John Haskell’s new novel has what seems a comic premise. A man meets and courts a woman while pretending to be the comedian Steve Martin. Pretending is perhaps the wrong word; Jack, the narrator, is not assuming a fraudulent identity, but simply imagining, when he goes on dates, that he is Steve Martin. His impersonation is so discreet that most of his interlocutors don’t know that he’s doing it. Jack pretends to be Steve Martin because it makes him feel less self-conscious and inhibited in social situations. He has little interest in Martin himself—he barely knows his work—but is inspired by a professional Steve Martin impersonator, Scott, whom he gets to know in the course of writing an article on celebrity impersonators.
If the story sounds odd in summary, it’s even odder in the reading. The problem of feeling uncomfortable in one’s skin is usually plumbed by a particular kind of narrator. Vibrant, voluble, quick-witted, and funny in his descriptions of his own suffering, he (it is usually a he) seems to pour all the energy of his psychic conflict and foiled ambitions into his story, and somehow to sublimate frustration into eloquence. His outsized voice has the agility and charm that his social persona or romantic attempts might lack, and his narration is the solace, if not the revenge, for his social awkwardness or exclusion. He could be Alexander Portnoy or Martin Amis’s Charles Highway or, in more recent novels, the heroes of Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land or Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan.
But Haskell’s narrator is different. He is not exuberant or charismatic, exactly, though his voice is certainly distinctive. And while he might occasionally say something funny, he doesn’t seem to care about charming us with his wit. Jack is a writer and journalist, but oddly, for a writer, he seems unsure of himself from the first sentence:
What happened to me was—not me, but what happened—I’m from New York originally and I moved to Los Angeles to write about movies.
The stumble, the false start, the clumsy obfuscation of the “me”: this narrator does not quite have purchase on the story he’s telling. With his jittery repetitions and simple syntax, he sounds like someone trying to sort out a series of baffling events while talking himself down from a near-constant state of anxiety. Soon after he moves to L.A., Jack’s friend Alan, a slick Los Angeles Times editor, introduces him to an attractive former dancer named Jane:
I’d come to Los Angeles knowing only two people, and one of them was Alan, and this woman was an acquaintance of his, someone he wanted to be an acquaintance of mine, a romantic acquaintance. And although I also wanted that, I was still slightly uncomfortable jumping into the ocean of romance. That’s what it seemed like, an ocean, and Alan’s way of pushing me into the water of that ocean was to introduce me to this person.
Haskell seems to mistrust clever or lyrical turns of phrase as much as other writers mistrust clichéd ones. There is something arresting and hypnotic in the way these sentences double back on themselves to explain or qualify what has just been stated. The clauses, strung together with ands and becauses, create a long chain of cause and effect; Jack seems always intent on not simply relating what happened but making clear why it happened, or at least figuring out how one thing leads to another. Not that very much happens on the outside; the book takes place over the course of a few weeks, and the novel turns on Jack’s adoption of Steve as a social crutch, and then on his struggle to let go of Steve and find a way to feel natural—whatever that means—while being with Jane.
Though he has moments of deadpan wit at his own expense (“I was feeling a tightness in my chest, which is usually an indication that I’m about to do something or say something to spoil an otherwise enjoyable experience”), Jack doesn’t trade in mordant observations about others. This is not a novel of L.A. manners (Michael Tolkin’s The Player) or L.A. grotesques (The Day of the Locust). Though Jack goes to social events—a movie “wrap” party, a reading at a bookstore, a day at the race track—he focuses on his own experience, and makes a point of tolerating the few idiosyncrasies and pretensions that he observes in others. (“Alan had the habit of treating people as if they were stupid, not because he believed they were, but because by assuming they were, until they told him otherwise, he was able to feel safe.”) He might find other people difficult to be with, but that’s not their problem.
In place of sarcasm or censoriousness, he turns his critical eye inward. Haskell’s books—which also include I Am Not Jackson Pollock, a collection of short stories, and his previous novel, American Purgatorio —thrum with the melancholy of being at once alienated from and trapped within oneself. Jack is caught between trying to get some distance from his thoughts and emotions by paying careful attention to them, and at the same time trying not to overthink every little action or decision. The strain of these efforts comes through in his breathless sentences, his tendency to philosophical excursus to explain himself:
If you can imagine water, cascading over rocks, actually thinking about something, then what that water is thinking about is the necessary thing, and the beauty of the necessary thing is that it’s true to itself, and by being true to itself, it knows exactly what to do.
