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Out of My Skin

by

Out of My Skin Cover

 

 

Excerpt

What happened to me was—not me, but what happened—Im from New York originally and I moved to Los Angeles to write about movies. Now, instead of writing about movies or people making movies, I was somewhere off the California coast, in the middle of the ocean, writing an article about sharks. A group of scientists had rigged up a fishing boat with winches and scientific instruments, and theyd lowered a stainless-steel cage into the water. They were investigating shark communication, and because I was writing an article about their investigation, I was inside the cage. I was under the water, wearing a wetsuit, and under the wetsuit there were sensors attached to various parts of my body, measuring my heart rate and brain activity, and partly I was thinking about brain activity, but mainly I was thinking about sharks. Theyd pretty much guaranteed me a shark attack—something about an anomaly in the ocean current—and so I stood there, or I should say floated there, my back to the boats hull, holding the steel handrail, listening to the air as it passed from the scuba gear into my lungs. That, plus the pressure of the water, plus the temperature of the water, plus the fact that there was going to be a shark attack, was focusing my attention.

Speckled sunlight was filtering down from the surface of the water and schools of little fish were darting out from the darkness. I noticed pieces of meat floating above the cage. The scientists were chumming for sharks, and the blood from the meat was dissolving in the water. Through the mask on my face I was scanning the water, looking for a shark, knowing the minute I stopped looking, the minute I took my mind off the idea of shark, like a watched pot, thats when a shark would appear. And because I didnt want to miss that appearance, I kept my mind focused on the darkness in front of me, not thinking about anything other than the barely visible darkness. But I must have been thinking something. And I must have been in the middle of thinking it when a white underbelly flashed by, huge and white and slightly above me.

Suddenly the bait was gone. The bait was gone and the shark was gone, but I was still there. And I didnt know what the scientists, looking at the data from my sensors, were recording, but it was probably fear. My heart was pounding and my adrenaline was pumping, and I could feel my fingertips pulsing inside my rubber gloves. Id seen enough of the shark to feel its threat, but because I was protected by the safety of the cage, what would normally seem like fear, felt to me like the opposite of fear. Not desire exactly, because I couldnt actually see the shark. But I was aware of something, just beyond my vision. And when I say aware, I mean I was sensing, from the shark, a kind of communication. And since the most rudimentary form of communication is the expression of desire, I was sensing the sharks desire. And since one of the things it was desiring was my annihilation, I cant say there wasnt a certain amount of fear. What I was trying to do was reach out through that fear, and communicate with this thing. The human brain is capable of receiving millions of neural signals, and I was trying, from inside the cage, to send signals, to the shark. I wanted to tell the shark that I understood what it wanted, and that I accepted what it wanted, and I was just beginning to experience the freedom of this interspecies conversation when I felt the cage begin to rise. The scientists were bringing me up out of the water, and I didnt want to go out. And I tried to tell them. I tried to signal, through the sensors attached to my body, that I wasnt ready, that I was still conducting the experiment. I tried to think those thoughts and send those thoughts, but maybe the sensors werent working, or maybe my thoughts werent working. Either way, I felt the weight of the water pushing me down as the cage rose up, like an elevator, and there I was again, in the breathable normality of air.

The cage was set down on its special platform, and when the door was opened I remember ducking through the opening and stumbling out onto the relative stability of the deck. Although I was standing on the deck, I was still experiencing what had happened a few moments earlier. I felt almost weightless, like air, only lighter than air, my head like a balloon floating on the top of my spine. I could feel my lungs expanding, and I could hear voices talking and metal clinking against metal. People were standing in front of me, and as I stepped out of the cage I embraced, first the captain, who extended a hand, and then an assistant scientist, who brought me a mug of tea. More than embrace her, I locked my arms around her waterproof jacket. She wore overalls and rubber boots, and I could hear her asking if I was all right. I dont remember what I said exactly, but I must have been grinning, and it mustve been an infectious grin, because when she led me to a plastic crate, she was grinning at me.

