Kathe Koja is a writer, director and independent producer. Her immersive work combines and plays with genres, from YA to contemporary to historical to horror. Her novels - including THE CIPHER, VELOCITIES, BUDDHA BOY, TALK, and the UNDER THE POPPY trilogy–have won awards, been multiply translated, and optioned for film and performance.
After a second read, this book is still disturbing. The unusual prose style and choppy sentences may be irritating for some readers, but I found the writing very stylish, poetic, and sensual, evoking images and sensation, vividly portraying Tess' emotional pain, burning like the metal she controls and shapes to her will, and her friend, partner, lover, Bibi's gradual descent into madness.
Skin is very different from other horror books -- no creepy, supernatural happenings, no vampires or werewolves, or excessive amounts of blood -- just the very real pain of tortured human souls.
SKIN was way out of my comfort zone, but I'm so glad I gave it a shot. It was amazing!
This is the story of two women, Tess and Bibi. Artists. Body Art. Performance Art. Body Horror. Body modifications. Cutting. Lesbians. Bisexuals. Heart. Sculpture. Welding. Feeling. Cult Mentality. Hangers-on. Groupies. Darkness. Death. Wish you were dead. Wish I was dead. And finally? Love. I love you.
Written in a prose that was sharp, stabbing, and staccato-like, SKIN takes some getting used to. I took a stab at it above, (get it? HA!), and it's much harder than it looks. (Or in this case, harder than it sounds, since I listened to this on audio.) I was amazed at how much the author was able to get across in so few words. Seriously, I was and still am astonished by it all.
I don't want to go into the plot too much, because it should unfold as the author intended. However, I did feel for these characters, I felt their pain and their need to be heard and loved. Though at other times I wanted to punch them both in the face. Either way, this book reached out to me and made me FEEL. Also, I feel like I accomplished something by surviving the experience, because this book was brutal at times.
At first I didn't care for the narration at all, but then I realized it was the prose that bothered me. As I said above, it takes some getting used to. Once I was more familiar with the writing style, the narration settled right into my head and this became more of a visual experience than a literary one. I'm not sure I'm making sense here, but looking at the other reviews, I don't think I'm the only one having trouble describing this book.
It's gory, heartbreaking, thrilling, cringe-inducing stuff. SKIN makes you think, it makes you face your fears, even as the characters attempt to face theirs. This tale isn't going to work for everyone, but it certainly worked for me!
*I was provided an Audible Audio code for this book by the narrator, in exchange for my honest feedback. This is it!*
I originally read Skin when it was first released in 1993 by Dell Abyss back when they had their horror line. I remember stalking my local bookstores for their titles and now those bookstores are long gone. I miss those days. Because my memory is poo and it was over 20 years ago (OMG!), I remembered none of the little details and only had vague memories of it disturbing me in the best way. I’m so glad I had the chance to revisit it again on audio and I’m thrilled that it held up to my memories and I could love it all over again. This book is something special and even now, so many years later, it managed to disturb and entrance me.
Tess is a welder who sculpts amazingly eerie pieces out of scraps of metal. Bibi is a performance artist into body modification who wants Tess to become a part of her group when she spots her work. Tess melds metal into moving pieces that fit into Bibi’s vision of the dark and bloody show she wants to create. The show becomes a huge underground hit melding flesh and pain awash in blood but the show is only the beginning step in this horrifying body horror tale.
Skin is about taking things to the extreme, yes, but also so much more. Bibi is all sharp angles and metal and torn and scarred skin and she has an intoxicating effect on Tess and all of those around her -intoxicating to the point of obsession and blind worship. Skin is about love and sex and friendship and toxic relationships but mostly it is about obsession and all of its nasty little tentacles and what happens when one takes things too far. It is an experience.
The prose is different and unlike anyone else I’ve read in all of these in-between years. It’s descriptive and to the point without being overly wordy. A scene is clearly and thoroughly set within a few words or a sentence. It’s a little stream of consciousness at times but never in a mind-numbing way. It’s amazing and it may take you a moment to adjust and it is SO hard to describe so I’ll just give you the opening lines.
