22 November 2018

Continental Drift by Russell Banks

What follows is the origin story of how I came to own Russell Bank's Continental Drift AND THEN a review:

Every year Stefan hosts a Winter Solstice party on my birthday, so essentially he hosts a birthday party for me every year. A few years ago I decided to bring my Christmas gift for Stefan to the party (a copy of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) because I wouldn't see him before December 25th. So at my own birthday I brought Stefan a gift and he didn't even say happy birthday to me once THE ENTIRE NIGHT.

To make up for this he decided to ruin my family's Christmas by showing up on Christmas Eve during suppertime with a make-up gift for me. I purposefully tried to make him feel deeply uncomfortable and it is something we look back on frequently.

The gifts were a copy of Bret Easton Ellis' horrifying Less Than Zero AND Russell Banks' Continental Drift. I had already heard of Ellis because of 1) American Psycho but also 2) because he is an obsessive Joan Didion fan, like myself. I had never heard of Russell Banks and Stefan told me he had done some research and that Jonathan Franzen (love of my life) had some really high praise for this book. So here I am, probably five years later, finally reading the gift that ruined Christmas. Thanks Stefan.

(Side note: these were two incredibly thoughtful gifts and it isn't often that people get me books I haven't already picked out for myself. Stefan has bought me many books over our friendship.)

It took me a long time to start this book for no reason other than I have a lot of books I haven't read yet. But it also took me a long time to finish it, not because it was bad, but because it was very depressing. For some reason I have always had a really hard time watching movies or reading books about people below the poverty line. There is something so extra depressing about their situation that I've tried to avoid the sad pit it leaves in my stomach.

Russell Banks
Continental Drift is very much a book about poverty and about our attempts to reckon with the American dream. It's funny because I actually did try to read this book years ago but had to stop because I wasn't in the right mindset, I couldn't get past the opening pages of the main character, Bob Dubois, trying to find a Christmas gift for his youngest daughter. A simple scene that really upsets me for some reason.

Banks sets the tone right from the start. Not only does he let us know that this book will end with Bob Dubois dead, facedown in an alley in Miami, but also that there is no way out of the poverty we grow up in. I was really disturbed by one particular scene early on where Bob breaks down in front of his wife begging for a new life full of new opportunities, and how he feels that the only way he could escape their current life is by winning the lottery. That was just so bleak to me, but something that is very much true. The working poor are often unable to afford to go back to school or to pay off enough of their debts to start new, to try and rise above their economic class. So the idea that their only way out would be winning the lottery makes me think it might just be better to wait to be struck by lightning...

Regardless, Bob believes that he gave away everything in exchange for nothing, for a fantasy, a dream, a wish, that he allowed to get embellished and manipulated by his brother, by his friend, by magazine articles and advertisements, by rumor, by images of men with graying hair in red sports cars driving under moonlight to meet beautiful women."

Continental Drift is split into two narratives. The main focus is on Bob Dubois, a husband and father of two living in New Hampshire who decides to move his family to Florida to try and better their lives. The second narrative is focused on Vanise Dorsinville, who tries to leave Haiti and relocate to Miami. These narratives don't link up until near the end of the book so near the beginning you are trying to figure out why the Haitian narrative is included at all.

Even though the events in Vanise's life are much worse and more horrible to read about, I think it was Dubois's storyline that kept me avoiding the book. Over and over again he fucks up. He cheats on his wife relentlessly, doesn't care much about his daughters and how their upended lives are going, and he certainly doesn't care about drinking all day. This is supposed to be the stuff that enrages me, and yet by the end of every few chapters he is begging his wife to forgive him and promising himself that he will change his behaviour and be a better husband, dad, worker, etc. It's a never ending cycle.

[...] and even though the men in three-piece suits behind the desks in the banks grow fatter and more secure and skillful in their work; and even though young American men and women without money, with trades instead of professions, go on breaking their lives trying to bend them around the wheel of commerce, dreaming that when the wheel turns, they will come rising up from the ground like televised gods making a brief special appearance here on earth, nothing like it before or since, such utter transcendence that any awful sacrifice is justified."

I can definitely see why Jonathan Franzen would like this book and Banks as a writer. It's the kind of fiction Franzen seems to devour and emulate in his own writing. More importantly, this is the kind of book that Franzen believes to be so important. He wrote a really beautiful essay about the supposed death of the novel and Banks sort of addresses fiction's importance at the end of his book.

This was actually a stranger ending for a fiction book and I really loved it. After the book wraps up there is a 2 page envoi where an omniscient narrator "ends the story of Robert Dubois." The book isn't narrated like this at all save for the very beginning where we are told of Bob's fate. It ends with this amazing passage about fiction and how important it is that we read it and empathize with other people - even fictional ones:

The world as it is goes on being itself. Books get written - novels, stories and poems stuffed with particulars that try to tell us what the world is, as if our knowledge of people like Bob Dubois and Vanise and Claude Dorsinville will set people like them free. It will not. Knowledge of the facts of Bob's life and death changes nothing in the world. Our celebrating his life and grieving over his death, however, will. Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives - no, especially wholly invented lives - deprive the world as it is of some greed it needs to continue to be itself."

This is a good enough argument for me to buy more Russell Banks books, no matter how depressed they make me.

1 comment:

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