by Idris Kenain
Out of My Skin
by John Haskell
224 pages / $4.95 buy from Powell’s
1. Out of My Skin by John Haskell is about a man (named Haskell) who goes to Los Angeles and becomes interested in a Steve Martin impersonator. It’s about wanting to change who you are. It’s about identity and the loss of self in pursuit of some ideal.
2. The real Haskell was a journalist who moved to LA from NY. He wrote a collection of short stories called I Am Not Jackson Pollock. Over the course of nine stories, Haskell writes about movies and their actors. He confuses the actors with the roles they play because it symbolizes the confusion of outward expression and inward intention. There is a dichotomy of who the person is versus who the person wants to be or the role they are playing.
3. I started reading this book around the time the Mayan calendar was ending and the regular calendar was ending. There was some talk about change and transformation. I’ve always found New Years’ celebrations to be arbitrary. Why do people dedicate themselves anew at the beginning of the year, a random point in time? Why do people want to start over? And yet I am susceptible to it.
4. I shaved my head and my face. I wanted to be a different person. I was tired of my choices, decisions, life. What does it take to transform yourself?
5. This book is written in a way unlike any other book by any other author I have read or heard about. And I’m sure someone could say why or how it is different using literary criticism. But I didn’t read it in a litcrit way so my experience of it was maybe more pure. I liked it for what it was doing to me, how it made me experience reading in a totally new way, how it changed me.
6. One thing that is different about this book is that it is more focused on ideas than action. But the ideas are realized through specific events and objective narration. It is not pure theory. This story, the things that happened and the way it is told, makes you think about things, makes you observe them, the things in the book and in your life. It transcends the book, so that it changes you, affects you.
7. Every sentence is infused with meaning as if no one had ever thought of the way things correlated before, how everything fits together, the narrator keenly observing everything and trying to wring some kind of desperate meaning from normality. “I could feel the blades of grass pressing up through my shirt into the skin of my back.” This could be a description in any book, but because of what is happening in this book, it takes on an uncanny resonance.
8. Every time I go on a trip, I think change is possible when I return. I think I’ll become a different person or I believe I am a different person slipping into the disguise of who I used to be, but then that disguise, my real persona, wins out and takes over.
9. The character Haskell lets the Steve persona attain for him certain things he feels himself incapable of. But after a while he can no longer maintain the desire for the things that his Steve persona has attained. Being Steve has gotten in the way even though he is happy, or, he becomes less happy when he loses the things because he is no longer being Steve.
10. “By becoming Steve and then becoming not-Steve, I’d become a nonentity.” At first it seemed like this anonymity in LA would mean a loss of control, would make him too vulnerable, but it seemed to be what he actually wanted in the first place. Douglas Coupland writes in Life after God about how strange it is that you can never park your body and float free. But it seems like you can. There are drugs and alcohol which diddle your brain just enough to get you to feel a different way. You can also do it by projecting your mind. You can leave your body by reading a book.
11. Of course, while doing drugs or becoming inebriated, while meditating or reading, you are still anchored into that human body. You don’t actually leave it, and it always comes back with physical reminders that you are a person.
12. At the beginning of the book, Haskell is doing a story on sharks and he’s in a cage under water and the cage is protecting him from being eaten, but it’s also preventing him from something. “My body is a cage,” the Arcade Fire song says, which seems to focus only on the limitations of human existence. Like, if we were pure energy we could accomplish so much more. But the cage of our bodies also protects us.
13. I used to have these black-out episodes where I’d be in some other-than-conscious state, unaware of my body. And my only experience of those moments would be an influx of information, probably my brain trying to reboot itself or becoming overloaded. It was a horrific experience, just this inundation of pure data that my brain tried to sift accompanied by a massive panic that it was too much. And this, to me, is what not having a body would be like. Everyone’s wills thinned out across the universe and your existence meant parsing the data of cross-sections of information. The overlay of two or more entities, no intimacy, only numbers, ideas, rubbing up against each other.