“Dust. Above a party store, LIQUOR, LOTTO, keno machines fed by the poorest of the poor with coins rattled black by pocket tumbling, machine sounds nervous as a nervous cough. Grit-rimmed eyes, grit beneath her nails like powdered bone, fresh solder burn on her inner wrist a party-red, still too sore even to bandage. Dirt like sugar between her teeth.”
Dirt like sugar between her teeth. I LOVE that.
It evokes images in such a unique way that plunged me right into its dark, moody world. This isn’t a book you can skim (nor would you want to). You have to pay attention because the pace is fast. I usually speed up my audios but this is one where you won’t want to do that. Narrator Suzanne Fortin does a great job with the tricky prose. She emotes when needed, her cadence and tone fit the story and she never lost my attention. I have no complaints about anything. It’s a miracle, haha.
This is body horror so be ready for that. It is gory and disturbing but it’s all written in a way that doesn’t smack you over the head with it. That doesn’t mean it won’t make you cringe. Honestly, I think it’s more unsettling for just that reason. I don’t know how Koja managed this but she did it amazingly well.
Bonus recommendation: Have you seen the movie American Mary? It’s focused on one obsession in this book and would be a fun companion piece (if you find this stuff fun). It’s about people into extreme body modification and it is so horrifying that I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. You probably won’t be able to turn your eyes away either, even if you should.
I really wanted to like Skin more than I did, but so it goes. Koja's unconventional, breathless prose pulls the story along nicely, but ultimately, it lacked the punch I have found in other of her novels such as The Cipher. Our main protagonist, Tess, is a somewhat obsessive artist who works largely in metal. Tess loves to watch metal melt. As a welder myself, who has occasionally constructed 'yard art' (as my sister calls it), Tess should have resonated more for me. I loved her forays into the metal scrap yards to find that 'certain, perfect piece' to complete one of her works. Tess is also the classic starving artist, who eschews art galleries and shows in general, preferring to work for the sake of art itself. She gets by via picking up temp work at body shops, machine shops and so forth.
One day (long story) she meets Bibi, who, while not the main protagonist, is the center of the story. In her first incantation, Bibi is a dancer, working with a small troupe, and is every bit as obsessive as Tess. They decide to stage some performances, deeming themselves the Surgeons of the Demolition, which combines dance with some metal machines Tess made, ones that actually move and so forth. Wildly popular in the underground circuits, their performances become more and more elaborate, the Surgeons growing in numbers as well, and eventually they start charging for admission. Bibi, however, starts to 'grow' (one phrase repeated uttered in the novel), not content as just a dancer, she starts experimenting with 'cuttings' (like really cutting your skin on stage in elaborate patterns), piercings and on and on. The last performance of the Surgeons ended in tragedy, with one of the Surgeons dead on stage. Tess and Bibi, best friends and sometimes lovers, split up, each taking remnants of the Surgeons.
So, where is the horror? Skin is perhaps best described as psychological horror, as Koja takes us deep into the minds of Tess and Bibi, with each of their respective psyche slowing unraveling, albeit in two very different ways. As Tess withdrawals more and more, Bibi continues her 'growth' via self-mutilation. I think what failed to click for me here was I found it really hard to have much empathy for either Tess or Bibi, but especially Bibi, and without that, the story started to drag. Maybe artists will relate more to the characters than myself; Koja is herself an artist among her other talents. Tess and Bibi's journeys down their own rabbit holes I just did not find that exciting or horrifying. 3 skinny stars!
I don't fucking know what I thought. What the hell do you think when you read something like this? I had the 'uncorrected proof' with no summary so I didn't have any idea, going in, what was coming. Do it that way too, if you can.
My thoughts are rampant.
