy that he feels. And that's why, you know, you say, oh, I see, there has to be deeper psychological reasons for his having done this. He's obviously not someone--a soldier of fortune, he's obviously not a radical who wants to liberate the Cuban people. He's just a kid who is a bit of a lost soul. And he can't imagine himself into the world or the life that he has been given. And so he's rejecting that. But I think it's a novel, so you get the--this information not in a reductive form but in forms him his behavior, in terms of his behavior, and in bits and pieces, and you gradually accumulate enough insight through that means to understand then his later behavior, the flight to Canada, the flight out away from his marriages, and so forth. His fantasies about becoming a poet or a writer, and so forth, you begin to understand that more, I hope more profoundly than you could just simply by a report on either a reductive kind of psychological profile or something of that sort. I mean, that's the power of fiction is that it lets us into the complexity of a human consciousness, of human life, a human life, single one that's maybe in some ways representative. And--but all of the--all of the contradictions and complexities of that are made available to us bit by bit, piece by piece, until it coheres. And we trust a novel to do that when we begin it, you know. We don't need to know the whole story. In fact, we know that to get the story, we're going to have to read the whole book. And this is the great pleasure of writing novels, this is a great pleasure of reading novels is that you are able to do that.
CH: I want to talk about wealth. So in his second marriage, he marries into money, and I thought this was totally spot on. It resonates with an experience in my own life, and I believe yours. It--he's offered, suddenly he doesn't have any money, he doesn't come from money. Suddenly, he doesn't have to worry about money because his wife is wealthy, living off of a trust fund. And then he's offered to run a kind of family company, but he understands that that is suffocating and leads to a kind of moral dead end. I mean, he knows very well. And whether he intuits it or intellectually knows it, he knows it. And having gone through that myself, I just thought you brilliantly understood the corrupting and corrosive power of wealth, and what it does to you and I'll let you talk about that.
RB: Yeah, I was trying to also point out how it looks to a 25-year-old, you know, or someone that young. It's very different than the way it looks to someone much older, whose life has taken a shape already and is more or less intact and coherent and foundational, and so on. But when you're 25 and you're--and you're presented with that temptation, it's very difficult to understand the deadly nature of it, the deadening nature of it. And he doesn't quite get it. He knows he must flee from it, though. That if he-- if he--if he doesn't, then he's going to end up living a life that will cause him probably to kill himself before long, or turn into a drunkard or whatever. He can see that route being laid out in front of him. He's not sure why or how that would happen, but he gets a hint of it when he--when he brings the story of a--of his father-in-law and father-in-law's brother having offered him the company to his wife. And he's laughing about it and feeling like how insane and ridiculous this is. And she is a little more ambiguous about it than he and begins to--he begins to see, wait a minute, this is what she really wants. She really wants me to accept this invitation. And she really wants me to become her father and her uncle, and to live their lives. And he realizes that she's as much the enemy in some ways as they are for many of the same reasons. So it--his flight begins there. In fact, that's the opening chapter in fact. And his flight, and it is the story of flight by and large, really starts that night when he reports to his wife. Guess what your father and your uncle just did. And she has this kind of like, well, what do you think? And he realizes now my life is on a precipice, and he decides to come.
CH: Well, he realizes--he realizes that she is the enemy.
CH: There's that--it reminds me of that passage from Auden's poem, September 1st, 1939. "Out of the ethical dark, the dense commuters come repeating their morning vow. I will be true to my wife. I'll concentrate more on my work in all the conventions conspire to make this furniture assume the fort of home least we should see where we are lost in a haunted wood, children afraid of the night who have never been happy or good." But of course, he sees in a way that they don't. And that's--well, that's what happens with privilege. There's--you write this in the book, and I want you to talk about it. "When two people who love each other are alone with each other, both of them lie, usually merely to protect themselves, but sometimes they lie because they cannot bear to hurt each other or themselves with the truth." Explain that.
RB: Oh, yeah, Chris, that's a--it seems to me so self-evident, now it requires explanation, but I do think it is true, having been married for, now 34 years and very, very close to my wife and to friends and family and others. I've been in that position where stating the truth becomes an act of cruelty, and becomes a--almost sadistic, it can be sadistic and produce a different kind of lie, one that is in fact more harmful than the small lie. And so I was--I was also leading up to, I think, in that passage to his awareness that if he isn't speaking his story to a camera, he's going to try to seduce the person he's speaking it to, that the only way he can tell the truth is to a camera. And that's why he wants his wife there in the room with the camera. And parallel to that would be, naturally for an artist. I mean, for a writer, I have a hard time not--I have a hard time telling the truth at any time except when I'm writing, because the writing requires me to tell the truth, nothing else does. And my intimate day to day interactions with my family, my wife, my friends, my loved ones, I'm not required to tell the truth. Sometimes, in fact, I'm required to lie in order to be kind.
CH: And yet, I think there's a consciousness in, not just this book, but all your books, that these fragments of our lives, in a way, don't make sense. We knit them together. It's not that they didn't happen or that, but there isn't a coherency. There's that passage in Middlemarch where she talks about putting the glass on a countertop, and that when you put it down, all the rings seem to emanate outward from the center of the glass, but then you move it, and the same thing happens. And that fragmentary incoherence of life is something you grapple with in this book. In a way it's--is it ever resolved?
RB: Well, there is of course the visions that occurred to him at the very end, toward the end, like there are 22 chapters, and it's around chapter 20 where he has that vision of himself on an island and all the different figures in his life approach on a boat toward him. And one by one they stand and greet him and all. And that to me was an image for his having seen his whole life in a coherent and narrative form, which the novel itself that is in a--really the novel itself is the boat that approaches him on the island. And then the water gradually rises and of course the end unfolds from there.
CH: Well, you drink from the water, leafy and your memory is obliterated. That was off of Russell banks on his new novel "Foregone."