Monday, August 11, 2008

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

Cloudsplitter is a remarkable novel, notable for two superb characterisations – the narrator, Owen Brown, and his father, the infamous John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame. It takes the form of a series of reminiscences from an ageing (ultimately dying) Owen, to a researcher who came to visit him in his hermitage in the mountains of California to ask him about his father. Through these reminiscences, Owen seeks to understand both his father and himself, and to come to some form of redemption.

The characterisation is extraordinary. Firstly, John Brown himself: he is one of the most contradictory, inexplicable men in American history, a man obsessively focused on the ending of slavery, to the extent where he turned to extreme violence as a means of forcing change. Fiercely religious, Brown lived an Old Testament existence, likening himself to Abraham and his son to Isaac, and ruling his family with iron discipline. And yet this man was a maze of contradictions: he devoted much of his time to failed attempts in business and property, as a result of which his family were constantly on the move, evading debtors, and yet his love for his family – most notably shown during the frequent deaths of his many children – was profound and genuine. He was a man of warmth who was capable of cold-blooded murder, a failed businessman who studied the arts of war, a simple man who could use oratory to inspire others to almost lunatic levels of devotion. He regarded most white liberals as weak and hypocritical – their espousal of abolitionist causes was not backed by action and they would, Brown was certain, never risk themselves for the sake of black men. That made them almost as despicable as the pro-slavers of the south. Brown’s was a world of absolutes.

It is unsurprising that such a contradictory man should be so difficult to pin down. Banks himself notes that in the 1960s he was a hero of the left, but by the 1980s:

he had become an emblem of the radical right, the malicious, the radical anti-abortionists and other kinds of homegrown terrorists. It seemed therefore that he was a figure for all time, in the United States at least.

Banks, of course, is using history as a prism through which to observe modern America. Racial conflict remains and John Brown, with his absolutist certainty, his espousal of violence as a justifiable means to an end, forces the impartial observer to take a stance. Banks notes that Brown: ‘stood upon that spot in American culture where the fractures of race and violence and religion all cross.’ These are the themes Banks has consistently addressed in his works, and in John Brown he has found the perfect vehicle for his exploration.

But this is not simply the story of John Brown. Banks himself describes it as ‘the story of a family’, and the Brown family are drawn in all their extraordinary depth and richness. The principal character, of course, is Owen, the narrator, and here, again, Banks demonstrates a depth of understanding of human nature that is extraordinary. Owen is every bit as complex as his father, and it is he, ultimately, who forces the Browns over the border of legitimate protest into murder and terrorism, ‘becoming terrible’, as he describes it. The whole novel is Owen’s attempt to reconcile the guilt he feels now, near death, with the anger and fervency which led him to the terrible acts at Pottawatomie, where the Browns hacked to death five innocent men in retribution for the pro-slavers’ sacking of the town of Lawrence.

But it is Owen’s relationship with Lyman Epps, a black free man, which is at the heart of this book and which gives it a remarkable depth. Banks is enigmatic on the point of Owen’s sexuality – the historical record reveals nothing conclusive – but the open-ended way he deals with it is powerful. There is no doubt that Owen’s relationship with Lyman is intense and that Owen himself has difficulty understanding his feelings. They experience a ‘difficult intimacy’. He transfers those feelings to Owen’s wife and convinces himself that, in fact, he loves her, but this conviction is not steady and, ultimately, Owen admits that his attraction lies elsewhere. He writes:
I now knew, for instance, that my thwarted love for Susan [Lyman’s wife] was my love for Lyman gone all wrong, fatally corrupted by guilt and envy. I did not want to love her – I did not love her at all – so much as I wanted to neutralize my powerful feelings for Lyman. For they had frightened me: the were unnatural; they were the unavoidable consequence of a manly love finding itself locked inside a white man’s racialist guilt, of Abel’s sweet, brotherly trust betrayed by Cain’s murderous envy.

And this is where the novel gains its strength. For Owen, fervent abolitionist, the most ardent of his father’s supporters in the struggle to free the black man, cannot reconcile his love for Lyman with their respective skin colours. This man who takes such drastic action in the name of equality cannot overcome the fact of his whiteness and Lyman’s blackness. At one point, he writess: ‘But I was the man who had never been able to forget that Lyman, while he lived, was black.’ It is a physical fact and it comes between them. Banks does not offer glib answers because these are complex issues. (It is instructive to compare this with Maggie Gee’s The White Family, which actually covers remarkably similar emotional territory, and does so well, but without a fraction of Banks’ psychological understanding.) In the end, Owen’s self-loathing is part of what drives him to do what he does.

The book is rich in detail. At over 600 pages it creates and evokes a time long past with uncanny quality. There are terrible events – the Brown family lose their first mother and a number of the children in early childhood; Owen’s brother, Fred, castrates himself, tragedy surrounds them – and there is stomach-churning violence, particularly in the events at Pottawatomie. But these are anchored in the narrative and they help to create this cast of extraordinary characters, whose inhumanity is rooted paradoxically in the most profound humanity. This is no Cormac McCarthy shock-nonsense, no gnostic wallowing in anti-humanism. Where McCarthy invokes nihilism, Banks gives us humanity in all its flawed beauty.

An astounding book. Days after finishing it, questions are still rebounding in my head.

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