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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