In these pages there is a lot; too much. Blood. Plays between life and machine; art and isolation; creativity and passion; what matters at the end of it. It is one of the most gorgeous books I have ever, ever read -- stunning wrenching prose sustained for every sentence; I am not kidding; you pick this up and you open to any random page and you will find breathless beauty, in imagery and in style (I am hazarding, to be confirmed once I read every every every word she's written, that Koja is a darker, much darker, version of Steve Erickson).
But above all this is a love story, about two people who do not cannot there is no possible way to understand how to love each other. It is not romantic. It is not platonic. It is not familial or friendly or obsessive and unreciprocated or any of those typical ways we view Love. It is overwhelming; it is raw power with no outlet. I have felt this; I still feel this; I have never read about it, not like this, before Skin.
I don't know. I can't even really think. This is vicious and black and horrifying but if you can stomach it, it will burn you up and you will sit there feeling like you would die for more.
(and listen listen listen to Blvck Ceiling's Beaches album while you read, if you can.)
Kathe Koja is a master of the experimental and edgy — though I’m not saying anything new. Any reader of Koja’s would say the same. And despite this novel being published in 1993, it still feels leagues ahead of and more progressive than most major “horror” novels getting published today.
The highlight of any Koja novel is the prose, both breathtaking in its beauty and overwhelming in its extremity. In fact, “extreme” is a good word to describe Skin as a whole as the novel deals in body modifications and the limit of pain the human body can endure.
When I think of fine horror, horror I want to revisit again and again, books like this are what my mind goes to. Kathe Koja is a challenging writer, a talented writer, a writer who should be read by the masses but she’s always been the master of her corner of the literary world. And for that I am thankful.
Tess is a metal sculptor who, through a chance meeting, forms a friendship with dancer Bibi. Bibi encourages Tess to join her troupe and they begin a journey into performance art, but as artistic boundaries are pushed so are the limits of their relationship.
Skin was such a powerful read for me. Koja's writing is in a league of its own, very evocative with strong feelings and strong visuals.
It's about friendships, relationships, sexuality, forms of body modification like piercing and scarification, extreme performance art, creation and destruction, transformation, transcendence; how an intense relationship can be intense in both a good way and a bad way. It was surprisingly emotional, and I found myself deeply invested in these characters.
Part psychological horror and part body horror; it is visceral and shocking while also being alluring and emotional. I'm still reeling from this one.
Skin is on the Horror Writers' Association list of the "bests" of the genre, this despite it total lack of the supernatural or any traditional horror trappings. Koja's first novel, Cipher, involved the discovery of a sort of black hole in the storage area of a rundown apartment building and would seem a more likely candidate for the HWA's list. Locus, the sf and fantasy critical journal, lists Skin as an "associational horror" novel, a term I've read nowhere else but I think I get what they mean. The descent of Koja's characters from artistic dedication to obsession to psychosis is undeniably a horror story, even if there is not a werewolf, ghost or vampire in sight.
Tess Bajac is an artist who works with metal, picking up day jobs in body and welding shops so she can create her personal work at night. She does not expect to appeal to the corrupt gallery system and I am going to say up front that I find this kind of stance of the noble outsider tinged with ridiculousness. Koja depicts gallerists and their artists as posseurs and cop outs, but what is Tess really making? Her elaborate constructions with pretentious names sometimes in Latin sound like technical stunts far removed from the discourse of contemporary art. But Tess has no trouble finding a home for them in the underground culture of the early 1990's where Koja's novel takes place. The setting goes unnamed, but the author is from Detroit, and the bitter winters and sense of urban blight would fit that city. Tess finds admirers and eventually acolytes. She joins with a young woman named Bibi, first introduced as the girlfriend an innocuous young man who soon fades from the scene. Bibi recognizes in Tess's transformative works a reflection of her own own interests in transformation through dance, body piercing and scarification. Together with the machine shop zombies, young guys who like to blow things up, a performance group, The Surgeons, is formed. Their shows gain notoriety as personal relationships and the performances themselves spiral out of control. Some one dies, everything falls apart, and inexorable moves into darker and darker psychic spaces begin.
