Russell Banks is an American novelist who has been writing at the highest level for many years, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. For some reason, I’d read only one or two of his books over the years, so when I saw his latest at my local I took a flyer.
The many ways in which his new novel Foregone is an exceptional work are difficult to capture in a short review. There is the unusual and inventive set-up, and the stunning delivery of plot turns that time and again amaze. When I found myself a dozen pages from the end, I had to put it down to save and then savor those final pages.
Our protagonist is a celebrated Canadian filmmaker, Leonard Fife, who is dying. His long-time acolyte and then collaborator, Malcolm MacLeod, has a contract to make a documentary film about Fife before he passes. The filming takes place over the very few days Fife has left, with his live-in nurse wheeling him in and out of film sessions in the living room of the home he and his wife, Emma, have lived in for years. Malcolm plans to elicit pearls about filmmaking and the rest from the Great Man before he dies.
Fife has other ideas. He intends to tell the truth about his life—it’s not the simple story everyone’s heard of an American who dodged the draft to live his life in Canada, there’s a whole lot more to it. And he intends to have his beloved wife hear it all straight from his own mouth before he dies. This frustrates MacLeod, of course, but he owes his career to Fife, who will get his way if he stays alive long enough to tell his story. It also delivers to readers a novel-in-a-film we can watch right there on the page.
I won’t say much about Fife’s secret past, the first part of which involved a first marriage in the U.S. that presented the opportunity to live an easy and wealthy life it turned out he had no interest in living. They take a break from filming.
“He’s fighting off waves of nausea and thudding back pain. His body is a battlefield, as if his liver is at war with his kidneys and both have been mortally wounded. He’s woozy and suddenly confused about where he is exactly and who’s here with him. As long as he is talking into the mic and being filmed, he is able to forget his body, to wear it like loose clothing, and it doesn’t matter where he is located or who is there with him. But as soon as the camera shuts down and he goes silent, he becomes his body again, and he worries about where it is and who is near it.”
But he wants to keep going, and so does Malcolm. Emma not so much. And even Malcolm has come for a very different documentary—“This is supposed to be about your films,” he says at one point, “we’ve got questions about process, for example”—the documentary Emma, too, had been expecting and wouldn’t mind so much. But Fife has come to bear witness to all the lies he’s been living, and to leave Emma as he must, but only after coming clean to her. At one point he addresses the perplexed and impatient crew:
“It’ll sound like fiction to you, like I’m making most of it up, which is fine by me. I don’t care what you do with my story after I’ve finished telling it. I’ll be dead. You can cut and splice it any damned way you want . . . But no matter what you do with my story after I’ve told it, you’ll have seen and heard me tell my wife what kind of man she married and lived and worked with all these years.”
At one point, Banks has us—the readers—as perplexed as the crew by Fife’s running catalogue of his past crimes of the heart and head. This is all very intentional, of course--we feel like the crew feels, like even Emma feels, listening to all this. And Banks lets us know that he knows how we feel.
In the end, Fife delivers what he has come to say, and more. Indeed, far more than even he knew he had to say. He’s asked a question by Malcolm, and hidden somewhat among the pearls is:
“Back when they started sleeping together, he liked to tell her that she was the first woman he was attracted to who didn’t need him more than he needed her, and she said the same thing back to him, that he was the first man she was attracted to who didn’t need her more than she needed him, and they both took it as a compliment. . . .
Fife looks directly into [the] camera lens and says, You want to know if Emma, like all those others, is the real deal? For nearly forty years, she was, yes. Until this morning, when he woke and knew down to the bottom of his mind that he was dying and therefore he no longer had to be afraid of dying and realized that at last he truly loves her and desperately needs her to love him before he’s dead. It’s that simple. He needs to be loved by her more than she needs to be loved by him. Emma is still merely afraid of dying. For Fife, it’s too late now to be afraid of dying.”
Banks is not done swinging for the fences with those lines. But I’ll leave the rest to your reading.
Suffice it to say that here, again, is a Great American Novel that, like Richard Ford’s Canada, takes place north of the border. Here too, it seems, distance yields advantageous perspective.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .