What Novelists are For: Russell Banks

russell banks

Russell Banks: We’re Dreaming

Russell Banks reminds you what the great novelists (think Tolstoy, Dickens, Hugo, Joyce, Mailer) are for: to dream up stories that illuminate the social and emotional reality of their times and nations — “…to forge in the smithy of my soul,” in the line Joyce gave to Stephen Daedalus, “the uncreated conscience of my race.” Russell Banks is one of those writers, in the Dos Passos tradition, whose imaginative forge is solidly founded on history and social context — in great American novels like Continental Drift, a tough love story about a New Hampshire French Canadian guy who meets a Haitian woman and her two kids in exile in Florida…, and Cloudsplitter, the abolitionist John Brown’s story as reimagined by his son Owen.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Russell Banks (47 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Banks’s new book Dreaming Up America is something else again. It’s a conversation about the country — all context and history and angles of observation, no plot. The story is us, in the year we choose between McCain and Obama. It’s a form I love: the prophetic or at least deeply intuitive artist thinking out loud about whatever it is we are all going through. The Banks version of this presidential campaign year is that we are caught, as always, in the braid of American Dreams — the dreams of (1) moral freedom and virtue, (2) wealth and (3) reinvention; that is, the dreams of very different settlers of these shores: the Puritans’ dream of a City on a Hill; the Mid-Atlantic mercantilists’ dream of a City of Commerce; and Vasco da Gama’s dream of a Fountain of Youth… (or “starting over,” or maybe “Change You Can Believe In.”) Banks is inclined to believe all the dreams are illusions, maybe delusions, and that they’re all compromised now by the resurgence of a bullying imperial “get what you can grab” impulse that is “nothing new” in American history, going back to Manifest Destiny and our wars over Mexico, Cuba and the Philippines. There’s much to argue with in Dreaming Up America, but to my taste the style and form of the enterprise are thrilling. A French television producer had come to Banks (also to Jim Harrison) with the idea of a conversation explaining America. The conversation with Russell Banks ran to eleven hours of “my ranting and ruminating,” and when he’d polished the transcript just a little, he realized there was a book in it, and surely an example of other spoken meditations grounded only in lifetimes of study and reflection. Banks gave me a notion of others we should be conversing with about America in 2008 — William Vollman;, the Nigerian I met in Jamaica Chris Abani; the U.S. Poet Laureate, Belgrade-born Charles Simic. Who else, please, should be on our target list? Here’s a taste of my conversation with Banks. Think of this as a beginning:

On pop culture: I’m fascinated by this plethora of superhero movies. Movies that are about men, in almost every case, that are stronger than humanly imaginable, who have super powers – from Spiderman to Ironman, and so on – and the enormous popularity of those movies. What need are those movies meeting? I think they’re in response to a sense of powerlessness. There was a time when those were comic books that were read by pre-adolescent boys, primarily, who tend to feel really powerless.

I think that the audience for those movies is not just kids. There are vast numbers of people going to see those movies and getting a big thrill out of them – a big hit. I think that they tap into that growing sense of powerless, powerless in terms of the larger world – controlling events outside of our immediate bailiwicks, but also a sense of powerlessness with regard to our own lives the shape and form of our own lives. Those movies, I think, really tap into that. Movies are projections. The movies that in fact were not successful in the last couple of years were movies that purport to be quite serious movies about reality on the ground in Iraq and other parts of the world. They flopped, one after another. People didn’t want to go out there and see that ugly hard truth. That doesn’t mean it’s true, it just means it’s too painful to look at right now. And we’d rather see Spiderman, Ironman or the return of Superman. That’s kind of a drugging state.

On contemporary fiction: Our literature… tends to float in two directions – to the paranoic despair, something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Don DeLillo’s work to simple domestic escapism and melodrama. There’s not a whole lot in the middle that is trying to investigate the world that ordinary people live in and see it from an angle that will give us historical perspective. One of the things that troubles me sometimes about contemporary American fiction is that much of it is written as if there no historical context for the characters – as if there was nothing else going on except for the immediate daily life of these characters, when in fact we all have historical context. I may be sitting here worrying about balancing my checkbook or my wife’s illness or this or that, but in the meantime there is a war going on and there is possibly the most important election in the last half century going on. So there is a context for everything that happens to me on a daily basis, and I think too much American fiction leaves that out, or if they do write about history, they use it as a gimmick, 9/11 for instance, has appeared periodically, but it’s basically a stage set.