These first shows sound like performances by the San Francisco group Survival Research Laboratories. But Koja knows this and has characters discuss how the two groups differ. In her acknowledgements she mentions the two books distributed by Re:Search Publications, Modern Primitives and as invaluable resources. Those books laid out the philosophical positions behind the most extreme performance groups and the cult of body modification in whose milieu Koja places her book.
Skin becomes the love story of Tess and Bibi, who although they have a brief and intensely sexual affair, spend most of the book refusing to speak to one another. Tess ensconces herself in her alternately freezing and sweltering workshop, creating more and more intricately conceived pieces and teaching a small group of devoted followers. Bibi becomes part of the hardcore body modification scene, continuously altering herself through piercings, cuttings, and ultimately surgery. Koja's fevered and at times overripe prose gives the reader all this grime and illness in one lush package of disjointed scenes and intense encounters guaranteed to alienate many readers. Tess, delusional as she may be at times about her own situation, has a clear vision of what is happening to Bibi and what Bibi is doing to those around her. But Tess loves Bibi, and in forcing the reader to see the workings of that relationship, Koja creates a brilliant and tragic novel.
I'm sure there are people who think you just need to "get" this book in order to enjoy it, but honestly, there isn't much to be gotten. There's nothing disturbing or shocking in here that hasn't already been done -- before or after. I've read books a dozen times more shocking and disturbing and wholly unsettling, and in ones that used a lot fewer standard body-horror scenes and radical ideas to get the point across.
There's nothing in here all that thought-provoking. And the characters are all too flat, too detached from themselves, each other, and the reader, in order to evoke any sort of real emotions of any kind. They're just going through the motions here, slave to Koja's story.
I wanted to read this because it seemed dark and disturbing ... but it wasn't. Not even a little. Granted, this isn't a book that mainstream readers would seek out. But it isn't good either. Stream-of-conscious doesn't work here, primarily because half the time we don't even have a clear picture of what's going on, which kind of kills literally any suspense, horror or whatever Koja's trying to achieve.
Another thing that doesn't help the book is that it's so horribly dated in such a specific way that its dated-ness permeates throughout everything in the book. All books are dated in their own way, yes, of course. But the goal is to try to make a book that won't be dated 10 or 20 or more years down the line. Skin fails at this completely. It's so late 80s/early 90s ~hardcore art scene~ that it's almost painful to have to read about it. I doubt many people even back in 1993, when this book was published, could relate even remotely to what's going on in the extremist art scene here -- I'm sure that number is even smaller now.
But it's not just that this book is dated, it's that it's so try-hard that it's embarrassing. Koja is trying to say something here -- at least, I think -- but it's buried under so many layers of "shocking" acts and pretentious bullshit about art and self that it's not worth wading through all 300+ pages of it to get to the inevitable, predictable conclusion.
Maybe Koja was attempting to say that this sort of cultish, extremist art was total bullshit and was simply people just feeding off of mindless destruction. But it never comes across that way, we never see Koja wink at us from behind the words to let us know that she's not taking any of this seriously (and neither should we).
I mean, we, the reader, can see that Bibi is completely fucked up -- and Tess and even a random, mainstream-type newspaper reviewer can see it -- but nothing comes of it. Is this supposed to be a commentary on how mental illness is ignored and ultimately can end in tragedy? If so, the ending is far too rushed and pat to make good use of it. But again, I just don't see any sort of deeper meaning in this book.
I don't know what Koja was trying to do here, but it felt while reading this that she failed on every single fundamental level.
