Book Review: Foregone by Russell Banks | More2Read
 

Foregone by Russell Banks


 

 

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About Foregone

A searing novel about memory, abandonment, and betrayal from the acclaimed and bestselling Russell Banks

At the center of Foregone is famed Canadian American leftist documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife, one of sixty thousand draft evaders and deserters who fled to Canada to avoid serving in Vietnam. Fife, now in his late seventies, is dying of cancer in Montreal and has agreed to a final interview in which he is determined to bare all his secrets at last, to demythologize his mythologized life. The interview is filmed by his acolyte and ex–star student, Malcolm MacLeod, in the presence of Fife’s wife and alongside Malcolm’s producer, cinematographer, and sound technician, all of whom have long admired Fife but who must now absorb the meaning of his astonishing, dark confession.
Imaginatively structured around Fife’s secret memories and alternating between the experiences of the characters who are filming his confession, the novel challenges our assumptions and understanding about a significant lost chapter in American history and the nature of memory itself. Russell Banks gives us a daring and resonant work about the scope of one man’s mysterious life, revealed through the fragments of his recovered past.

 

Praise For Foregone

 

“Furiously driven. . . . Banks’s prose has remarkable force to it. . . . there is such brio in the writing, such propulsion as the lashes are applied, that we follow Fife into the depths. . . . Banks has never solicited his readers’ approval of his characters, and many are unlikely to be charmed by Leo Fife. But what they will find in ‘Foregone’ is a character, a novel and a writer determined not to go gentle into that good night.”
-New York Times Book Review

“Russell Banks, as cinematographer, is known to move in close. Foregone focuses his sharp eye on the feints and fictions amid life’s ‘facts,’ as he reveals his fascinatingly fallible character, Fife, whose personal life has been contextualized by history. As we zig-zag through the character’s past and present, it becomes apparent that the writer is simultaneously, and subtly, demonstrating the act of writing fiction. Fife is aptly named; he’s an instrument piercing the soundtrack we call life, as the drummer marches on.”
-Ann Beattie

“Banks carefully layers the strata of a life, showing that the past is always more ambiguous than we think.”
-The New Yorker

“Russell Banks’ exuberant new novel . . . unfolds as a series of confessions that may or may not be grounded in fact; that tension is just one of the book’s many delights. . . . Few writers have explored the regrets of aging and the door-knock of mortality with Banks’ steely-eyed grace and gorgeous language. Foregone is a subtle yet unsparing achievement from a master.”
-Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Strikingly effective. . . . Banks explores aging, memory, and reputation in thoughtful and touching ways. . . . A challenging, risk-taking work marked by a wry and compassionate intelligence.”
-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“When I read a Russell Banks novel I know that I’ll find not only a good plot but—more importantly for me—characters that will lodge in my heart, and Foregone’s Leonard Fife (the hero? the antihero?) is no exception. I kept turning the pages, mesmerized by the stories of deception (self-deception?) that Fife finally wants his wife (and the world?) to know.”
-Nancy Pearl, librarian and author of The Writer’s Library

“Russell Banks has always been the consummate artist, giving unflinching voice to the complexity of the human condition. In Foregone he faces down death with that same courage, brilliantly transforming the climactic chaos of waning life and dissolving memory into the transcendant—even peaceful—wholeness of narrative art. This is Banks at his profound best.”
-Robert Olen Butler

“Banks has crafted a powerful novel about what remains.”
-Boston Globe

“Banks, a conduit for the confounded and the unlucky, a writer acutely attuned to place and ambiance, is at his most magnetic and provocative in this portrait of a celebrated documentary filmmaker on the brink of death. . . . In this masterful depiction of a psyche under siege by disease, age, and guilt, Banks considers with profound intent the verity of memory, the mercurial nature of the self, and how little we actually know about ourselves and others. . . . [For] all lovers of richly psychological and ethical fiction.”
-Booklist (starred review)

“The mixture of bravado and vulnerability is characteristic of Mr. Banks’s impressive body of work, whose range has been underappreciated.”
-Wall Street Journal

