Haskell and the Now Fiction
by Weston Cutter
John Haskell’s I Am Jackson Pollock and American Purgatorio were both weirdly incredible books, and his new one, Out of My Skin, is maybe my favorite of the three yet. I’m tempted to say it’s the best of the three, but for writing-power alone I think it’s probably a toss-up between this one and Jackson Pollock. Either way: dude’s dynamite, and if there’s a spectrum of sentences, and if Lutz and Lish and Diane Williams mark the far end of that spectrum (each of whom write sentences that are so faceted and rich and glinting that it’s absolutely possible in their stuff to sort of lose track of the story itself and just get wrapped up and around the sentences themselves [read Lutz’s take on sentences in a recent Believer for a good primer]), Haskell’s somewhere toward those writers on the spectrum but, I’d argue, his sentences are a bit more approachable, a bit more digestible.
Out of My Skin might have his most accessable sentences yet, actually, though that might simply be a trick of the narrative: the story is that a man named Jack moves from New York to Los Angeles, meets a woman named Jane, profiles a Steve Martin impersonator, and then, in a discursive and just about limitlessly self-aware style, Jack wonders about authenticity and the creation of self and, most uncomfortably hilariously, is self-awarely curious about self-awareness and -identity. It’s a bizarre little rabbit’s hole he’s tossed down. Because what happens soon after Jack meets Scott, the Steve Martin impersonator, is that Jack finds himself trying on various levels of Steve-ness as well: “And it was strange. Although I knew I looked nothing like Steve Martin, as I paced back and forth, I couldn’t help smiling, and it felt like the smile Steve Martin would smile. With the suitcoat and the walk and the role model in front of me, I was beginning to feel, slightly, like dancing.”
The thing that’s got to be acknowledged right at the start of this is that Haskell, like Charlie Kaufman, has picked the perfect person to center a book around: Steve Martin and John Malkovich have little in common aside from the fact that some small but finite percentage of each’s life has been videotaped, yet each actor/’persona’/person both is and represents more than just a person, a face, a role (J. Wood claimed J. O’Neill had struck on the perfect framing device for post-9/11 America in writing about a Trinidadian in NY trying to start a cricket club in Netherland, and Haskell could likewise be praised for picking celebrity-impersonators in post-millenianial LA as the perfect frame for understanding contemporary selfhood [in fairness, there could be hints or winks in this book toward Harmony Korrine’s Mister Lonely, but I’ve never seen the thing]). There are things which are, fundamentally, Malkovich-ian; similarly, there are elements which are fundamentally Martin-ian (if you don’t believe it, go back and watch, for instance, The Spanish Prisoner and see Martin escape his fundamentally understood filmed persona and, though he slips into another, he’s still there, recognizable). For this sort of choosing there should be an award, and, if there already is an award for this sort of thing, than Haskell gets this year’s prize.
What ends up happening to Jack as he gets more and more involved in his Steve-ness (which is not, properly, a Steve-ness, but a Scott-as-Steve-ness) is that all the stuff about self and identity and self-creation are all but unavoidable, and so Jack ends up questioning all these things in ways which it’s hard to just encapsulate or quote from. Perfectly, I think, Jack’s frustrations and confusions about self are wildly, awfully normal and contemporary: I’d just love to meet anyone who is not in any way aware of her- or himself; I’d love to talk with the contemporary American who doesn’t ever spend time calculating, basically, these real fundamental and overt issues of self.
Which, for me (this might be admitting too much), is the greatest part of Out of My Skin: it’s perfectly, perfectly understandable and feels, to me, very closely akin to how it feels on the worst days in my own head. Don’t we all do this? Don’t we dress one way because we want to look like X, don’t we walk a certain way to be more like Y, don’t we drink Americanos instead of regular old black coffee because we like to think we share something in common with Z? In great and incriminating ways, Out of My Skin feels like it’s about not just Jack but about all of us, everyone who does this, every day. For what it’s worth, too: I got the book on a Saturday, opened it casually, thinking I’d read a few pages, and three hours later had finished it: it’s a book you not only can but all but have to simply devour, quickly and directly and well. Read it. Get in on John Haskell now.