What Novelists are For: Russell Banks
Open Source with Christopher Lydon
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.
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.
To Listen to the Conversation