A Remembered World: On Russell Banks’s “Foregone”
By Rob LathamMay 5, 2021
Foregone by Russell Banks
Jumping at the chance to escape the United States, where he was embroiled in a difficult divorce from his third wife, Banks invited along on the lengthy journey the woman who would soon become his fourth, American poet Chase Twichell. In “Voyager,” as the resulting 120-page piece is called, the courting couple, during pauses in their excursions, get to know one another better by systematically “disinter[ing] their secrets and show[ing] them to each other, making it possible for both sets of secrets to become one.” As a result, the essay is a memoir as much as a travelogue, with Banks narrating for his bride-to-be (and thus for us) his “erotic and narcotic and sybaritic dreams of fresh starts, high romance, mystery, and intrigue,” which led him “to commit acts of betrayal and abandonment, and thence to shame.”
More specifically, he relates his youthful dissatisfaction with his working-class New England family, whom he betrayed and abandoned first via a cross-country joyride in a stolen car, and then a few years later by running off to Florida to pursue a fantasy of joining the Cuban Revolution. He also describes the sorry fate of two marriages, during which he betrayed and abandoned first a needy young Florida woman and their child, and then an exotic if rather spoiled scion of a wealthy Richmond family, whose parents despised him for a gold-digging Yankee. Banks is brutally honest throughout these “weirdly shameful” revelations, even while admitting the allure of exculpatory rationalization, especially the “romantic, self-embellishing myth of how […] I became a writer.” Looking back at his failed relationships, he tells his new partner, he feels like the spacecraft Voyager 1, “deliberately programmed […] to sail off into darkness, silent and alone.” Despite these self-lacerating confessions, Chase Twichell married him anyway, and they remain together three decades later.
I recount all this because “Voyager” now seems like a dress rehearsal for Banks’s new novel. Formally, they could not be more different: while the essay is an exercise in perpetual motion across a sunlit tropical paradise, Foregone is a study in stasis — its action takes place during a single day in a shadowy Montréal apartment, a chilly anteroom to hell where the protagonist, a renowned documentary filmmaker (and American expat) named Leonard Fife, is succumbing to terminal cancer. The swiftly ebbing Fife has struck a deal with his former student, Malcolm, to film a documentary, narrated from his deathbed, about his career in “left-wing muckraking cinema.” But while Malcolm wants a crowd-pleasing tour of the old iconoclast’s greatest hits — his pioneering exposé of the US Army’s use of Agent Orange (an “unacknowledged inspiration for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now”), or his oddly sympathetic portrait of a Canadian priest on trial for sexual abuse — Fife has a different agenda: he will revisit the scenes of his youthful betrayals and abandonments, in a desperate quest for some belated healing and perhaps redemption. And Fife’s planned audience for this oral memoir is not the Canadian Broadcasting Company, which put up Malcolm’s funds, or the film festivals where the ambitious young director hopes to be lionized after his mentor’s death, but rather a single, solitary person: Fife’s long-suffering wife of four decades, Emma. This is, he believes, “his last chance to tell the truth — to himself and to the one person who still loves him.”
The conflict between Fife’s and Malcolm’s respective agendas provides the basic narrative tension of the novel, with Emma frequently intervening to try and shut down the project entirely, out of concern for its impact on her husband’s deteriorating health. Also circling around the dying man are Malcolm’s longtime producer, Julia, who snipes at her partner’s attractive young assistant (and, she suspects, new lover), Sloan, while Renée, a Haitian-Québécois nurse, fusses over Fife’s catheter and IV drip. But these fidgetings and skirmishes are mere trimmings on the real meat of the story: Fife’s anguished reveries and painful revelations, which — like Banks’s reminiscences in “Voyager” — gradually rise up and overwhelm the foreground plot.
These reveries and revelations track those of “Voyager” with uncanny precision, from the youthful car heist to the two blighted marriages, using many of the same scenes and details, even the same metaphors. Gazing back over his life, Fife, like Banks, compares himself to “one of those exploratory robotic spacecraft that somehow slip past the gravitational fields of all nine planets,” eventually “sail[ing] out of the solar system […] into deep space.” Fife walks in on his first wife, just as Banks does, sobbing on the bathroom floor, begging for love and terrified that he plans to leave her; Fife’s second wife, like Banks’s, mimics her patrician father’s Tidewater drawl — the same father who, as in “Voyager,” so abhors the “beatnik dropout from New England” who has invaded his daughter’s affections that he sics a private detective on him. Small incidents mentioned in the essay, such as Banks’s brief affair, while working at a Boston bookstore, with the girlfriend of a famous jazz musician, are developed into substantial scenes in the novel, and minor characters, such as the teenage friend who accompanied Banks on his cross-country joyride, are given deep and compelling backstories.