Which is why I began acting like Scott—like Scott acting like Steve Martin. I was trying to be like water.
We can feel, with Jack, the constant, crazy-making, self-conscious whir of his mind. No wonder he cannot find a way, as the cliché has it, to “be himself.”
What better city to inhabit, in that case, than Los Angeles, with so many people devoted—professionally and otherwise—to being someone other than themselves? Yet Jack largely stays on the margins of the city; or rather, he circles around L.A.’s moneyed heart—the Westside, thick with mansions and celebrities—without ever touching it. Every chapter in the book begins with a small black-and-white photo of an L.A. location, usually an unremarkable one (a burrito joint, a bookstore, a Spanish-style bungalow, a freeway). Like an establishing shot, each photo shows the scene where the ensuing chapter takes place. We follow Jack from the beaches at the western edge of the city to Jane’s house in Echo Park. He spends time in the San Fernando Valley and Watts, but not in Beverly Hills or Century City. Jack originally intends “to write about movies,” but he finds himself more interested in old movies than current ones, and in the old Hollywood of the studio system rather than today’s industry. Both geographically and professionally, Jack is always several degrees removed from what are conventionally understood to be L.A.’s centers of power and influence.
He first meets Scott, the Steve Martin impersonator, after seeing him in a revival of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo. Scott makes a living by appearing as Steve at car dealerships, birthday parties, and other engagements. Although Scott aspires to be an actor, he is serious and philosophical about his impersonator work:
“The job is to make people happy,” he said, and again he used the term being Steve. “When I’m being Steve,” he said, “I have to forget about myself.”
People talk this way in Haskell’s books, their self-analysis inflected with the language of pop psychology and pop interpretations of philosophy and Eastern religions. American Purgatorio is about a man whose wife inexplicably disappears while the couple is at a gas station. Finding some clues among her papers, the husband sets off on a cross-country road trip to look for her. Alex, a yoga instructor whom he meets on the way to Lexington, Kentucky, senses the narrator’s desolation and tries to help him:
He told me to let it go. He said that trying to contain it would only give it power, and what I ought to do, he said, a more effective approach, would be to admit it exists, allow it to exist. “Let it out and see where it goes.”
“By ‘it’ you mean…?”
“Take it off yourself and put it into the world,” he said. It won’t go away if you keep pushing it away.” Trying to get rid of it, he said, was just another way of holding on to it.
I still wasn’t sure what the “it” was we were talking about, but that was all right.
Haskell finds a delicate balance between skepticism of this borrowed language and the suggestion that its powers of solace are real and not to be laughed at.
At first Jack finds Scott’s sincere absorption in his look-alike work “pathetic,” but he comes to envy Scott’s ability to shed his own persona for another. He asks Scott to show him how to imitate Steve Martin’s posture and walk,
and when I concentrated, I was able, for the most part, to put the habit of being myself on the back burner…. Instead of worrying about being myself, I could worry about something else.
Thus begins Jack’s own exercise in impersonation, more private and abstract than Scott’s. For Jack the exercise is a little like a koan—something to concentrate on so that he doesn’t have to worry about the impression he’s making with Jane or the general buzz of his thoughts; it allows him to pay attention to what’s going on around him but also to have a kind of serene detachment:
I was able to concentrate on Jane, and at the same time I was also practicing Steve. And by practicing I mean not just imitating, I was practicing being, and I continued practicing, noticing my thoughts, good and bad, and noticing the world in front of me.
As for Jane, though she sometimes notices that Jack is walking or moving in an awkward way (“Is your ankle bothering you?” she asks while Jack is doing his Steve walk), she has no idea about Jack’s “practice.” She seems to like him—they go on several dates, they have sex, they settle into being together, and she expects them to stay that way.
But once the Steve act becomes routine for Jack it no longer seems liberating but confining. Precisely because he cares about Jane, Jack wants a more authentic way of being with her. But he can’t shake the habit of being Steve. The space he has cleared in his mind for Steve seems frighteningly empty when he drops the act: he feels like he has no self to return to. And so he shakes Jane instead, chafing at her presumption that they are a couple and becoming obstreperous about many small things. He refuses to have his picture taken with her, to go home with her after one of their dates, to stop gloating after winning a ping-pong game. She senses the chill and stops calling him, and though he misses her and calls her again, they can’t seem to find a way of being together comfortably anymore.
