Though we don’t really do our Dark Horse initiative in the way we used to, we are always striving to find worthwhile debuts. When I came across Marisa Crane’s debut novel, I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself, I was instantly grabbed by the title. After reading the synopsis, I just knew I needed to read the book, marketing jargon be damned. I was more than pleasantly surprised as Crane’s debut was a heartbreaking, personal examination of one’s place in a society after their newborn was cursed at birth.
Prisons have been abolished, but that doesn’t mean all is well in Kris’ reality. The Department of Balance has instituted a new form of punishment, the addition of another shadow. Kris, like many others, now walks with a second, or sometimes even third or fourth shadow. It is a constant reminder of having been judged and found wanting under this new regime. Shadesters, those with an extra shadow, receive an extra amount of prejudice, their shame on display for everyone around them to see. Kris also happens to have a newborn baby, one who was born with a second shadow of their own. With the loss of her wife, Kris struggles with raising her child as she grieves and tries to build a life on the margins. As the child grows, new challenges await the two as they both try to face a world that is increasingly hostile to their eternal punishment.
There is a lot to like about Crane’s debut novel, but the thing that pulls it all together is their writing. I read this three hundred and fifty page book in two sittings because of just how compelling the first person perspective is in Crane’s hands. Written like a letter, it’s filled with day to day observations, journal-like entries, and incredibly heartbreaking musings that rupture the reader’s sense of reality by remarking the cruelty of the mundane. I found it incredibly compelling because these musings, as profound as they were, didn’t break the fourth wall. They felt like built up emotions finally grasping the right words to explain themselves. Kris just has such a strong, regular, average Jane voice, that the poetry is heightened without making it feel pretentious or flowery. It becomes a realization of a cold hard fact about her life in particular, instead of sweeping statements on the nature of humanity, and several of them were absolutely crushing.
Crane does an excellent job of portraying an absolutely horrific dystopia through an incredibly personal lens. At first, I was afraid of overly broad brush strokes that usually accompany dystopian novels like Exoskeletons. While Crane does make these statements, they are refined slightly by Kris’ ever present voice. They feel personal, they fit her world view and don’t feel overly targeted. Don’t get me wrong, the observations feel true, and are boldly worded, but they also feel digestible and do not force one to immediately defend against them. They are deeply rooted with the story and Kris’ experience. Sure they can feel awkwardly handled at some points, but that feels more like Kris’ understanding, than Crane’s voice speaking through. Kris writes like her mind is constantly polishing the stones that are her thoughts until they are the gleaming specimens that tear into your soul.
The main focus of the story is how Kris raises her daughter who was born with two shadows, and it’s unforgivingly brutal. I don’t normally read stories about parenthood, they don’t usually turn up in the books I read. The rare times I do read them though, they fall into either “this kind of makes sense,” or “this feels over the top,” but Crane manages to make me feel what raising a child must be like. It could be that I’m around more children these days, and seeing them grow up, but there is just such a perfect balance of pain and love on display in Exoskeletons, that it all speaks to me on a deeper level. The conversations about kids, conversations with kids, relationships with estranged parents, and the burden of parenthood feel incredibly real. There are sparks of joy, moments of dread, spats of anger, and the slow burn of deep grudges. It helps that Kris doesn’t know how to deal with all these conflicting emotions, and even when she manages to gain some sense of control, there are still moments that break through the dam. I teared up, and even cried several times throughout the book because Crane just knows how to write emotions in a plethora of ways that doesn’t feel like a constant assault on the senses. It’s a siege filled with breakthroughs and moments of defensive triumph, and you never know which side of the battle you’re truly on.
The world Crane has created is a nightmare. A whole class system is composed just for the shadesters. Specific days are assigned for them to go to the grocery store. Hint: it’s when fresh produce is about to expire before new stock comes in. Work from home has a whole new meaning when it’s the only thing that can be done. Affirmations and self help becomes an even bigger scam specifically for those who have their shadows. New ways of talking around it, and accepting it are invented. The reasons for gaining a new shadow are incredibly vague and prone to the whims of those who assign them. The bureaucracy involved is opaque and unresponsive. The process by which you are given one is terrifying and sickening, utilizing the public square as punishment. I applaud crane for her imagination here as it’s dark as all hell, but just tangible enough so you can’t flinch while looking at it.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that the queer aspects of the book are there in spades. As a cishet white dude, I don’t experience a whole lot of prejudice, and I also don’t have a lot of ground to add strong critique. However, in my experience, I will say this book does avoid the tokenization and weaponization of queer identities. While I am sure the book does lack the entirety of the rainbow, Crane explores sexuality and gender in deeper ways than I expected to. They also dive into how this new form of punishment can be explicitly used against queer individuals and communities to reinforce their marginalization. But they highlight how they can have forms of resistance that are different from the standard “blow up the entire system in a show of force” way that dystopias lend themselves to.
The more I try to write about this book, the harder it is to come up with words to describe it. The story is so incredibly personal, it’s one that has to be experienced for oneself. I could dig into some of the details, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the book itself. I could keep regaling Crane’s writing as it is truly the star of the show, but it means nothing unless you pick it up yourself. It’s an emotional journey, one I urge you to take, and it’s definitely one I want to revisit. It makes me want to go back through Crane’s catalog of short stories so I can experience their writing and storytelling in the many ways they explore it. I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself is everything a dystopia should be for the average person. It sits on your chest and doesn’t get up no matter how much you struggle, or scream for help. But though it is dark, there are moments of brightness. Maybe not the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, but instead candles that light the path through the underground labyrinth that one must navigate to survive.
Rating: I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself 9.0/10