“During a career stretching almost half a century, Russell Banks has published an extraordinary collection of brave, morally imperative novels. The same marrow-delving impulse runs through them all, but otherwise it would be difficult to characterize such a vast and diverse body of work. . . . Banks presents the story of a man tearing through the affections of others in search of a sense of purpose commensurate with his ego. . . . In this complex and powerful novel, we come face to face with the excruciating allure of redemption.”
-Washington Post

“Russell Banks is, word for word, idea for idea, one of the great American novelists. Foregone is a book about not coming to a conclusion. Banks presents us with a series of mirrors, some of them broken, some of them intact, and all of them wildly reflective of our times. It is a book about the shifting shapes of memory and the chimerical nature of our lives.”
-Colum McCann

“An unsettling and lasting novel. . . . Foregone becomes most powerful as a meditation on storytelling itself. . . . The novel is harrowing and lonely and familiar and sober beyond words. . . . Foregone is a powerful act of both love and vengeance.”
-Pittsburg Post-Gazette

“Foregone is a subtle meditation on a life composed of half-forgotten impulses and their endless consequences, misapprehensions of others that are accepted and exploited almost passively, a minor heroism that is only enhanced by demurral. In the rages of a sick old man profound questions arise—what is a life? A self? And what is lost when truth destroys the fabrications that sustain other lives?”
-Marilynne Robinson

 


 

Review

He doesn’t have much time on his hands, Leonard Fife, slowly he will slip away, he is trying to hold on and grasp memories, fragments of the past life together and is tell on video with Malcolm filming in his home, Leonard the once writer, filmmaker, teacher, telling on his life.
It’s a meditate look back and a journey through one man loosing his grasp and wanting to bare many things and slowly unable to recollect.
There is great empathy for the main character, hooking you through this read, with the terrible cancer eating him away and the author evoking the stark reality of it.
There are quite a few excerpts below, fine examples of the authors great crafting that keeps you reading till the mans final day.
There are illuminating days past in these page with his loved life in Canada and turbulent times from planning to fight alongside Castro In Cuba, avoiding going to Vietnam, and meetings with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
This reading In the bleak times we are living with pandemic at present may have more drive at this novel being more successful, one to penetrate the readers hearts and minds as an effective long lasting novel of one mans life.
One may even ponder on how one would tell their story, on their bed of death with camera crew, baring all as this beautiful life slips from us with things we carried.

 


 

Excerpts

 

 

You’re talking to Malcolm, she says. You’re making a movie.
No! No, I’m not. Malcolm and Vincent and Diana and Sloan, they’re making a movie. They’re here to film and record me, so they can cut and splice my image and words together and make from those digitalized images and words a one-or two-hour movie that they sold to the Canadian Broadcasting Company so it can be resold to Canadian television viewers after I’m gone and before I’m forgotten. Malcolm and Diana won’t be listening to me and watching me. They’re too busy making a movie about me. I’m just the subject. Different thing. But if I know who I’m talking to, I can be more than a subject.
That’s why I need you here.

The question, he says, is simply this: Why did you decide in the spring of 1968 to leave the United States and migrate to Canada?
For nearly fifty years he has been answering that question, creating and reaffirming the widespread belief, at least among Canadians, that Leonard Fife was one of the more than sixty thousand young American men who fled to Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s in order to avoid being sent by the US military to Vietnam. Those sixty thousand men were either draft dodgers or deserters. For half a century Leonard Fife was believed to be a draft dodger. It’s what he claimed on the day he crossed the border from Vermont into Canada and asked for asylum. He’s claimed it ever since that day.
The truth, however, as always, is more complicated and ambiguous.

Oh, Canada shocked and disappointed the millions of Canadians who admired Leonard Fife for being one of those sixty thousand Americans who fled north in the late 1960s to escape being sent by the American government to kill or die in Vietnam. While his filmed deathbed confession may have been cathartic for Fife himself, it has brought many Canadians to question their past and present national policy of offering asylum to so-called refugees. Refugees are people who have fled their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution if they return home. They are assumed to have seen or experienced many horrors. A refugee is different from an immigrant. An immigrant is a person who chooses to settle permanently in another country. Refugees are thought to have been forced to flee. Leonard Fife claimed to be a refugee.

