Thursday, March 14, 2013

The last lines of CONTINENTAL DRIFT by Russell Banks

After the end of his good, harsh 1985 novel Continental Drift, after all his narrative's downward spirals have wound themselves to nooses, after his protagonists have funnelled down their various American nightmares to the septic pits of death and living death, after all of this brutality and hopelessness and rage, a narrator we can only identify as the author steps to the page in full Melvillean voice to deliver an "Envoi" that ends in a bruised and bruising statement of the subversive potential of literary art:

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 of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book's objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.

Those words were written in the mid-1980s, a time almost as dishonest as our own, but they express an ambition--and more than that, a motivation for and justification of art--that seems virtually nonexistent in the literary fiction of our decade. The novel of today is no longer an anarchist's bomb; it's a career move, the next step up the ladder after that collection of short stories from your MFA days. Literary fiction has hardened into a rule-ridden genre as its authors have become academic promulgators of rules and professionalized players of the tenure game. Today we write not to change the world, but to change our addresses. The extent to which the mad, Ahabish ambition that flashes from Russell Banks's closing lines strikes us as foolhardy, naive or utopian is a good measure of how much we have lost along the twisting road from Yoknapatawpha County to Iowa City. But what we have lost is still out there, somewhere along the road, maybe floating like Finn down the middle of the Mississippi, that sopping cunt of the continent. Yes, the thing that will make our literature worthy of the heights of its past--those forbidding peaks named Faulkner and Melville, James and Wharton, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Dickinson and Frost--is still out there, waiting like Whitman at Robert Johnson's crossroads, crouching in the vastness of America... It's time for us to pick it up and run with it.

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