Russell Banks has long been one of America’s most prominent novelists, and his new book, “Foregone”, is a work of staggering genius, complex and nuanced; it raises fascinating questions about identity and storytelling and the truths therein. The narrator, Fife, is a dying documentary filmmaker in Canada; four of his former students/acolytes have come to his apartment to film him/his thoughts on a range of topics for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Fife’s life in Canada began in l968, when he arrived from America; all his friends and colleagues believed that he was running from the draft to get out of the Vietnam war. We will learn from his statements on camera that such was not the case. Fife insists on being filmed talking about his past sins, transgressions, and lies about/from his past, while insisting that he is talking, really, only to his current wife, Emma, whose foregiveness he seeks through these confessionals (whether they are real, or really his, is of considerable doubt throughout the filming).
Fife is dying of cancer, and he knows it, and his rambling confessionals are wrapped around the nightmare medical treatments/medications he’s on to manage his pain as he dies; Banks’ quite detailed descriptions of the horrors of the final days of terminal cancer are most honestly portrayed, in much horrifying detail, but then these types of deaths are often defined by that narrowing of all reality to the next dose of morphine, or a change in position, or the changing of IV fluids; Fife’s being cared for by a Haitian-born nurse, the most admirable Renee, who is appalled by the spectacle of the four men and women making the film; she sees them as bloodsuckers, leeches, as does Fife’s wife Emma. Fife refuses to answer the questions put to him by these filmmakers about his own documentary films; the filming of Fife will, of course, be edited down later, and the novel thus raises questions about whose story this is–Fife’s? The filmmakers? And the nature of how fiction is written underlies these themes as well. How stories are told, how they are created, edited, changed, altered, magnified and the like run through this brilliant book, thus raising questions about writing itself. That’s the genius of this novel.
Fife’s life, as he sees it, pre-Canada, includes two marriages, two children, two wives before Emma; he has abandoned all of these people; he runs away when things get rough, and his “confessions” about these past lives and how he’s lied throughout his life make compelling, if appalling, listening/reading; his wife Emma seems to know most of these “facts”, including which are ” real”, which imagined, which lifted from her own past lives, as well. But it’s redemption he wants from Emma, who he believes is the only woman who’s ever loved him, and the only woman he’s ever truly loved. He wants her to know all of him, lies and all, and still believe he’s loved by her. But the cameras are running, lighting much emphasized to show both Fife’s noble profile, and, ultimately, to film his moment of death, which actually occurs late in the novel. Death-as-spectacle is implied here, as is film’s ability to alter, to edit, to change the narrative later after the film is finished, with appalling implications (and more than a touch of voyeurism) for the reader, for the medium of film (and of fiction). I’d go so far as to believe that Banks believes film to be potentially fascist in its ability to edit/alter a story into an entirely different narrative than the actual stories being told in the novel by Fife himself. The person who most objects to this obscene process is Renee, the nurse, who tells all the filming crew that they will all eventually be punished for what they’ve done.
So “Foregone” is also about storytelling, who tells it, who edits it, to whom it belongs while it’s being made and later , after it’s released (the book ends there). Fife’s tales are mesmerizing, punishing, fascinating, horrifying, brilliant. What’s dementia, what’s drug-related, what’s real (to whom) and the like wrap around the story of a man who’s become rather a cult figure on the Toronto documentary film scene, and whose dying wish is to be loved by one person. The novel is fast paced, never boring, never dwells too long on any narrative; it’s written brilliantly; the writer’s word choices and structure amazingly complex. “Foregone” is one of 2021’s best novels to date.