Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Radical identity (Books - The Darling)

Russell Banks is drawn to themes of social and racial inequality, ways in which people control other people, political idealists, and strong, unique female characters - at least those seems to be points in common between The Reserve which I read earlier this year (and have this to say about it), and The Darling which I am reading now. Stylistically they are very different books. The Reserve feels like a romantic 1930s film shot in black and white- Veronica, the crazy heroine, has skin that glows in a flawless silvery white on the big screen - whereas The Darling, although it could be said to feel cinematic too, is shot in hard-edged color with hand-held cameras, and split screens. From the 1970s to the 1990s, we see Hannah, a member of the radical Weather Underground, evolve - wrinkles and all. Banks adopts the first-person to relate Hannah's story. Although we quickly know her as a caring, thoughtful and competent person, we know from the very first sentence that Hannah lives on her intuition.

After many years of believing that I never dream of anything, I dreamed of Africa. It happened on a late-August night here at the farm in Keene Valley, about as far from Africa as I have been able to situate myself. I couldn't recall the dream's story, although I knew that it was in Africa, the country of Liberia, and my home in Monrovia, and that somehow the chimps had played a role, for there were round, brown, masklike faces still afloat in my mind when I awoke, safe in my bed in this old house in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains, and found myself overflowing with the knowledge that I would soon return there.

I am trying to decide whether to characterize Hannah as impulsive. She is not flighty or unable to think things through, one would not think her crazily rash, as Veronica is, but despite planning, Hannah's life has been formed by decisions she has made on impulse, on how things feel. She would be a good actress! During the opening of the book, Banks sets up an atmosphere tense with the possibility of change and Hannah as a character who is sensitive to the augurs of that change.

For a few moments, as I always do, I stood by the window and watched the digs. They are Border collies, father and daughter, Baylor and Winnie, and when they have done their business, the first thing they do every morning is patrol the property, reclaiming their territory and making sure that during the night nothing untoward has happened. Usually I watch them work and think of them as working for me. But this morning they looked weirdly different to me, as if during the night one of us, they or I, had changed allegiances. They looked like ghost dogs, moving swiftly across the side yard in the gray pre-dawn light, disappearing into shadows cast by the house and oak trees, darting low to the ground into the garage, then reappearing and moving on. Today they worked for no one but themselves; that's how I saw them. Their gait was halfway between a trot and a run - fast, effortless, smooth, and silent, their ears cocked forward, plumed tails straight back - and they seemed more like small wolves than carefully trained and utterly domesticated herding animals.

For a moment they scared me. I saw the primeval wildness in them, their radical independence and selfishness, the ferocity of their strictly canine needs...

That last sentence presages the behavior of many of the human beings we meet later in this novel - and not just those waring factions engaged in the bloody revolution in Liberia - but American radicals like Hannah, who is herself capable of fierce selfishness and independence. Another element I'm finding compelling about the character that Banks is constructing in Hannah is the notion of political radical as a personal identity rather than a position one takes or a way to fulfill one's community involvement hours.

There is a crucial transition from radical activist to revolutionary, and when you've made that crossing, you no longer question why you have no profession, no husband, no children, why you have no contact with your parents, and why you have no true friends - only comrades and people who think they're your true friend but don't know your real name. Until Zack showed up, even though I was paying the price of being a revolutionary, I hadn't really made that crossing yet, and consequently my life had come to feel shriveled and gray, boring and pointless. I had the effects, but no cause.

Needless to say, she makes the leap, and this book follows her struggle back and forth between her need to be involved in righting injustices and her desire for a stable life with tangible, hands-on daily tasks, and real human connections. She makes three such crossings that I am aware of 100 pages into the novel. One from Brandeis University radical to Liberian resident, wife, mother, and radical defender of chimpanzees, the second back to the U.S. where we first encounter her as an aging revolutionary who has taken up a stable existence as an organic chicken farmer, and finally her return to Liberia to search for her sons.

Although the circumstances are by no means identical, Hannah's inner dialectic between herself as a revolutionary and herself as a person reminds me of my own internal conversation between my artist self and my engagement with life's other exigencies - my love of the creative process, indeed my acceptance of the fact that that is an inseparable part of my identity, and my frustration or even disgust with the extraordinary amount of self-absorption that process can entail, and the resulting urge to do something more connected to humanity, more tangible. And then the rare flashes of insight when those merge - my process has always been about the daily struggle to make them one and the same. I wonder if Bank's life as a writer, his continual return to themes of social injustice, and his penchant for creating characters like Hannah who do things like farm chickens, or Hubert St. Germain in The Reserve who chops wood and generally takes care of the Reserve's properties for its wealthy inhabitants, is indicative of a similar inner conversation?

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