No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, April 01, 1994

Skin -- Kathe Koja

Skin is set on the margins of an undefined society. There is no music, no literature; only the relentless beat of the dancers' drums and the slick journalism of reviews and interviews concerning the protagonists. There is no distinguishing feature in the dirty post-industrial city where Tess raids scrapyards for her sculpture, and Bibi slides through the clubs and bars like a knife through flesh, drinking ice water.

At the outset of the novel, Tess is drifting. Her scrap-metal sculptures have not won critical acclaim, but that doesn't concern her. She is searching for movement, a way to capture the fluidity of molten metal. Into her life stalks Bibi, dancer and kinetic artist; the force of will behind tanzplagen (torture dance) group, the 'fiercely feminist' Surgeons of the Demolition. Tess is drawn into the group, her sculptures (feminine and violent: Madame Lazarus, Dolores Regina, Sister Jane) given movement to join the dance. At first Tess is appalled when Bibi comes away bleeding from each show, her wounds self-inflicted on the sharp edges of Tess's sculptures; but there is a synergy, a two-way current, between them, and the blood becomes somehow irrelevant.

Then a Surgeons show goes wrong, and Tess and Bibi are plunged into a more human, claustrophobic void in which neither is capable of constructive creativity. Bibi, unable to perform, makes her own body an intimately personal work of art, with piercing and scarification. Tess watches, repelled by and drawn to what she cannot understand, while her sculptures rust in the rain and she becomes muse and mentor to a trio of younger artists.
To them, and between them, comes Michael; beautiful and gentle, helping each woman to overcome her crisis of confidence, her loss of direction. But perhaps Michael is not as detached as he seems. Without artistic talent himself, he is a self-appointed catalyst, helping others to express their art. He encourages Tess to let her sculpture evolve to its extreme. When she will not accept his guidance he turns his attention to Bibi, who wants to perform her body art on other bodies; she thinks her artistic vision gives her the right. Tess thinks that's fascism. Abandoned by Bibi, and repulsed by the growing perversity of Bibi's ideas, Tess is still fascinated - and inspired - by the sheer power of the other woman's obsession.

Skin is not a horror novel in the traditional sense, despite the comparisons with Lovecraft and Poe which adorn the cover. There is blood and cruelty, but Koja's tense poetic prose skims over it, rather than lingering on every anatomical detail. The blood is not important; what matters is the art, the artist's relation to her work, and what happens when it becomes too close, too intense. Not an easy read, but perversely beautiful.