But he doesn’t want to linger over his venial sins, his many small crimes and misdemeanors committed decades ago in a different country by a different man. It’s the mortal sins he’s confessing here, sins committed in this country by this man. Confession, followed by repentance and atonement, leads to forgiveness. That’s his plan, his only purpose now. His final hope, actually.

Some of them were poets, he says, which makes sense, on account of there being fewer words in poems than novels, he adds and laughs. But look here, he says tapping his notebook. T. S. Eliot, he was a banker. Won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And Wallace Stevens, who was almost as famous as T. S. Eliot, he ran a big insurance company up in Hartford, Connecticut. You probably know his poetry. A couple were doctors, like Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer. And the English novelist Trollope, he was actually a postal inspector for the government. Mark Twain was a publisher, among other things. Bet you didn’t know that. Published Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs of the War, which kind of surprised me. I always thought Twain was a southerner. A riverboat captain, I seem to recall. Nathaniel Hawthorne, there’s another civil servant. He worked as a customs officer. So did your favorite, Herman Melville. It’s a long list, Leonard. It surprised me.

These are not lives that Fife envies or desires for himself, the lives of poets and writers who were also bankers, insurance executives, civil servants, physicians. For Fife, it is the slightly mad ones who count most, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Stephen Crane, and the writers who made youthful poverty attractive, like Hemingway, Joyce, Frost, and Faulkner, whose deprivations and sacrifices when young were rewarded with fame and riches later, while they were still living. None of them, not the mad ones, certainly, and not the bohemians either, would have agreed to be the chief operating officer of a company that manufactures foot powder. None of them would have agreed to be the podiatry-products king of America.
For Fife, it’s humiliating enough as it is, earning a doctorate in literature and working as a part-time adjunct professor and writing unpublished, maybe unpublishable, novels, stories, and poems in the air-conditioned comfort of an apartment—and soon, a house—paid for by his wife’s trust fund. If he accepts Benjamin and Jackson Chapman’s offer to stay here in Richmond and take over his in-laws’ family business, whether he is good at it or not—though he is sure that if Benjamin and Jackson Chapman, who are neither clever nor industrious, can handle the job, he can handle it, too—in a few years he and Alicia and their children will be living in a big brick colonial Carillon Park mansion that overlooks the James River, and he will join the Country Club of Virginia, the Chamber of Commerce, the board of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and one night after a half dozen bourbons and branch he will go into the library and lock the door and put a bullet in his brain.
Whoever, whatever, he is now, though he’s only partially solidified as a self-created being, if he accepts their offer, he will liquefy and eventually vaporize. He will become an invisible, odorless gas, and the best thing he can do to make sense of what he has done to himself is light a match, like one of those self-immolating Vietnamese monks protesting the war in Vietnam.

Fife comes back to Emma. He says, You think you already know most of this stuff? Is that what you think? You think you know me? Well, let me assure you, no one in this room knows me any better than my nurse, Renée. And actually she knows me in ways you guys never will. She puts the catheter in my prick and takes it out, she wipes my ass and changes my diaper, she undresses me, puts me in the tub and bathes me and rubs lotion over my bedsores and dresses me again. She measures out my meds and fills and refills my drip. Renée is beside me every waking minute, and even when I’m sleeping.

