Famed Canadian documentary auteur Leonard “Leo” Fife, referred to as Fife by himself, his friends, and acolytes, lies dying of cancer in the Montreal apartment he shares with his wife, Emma. His bodily needs attended to by a Haitian nurse named Renée, Fife could die easily, with a kind of peace, if he chose.
Instead, the 77-year-old Fife has invited a film crew in for a last interview, against Emma and Renée’s better judgment. Malcolm, the director (and Fife’s protégé); Diana, the producer; Vincent, the cameraman; and their assistant Sloan have set up a darkened room to record “Oh, Canada,” the great director’s story.
Thus begins “Foregone,” acclaimed author Russell Banks’s 13th novel (his previous book was a work of nonfiction, “Dreaming Up America”). If you’re starting to see a parallel or two, look no further than the 80-year-old Banks’s biography to find more: Like Fife, he was raised in working-class poverty, won a scholarship to college, then dropped out, hoping to join Castro’s troops in Cuba. The parallels continue, with his Floridian marriage, another marriage to a monied debutante, whose family financed his degrees at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Banks is in on the joke, setting Fife’s interview on April 1, having Malcolm say of his film: “It’s like trying to tie a novel to an author’s real life.”
But Banks has given his protagonist an important life twist. While married to the daughter of a rich Virginia dynasty (her grandfather founded Dr. Todd’s Foot Powder) and the father of a young son, Fife has to make a choice between her family’s wishes and his own, which involve a teaching job at a funky Vermont liberal-arts college.
It is not a spoiler to explain that Fife winds up alone, in Canada. Much of the book’s first third consists of his attempt to tell that story, because he wants Emma to know the truth. “This is his last chance to stop lying to Emma, his last chance to hand back to her in public everything she gave to him in private.” At first she says she’s too busy — “It’s important, Leo, that I keep working throughout . . . all this” — to stay in the room, but readers will see that her excuses about work are to excuse her from the agonizing sight of her dying husband’s hallucinatory ramblings.
Like all of us, Fife believes that he is telling a great story with great style. And, at first, readers will believe that, too. The tale of Leonard Fife’s break from his family of origin and life with his wife, Alicia, in Virginia sounds authentic, even familiar, Fife’s frustration with the scrupulously mannered Chapmans a natural rebellion of an artistic academic seeking to give his own family roots.
However, cracks begin to appear in Fife’s narrative — and in his narration. “I can tell you’re tired,” says Malcolm. “Your mind is wandering and you’re a little disconnected, right? I mean, what you’re saying is a little disconnected and confusing.” Emma keeps wanting to leave, Fife urges her to stay, Renée interrupts with practical concerns. “Do you want me to change your bag, Monsieur Fife? I’m here if you need me. It’s been a while, you know.” It resembles a stage play with the fabled “fourth wall” removed, the audience seeing the machinations between filmmakers, beloved spouse, and professional caregiver.
The central account about Fife’s journey north starts fragmenting. Does he speak these interruptions — about his first marriage in Florida, about his teenage friendship with town tough Nick Dafina, about his stay at a friend’s Vermont homestead — or does he simply fall in and out of them as he falls in and out of consciousness?
What seems to have been a life’s reckoning turns into a series of fugue states, each of them illustrating an individual’s progress, but also a generation’s egress. Banks, born in 1940, is exactly the right age to have experienced the years of the Vietnam War and its draft, which form the fulcrum of Leonard Fife’s life.
Depending on how you slice “Foregone,” you might find a book about a temperamental, privileged, cishet white male artist, a book about capturing art, a book about dying, a book about personal truth, or even (and finally) a book about how the spotlight lies to us. After Malcolm has called his film a wrap, the character we follow to the end is Renée. Whose memories of the day’s work matter most? They could not be more different. Yet they are connected by one man, his life, his death. Banks has crafted a powerful novel about what remains.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven. She is currently VP of the PEN/Faulkner board of directors.
By Russell Banks
Ecco, 320 pp., $28.99