14. If eating a raisin transforms the raisin into something else, then maybe it also transforms the eater, if more subtly. Maybe everything changes us, everything has an impact and every moment of our lives we become a new person with new possibilities.
15. In the Douglas Coupland story, he says “… I thought that intimacy with another soul was the closest I could ever come to leaving my body.” And in Out of My Skin he sees himself leaving his body. “If I’m going to become something, why not become something with Jane.”
16. Throughout the book, Haskell uses movies to talk about something else. The character Haskell used to write about movies for a living and so did the author Haskell. They are the same person, but with different identities. In his book, Two or Three Things I’m Dying to Tell You, Jalal Toufic talks about being able to watch Rear Window and Vertigo back to back as one long movie with the two Jimmy Stewarts being the same person with different identities.
17. Haskell talks about masks and the safety of masks that allow you to express something hidden. In Mishima: A Life in Four Parts, Yukio Mishima uses masks to express the desire both for beauty and death. Haskell chose to pursue beauty without death. Although there is death: “I knew that he was dead. I was sad that he was dead. And I was also happy. He was dead.” But he doesn’t actively pursue it.
18. So how does one impersonate Steve Martin?
1. “Pretend you have a tail and you’re trying to get the tail between your legs.”
2. “Forget about the actual Steve Martin and concentrate on one particular aspect of [your] own personal Steve.”
3. “Imagine that [your] eyes were like ray guns, that a beam of light was shooting out of them.”
I tried this for my wife today and she said I didn’t look or sound like Steve Martin. And I told her that it wasn’t about appearances, it was about thinking like Steve Martin. “It’s about being Steve, not seeming like him,” I said. I think the book had really gotten to me.
19. The notion of Steve Martin being an actor himself was oddly never addressed in the book. But Haskell talks about Charles Laughton who acted as other people in order to express something of himself. The idea of acting is there but never applied to Steve.
20. Tonight I watched the movie Me and Orson Welles. Welles is mentioned in this book but even more so in I Am Not Jackson Pollock. In the movie, Welles talks about playing a role and becoming that person in order not to be himself. I started thinking about the layers of dissembling. I was imitating Haskell who was imitating the Steve Martin impersonator impersonating Steve Martin who himself lost himself (maybe) in the roles he played.
21. Even stranger, although more tangential, Me and Orson Welles was directed by Richard Linklater whose production company is called Detour after the film mentioned in the book and has a character named Haskell in it.
22. Do we ever actually learn from our mistakes though? There is some drive that impels us to better ourselves, to improve ourselves, so we try to change. We invent new identities but our old identities, our real selves, our selves which don’t change, slip in and assert themselves. And this happens not just in a lifetime but throughout the course of history. We think we are different now, more modern or advanced than in previous eras, but are we?
23. Death is the only true transformation. Like the raisin that gets transformed by being eaten. You have to kill off the old self in order to make an effective change. But people fear death.
24. I also watched my long-time favorite Harold and Maude. Cat Stevens sings: “If you want to be you, be you. And if you want to be me, be me.” Harold tries over and over to kill himself and create a new identity. He doesn’t want to be himself. Maude appreciates the circle of life. She knows that death is not the end. When she dies, she knows that she will be transformed into something greater than herself. Harold tells her he loves her and she says, “Go and love some more.” I think that after Maude’s transformation, she will be the more that Harold loves.
25. Your skin cells are constantly replenishing themselves so that you are not living in the skin of your past self. Your entire body has been shed over and over incrementally, but something of your self has passed through to this moment. When you read a book, it changes the way your brain is structured. These are small changes but maybe they have larger implications. I would like to think that Out of My Skin is life-changing. That it will forever alter the way I view the world, but I know that is unlikely. I will forget how to impersonate Steve Martin or what that means and its implications on my self. I may never become the person I would like to be. But I can try.