I sat there, still in the wetsuit, the electronic wafers still taped to my body, a blue blanket around my neck, my butt bones on the plastic crate, my feet on the deck, the ocean in front of me, the sky above me, and the only thing missing was my thought. I noticed a corroded hinge on the cabin door, and instead of thinking about what kind of paint they used to paint the hinge, or imagining how I would paint the hinge if I owned the boat, instead of reacting to the hinge, I just saw what it was. Every so often I noticed a thought slip into my head, but it was easy enough to let it go and return my attention to the hinge. Or the assistant scientist. Her long hair was falling across her wide blue eyes. She was standing in front of a portable control panel, asking me questions, measuring my physiological responses, telling me that although she hadnt done it yet, she wanted to go under the water herself. She told me her name was Elena, that she was an intern, and we talked about Dramamine and UCLA and the life of a marine biologist. There I was, holding my mug of warm tea, looking at her face and the peaceful horizon behind her face, and I wouldnt have called it paradise exactly, but if paradise is a place where the need for protection falls away, then thats where I was.

And the only question is: How long does it last?

I was drinking my tea, tasting the tea and the sugar in the tea, and seeing this person in front of me, her teeth when she smiled, and the gums above her teeth. And her lips. The shape of her lips reminded me of a certain movie star, and I began thinking about the various roles Id seen that particular movie star play, and while I was thinking, and while I was involved in the various narratives that led from that thinking, I wasnt actually seeing the wide blue eyes of the assistant scientist. It wasnt that I wasnt paying attention; I didnt even know I wasnt paying attention. I was sitting there, in the middle of what might have been a normal conversation, and I was creating, not a cage exactly, but a sense of who I was.

Id been living with a woman in New York. When she moved out of the apartment we shared, I lived there a while longer, but the magazines Id been writing for didnt pay enough to support living there alone. And I didnt want to live there alone. And since Id been thinking about moving to Los Angeles, thats what I did. I put most of what I owned in storage, and the second thing I did when I arrived was buy a car, an old Toyota Camry. I was giving myself a month to test the waters of California, and since I wasnt sure what I would be doing, instead of renting an apartment, the first thing I did was find a downtown hotel offering rooms by the month—the Hotel Metropole—and thats where I was living.

Alan, the one who told me I should “come to L.A. and write about movies,” worked for the Los Angeles Times, and at the moment I was sitting with him, at a low table in a nostalgic bar off Wilshire Boulevard, talking about a piece he wanted about celebrity impersonators. I dont know why Alan chose that particular bar, but I call it “nostalgic” because, whether or not it actually existed in the 1950s, it was made to seem as if, sitting at the low table, with the bamboo walls and the Polynesian masks, you were somewhere in the middle part of the last century. It was a cultural memento, or more accurately, a memento mori; the past it referred to, the playboy, beach-party aesthetic that came into being after World War II, had long since passed away. The photographs on the walls—publicity stills of movie stars like Dean Martin and Tony Curtis—were cultural souvenirs, bits of the past, and like the past, they were mutable. Because Id been thinking about changing my own name I was aware, for instance, that Dean Martin was born Dino Crocetti, that Tony Curtis was Bernard Schwartz, and that Barbara Stanwyck, in her flowing gown, was originally Ruby Stevens.

Anyway, I was sitting there with Alan, and next to Alan was a tall young woman named Jane, an ex-dancer apparently, who wanted to learn about photography. She had a short, boyish haircut, and although she wasnt all that garrulous, the conversation seemed to flow. Alan, who was trying to get me work at the Times, did most of the talking. Id come to Los Angeles knowing only two people, and one of them was Alan, and this woman was an acquaintance of his, someone he wanted to be an acquaintance of mine, a romantic acquaintance. And although I also wanted that, I was still slightly uncomfortable jumping into the ocean of romance. Thats what it seemed like, an ocean, and Alans way of pushing me into the water of that ocean was to introduce me to this person.

We were drinking our drinks and talking about photography, and I said to her, “Alan told me you wanted to know about cameras.”

“I think I have the camera part figured out,” she said, and she reached into her bag and pulled out a film camera with adjustable dials and levers.

Alan, a mojito in one hand, a cheese cracker in the other, sat back in his chair, so that the triangle formed by the three of us left him slightly removed. Hed told her I knew something about photography—which wasnt an absolute lie, because I did take pictures—but I certainly wasnt an expert, and I told Jane, “I really dont know that much.”

“Dont let him fool you,” Alan said. “Hes got an outstanding eye.”

“Thats what I want to develop,” she said.

“Then hes your man.”

Alan had the habit of treating people as if they were stupid, not because he believed they were, but because by assuming they were, until they told him otherwise, he was able to feel safe.

