Last night I began reading a new book: Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace. In it, a university lecturer called Caspar is sent a gift by one of his students, also (not unproblematically) a lover. The gift is a package containing a USB and a ‘skin’, a virtual body suit that allows wearers to experience someone else’s life in totality. On the USB is the student’s ‘narrative’, a record of the previous ten years, which plugs into the suit. I only got through the first few pages before feeling tired but Kneen writes about sex in a way I can only describe as alive – that is, to how I think people actually experience it, both its horrors and its pleasures, and its discomforting relationship to power (Wilde said everything was about sex except sex, which is about power). I’ve long stopped laughing at those awards given to bad depictions of sex in novels. I daresay such depictions are all too common, but why should sex be singled out? Why don’t we draw attention to bad action, or bad dialogue, or bad plotting? Why should sex be uniquely snigger-worthy? It’s the attitude of an immature teenager. I sometimes wonder what the upshot, intended or not, of such awards is likely to be. Will novelists stop writing about sex altogether for fear of a nod? God knows literary fiction could do with more, not less, about what bodies actually do, and how they work. I think it was Will Self, that arch modernist, who said that nobody ever shits in literary fiction. And yet who would argue that shitting is not as much of a part of the texture of lived experience as shopping or travelling or, yes, fucking that forms – or should form – the backdrop of novels?
I like Kneen’s idea of the skin, and even more the vividness with which she describes the experiences it provides to wearers. It’s not a wholly original idea – in many ways it’s simply a literalisation of the idea of stepping into someone else’s shoes, the presumed bedrock of empathising with others. Reading about Kneen’s skin, I thought of the (far more ridiculous) device of the point-of-view gun that was in the film adaption of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Such devices are invariably shown as both blessings and curses, a way into someone else’s worldview that had previously been closed, but also something dangerous, a door opening onto a strange, endless house, a door that can never be closed again. To have someone under your skin, as in the famous Rat Pack song, is similarly double-edged I think. There’s something creepy about the image, horrifying almost – the lover as infiltrating biological agent! – and yet the sense of the song is something else again, closer to the idea I suppose of being pleasantly possessed by another. The thing with skins though – both Kneen’s and our own biological carapaces – is that they are not permanent, we are always shedding them. And yet, in fiction as in song, skins are things to get under rather than to shed. They give us a view, rather than allow us to expose something about ourselves. Perhaps the science fictional corollary to Kneen’s skin would be a device, a sort of x-ray machine of the soul, that would allow us to go about in public ‘skinless’ so that everybody could see us as we are – all our fears and hopes and desires – all the time. Alain de Botton has suggested that on first dates we should tell the other person the ways in which we are crazy so as to save a lot of trouble further down the track. Maybe these x-ray machines of the soul would be like that, an accounting upfront that would help us keep in mind the fact that everybody is fucked up in their own ways, that everybody’s life looks, from the inside out, as though it is in pieces.
What’s appealing about Kneen’s skin though is its intimacy. It is not for everyone to know the story of Caspar’s student (whose name I have forgotten) from the inside. I don’t know where the novel is going but it is already rich in possibilities. I wonder how much social media is a kind of skin for us to get inside as we trawl through friends’ photographs and status updates and life events and achievements. Maybe, though, our social media accounts put us closer to the student’s position than Caspar’s – shapers of our own narratives, projecting into the world whatever we want it to think of us. So far Kneen’s student is ambivalent in this respect (the first part of the book is told from Caspar’s point of view). I hope I’m not too tired to pick up the book again tonight for a little while.