Some events take on striking new dimensions: that joyride, we discover in Foregone, included a piteous attempt at seduction by a lonely old blind man in a YMCA in Amarillo, Texas, while the jaunt to Florida to join forces with Fidel was financed, we now learn, by a sordid robbery. On the one hand, these added dimensions merely point up the elucidative authority of the autobiographical novel, its capacity to add flesh to an essayistic sketch; on the other hand, any attempt to identify the character of Fife with his creator is persistently undermined by Banks’s sly narrative style. For Foregone is, by far, the most cunningly metafictional novel of the author’s career.
As if the date of Malcolm’s filming (April 1) weren’t warning enough not to trust Fife’s seeming revelations, the old man’s memory has also, we are informed by Emma, been compromised by his terrible disease and the drugs that have been deployed to combat it. And so he is, she asserts, “mixing memories and dreams and imagined details and meanings, embedding whatever drifts his way, exaggerating some elements and eliminating others, fooling with chronology, trying to make life more interesting and exciting than it would be otherwise.” But the unreliability of Fife’s narration goes beyond the unconscious “confabulation” Emma attributes to his medications. While the old man admits that the “overflow” of his memories on the brink of death “has captured the flotsam of his secret fears and dreams, his hopes and ambitions and fantasies, […] the rubble of his life — and unable to differentiate between them, he is telling them all,” he also acknowledges the much more devastating fact that he is an inveterate liar, armed with the keen skills of a professional storyteller. And the result is an attenuation of biography into self-serving fable:
[E]xcept for his memories, all living traces of his past, all the witnesses and evidence, have been erased by years of betrayal, abandonment, divorce, annulment, flight, and exile, eaten by time the way his body is being eaten by cancer. Time, like cancer, is the devourer of our lives. When you have no future and the present doesn’t exist, except as consciousness, all you have for a self is your past. And if, like Fife, your past is a lie, a fiction, then you can’t be said to exist, except as a fictional character.
The “brittle, flimsy structure that he calls his life” has always been a tissue of evasions and half-truths, “a remembered world, not quite fictional but, like fiction, reductive, selective, structured by intent and desire and by the age-old impossible-to-escape conventions of storytelling.” In these stories that he tells himself about himself, and now is telling Emma and the others gathered by his deathbed, “the people he betrayed and abandoned […] are present like holograms or ghostly afterimages. […] And among them, standing at the meaningful center, is the hologram named Fife, Leonard Fife, a remembered version of the man as remembered by the man himself.”
Listening to this trancelike farrago emanating from “a talking head” —“[l]ike something out of a Beckett play, a brain and a mouth still working atop a body that’s irrelevant because it’s inert and doomed,” Malcolm begins to worry that “[m]aybe Fife is making it all up, or inventing enough of it so that in the end the whole thing is an invention, like a novel.” For his part, Fife admits that linking this outpouring of putative memories to his actual self is “like trying to tie a novel to the author’s real life. […] You can’t do it.” This, of course, doesn’t stop Malcolm from trying; as he seeks purchase in the confusing flux of Fife’s recollections, he “start[s] to see links that’ll let us make a narrative out of it. We can slice, dice, and splice it all we want and cut in archival clips and bits from Leo’s films and build out some continuity.” By this point, readers, especially those who have already read “Voyager” and have begun to recognize the reverberations, can be forgiven for feeling as if they are trapped in a metafictional — and autofictional — echo chamber.
Of course, we know that Fife is not Banks. For all their similarities as adolescents and young adults, Banks didn’t, in his mid-20s, walk out on his second wife, cross the Northern border, switch identities, and re-emerge as a brilliant Canadian filmmaker (though a brilliant Canadian filmmaker, Atom Egoyan, did adapt the author’s 1991 novel The Sweet Hereafter into a superb movie, and Banks thanks the director in an afterword to Foregone for his assistance with technical details). Yet for all the differences in their creative histories, and for all Banks’s attempts to impose a cinematic structure on the story (such as the rather too pat “FADE OUT” at the end), Fife’s literary debts emerge as more compelling than his filmic commitments. As a young man, he aspired, like Banks, to be a poet and novelist, his inspirations “the slightly mad ones […], Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Stephen Crane,” and when he reaches for references to describe his talent for biographic fabulation, his lodestars are not Fellini or Tarkovsky, but Horatio Alger and Theodore Dreiser: his life story, he says, is like “a deckle-edged bildungsroman, a ragged tale told of a mid-twentieth century American boy’s inadequate attempts to invent himself as an adult, a boy and young man more or less of his time, nationality, race, and class.”
This final phrase, with its gesture toward a fixed social identity, is telling, since Banks is one of the most sociologically minded of contemporary American authors. His characters, as in the work of classic naturalists like Dreiser and Jack London (to whom he is often compared), are always deeply embedded in the insuperable realities of their place and time, especially as experienced in youth — which is why Fife, despite living in Canada for half a century, still thinks of himself as, in essence, “an American boy.” Even his impulse to cross the border and shed his old skin is quintessentially American, an urge to shrug off restrictions and light out for the territory that comes, as Fife and his teenage companion acknowledge on their abortive joyride, straight out of Huckleberry Finn and On the Road.
