The premise of the novel is based on a situation that evolved around convicted sex offenders living in Miami-Dade County. According to local laws, anyone convicted of a “sex crime” could not live within 2500 feet of any schools, parks, bus stops, or other places where they might be tempted to commit more sex crimes. This effectively left them with one place to live – beneath a structure called the Tuttle Causeway.
Banks’ protagonist, the Kid, is living in a sex colony much like this with his pet iguana, the only creature he has ever felt any real affection for. His “neighbors” include an elderly man who exposed himself to a woman in a park, a rapist, and a pedophile.
The Kid is an interesting character study of someone raised in today’s culture of parental neglect, easy, anonymous access to pornography of all ilks, failing educational institutions, the internet in general, and overt sexualization of young children. The unwanted product of one of his mother’s many trysts, The Kid is left to raise himself. Several times during his youth, signs of trouble emerge, but no one steps in to save him, not his mother, not his school, and not the U.S. military. He is socially awkward, having never learned to communicate or bond with real human beings, and people respond to that in a predictable way: he is bullied, exiled, then ignored.
The Kid meets a sociology professor who wants to prove that guys like him can’t help what they’ve become. He wants to prove that, once even someone as broken as the Kid is given the proper tools to function in society, they will be able to do so. It’s all about nurture to the professor, but he’s a piece of work himself. Food is his addiction, and he uses it to keep everyone – his parents, his wife, his children – literally at arm’s length. No one really knows the professor, and that includes the reader of Banks’ book. Rather than being marginalized by society for his slow mind and lack of social graces, he is marginalized because of his superior intelligence. He is the shadow Kid, socially functional, to be sure, but just as emotionally disconnected from the world as the Kid could ever claim to be.
These two characters take us for a ride through the Kid’s world, through scenes that raise several important, and mostly unanswerable, questions. Who is ultimately responsible for sex offenders? The offenders themselves, for committing crimes that run the gamut from public indecency to child rape? Parents, for neglecting to teach their kids about sex, its joys and its dangers? The victims of the crimes, for presenting themselves as irresistible to the sexual predator? Or society, for sexualizing everything from beer sales to toothpaste?
Before the reader can form an answer to any of those questions, Banks throws another all important question into the mix. What is real, and how much of a responsibility does the observer shoulder in determining the truth? If there is more than one “truth,” whose is right? Children present themselves as much older than they are over the internet; they are made to appear much older than they are in a creepy commercial shoot; the Kid is presented as a sympathetic, almost innocent boy, and then he prepares to meet a girl he knows is 14 years old by packing a triple X rated DVD, condoms, and lubricant in his backpack. For a rather long stretch of the book, the reader is given evidence that makes him or her question just who the professor is and what his real motives actually are. Then, that evidence, so carefully presented, is also called into question.
Banks’ point is that each of us, in all circumstances, big or small, are given evidence, and we then make our decisions based on that evidence. However, there is no way to ever truly know, 100%, if what we are seeing and believing is the truth. We are at the mercy of our perceptions, no matter what we see.
My only beef with this story is that Banks comes off as a little too sympathetic toward the sex offenders. While I appreciated his calling into question the circumstances that led to the creation of the sex offender colony and the idea that a man who shows his penis to someone should have the same punishment and classification as someone who buys seven year old girls for sexual purposes, I didn’t appreciate the suggestion that men who commit minor sex offenses are harmless. Certainly, I felt for the Kid, for the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother and the world, but he did, in fact, communicate with a 14 year old with the intent of having sex with her. Banks seems to think that since the young girl’s father intervened, the whole thing should be written off as no harm, no foul. Really?
With all of the excellent questions Banks raises in this novel, he seems to avoid what, for me, might be the most important one - what if her father had not intervened? What about all the young girls who, outside the pages of this novel, aren’t saved? There is a little undercurrent of victim blaming that put me off, or maybe victim shifting is a better way to put it. The Kid is certainly a victim in his own right, but that doesn’t forgive his crime. Or does it? Hmmm, maybe I just hit on yet another question Banks means to raise.
In light of the prevalence of child rapes and murders that proliferate the media each week, The Lost Memory of Skin is a timely and disturbing read. Banks stirs up a pot of questions in varying shades of gray, and the answers will depend on how each individual perceives the “evidence” presented by those asking the questions. The perceptions, in turn, will be dependant on each individual’s background, intelligence, and emotions regarding what they’ve been shown. We will each answer the questions Banks asked with what we consider the truth, and our answers will be very different, even though we all read the same words, just as Banks intended.
It really is a brilliantly crafted book. Truly more than “just fiction,” it will likely open up an internal philosophical debate that might keep you up nights and force you through a varying range of emotions. If you’re down for that, or find the juxtaposition of increased sexuality in a world more and more impersonal worth some thought, read this. It’s not brain candy, but brain food. And it’s up for the PEN/Faulkner, so you can pretend to be all intellectual and shit. Enjoy.