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Saturday, November 18, 2017

One trick phony

 The Darling
a novel by Russell Banks

Russell Banks a  novelist who gets considerable mileage out of his character's capacity to make themselves miserable, to attract misery without necessarily seeking it out, or being born into a miserable world that makes the bringing of each and every sunrise a cue to begin again for someone to arise and then debate whether to make coffee or slit their wrists.

I've read some of his novels--Affliction, The Relation of My Imprisonment, The Angel on the Roof, Trailer Park--and I have to say that while I find his prose often times gorgeous and genuinely moving, his fiction is so persistently dire, dour and depressed that it's problematic to say that I enjoyed the experience of turning page after page of seems , in hindsight, as little more than a cruel shaggy dog story. The misfortunes visited upon his characters are constant to the point that they become nearly comic in their overwrought attempt to create a saddened tone; the works are quite simply emotional melodramatic. This is less enlightening and far less artful beyond the grammatically pristine quality of the prose ; it may be much and hackneyed to expect qualities  as elemental as a moral of the story, an over arching metaphor, or just a riveting , compelling account of the hard luck  of particular characters existing, subsisting or merely occupying indeterminate space in a particular milieu. 

The Darling, concerning a rich young daughter who joins the Weather Underground during America's revolutionary mid-century who becomes involved in terrorist bombing that winds up killing people, we follow this poor soul as she flees the USA and winds up in Africa, in Liberia, where she gets a government post carrying for chimpanzees in a State Run field station. She winds up falling in love with a government minister who has taken pity on her and helps her, marries him and has sons. She becomes friends with Charles Taylor , the ruthlessly cruel President of the country and , strangely, she narrates at considerable length how she she seems to be communicating silently with the apes who are in her care. Disaster , revolution, race hatred, genocide follow , she flees back to the States and returns to her estranged parents and reconnects with friends from the political days. It was at this point where I closed this book and did not open it again, even though I was but 75 pages away from finishing. The improbable circumstances piled atop each other too quickly, too bluntly; Bank's prose stopped being graceful and tragically lyric at that point,moving in emotional impact and became labored. 

Clearly, he had too much going on and rather than cut sequences, scenarios and conceits that were't working to begin with--the kinship with the caged chimps creates incredulity, not empathy--he is reduced to hurrying through the story, to connect his plot points. In truth, there is nothing told here that could not have been done in 200 pages; we would have had a more powerful novel that might have actually destroyed you in the spot you were holding the book. We might allude to a crass metaphor, that Banks writes the way an alcoholic drinks, that once he gets one minutely detailed incident written into the narrative, he sets up the story for yet  another devastating bit of punishment, and yet more after that, and after, yet more, seeming without end. 


But the amount of things happening, the coincidences, from the heroine's early days as a Weatherman involved in anti-capitalist bombings, to an eventual return to the United States where her terrorist background becomes a secret she must account for, strained credulity no matter how hard and long I tried to suspend my disbelief. Banks' prose becomes mere padding making the page count thicker, consequently making the novel less desireable to stick with.  But we get blather instead, many long paragraphs of what reads like a twenty volume suicide note.You could here the strain and sense the tedium of a plot take its toll. This reads like a novelization of the most pathetic button-pushing mini series imaginable, circa 1973. The novel is a gargantuan bore.

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