My way to feel safe was different. A writer in Los Angeles is fairly far from the top of the food chain, and I wanted to seem a little more substantial, a little more sure of myself than I actually was. I sat with my back straight, my collarbones extended, and I looked into her eyes in what I hoped was a meaningful way. I told her about the two books Id written, and she told me she also wrote books, young-adult novels. We started talking about books and photography, and I noticed, when she smiled, that her teeth, although they were white, were not quite even, and as I looked at them I tried to imagine what it would be like to love uneven teeth, and by extension, the person behind the teeth.

Unless Alan had hired a prostitute. There was always the possibility that this was a joke he was playing, on me. Hed mentioned something about a life shed had before the life she was living now, but I didnt care, and she didnt seem to care, and we talked like that for a while, but the talking isnt what Im getting at. The talking was pleasant, but it was preparatory. What really happened, happened later, when we took Alan up on his suggestion and walked outside.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780374299095
Author:
Haskell, John
Publisher:
Farrar Straus Giroux
Subject:
Celebrities
Subject:
Identity (psychology)
Subject:
General
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Los angeles (calif.)
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
20090231
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
41 Black-and-White Photographs
Pages:
224
Dimensions:
7.47 x 6.35 x 0.58 in

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

Out of My Skin Used Trade Paper
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Product details 224 pages Farrar Straus Giroux - English 9780374299095 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "In his excellent third book, Haskell gets into the head of a lonely writer whose shot at a second chance hinges, strangely and brilliantly, on an impersonation of an impersonation of Steve Martin. The narrator, who could or could not be named Jack, leaves New York after a breakup and lands in Los Angeles to write about movies at the invitation of his editor friend, Alan. Soon, Alan introduces him to Jane, 'an ex-dancer apparently, who wanted to learn about photography,' and assigns him a story about celebrity impersonators. When the narrator meets Scott, a Steve Martin impersonator, he begins channeling a version of the actor himself, and his impersonations mushroom into 'continuous Steve.' Meanwhile, his relationship with Jane escalates (complicated by his Steveness), he tries his hand at acting and muses about famous movies and the ways in which Hollywooders reinvent themselves. Haskell's vision is frightening and exhilarating, and his prose can imbue a spiritual glow to, for instance, a discarded raisin on a Starbucks table. It's an odd world, and certainly one worth entering." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Synopsis" by , A would-be movie reviewer looking for romance takes an assignment to write a magazine article about celebrity look-alikes in Los Angeles. Set in the capital of illusion, this is a story of one man's journey into paradise--and his attempt to come out the other side.
"Synopsis" by ,
Los Angeles. A would-be movie reviewer, looking for romance, takes an assignment to write a magazine article about celebrity look-alikes. After getting to know a Steve Martin impersonator, the writer decides to undertake his own process of transformation and becomes not Steve Martin but a version of himgraceful, charming, at home in the world. Safe in the guise of “Steve,” he begins to fall in love. And thats when “Steve” takes over. Set in the capital of illusion, this is a story of one mans journey into paradiseand his attempt to come out the other side.
John Haskell is the author of American Purgatorio and of the short-story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock. A contributor to the radio program The Next Big Thing, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Los Angeles. A would-be movie reviewer, looking for romance, takes an assignment to write a magazine article about celebrity look-alikes. After getting to know a Steve Martin impersonator, the writer decides to undertake his own process of transformation and becomes not Steve Martin but a version of himgraceful, charming, at home in the world. Safe in the guise of “Steve,” he begins to fall in love. And thats when “Steve” takes over. Set in the capital of illusion, this is a story of one mans journey into paradiseand his attempt to come out the other side.

“Gutsy, weirdly engrossing . . . This strange, moving book has done just what a first novel should.”Taylor Antrim, The New York Times Book Review