There is nothing left of his life now, except what’s in his brain and the fluids that pass through his bowels and bladder and the cancer cells that are devouring his bones and flesh, munching on his organs, shutting them down one by one. He has not been able to digest solids for weeks. He hasn’t had sex with Emma or anyone else for three years, nor has he managed to ejaculate for nearly a year. No one who isn’t being paid for it wants to touch his body. Not even Emma. Not even he himself. What’s left of his life now, who he is, is only what’s inside his brain. Which is only who he was, nothing more. The future does not exist anymore, and the present never did. And no one knows who he was. No one can know, unless he tells her: Emma.
He could go silent, the way he stopped eating, an act of will made easy by exhaustion and the drugs that have killed his appetite. But if he goes silent, he will disappear. Except 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.
In telling his story to Emma, Fife is not trying to correct the record, he’s trying to stay alive. Or, more accurately, he’s trying to come to life, like a Pinocchio, a puppet made of wood, ingeniously carved and assembled so as to closely resemble a real human being—a much-admired Canadian documentary filmmaker, a teacher, a beloved friend and husband, a trusted man of the left dedicated to exposing hypocrisy, greed, and political corruption. But he’s really only a wooden puppet whose strings have frayed and broken one by one, and now his clever maker, Leonard Fife, the man himself, the village woodcarver, can no longer make him dance and play at being a real boy anymore. He ‘s collapsed in the corner of the woodcarver’s hut, a pile of sticks and cloth. Until the big strong Haitian nurse returns to the bathroom and lifts him away from the toilet and wipes his buttocks clean of dribbled shit and reattaches his penis to the tube and swings his body back into the wheelchair. Who is he then?

Fife goes on talking as if he didn’t hear Malcolm. He’s not dead, but he knows that he will be soon, a matter of weeks, the doctor said. More likely days. His future is null, and present and past have merged and pooled. He hears his own voice now and no other, and he sees only what his voice reveals to him, as if he were a child being read to. The story being read to him is the story of his own early life, and he’s both the reader and the listener. Who’s the author? he wonders. Is there an author, or is Fife no more than a channel between two worlds, the present and the past, like a canal between two oceans?

Fife says to Emma, This is more like a biography or a bioflick than a filmed autobiography or interview or whatever the hell it is that we’re making here.
What do you mean?
From page one, we know how a biography is going to end. The subject dies. With an autobiography or interview, you can’t be sure how it’ll turn out. It ends where the author or the fucking interviewer or interviewers want it to end, not where it must.
He has said this sharply, in a hectoring tone, as if angry at his wife. But he’s not angry at Emma. He’s not angry at Malcolm or any of the others, and certainly not Renée. He’s angry at his cancer. His cancer. Not cancer in general. There’s a saying among oncologists: Everyone has his own cancer. As in, Everyone has his own body. No two cancers, no two bodies, are alike.

All creation starts as a single cell of energy that explodes with a bang and becomes the universe. Cancer starts the same way: a single differentiated rogue cell breeds a tumor that metastasizes and sets to eating the body and eventually devours and displaces it. It’s the same with consciousness. It starts at birth as a single erupting cell of awareness that swiftly multiplies and starts eating the world, until you become the world. That must be how it feels to be an infant human being, a newborn human baby. You are the universe. An utterly dysfunctional state that, in order to function as a self-sufficient organism, has to start differentiating itself from the world, the way one’s organs one by one take on their unique shapes and functions, until cell-fate equals self-fate.
Equals self-hate? That’s the cancer cell, the malignancy metastasizing.

Fife steps back and takes another lingering look at Stanley’s truck. Then the two men turn and slowly walk back up the hill toward the house. The chill has permeated Fife’s clothes, and he starts to shiver, his teeth to chatter. Nearing the bend in the road, he stops again and turns around to face downhill into the blackness of the valley and the mountains that lie beyond, and beyond the mountains, Canada.
Oh, Canada.
The sky is a wide, star-studded cowl stretched overhead from horizon to horizon. He can no longer see the truck or the road itself. He senses the presence of a deep bowl of empty space surrounded by dark, featureless mountains. The valley below falls swiftly away from where he stands on the hillside, opens out and creates an absence that he can feel, a vacuum that draws all his atoms, the cumulative mass of his body, toward it. He can hear the light sucking noise it makes. He tastes its starchy dry negation, smells its airless, magnetic spoor. If he were on a cliff, instead of a hill, he would not be able to keep himself from leaping off it.

 


 

About Russell Banks

 

Russell Banks, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is one of America’s most prestigious fiction writers, a past president of the International Parliament of Writers, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Common Wealth Award for Literature. He lives in upstate New York and Miami, Florida.

 



 

 


 

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 31 March 2021