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FICTION: To be yourself, or not to be yourself

John Haskell, Out of My Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)

In 2003, the novelist Ben Marcus wrote an appreciative essay on John Haskell in the Believer (“The Genre Artist”) that predicted the course of Haskell’s development over the next five years. Haskell had just published his first book, I am not Jackson Pollock, a profound collection of biographical sketches and character analyses featuring Jackson Pollock, Anthony Perkins, and Topsy the electrocuted elephant, among others. Marcus grouped Haskell with a number of essayistic writers who market their work as fiction. The risk of doing so, he pointed out, is that readers expect a story. “There is an implied tedium of fiction not driven by story,” he wrote. “One expects an intellectual lesson is at hand, instead of entertainment.”

As if acting on Marcus’s warning, Haskell’s next book, American Purgatorio, was almost pure narrative: an odyssey in the shape of an American road novel. The protagonist, Jack (“Like Kerouac,” one character suggests), drives from New York to California in search of his missing wife, Anne. This ill-fated search quickly becomes a quest for Jack’s spiritual rebirth: “Although I’d rid myself of possessions, I needed to get rid of some more, needed to rid myself of the habit of being what I was.” The sentences have a hypnotic grace, and the novel’s allegorical frame excused the number of coincidences throughout. (Every hitchhiker he picks up, for instance, is going his way.) The book got great reviews.

Haskell’s new novel, Out of My Skin, will not get great reviews. Which is not to say it’s a bad book. Rather, the task he’s set for himself—to write a deeply psychological, essayistic novel with no real storyline—seems too great. Watching him try to do it is equally inspiring and exasperating.

Our narrator (Jack again) has fled Brooklyn for L.A., where he hopes to write magazine articles and “to be something different.” Upon arrival, he interviews a Steve Martin impersonator, and after learning some tricks of the trade, he decides he likes impersonating Steve Martin, too. The charm and confidence it brings him impresses others—namely Jane, a fetching ex-dancer he knew in New York. And so the novel becomes a heady meditation on what it means to “be yourself.”

As Marcus noted in his essay, the creative writing axiom “show don’t tell” exists for a reason. Readers like to see time flow in a novel. When that flow is interrupted or delayed with self-conscious exposition, they get cranky. I am not Jackson Pollock evaded the law of “show don’t tell” because the stories were short and self-sufficient, and Haskell inhabited the minds of famously tragic characters, an imaginative feat. Out of My Skin, however, is a full-length novel, and its narrator is an apparent stand-in for the author. Where analyzing Jackson Pollock’s failure to live up to the persona of “Jackson Pollock: World’s Greatest Living Artist” felt emotionally generous, analyzing Jack’s failure to act like Steve Martin feels shallow.

In explaining his condition, Jack often takes an instructive, almost pedantic tone. Here he is over-thinking a potentially coital encounter with Jane:

Because sex is a kind of utopia, it demands that something be different. And I wanted to be ready for that difference. I was desperate, in fact, for something to be different, and I would have reached out and embraced that difference except that something in me was still unwilling.

One naturally flinches, when reading a novel, at definitions of complex subjects. (Earlier, Jack informed us: “the most rudimentary form of communication is the expression of desire”). We start to sense that Jack—and, by extension, the author—is giving us a lesson in human nature. He’s telling us what’s happening, denying us the pleasure of figuring it out for ourselves.

It should perhaps be noted that John Haskell used to be an actor. His interest in characters’ interiors and the decisions they make is that of a novelist, but he has an obsession with actors, with people that play roles in real life. Jack’s identity crisis (“I wanted to reach out past all the facades of being, and the question is, How do you do it?”) is that of someone who is always acting, but can’t seem to act natural. Instead of immersing Jack in situations that test his capacity for authenticity, however, Haskell seems content to compare his dilemma to that of famous actors. Like Cary Grant, whose real name was Archibald Leach:

“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” he used to quip. “Even I want to be Cary Grant,” and what he meant, I think, is that the person who called himself Cary Grant was just an actor...he knew he was a fiction, knew his elegance and self-possession were make-believe.

Jack has the same problem being Steve Martin. Although he wants to be him, and imitating him is helping his sex life, he is not Steve Martin. But he’s scared that, without “being Steve,” he’s destined to be nothing at all. That is, essentially, the plot, and almost nothing is resolved.

John Haskell is a superb writer. He is deft at capturing the tiny—and innocent—internal adjustments we make to trick people into trusting, respecting, or loving us. But his compulsion to recount the mysteries of celebrity self-hood—ground already trod in his first book—at the expense of delving deeper into his protagonist seems evasive. However conventional it sounds, the novel needs a better story.


Jed Lipinski

JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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