If you really want to find a writer who provokes extreme reactions in people you can’t go past Kathe Koja. Her very poetic, somewhat experimental and heavily descriptive prose style bewilders some readers, and incites others to anger. Personally I adore her style. The content of Skin is as edgy as the style. It’s about Tess, an artist who works in metal producing huge mobile sculptures. She finds herself drawn into a collaboration with Bibi. Bibi uses her own body for her artworks, specialising in body modification. The artistic collaboration leads to a relationship. Bibi sees no limit to how far she can take her art, which becomes increasingly extreme. If you don’t mind an unconventional prose style then you may find Koja’s novel of artistic and sexual obsession as captivating and fascinating as I did. Either that, or you’ll want to throw it cross the room!
Tess Bajac is used to a solitary existence. She is haunted by her past heartbreaks and has become entranced instead by the burn of flame and the drip of liquid metal that her work as a modern sculptor provides. Bibi is Tess's equal counterpart. Whereas Tess is metal and flame, Bibi is flesh and cold stone. A guerilla performance artist, Bibi has always pushed herself and her body to its limits in order to pursue her own art. With Tess, she develops a unique and twisted new performance art which relies on Tess's mobile sculptures. With Bibi's help, Tess steps willingly outside of her own comfort zone as both women's obsession with growth in their fields pushes their art to increasingly violent and dangerous levels. While Tess begins to doubt their direction, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing will ever be enough for Bibi. Her obsession with pushing her body to its limits and exploration of the human body's limits has become all-encompassing, consuming, and unstoppable.
Skin is less a novel than it is an experience. Kathe Koja's prose is shockingly, wonderfully lyrical and it was something I was entirely unfamiliar with at first. In a way, the prose at the start of the novel is just as isolating as the life that Tess surrounds herself with. Of course, the more I read the easier the prose became to immerse myself within and the more enjoyable I found the experience.
This book is all about pushing the limits. The themes of body modification and the human body being pushed past its breaking point is wholly devastating and deeply disturbing. By the last 20% or so of the book, I honestly couldn't put it down. I knew that there was genuinely no way that things were going to end well given the situations that were arising, but I also was compelled to push forward and meet whatever terrible fates were waiting for the characters involved at that point.
Ultimately, this book is not for everyone. It's dark and disturbing and layered with erotic and violent subtext. Coupled with the experimental prose, it can make for a difficult read for some. Personally, I found the experience engaging and I know the story, as well as Tess and Bibi will stick with me for awhile.
I can't quite resolve Koja's writing style with her content. I love how she writes -- it's unorthodox, but doesn't get in the way of understanding her narrative, and its impressionism makes for a style that shows more than tells -- but I can't make myself care about her main characters. She writes about people who live on the fringe of the acceptable, people who are artists, and believe that art exists above all else. It's idealistic, and hedonistic in the way that the characters pursue their art at the cost of nearly everything else in their lives. It's hard to care about people who are so self-absorbed and use everyone around them.
With Skin, Koja prefers to put her focus on a character, Tess, who pursues her art, but doesn't sacrifice everything for it. Tess is there to reflect on Bibi, a character who better exemplifies the kind of character I described above. I struggled with the novel because Bibi's character was so difficult to sympathize with, but by the end, I was interested in how Tess would resolve her relationship with Bibi, despite how horrible she was.
The horror of the novel is in Bibi's form of art, where she modifies her body through piercings, cuttings, and even surgical changes, because she believes that kind of modification with transmute her into something else. Told from Bibi's point of view, it would have come across as even more hedonistic, but seeing her through the eyes of Tess, we can recognize that Bibi is unstable, but encouraged by the sycophants with which she surrounds herself. In a way, Koja is commenting on art run rampant and out of control in the way she defines Bibi.
I liked this book better than Bad Brains, but not as much as The Cipher (which also follows the structure of showing us an artist who runs rampant with madness through the eyes of someone else). I know Koja has written a lot of fiction outside of the Abyss line, and I'd be interested in reading more of her work, but I'd like to read one that isn't about art, and isn't about the hedonism we see in these three books. Is there a book of hers out there that meets this criteria?
This is a very style-heavy book. If you have a problem with books like that, you should steer clear.
