Ian Mond Reviews I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself by Marisa Crane

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, Marisa Crane (Catapult 978-1-64622-129-5, $27.00, 352pp, hc) January 2023.

Recently, author and editor Nick Mamatas nailed the “X meets Y” elevator pitch when he accurately described Titan by Japanese author Mado Nozaki as “The Lifecycle of Software Objects meets Pacific Rim.” But if I were handing out gold medals for the best use of this formulation, it would be to the publicist at Catapult who came up with “Dept. of Speculation meets Black Mirror” to sum­marise Marisa Crane’s dark, funny, moving debut I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself. The novel captures the surreal, dystopian quality of Charlie Brooker’s anthology series while embodying the fragmented and fraught tone of Jenny Offill’s portrait of marriage and parenthood.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself takes place in a near-future, dystopian America, Depart­ment of Balance constantly monitors offend­ers and marks them with a shadow for each misdeed they commit. The “Shadesters” civil rights are not only severely restricted; they face a constant barrage of verbal and physical abuse from the authorities and the public. Our protagonist, Kris, has a second shadow (for reasons she’s unwilling to divulge). So does Kris’s newborn daughter, who is guilty of mur­dering her mother and Kris’s wife, Beau, during childbirth. Kris, of course, appeals the decision – “She’s a newborn baby, for fuck’s sake. She’s basically a more sophisticated potato” – but her pleas fall on uncaring and cruel ears. Still grieving Beau’s death and doubtful that she has the patience, love, and aptitude to bring up a child in a fundamentally broken world, Kris’s only hope is the love and support that emerges from the community of Shadesters and allies that grow around her and her daughter.

I have previously remarked on how much I dislike (loathe) the “missing Mum” or “dead wife” trope because of how it uses the death or silencing of a woman to elicit sympathy for a male character. Because of my cisgender biases, it never occurred to me that such a heteronor­mative trope could be so texturally and tonally different when told from a queer perspective. It’s not that Kris doesn’t spend most of the novel mourning Beau (an essential ingredi­ent of the trope). On the contrary, Kris stays in constant conversation with her wife, wear­ing Beau’s robe (“which had already lost its… scent”), cooking Beau’s favourite food (badly) and refusing, despite her father’s insistence, to start dating again. But where the “dead wife” trope would portray Beau as an angel free of sin, Kris’s sometimes mundane, sometimes angry, sometimes intensely erotic recollections, grant Beau a warts-and-all presence that makes her loss more poignant and powerful.

Crane never describes how the shadows work or how they attach to an individual. The lack of explanation, however, doesn’t matter; they are clearly and unambiguously a metaphor for the discrimination and marginalisation experienced by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ com­munities across America. The issue with sym­bolism this “on the nose” is that it can tend to overwhelm the narrative, where the rhetorical goals of the author take precedence over an organic plot and well-realised characters. That is not the case with I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself. From the very first page, knowing little about Crane’s near-future America or its cruelty, we are immediately struck by Kris’s anger, fear, grief, and exhaustion. Later, there will be signs of love and devotion, but that initial blast of negative emotions brings Kris’s situation into sharp relief to the extent that we don’t question the shadows; we accept that they pose an ongoing threat to Kris and her daughter.

The novel’s cast of vibrant, fleshed-out char­acters – everyone from Kris’s estranged father to the hipster allies that move in next door, and the soulful painter, Siegfried, a Shadester like Kris and her daughter, who becomes a member of the family – further reinforce the authentic­ity of Crane’s dystopian America. Then there’s Kris and Beau’s child, whose name we learn only at a pivotal moment toward the story’s climax. She is precocious, imaginative, and vul­nerable in unpredictable and frightening ways, given the world she lives in. Her experiences at school, the vitriol she faces from students and teachers (particularly the teachers) are heart-rending and horrific. But what’s important is that despite her often fractious relationship with Kris, she is always loved and supported. I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is a not-so-cautionary tale about America’s poor treatment of marginalised people and how it would take little for the country to tip over into fascism. More strikingly, it’s a ferocious, passionate novel about the importance of community, of family (not necessarily biologi­cal), of allies who are willing to stand against oppression and hate.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.

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