Different Skins – by Gary McMahon
I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is of ‘Different Skins’ by Gary McMahon (Screaming Dreams 2009). [My previous reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/ ]
This review will be done slowly, savouringly, in real time, so please do not look back here more than once every few days for additions.
EVEN THE DEAD DIE
Part One – My London Ghost
“There are hundreds of streets out there in the Shitty City…”
As stirred in me by an incident told here, I think Horror Fiction is looking through the fish-eye into the corridor outside your bedsit? Do you open the door when you have first glimpsed what you have glimpsed…? For one moment, I though it was a real fisheye and a real me looking through it.
The initial setting casts an under-grounded, inward-swarming, dead-leaning London as a receptacle for the Personal and the Recurrent. Our first-person singular protagonist addresses us direct and we cannot help but participate in our act of reading something that flows more like listening.
A shame the very first sentence contains, to my eyes, a blatant hilarious misprint. Or maybe it isn’t a misprint. I may hit on its signficance later. Or it may just prove that the inadvertently ridiculous is subservient to the deliberately compulsive, especially when the protagonist’s own dreaming of the unreal him forces you to dream of the real him. (4 Oct 09)
Part Two – Body Badges
“‘The tattoo’s forever…'”
The self-dramatised monologue continues, beautifully, darkly threaded with its soul-mate (dialogue) and its parameter (vision). London is not only an eschatological receptacle hinted by the previous part, but a vessel of paranoia, reconciliation-of-evil and irony. Not only eschatology but a faecal scatology. Amazing stuff.
“The choice is simple: we either reach out to connect or let the moment pass…”
The skin-tattoos are a particularly effective metaphor, i.e. of permanence, the ultimate non-nemonymous late-label, contrasting with the pale transients and the Traveller tattoo (upon our protagonist himself) as signs of an impermanence that is strangely more permanent than permanence itself. And now not only the underground, but the under-underground of weirdly named stations. And a new form of sex and cross-addressing.
“‘It is all diversion therapy, of course: a way of pussyfooting around what you already know…'” (5 Oct 09)
Just noticed the ‘faecal’ aspect connects the ‘Shitty City’ of part one. (5 Oct 09 – 30 minutes later)
Part Three – The Big Black
This completes ‘Even The Dead Die’. I have many thoughts going through my head, as stirred by this final part. Some I can’t nail. It’s as if the escapist Death Games of childhood are now provided by this book for us in adulthood. But none of those games took account of ‘The Big Black’ and Kerouac.
There are some rather disturbing images in this part (with the power of a McMahon in overdrive), images, that if you are not a seasoned Horror reader, will probably scar – or tattoo or ‘God’s signature’ – you or your skin for life. Even if you are seasoned, I don’t give a very comforting prognosis for your peace of mind…
At times, I was perturbed by the almost automatic, too easy unrolling of seemingly outlandish plot-data via dialogue in this final part. But if that was a fault, it is a minor one. The earlier irony now often touches on satire.
Strangely, one of the most frightening moments, for me, was the female protagonist ringing someone called Pin on her mobile.
And, if I may touch on a frivolous point, I fear for the long-term safety of Mr Tweety in view of what appeared in that first sentence of Part One!
I still reserve my judgement on the whole book’s gestalt, as I prepare to enter its second half, as entitled ‘In The Skin’. (6 Oct 09)
IN THE SKIN
One – All Alone Together
“…the love I have for my family causes me an exquisite agony.”
McMahon, I feel, is the master of what I call ‘the Horror Prose’, both literary and slick, whereby all senses are subject to synaesthesia but personal aspirations fall short of those senses. A synaesthesia that artfully hints of Horror tropes within it … plus a disconnection, a detachment that is paradoxically sensual. Here McMahon even excels himself, telling of a family man, his business trip to New York away from his family who have just moved into a new house, his temptations, inbuilt goodness, urges, self-deceptions, aching soul. This promises much…
An interested party publicly asked me yesterday about this review – “But do you like it?” Yes, I like this book, am enjoying it very much so far, but ‘like’ and ‘enjoy’ are difficult words in this context. As if they, too, are detached.
“…we reach out to each other but rarely ever touch, missing the connection by inches, miles, light years…” (7 Oct 09)
Two – We Are It
Upon returning to it, this story itself becomes its own changeling. Honestly wrenching stuff, and, for me, as a father long ago of small children, horrifically empathisable. The connection breach between him and his famly has widened so much it needs bridging with things that try to climb from the story to your very own personal story-within … in parallel with that thing in the garden craning towards pawing the protagonist’s own window. I shall not say more for fear of easing things too much for you by preparing you for coping with it. I don’t think I’m being too melodramatic when I say I now need simply to prepare myself – with “the ghost of a smile to tickle my lips” – for proceeding onward to what must await. A changeling of a changeling, a notch or ratchet up? Or down? (7 Oct 09 – three hours later)
Another two hours later — I shall deal with the final two parts together, as the reading-rush (much like the sugar rush in eating) has become all-consuming and the fourth part is relatively tiny:
Three – The Patter of Tiny Feet
Four – Thin as Skin
Firstly, may I get this particular exorcism off my chest: “…the twisted corpse of a house cat, a neighbour’s pet. The skin has been peeled carefully from the cat’s skull, and the strange marking I rubbed off the door frame is stencilled onto the sticky red bone…”
Strangely, however, having quoted it, that tangential moment seems to parallel the whole rite-of-passage in the final two parts. I will not describe further the outcome of the plot. There is no safe bridge between it and us. I think at least part of me – as a reading-soul – slipped between. “There is little distinction“. No distinguishing the edges.
Indeed, I don’t think I have experienced such a self-rending tour-de-force as a book’s finale in empathy with any protagonist during my long history of reading fiction. You can only experience it for yourself.
Like it? Enjoy it? Forget it, big man!
I shall not read the author’s story notes at the end of the book. I hate author story notes. The text is all. If the text needed more, then the text would have been given more. Indeed, I did glimpse that McMahon himself has headed these notes: “Oh, no, it’s the Story Notes!”
I will return to the beginning of the book, however, and soon read Tim Lebbon’s Introduction, to see what further food for thought this luminary may give.
The whole book as a gestalt? There is one. John Donne’s HOLY SONNET TEN and John Donne himself. (7 Oct 09 – another two hours later)
DFL: Done part two now. 🙂
Zed (Gary_mc): Thanks, Des. I only wish I understood it. 😉
DFL: I’ve now added a bit of hindsight clarification to the on-going review. And for the benefit of this thread, I also add this:
eschatology: study of death
================= From the link immediately above: RossWarren: What is the misprint in the opening line? In my copy it reads fine.
GMc: Proof that it was an easy one to miss! Thanks, mate! 🙂
Having now read his story notes (for the sake of a debate elsewhere), I find they add nothing to what I had only inferred safely from the text itself. In fact, they now give the text a sense of writerliness that takes away from the powerful fiction that once, for me, stood on its own and inarguably (surely?) was written to stand on its own when it was written.
4. Weirdmonger left…
The only certainty is the text. All (auto)-biographical extraneity is fun, meanwhile, but unknowable. Authors often admit to being confused about their own intentions or may see themselves through rose- or grime-coloured glasses etc etc. And more likely to obscure than enlighten, is my logial asense of the matter, especially when the text is a ‘stand-alone’ bare to the weather of a reader’s gazes till all manner of Porlocks interrupt…
Different Skins for Different People, however, I do agree.