If you don't, expect a manic, tense narrative that's marketed as horror but could in truth be called "true-life tales of the underground scene". I've met people who could be the characters in this book - any of them. That in itself made the story more plausible for me. At times the main characters (Tess and Bibi) were being (for lack of a better term) retartedly dramatic; drama is a staple of the goth/industrial/art scene, so when they'd do something stupid it was within the realm of reason.
It took a while for me to get into this book as I needed time to adjust to the Spartan prose and unusual style. It’s written in a minimalist way with short, sharp sentences that veil the complexity of Kathe’s writing, but once I got into the book I realised the effectiveness of the style and came to enjoy the story.
The horror in this book doesn’t feature anything supernatural; it’s about two women in pain in a world they struggle to connect with, that is until they find each other. There is some body horror and associated gore, but this isn’t the main focus, it’s more about art, love, madness and obsession.
The story is bleak and utterly original, although probably not for everyone. If you’re looking for horror that’s a bit more experimental I’d definitely recommend this.
A strange and compelling novel. I didn't like any of the main characters but I came to care for them and dreaded the inevitable horror awaiting them at the story's end.
The protagonists are Tess, a tremendously driven sculptress and Bibi, her other half, whose medium is flesh and blood. For a brief time, Tess and Bibi work together, melding their unique media into intense, often dangerous, performance art pieces but soon, their collaboration isn't enough for Bibi. She wants to transcend the confines of her own skin via body modification rituals, a desire that confounds and eventually repels Tess.
Both women were interesting, well drawn characters, a rarity in modern, horror fiction and it was painful to observe as they fell prey to their individual obsessions and the subtle manipulations of a malicious outside force. You just know things are going to end badly for them, the only question is how bad it's going to be.
Definitely, pick this up if you're in the mood for something strange and new.
Emocjonalny roller coaster. Niejednoznaczny styl pisania, z jednej strony bardzo poetycki z drugiej eksperymentalny i wulgaryzujący. Fabuła traktująca o obsesji, seksualności i sztuce. Wszystko to podane w sposób z jednej strony fascynujący, a zarazem odrzucający. Pewnie nie raz w trakcie lektury zadacie sobie pytanie "Co ja w ogóle czytam?", o ile wcześniej nie ciśniecie książką / czytnikiem w kąt.
There are some things, for example, the entire Duggar family, which both fascinate me and skeeve me out at the same time. Extreme body modification (Koja counts seven categories - contortion, constriction, deprivation, encumberments, penetration, fire and suspension) is one of those things (so would my nirvana be a documentary where the Duggars undergo various types of modification?). So, the description of this book as a mesh of exploration of art and love through the lens of body modification sounded perfect for me. (For another fictional exploration check out the movie "American Mary" or the doc "Modify".)
As someone said (the internet does not agree on this point but guessing vary from Martin Mull to Frank Zappa) "writing about music is like dancing about architecture". I've always loved it, and it also applies to art, so often it's hard for the reader to "get" what I imagine Koja imagines some of the art, especially Tess's, to be, but this truth also informs one of Koja's other points - performance, including performance art, dance, theatre, music and everything in between is, in part, the experience of seeing of "combining...intensity with pure movement" and, from that, forming one's own version of the truth. Koja also does a great job with describing the squalor that a "starving artist" lives in day to day - a reader can feel the heat, the cold, the grime - wonderfully descriptive.
What quickly became clear as that I am interested in this life only as a voyeur, because I had trouble relating to any of these characters and the book might as well have been subtitled "Truly insane people and the slightly troubled people who love them". Or maybe it's just that since I don't personally feel the need to result to such extremes (not just body mod, but also just general levels of craziness) maybe I'm not the audience that Koja was seeking.
This cover is terrible; it doesn't do any justice to Koja's stunning book. I was looking for non-mainstream horror, and someone recommended Skin. Skin is wonderful, but it's not horror.
