The Crisis of "A Man's Man": Neoliberal Ideology in Continental Drift

Article excerpt

In 1981 Russell Banks read a newspaper article about a tragic event off the coast of Florida involving the Coast Guard, a smuggler, and a boatload of Haitian refugees. This article inspired him to write his Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Continental Drift (1985), which climaxes with a similar incident (Maslin). Continental Drift tells two parallel stories between 1979 and 1981 that converge on a boat off the coast of Florida: Bob Dubois migrates south to look for better economic opportunities and eventually takes a job smuggling Haitian immigrants; Vanise Dorsinville flees the political and economic oppression of Haiti with her infant son and nephew Claude, and they become Bob's passengers. When the Coast Guard appears en route, all of the Haitians are tossed overboard and drown. The injustice of these senseless deaths and Bob's role in them is the most compelling part of the narrative because it exposes the structural forces reshaping the economies of both the First and Third World. Much of the novel, however, is more concerned with the diminishing power of white heterosexual men in the US.

While Continental Drift is primarily the story of Bob, it tells the stories of both Bob and Vanise in alternating chapters; the juxtaposition of their stories points to the structural forces that compel them to migrate. Reviews of the novel in 1985 often began with commenting on its grandiose narrative that takes on the current condition of the world. In comparing it to Affliction, Josh Rubins says that Continental Drift "tackled global themes in epic style," and Michiko Kakutani says that it has a "mythic dimension."1 In retrospect, these reviewers seem to be alluding to the novel's depiction of globalization - a term that had not yet entered popular discourse. One passage early in the novel makes clear that the drama in this novel is on a global scale. In the chapter introducing Haiti and Vanise's plight there, the narrator begins by comparing human migrations to elemental forces:

It's as if the creatures residing on this planet in these years, the human creatures, millions of them traveling singly and in families, in clans and tribes, traveling sometimes as entire nations, were a subsystem inside the larger system of currents and tides, of winds and weather, of drifting continents and shifting, uplifting, grinding, cracking land masses. It's as if the poor forced creatures who walk, sail and ride on donkeys and camels, in trucks, buses and trains from one spot on this earth to another were all responding to unseen natural forces, as if it were gravity and not war, famine or flood that made them move. . . (38)

The narrator pushes this analogy further, claiming that people do not notice geological change because it happens too slowly and that they do not notice historical change because it happens too rapidly.

Continental Drift is a novel about historical change during the latter half of the twentieth century, when many aspects of globalization intensified. More specifically the novel is about the shift to a neoliberal economy. Neoliberalism is the political and economic philosophy of free markets and free trade that dominated conventional wisdom in the late twentieth century. Writing as this historical change is occurring, Banks draws on both the massive scale of geological change as well as the underlying forces that motivate it to describe this historical shift. Through the novel's larger structure that pairs Bob's story with Vanise's, Continental Drift attempts to portray the larger forces of neoliberalism, but much of the novel is about how Bob understands - or rather fails to understand - neoliberal changes. Unable to see how neoliberalism increases economic disparity on a global scale, Bob only sees these changes as threatening to him as a white man. Continental Drift illustrates how neoliberalism depends upon an oppressed white male persona as compensation for economic inequality.

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