In his slim 2008 book Dreaming Up America, the transcript of his contributions to a French documentary about his native country, Banks identifies “the mythology of starting over” as the core of what it means to be an American; this fantasy is so alluring in large part because it justifies all our betrayals and abandonments as necessary to the perpetual project of self-invention. It even rationalizes lying about our pasts, since why not invent those, too? But the consequence of this constitutive mendacity, as Fife’s struggle to narrate his life story “as truthfully and simply as possible” shows, is an ingrained failure to distinguish truth from “the trivial, compulsive lies that […] swarm around him everywhere he goes, even when alone.” And so, he tries to run from his lies about himself by creating a new self, a fragile structure that he “nurture[s] with justifications and evasions and rationalizations and hope,” until he finds himself “starting yet another new life, his fifth or sixth or seventh,” unable to escape the funhouse mirror he has made of his own identity.
Foregone captures this sense of irremediable artifice in its very form, which resists straightforward chronology in its palimpsest of hazy memories, and even confuses interior and exterior worlds by refusing to circumscribe dialogue from introspection and narrative summary (a characteristic trick of Banks’s). Previous novels had perfected these techniques: The Darling (2004) presents the first-person narrative of an American expat in Africa, whose self-evading lies are peeled away, layer by harrowing layer, while Cloudsplitter (1998), which is probably Banks’s masterpiece (and his most scathing portrait, along with Continental Drift, of what it means to be an “American”), sketches the life of abolitionist martyr John Brown through the garrulous — and specious — outpourings of his mentally unstable son. Banks’s 1989 novel Affliction (uneasily filmed by Paul Schrader in 1997) shows the fatal insufficiency of memory to capture reliably the texture of traumatic events, specifically the experience of growing up with an abusive, alcoholic parent. Foregone is considerably less dramatic in the incidents it chronicles, but it shares with those books a crafty sense of recollection as fabulation, as well as a bracing willingness to place at the narrative center a character it is almost impossible for readers to like. The fact that this character is, here, a quasi-autobiographical surrogate only makes the strategy braver and more complexly engaging.
This is not to say that Fife is totally unsympathetic. His rage at his failing body, and his terror in the face of imminent death, are captured with poignant precision. Indeed, I can think of few recent novels that have conveyed the fear of looming extinction — that “towering dark presence” — more powerfully, and Fife’s fervent urge to tell his tale before the curtain falls is ultimately admirable. Even as he pours out his story, he feels the lure of a terminus to his pain and confusion: “[S]uddenly that emptiness is tempting. Soothing. Beckoning. He senses that his mind is a deserted island, dry and high above the waters that surround it,” yet soon to be submerged as the inevitable tides return. Like Fife, Banks has reached the end of his eighth decade, but on the evidence of this novel, he is still working at the height of his powers.
The only (somewhat) false note the book strikes is in the character of the Haitian nurse, Renée. Unusually for Banks, who is perhaps the most attentive, not to say audacious, white author to address issues of race since Faulkner, Renée is the only character of color in the novel, whereas in previous works his white protagonists have often been in the minority, and have thus been forced to confront their endemic biases and self-serving fantasies. Aside from his wife Emma, Renée is the only character in Foregone who actually cares about Fife’s welfare, scolding Malcolm and his crew for cynically exploiting a dying man and even trying, at the end, to sabotage their self-aggrandizing project. Completely dependent on her for the most basic physical necessities, Fife virtually worships the woman, even as he casually orders her around, and it is she as much as Emma he begs to forgive him at the end (though by then his voice has become so feeble that he seems to say “foregone”). Renée thus comes as close as any character in Banks’s corpus to filling the dubious role of Magical Negro, though any reader who knows the author’s other fiction will probably be willing, as I am, to give him the benefit of the doubt here.
Indeed, one consequence of Renée’s racial difference is that it serves to highlight the petty insularity of the white characters’ concerns, especially at the very end, when we follow her out of the claustrophobic death house into the light of day. Like the final section of The Sound and the Fury, where we learn the personal cost of Dilsey’s lifelong service to the Compsons, we discover that Renée’s weeks-long devotion to caring for Fife has come at the expense of her own family, to whom she proceeds now to turn her attention, the old man’s “complicated and weird and strangely upsetting” story utterly foregone.
But wait — the saintly working-class caregiver, the dying man overwhelmed by terror and a sense of the abiding falseness of his life, even the confusion of “forgive” and “foregone” … Perhaps the appropriate intertext isn’t Faulkner but rather Tolstoy, whose 1886 novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” Banks’s fictive scenario tracks quite closely. In this most haunting of metafictional echoes, the author shows how the lonely death of a minor Canadian filmmaker, “famous only in certain unfashionably leftist quarters,” may yet be a tale of deep grace and significance, a gathering into the artifice of eternity. If Foregone turns out to be Banks’s final novel (and, given its many strengths, one hopes not), it is a profoundly compelling valedictory.
Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.
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