Marisa Crane’s debut novel I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is, on the simplest level, the story of Kris, who has a brand-new baby and a brand-new crushing grief. Her wife, Beau, died in childbirth, and Kris narrates her story as if telling it to Beau, keeping her present and unforgettable—and the pain sharp and near. The loss is staggering. That kind of loss, with the added sudden responsibility of singlehandedly keeping another human alive? An incredible thing for the world to ask of a person.
And on top of that, the kid has a second shadow.
Exoskeletons is also a dystopia that barely feels like one. In Kris’s world, the state assigns second shadows to people who have transgressed in any number of ways. What this means, for a Shadester, echoes through every moment of their life. “And to think,” Kris muses bitterly, “we thought the prison system was corrupt, but the reality is, it was just preparation for what came next.”
A second shadow is shame made visible. It is a manifestation of control, and othering, and it has repercussions that range from what a person can do for work to what they are allowed to buy at the grocery store and when. The shadows are a visual manifestation of what already exists: a way to separate people, to divide them and make some more worthy than others. They are control, and they come along with in-home cameras and visits from the Department of Balance. If you make a mistake (according to whom?), your life is not your own.
Even if your only mistake is being born. Since she “killed” her mom, the kid—called only the kid for most of the book—is a Shadester almost from the moment she arrives in the world. Kris earned her second shadow much later in her life, and remembers a time before. Two shadows are all the kid has ever known.
This is Kris’s world: the kid; their extra shadows; Kris’s hapless father; Beau’s independent and far-away mother; Kris’s neighbors, who she can hear arguing through the wall; her Shadester friend Siegfried, who along with the neighbors becomes family. Over all of them hangs the constant threat of surveillance, judgment, additional cruelty.
And her world—and Crane’s mesmerizing book—is absolutely full of love and guilt and self-made queer families. It includes one of the greatest kids ever to walk into a story and practically take over, all defiance and curiosity and irrepressible spirit. Her story is her own, even as Kris tells and retells their stories to Beau, breaking up her narration with lists of creatures that have exoskeletons, and pop quizzes with impossible answers:
Q: Can you name an emotion other than lonely?
I was highlighting sentences in this book before I was ten pages deep. Crane is also a poet, and you can feel the way their language has been pared down, sharp cuts made with precision and wisdom. The way Kris communicates her story is painfully, beautifully intimate, crushingly honest about her pain. (“It’s true: if given the chance, I would trade her for you.”) Kris knows all her flaws and weaknesses, all the ways in which she isn’t her lost partner, all the ways she isn’t prepared. But she also knows how to love.
There are books you read—books that weigh in your mind, that linger and last—and then there are books that somehow seem to seep into your skin. Reading can sometimes be an unexpectedly physical experience, and reading I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself was one of those times for me: I would pick up the book, intending to read a few pages (without chapters, there is little reason ever to pause). And as I read, I would feel like my heart was inflating, a tiny swell with each golden sentence or breathtakingly crisp observation, until I had to set the book back down lest everything in me just burst.
It was kind of like a panic attack, but in a good way. It shares that, a bit, with Jenny Offill’s Weather. Leslie Jamison, in The New York Times, described Weather’s narrator’s understanding of “the truth that we inhabit multiple scales of experience at the same time: from the minutiae of school drop-offs and P.T.A. activism to the frictions of our personal relationships all the way to the geological immensity of our (not so slowly) corroding planet.” This is the way Crane’s novel sings: on the scale of experiencing the kid’s every evolving minute, crossed with and multiplied by the scale of disenfranchisement, exclusion, the stripping away of rights and freedoms.
But this book also resonates in the body in a way that’s unlike many others. Crane writes a lush physicality into her story; bodies come to vivid, pulsing, messy life on the page. Kris’s love for Beau isn’t just emotional, isn’t just romantic, but is settled deep in her blood and bones, physically part of her and in direct opposition to the nebulous, untouchable fact of her second shadow: “The first time, I couldn’t stop talking about wanting you while I was in the middle of having you, as if the act itself wasn’t enough—I had to make the universe know, too.” Kris wants to make the universe know so much, but there’s a searching in her telling; she’s looking as well as feeling, longing and needing and loving at once.
The kid, too, is a superball of physicality, always moving, always instigating, a rebellious child full of plots and plans. The way the world imposes itself on the most vulnerable bodies is always in the forefront of Crane’s telling, from the abuses her friend Sigfried suffers to the life Kris’s escaped cat finds out in the world—a cat that walks women home from the bar at night. Being in the world is hard, and being in the world is necessary. When Kris and the kid and their neighbors turn a moment of fear and shame into a celebration, Kris thinks, “our bodies, dipping and diving like currents of energy throughout the room, feel like small sparks of resistance, our miniature revolution. These moments of joy belong to us and no one else.” The resistance, the magic of community, whether small or large, put this book in conversation with Megan Giddings’ The Women Could Fly, another brilliant and subtle dystopia that looks all too familiar.
Where does joy live in the body? How does it belong; how can it push out shame? “When I think of the word family,” Kris continues, “I picture a surprise party, everyone floating toward the ceiling like balloons.” There are so many lines in this book I want to quote, details and moments that deserve their own spotlights. But that lightness is what I was left with, in the end—a lightness almost unexpected, a sense of hope and an open road. This is one hell of a debut.
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is published by Catapult.
Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.