It's dark and obsessive, its prose as glittery and sharp as the glass shards, fish hooks, and machine guts that concern the artists around which it centers, and yes, it is about the dissolution of a person and of a relationship into unsalvageable, destructive depths, but it's not horror. It's a meditation: on art, on the lengths to which artists will go to lift the veil between themselves and the universe, but most of all on the incredibly intense relationship and philosophical differences between Skin's two main characters, Tess and Bibi. The entire book is visceral but actual violence is rare. Any horror here is a symptom rather than an antecedent of the story's driving force.
Yes, the prose is difficult sometimes. Instead of absolute clarity, you see scenes through cloudy plastic--you don't always know exactly what's happening. BUT: you do know the main character Tess more intimately, I'd wager, than you know the main character in three quarters of all the other books you've ever read. And she is a very powerful character, one who will be with me for a long time.
My only quibble is with the book's climax. I was hoping for a little more of an explosion, and more of an explanation of the motivations of one particularly manipulative character. The "end state" of the characters at the story's end felt right, though. Skin turned out to be one of the better tragic love stories I've read, and once I got used to the style, one of the most beautiful.
So you know how the art world suffers from this reputation of people being overly pretentious and taking shit too far in the name of art? That is pretty much this book.
It aims to dive into the disturbing with self mutilation and body modifications, but that gets quickly overshadowed by jealous and warring art factions fighting for relevance and choosing art over personal relationships.
At one point this might have been edgy, but I mostly found it dull and perhaps a little guilty of some of the same crimes of these characters, trying too hard to portray a message that it gets lost in the pursuit of art.
Kathe Koja’s lyrical, often stream-of-consciousness prose, seduces in this Goth-horror novel that transports me back to the mid-90s club culture of underground clubs and ‘zines, of industrial bands and body-modification performances, and the splatter-punk fiction of the time. Koja, through the story of two female artists, explores the purpose of art and what makes work authentic, and the relationships that fuel or restrict art. This is territory where VELVET BUZZSAW should have gone. Highly recommend!
Wow! This book is disturbing! It's also really, really good! Tess is an artist consumed with creating perfection , and when she meets Bibi, who has drives of her own, they find themselves on a slippery path towards madness and tortured pleasure. Darkly engrossing!
Possibly one of the most excruciatingly boring books I've ever read in my life. Unbelievably repetitive and boring. Wanted to ask the protagonist to just weld my eyes shut while she was at it, and put me out of my misery.
Boy, do I love this book. Like BAD BRAINS, which I also re-read this year, I think I appreciated it more the second time around (about six years after I initially encountered it). Some of this is simply that Koja is a writer who rewards re-reading; once you're familiar with the plot, you can focus on the beauty of her sometimes difficult stream-of-consciousness prose and on pondering the questions her novels raise about the nature of love and artistic practice. Some of it, though, is that my tastes have matured in the past half decade. I think I have a lot more patience for novels with unconventional plot structures and pacing than I did a few years ago.
In the case of SKIN, the first third of the novel would be an excellent novella in its own right, with a conventional but satisfying dramatic arc: sculptor Tess and dancer Bibi meet, get along like a house on fire, and form a performance art troupe that becomes a surprise success in the local underground scene. They push themselves and their growing entourage of performers to more and more ambitious heights, pulling all kinds of obviously very dangerous stunts at their shows, until, inevitably, something goes horribly wrong and a performer is accidentally killed onstage in a gruesome way, arresting their troupe's meteoric ascendancy and shattering it forever.