"In his first book, the story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock, and his novel that followed, American Purgatorio, John Haskell has messed around with the idea of the imprisoned self. It makes sense that, as a performer and a writer for the theater, Haskell would explore the possibilities and limits of identity. Referring to the stories in Jackson Pollock, in which the writer inhabits Pollock, the pianist Glenn Gould, various Hitchcock characters, Topsy the elephant and Joan of Arc, Haskell has said his books are meant to be read aloud, performed. Out of My Skin fits squarely in the comic-pathetic, imprisoned self literary lineage, with one small problem: It's not exactly a novel. A novel is part monologue, part marathon. The protagonist plummets through space, transformed, exhausted by the unfolding of events. He grows, mutates, reproduces, has revelations, changes his behavior or stays the same, but does not leave his skin. He is trapped, like all the rest of us, in his self. The novel is a frame, not a mask. It is the skin around the organism, the story. The book has Haskell's signature tonea struggle for precision that can sometimes feel like a writing exercisecombined with a kind of polished insouciance. He's going to parse his way through the surface of things down to the bone, no matter who's watching or how long it takes. The beautiful thing is that he never gets there. There is no resolution, no certainty, just a determined plodding, which is somehow never dull. Revelations animate novels; they give the writer something to pivot on; their utter absence in Haskell's writing feels modern. Here we are, no religion, no single meaning, just a hall of mirrors that is reality. At first, needing a box to put it in, I thought Out of My Skin was more essay than novel. Haskell adds a love story, which gives the book a shape and a frame and a place to end, but it is secondary to his thinking about the role of the self and the nature of identity. This book is a rebellion against the novel, even as it inhabits the form."Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"Early in Out of My Skin, John Haskell's strange and compelling new novel, the narrator-protagonist finds himself attracted to a woman and attempts to dispel his awkwardness by channeling Cary Grant: 'Her looks and her manner were easy and natural, and I liked her. And it's natural, when you like someone, to want the feeling reciprocated. And to facilitate that reciprocation, I sat up in the beanbag, pressing my shoulder blades deeper into my back, hoping a change in my posture would effect a reaction in her . . .  I'd just seen a Cary Grant movie, and because Cary Grant, in the history of leading men, was someone I didn't mind emulating, I tried to act like him. I didn't talk like Cary Grant or do a Cary Grant imitation, but I tried to relax. And in that relaxation I became a little bit more honest.' This scene, like many throughout the novel, illustrates the paradoxical achievement of sincerity through imitation. That Cary Grant himself was an inventioncreated by Grant, who was born Archibald Leach, and the Hollywood studio systemfurther complicates the irony. But soon the narrator forsakes Grant for Steve Martin, with hilarious results . . . The author takes what sounds like a gimmick and fashions a tour de force of comic timing and surprising emotion. The narrator charms us, though at times he frightens us a bit, as the line begins to blur between winning eccentricity and pathology. Still, Haskell's narrator provocatively embodies the complex interplay between the real and the imaginary, recalling the sociologist Edgar Morin's description of cinema as a 'personality factory.' It would be too easy to read the narrator's travails in terms of stereotypical L.A. artifice and celebrity culture. For these celluloid emanations are no less 'authentic' than the myriad of other elements that influence us, consciously or not, in our ceaseless act of becomingthe landscapes of our childhood, the posture of a grandparent, the fleeting impressions of a daydream, today's weather. Out of My Skin, a richly suggestive, deeply funny and elliptically philosophical exploration of identity, is one of the most distinctive American novels of recent years."Gregory Leon Miller, San Francisco Chronicle

"Writing fiction about writers can be tricky, but Haskell pulls it off in his offbeat Hollywood novel about a writer who leaves New York for LA after a breakup. When his newspaper-editor pal assigns him a story about celebrity impersonators, he ends up pretending to be Steve Martin. Haskell tells Required Reading he set out to do a nonfiction piece on a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. And although he's never met Martin, he says, 'My admiration for him stems less from the movies he makessome of which are quite good; many are notand more on a sense I have of his happiness. He writes books, plays the banjo, collects art, and he seems to be living fully, using the Hollywood machine to give himself a life of engagement and fulfillment and pleasure.'"Billy Heller, New York Post

"Haskells first book, a collection of stories published six years ago called I Am Not Jackson Pollock, was a weird little work that almost seemed to take fiction in a new direction, by being based in fact. Each piece was a psychological exploration of a real-life character (a person or an animal), a flat, haunting, matter-of-fact description of the problems of being that character. For instance, when Mr. Haskell described the fate of Laika, the first dog in space, it seemed like the saddest thing in the world . . . Mr. Haskells writing is weirdly mesmerizing, which lends to his work an enticing air of profundity. Theres plenty of strange, thinky fiction out there, but most of it is so crazily ambitious and convoluted. John Haskells is deceptively lazy. And thats why, though it will only

"Synopsis" by ,
Los Angeles. A would-be movie reviewer, looking for romance, takes an assignment to write a magazine article about celebrity look-alikes. After getting to know a Steve Martin impersonator, the writer decides to undertake his own process of transformation and becomes not Steve Martin but a version of him—graceful, charming, at home in the world. Safe in the guise of “Steve,” he begins to fall in love. And thats when “Steve” takes over. Set in the capital of illusion, this is a story of one mans journey into paradise—and his attempt to come out the other side.
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