American author Russell Banks, now in his eighties, known for books like The Sweet Hereafter and Cloudsplitter, is clearly in a mood to reconsider his life. His latest novel Foregone is more than a little bit autobiographical, with his main character sharing many of his life experiences, and containing some of the DNA of his 2016 non-fiction book Voyager.
Leo Fife, a famous Canadian documentary maker, is dying from cancer. He offers Malcolm, an old colleague, the opportunity to record one final interview, an opportunity that Malcolm finds too good to pass up. But Fife is not interested in reliving or explaining old glories which is what Malcolm is there for. Instead, Leo insists that his wife Emma be in the room for the interview and uses the process to come clean about the life he had before he came to Canada. That life included two former wives and a couple of children left behind when he fled the United States in 1968 as a supposed conscientious objector. The bulk of the story is Leo’s increasingly muddled reminiscence of his various relationships and different points in his life – from running away from home at 18 to go to Cuba (but only getting as far as Florida), his first marriage which ended badly and his second marriage which he also ended up fleeing from. But also around this is the story of the documentary being made, of the tension between those wanting to make their careers on the back of Leo’s confessions and his wife Emma, seeking to preserve his reputation.
Reader’s patience with this narrative will depend on how they connect to Leo Fife. Leo is not a particularly likeable person. He is selfish and mendacious, recounting as he does a life of lying in order to get what he wants. But he is also fascinating and his story, rambling though it is, is told in a compelling way. So that by the end readers may still not like Leo but they might feel they understand him more. Of course by that time, there has been doubt thrown on the whole narrative, a suggestion that the drugs he is on encourages him to confabulate and that the stories he is telling are actually a recasting of Emma’s own story.
Foregone is another masterwork from one of America’s great novelists. Those familiar with Banks’ biography and the stories that he told in Voyager will find plenty of resonance between his life and the life of Leo Fife. This is not strictly Banks’ history but he has clearly used the detail of his life to give Leo’s tale a deep richness. And that is what impresses here, the way in which Leo’s story comes together, the depth of the characters that he encounters, the underlying commentary on the American experience and the pathos that Banks manages to generate.
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