On writers in power: I thinks it’s terrific [that Obama writes his own seriously searching prose]. I mean that’s a positive thing, very much so. The question for me is always what’s he going to be like after he’s been in the Senate for 10 years or after he’s been president and run for president for two years. These experiences change a person. For instance, I knew John Kerry slightly, way back when, in the beginning of Vietnam Veterans against the War and so forth, and spent a little time with him then. I thought then that he was an extraordinary man. After 16 years in the Senate, he turned into a bubblehead, basically, because he lived in a bubble, and that’s what happens. I think they exteriorize themselves, over time, until there is no there there – there is no interior left. And Obama certainly has an interior life, a rich and vibrant one as evidenced by his writings, and, I think, as evidenced by his actions up to recently. Now, can he preserve that interior life given the requirements of public office in America today? I’m not so sure. You know, actors go a little crazy, politicians go a little crazy, musicians go a little crazy because they lose their inner life. They are etherealized into the media – sucked up and packaged and sent out the other side, and there’s nothing left. In the past a politician could run for president and not really leave the front porch too much. You had a private interior life, you weren’t turned into a product the way we turn our politicians and our public figures into products. Writers have the same problem on a much diminished scale, artists and intellectuals too, because the media wants to make you a celebrity. The danger of that is that in the process you will lose your interior life, and it’s your interior life that you depend upon for your work.

Russell Banks of Dreaming Up America, in conversation with Chris Lydon, May 30, 2008

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  • Aquifer

    Just listened to the interview. Excellent! Was directed to it by a link from Ralph Nader’s campaign site. (Am getting some excellent reading tips from that site including “The Bridge at the Edge of the World” by James “Gus” Speth) and will pick up Bank’s book as well) Wonder what the discussion might have been like if he (Nader) and his ideas as a candidate had been inserted into the conversation.

    I agree with Mr. Banks that the “major” candidates are selling dreams but are promoting policies that have no chance of advancing those dreams, nor are they intended to, except, as he points out, for the very “upper” end of our populace. Have also observed, in another venue, that this society is using literal drugs – antacids, antidepressives, anxiolytics, etc. as well as escapist entertainment, to dull the pain of this individualistic, un-, if not anti-communitarian society we have, if not made for ourselves, at least allowed to be made for us.

    Am glad to have been directed to this site, and would note that apparently Mr. Nader is one of those people who has writers and poets in his political worldview. Perhaps you could have a conversation with him in terms of some of the things you have been discussing here.

    Thanks for a great show!

  • Peter Davis

    You asked for more targets, Chris. Good hunting:

    Charles Simic is a good one. I’d also like to see more of Noam Chomsky, Bill Moyers, and Amy Goodman. Dollops of Ian McKewan, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would be delicious. Russell Edson would be a grand slam.

  • Potter

    This one helped exacerbate anxiety before I pulled back from swallowing everything whole- though much said sounded very right.

    In particular it’s so true about the dead or dying internal life of our politicians and celebrities – the people we help put up there just hollow out, lose it, from our attention and their addiction to that (which means power) and the money means.

    Was he saying then that history is a hopeless cycle of the same old same and that technology only advances mostly our worst instincts?

    Regarding Obama and what any one man (or woman) can do, Banks reveals his own hopes or is contradicting himself when he says towards the end that we have now perhaps the most important moment in 50 years.

    Just the fact that Obama will be nominated is enough. We are somewhere else. All he has to do is be –even as president. But he will be more than what we have had. It is a feel good moment yes because we need it and want it- but more than that too. But if Obama goes no further, this is progress.

    George W Bush made a tremendous difference. You cannot say that the last 8 years with Al Gore in the office (even an unevolved Al Gore) would have us elsewhere…so many ways. Ralph Nader was wrong ( speaking of one man making a difference.)


    I would like to suggest Taghreed El-Khodary, New York Times journalist in Gaza, Harvard University Nieman Fellow (2005-2006) Interview just published : Life in Gaza Today

  • Potter

    Correction, I meant:

    You cannot say that the last 8 years with Al Gore in the office (even an unevolved Al Gore) would NOT have us elsewhere… in so many ways.

    (Glad to emphasize it.)

    Let me try that link again:

    Life in Gaza Today

  • john321

    I think that the audience for those movies is not just kids… There are vast numbers of people going to see those movies and getting a big thrill out of them – a big hit… I think that they tap into that growing sense of powerless, powerless in terms of the larger world – controlling events outside of our immediate bailiwicks…



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  • katemcshane

    I thought he was angry and he didn’t keep control of it, so it was diffuse and felt like scattershot against me and anyone who would listen to his interview. He’s a fine novelist and I’ve heard from people he and his wife have published that, politically, he’s in the right place, but this interview felt like poison to me. It was as if he were enraged at the American people and wanted to hurt someone, e.g. anyone who would support Barack Obama (e.g. — not a quote, mind you, but the tone — if you think he’s going to give you ANYTHING, you’re an idiot, all these people who have hope in Obama are gonna be screwed), all the politicians of late who don’t care about writers — except Bill Clinton? — he could quote Faulkner!! Who cares? He didn’t do anything decent for the people in this country. Does it make him decent because he had weekends with writers?

    Banks was all over the place. He’s an intelligent, talented man. What was going on here? I had to force myself to listen to the whole of his interview and it took me an hour to clear out all the poison from my spirit afterward. And it wasn’t because he said anything new about where we’re headed. I’ve heard it all before. There was nothing original in what he said. It was shocking. I’m not naive about Barack Obama, but it was so nice to hear that Banks’ buddies will never vote for a black man. Get over yourself. What happened? Weren’t you invited to the White House?