The World Was Still There

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John Haskell’s novel takes readers on a metaphysical journey through the mind of a Steve Martin-impersonator impersonator.

Whenever I read a Gary Lutz collection, each story peopled with isolatos whose skewed views of relationships, intimacy, and sex, make for droll monologues and biting critiques, each short short a kind of sprint, I find myself asking what it would be like if those moods were sustained, those bold characterizations explored and awkward conversations extended to a novel’s marathon length. Reading John Haskell’s Out of My Skin, I think I may have found a kind of answer. With his extended observations, his microscopic scrutiny of his own fleeting thoughts, Haskell’s forlorn writer reminds me of Lutz’s own company of dusty fusspots. Out of My Skin is Lutzean without the syntactical eccentricities, and with deeper explorations of consciousness and a storyline reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s conjurings. Think Being John Malkovich meets wry and lonely writer languishing in Lost Angeles.

Out of My Skin features a narrator obsessed with stars from the silver screen, a fascination that results in a questioning and fragmenting of identity. Leaving New York City to live in L.A., after a botched affair—or, rather, “social entanglements” he doesn’t want “to replicate”—the melancholic writer (also named Haskell) interviews a Steve Martin impersonator for an article he’s writing, and ends up imitating the imitator. This Haskell then both suffers and revels in what turns out to be a novel-length identity crisis. After watching the impersonator transform into the famed comedian at a party full of initially disinterested kids and their bemused parents, Haskell reflects:

People who have the gift of letting go of themselves enjoy the gift because, by letting go of who they are, they can afford to let go of what doesn’t work. And the trick, it seemed to me, is to have something waiting, another self or another way of being, something, so that in the moment of letting go, in the sensation of that sense of nothingness, there’s something to hold on to.

And after deciding to, as he describes it, perform an “impersonation of someone’s impersonation of someone I didn’t even know,” Haskell discovers that “because I was this other person, an entirely new world was possible.” His explanation is as individual as it is strange:

This is what I call the realization-that-something-is-necessary-but-not-knowing-what-that-is stage. A necessary thing is any action that makes sense of a given circumstance, that follows naturally what came before, like water flowing down a stream. If you can imagine water, cascading over rocks, actually thinking about something, then what that water is thinking about is the necessary thing, and the beauty of the necessary thing is that it’s true to itself, and by being true to itself, it knows exactly what to do.

As Haskell develops his mimetic technique, his mind jets off into no small number of inquiries, speculations, meditations, and reveries:

“If necessity is the mother of invention, then the father of invention is possibility.”

“The desire to collect art begins with attraction… A work of art is meant to have an effect, and it does, and the original desire changes from simply wanting to be near that beauty to wanting to possess it, wanting to be so close to it that some of the beauty rubs off.”

“Most of us profess a love of freedom. In theory, freedom is admirable and desirable, but how do you make it happen? How do you live, moment to moment, responding honestly to the unknown moment unfolding?”

Out of My Skin is unquestionably brimming with metaphysical, epistemological, and psychological asides and glosses. It also overflows with humor of the deadpan, sardonic variety. It’s also a thoroughly engrossing love story, one that never lapses into sentimentality. And, while Haskell manages to get away with large doses of philosophical inquiry, he also convincingly allows the first-person narration to inexplicably, yet seamlessly, flow into an omniscient point of view. Just before walking into the patio where Jane, his lover, is, the narrator relates that “Jane thought to herself that the past is the past and the world does what it wants to do.” And later in the novel he goes into her mind for pages: “Jane is feeling a numbness in her mind, and because that numbness is spreading to her body, and because she wants to feel something other than numbness, she agrees to go.” This heightened awareness and these sudden moments of omniscience are never explained; but the narrator’s voice, governed by a slanted perception of things, is so convincingly drawn that the reader absorbs it with hardly a second thought.

But Haskell the character’s thoughts don’t languish in the mind; he also reflects on the body, on desire, on sex as “a kind of utopia” that “demands that something be different.” This man who claims he’s no “good at looking below the surface,” is able to see with incredible depth, scope, and clarity. He is, in fact, on a meta-physical quest. We find him “following the fruit of… desire which is love,” hoping that his lover’s “desire would influence [his] desire, and together [their] mutual desire would create a space for happiness.” And while he wants to “reach out past all facades of being,” ultimately he can only wonder, “How do you do it?”

I’m usually distrustful of epiphanic moments, but the sudden illumination near the end of Out of My Skin is an undeniable force, and that it is catalyzed by the seemingly mundane—a shriveled raisin!—makes it all the more irresistible. The set-up is marvelous: On a weekend day where nothing “meant what it normally meant,” Haskell rejects going to a bookstore because “the idea of reading symbols on pieces of paper seemed ridiculous,” walks past a tree and decides that “if I wanted to read something I could read the tree… not read, but see, in the tree, whatever I wanted to know about the world.” In a coffee shop, still in this reverie, he “hears music in the room… background music. Noise. And it mingled with the music of the noise of everything else.” I’m tempted to quote in its entirety what follows as it demonstrates Haskell’s range, his understated erudition, his effortless excavation of a man’s consciousness. Here’s a bit:

And the thing that had once been a raisin sent sweetness into my mouth, and when I swallowed I could feel the sweetness of what was no longer a raisin, but was not something else, something transformed, and I could feel it seeping its way down my body and into my body, and I could feel it, in my arms and legs and brain even, the nourishment of it, the sweetness and life, and Man ist was man isst, I thought, and like an elixir coursing through my arteries, it was flowing through me, altering my blood and the cells that were fed by that blood, and I don’t know how long I sat at the table, but at some point I looked up and realized that yes, the world was still there.

Out of My Skin is strange, moving, engrossing, and flows just like the cascading water the narrator had hoped his decision-making process resembled. Haskell’s novel is not merely symbols on a page, but is, like that tree he reflects on, a portal through which you can see whatever you want to see in the world; the book is, itself, a “necessary thing.”

John Madera is published widely, and his work has recently appeared in Conjunctions, The Believer, Opium Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. More from this author →