But although it could stop there, SKIN continues for another 200 pages or so. At first, the novel feels formless and a little slow in the wake of the tragedy, as if echoing the grief Tess and the others are laboring beneath. Tess withdraws into her studio and works obsessively, but no longer has any interest whatsoever in showing her art to anyone. Bibi also becomes obsessive and compulsive, getting piercings and scarifications regularly, participating in poorly-negotiated and unsanitary BDSM edgeplay, cutting herself, starving herself, and becoming convinced she can reach spiritual and artistic apotheosis through the mortification of her flesh. Tess and Bibi reunite and, without the performance art troupe as a conduit for their passions, begin a more conventional romantic/sexual love affair with one another. They can't accept, understand, or handle each others' coping mechanism-slash-artistic philosophy and break up after a few months. Their mutual friend Michael acts first as a kindly, seemingly well-intentioned mediator between them, but gradually becomes-- or reveals himself to have always been-- a kind of Iago, sleeping with both women, egging them on towards self-destruction, and poisoning them against each other. Bibi is obviously succumbing to psychosis. Tess is obviously succumbing to depression. Things get worse and worse, darker and darker-- but slowly, over the course of a couple years in-story, the way these things tend to get worse in real life. There *is* a second climax of even more shocking, tragic violence, but it comes late, in the novel's last twenty or thirty pages.
Anyway, I remember losing patience with the novel's second and much longer leg a few times on my first reading because I felt it was kind of aimless and dreary. How wrong I was! Not only does this section have 1.) the lesbian sex and 2.) most of the really thoughtful and inventive meditations on art's purposes and powers, it's a beautiful evocation of the way life drags on after loss and trauma-- also of how difficult it can be to let go of certain loves even when it's obvious a relationship won't work/is impossible. To be honest, this is probably my favorite of what I think of as the "Abyss trio" (THE CIPHER and BAD BRAINS being the other two), and it really shows early 90s Koja maturing as a writer and a thinker.
Wow. Whoa. Ok, so...this book was loaned to me almost three years ago. I have read it once a year since it's been in my possession, always during the fall. It's time to send this creative experimental masterpiece back home to it's owner, but before I do, here's a tiny review.
This book is complex, on all levels. It's complexity lies not only in the plot/narrative itself, but also in the organizational structure of the story, in the character development, but even in the sentence structure itself; this is not an easy book. This book is a challenge; you have to dig for the fruit. It's almost experimental, like reading really complex philosophical prose dressed up in a story.
But the story is there; don't be fooled. At it's simplest, and that's how I'll leave it (if you want to delve further, by all means find the synopsis on GoodReads or get the book itself :), it's a story about an artist, a metal sculptor, who has hit a plateau in her creative ideas, and this sculptor meets another artist, a performance artist, who has also reached that same plateau, and together they create a new type of performance art that is grisly. raw, primal, and stomach twisting.
This book is a piece of performance art itself; I think that fans of Palahnuik, Mark Danielewski, and JJ Adams will appreciate this book. I gave it 4/5 stars.
Stay away from loli fascists and patriarchal moralists too insecure and self-absorbed to accept desires and ideals different from their own.
Look, art collectives are cool and all, but I find it very hard to care about three emotionally-stunted characters who only know how to stonewall, project, lash out, and lie to one another. I'd feel pity for someone who's incompetent but at least trying to do good. These fuckers are too self-absorbed to see or care that their incompetence harms those around them. They're not just pitiful, they're disgusting.
Also, you cannot tell me that a transgressive artist in the 1990s would regurgitate Descartes and Bacon at the peak of their sociopathic delusions. The mind conquering the body? Perhaps that's the horror, though—the omnipresence of such thought. Treating your own body as an object to be mastered and transcended. The enlightenment as self-destruction. Self-vivisection.
Her prose is gorgeous and complex, requiring a slow and deliberate reading in order to fully savor its content and intention. Very much a period piece of the late 80's/early 90's, I loved her portrayal of the artistic subcultures she chose to emphasize; this was particularly refreshing when juxtaposed to the static mass media and cultural homogenization of today's era. It's disconcerting that this--and her other early works--remain out of print. Koja writes literary fiction that ought to be read, studied, and savored now and going forward; I'm shocked that Grove Press, Vintage Contemporaries, or another line hasn't picked up her early work. Violent, surreal, erotic, cathartic, and visceral, Skin is a highly recommended piece of art about art.