The Skin Team
by Jordaan Mason
Magic Helicopter Press; 226 p.
It’s easy to get lost in the dense web of metaphors and bodies that populate Jordaan Mason’s The Skin Team. Mason documents a taut bond between three young people in a small town, the dynamics of their relationship in constant flux, their bodies aging, their desires shifting. The looming specter of electricity, via the omnipresent Power Company Building that sits as both metaphor and geographic touchstone, also connects Mason’s novel to William T. Vollmann’s hallucinatory masterpiece You Bright and Risen Angels. Like Vollmann, Mason tears apart familiar relationships and conflicts to illuminate them in some newfound fashion. Mason’s own concerns, though, are less broad-canvas and more intimate. His characters’ revolutions occur in unexpected ways; they delve deep inside themselves, burrowing somewhere deep inside, seeking both self-knowledge and self-abnegation.
“The thing you must understand is that children will do terrible things if you leave them alone long enough.” That’s how Mason’s novel opens, but soon the narrative becomes more hallucinatory, fraught with violence. Three characters gradually emerge, one woman and two men, their relationship in a state of constant flux. Sometimes his narration emerges from within this group, and sometimes without; an impressionistic first-person section might be followed by a wryer third-person one illuminating the jarring prose that came before. Beyond Vollmann, there are other literary touchstones that come to mind: Dennis Cooper, in the fragmented aspect; one section of broken correspondence calls to mind Harry Mathews’s The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. Mason is here creating a system of prose that doesn’t fit nearly into any particular categories.
He can also write brilliantly evocative phrases. One section ends with the phrase “…this lovesong coming out of my mouth like a plague.” The onrush of images and references that those words summon up are hard to banish. Elsewhere, Mason is more explicit in his fragments:
Dancing in parking-lots, drunk, listless, screaming, blowing old men, arcades and malls everywhere instead of fire, books I stole from the library, books I put in my head for safe keeping.
And while the language grows thick with metaphor and surrealism, there is a story being told here — albeit a mysterious one, the identities of some of the participants hidden behind language. There’s an extended riff on horseracing, and a number of appearances by competing teams known only by the colors they represent. There is tenderness here, and sudden violence: buildings are destroyed; horses’ bodies are found. At times, the depth of Mason’s symbolic reach feels a little too deep — for all of the power of the trio at the center of his book, some of the more extraneous sections served to distract, rather than accentuate.
Still, Mason is tapping into a powerful thematic undercurrent here. “Some schools of atoms orbit the springs fresh with sex,” one chapter opens, and it’s that unrestrained yearning that endures; that summoning of the process of discovering one’s own body and one’s own desire. The Skin Team is Mason’s first novel; I have no idea where he’ll go from here, but I’m eager to find out.
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