Haskell often invites us to revisit clichéd phrases and imagery, sometimes explicitly questioning them, other times putting them to work with surprising effect. This is true of his use of L.A. itself: he acknowledges the familiar touchstones of the city’s history and landscape (the palm trees, the sun, the movie stars, the German exiles), but they appear in unexpected ways. Over the course of Out of My Skin, Jack reads two books and describes them in brief vignettes scattered throughout the novel. One of the books is about Brecht’s staging of The Life of Galileo in L.A. in 1947, the other about the life of Cary Grant. Jack particularly lingers on Grant’s ambivalence about his public image; he describes the actor’s psychiatric treatment, which for a time involved taking LSD:
The devil-may-care persona of Cary Grant had become a rut, and first of all, he didn’t like ruts, and secondly, although he’d left Archibald Leach [his original name] in his past, the fact was, Archibald Leach was still part of him. He felt it beneath the mask of Cary Grant, and because he was tired of wearing that mask, because he wanted to let his various disguises fall away, he took a glass of water, put the small round pill on his tongue, and swallowed.
The episodes about Grant are reminiscent of the stories in Haskell’s first book, I Am Not Jackson Pollock, which are mostly about actual writers and artists and actors, many of them at a moment in their lives when they find themselves burdened by familiar habits and ways of thinking. The title story is about Pollock shortly before his death, when he was already famous and—in Haskell’s rendering—feeling confined by the style that he had invented. In the opening scene he is getting drunk in a bar when a pretty girl whom he’s been admiring comes over to him and starts a conversation:
He wasn’t comfortable talking about himself so instead he talked about Pollock, the artist, the greatest one, according to the magazines. He explained to her, not his position, but the position of Jackson Pollock after he’d painted his drip paintings. He had discovered this language that let him say what he wanted to say, that let him get his unconscious out and down on the canvas. And that’s what he did. That was good. And he continued doing it because it was what the language let him do…. But he was stuck.
Like many of the characters in the book, Pollock wants to change something in his life, but he doesn’t know how to do it; the will to change collides with more primal desires for familiarity and comfort.
Haskell is particularly interested in people who, in one way or another, assume alternate identities for a living. To him, this is a version of what we all do in the course of daily life. Sometimes the public personas that we develop become traps, but ideally we are not creating a fixed mask: we are developing a way of suspending our habitual thoughts and egotistical impulses. A story in I Am Not Jackson Pollock involves Keats. Haskell quotes a line from one of Keats’s letters about the role of the poet: “He said that the poet has no identity, meaning that the poet becomes part of the world and sees the world through the eyes of the world.”
Jack, in Out of My Skin, seems like someone who has seized on this idea not merely as an artistic principle but as a tactic for getting through the trials of everyday life. He is always trying to calm himself by seeing “the world through the eyes of the world.” Even ordinary moments of Jack’s life are freighted with his effort at self- transcendence. Indeed, Jack chooses mundane incidents to illustrate his ideas about the difficulty and importance of being alive to the moment. Thus he relates in some detail the experience of waiting for a friend at an upscale airport lounge: at first he feels happy just to sit and watch people go by, but then he feels physical discomfort in the form of hunger: “The requisites for happiness don’t change, but we do, and I did, because suddenly I wasn’t content to just sit there. I wanted to eat and drink….” But should he pay for an over-priced sandwich? “…I said no. I said it, not to what was around me, but to what was inside me, to the person (me) who considered an airport bar a waste of money.” So he buys the sandwich. He enjoys it. It turns out he made the right decision (thank God!), because he dared to do something he normally wouldn’t. “I’d lost my original utopia, but by saying no I’d found another.”
For Jack, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in scale between the decision to buy a sandwich and the decision to stay with Jane: every decision threatens to overwhelm him, and thus becomes, in retrospect, an opportunity for philosophical reflection. Material that might have been a Seinfeld sketch instead becomes a parable. But who is Jack to be telling parables? He is, after all, about to crack up over a sandwich. Why is he such a mess? There is a psychic pain at the heart of his story that he can only circle around in his narrative, but not fully acknowledge. His roaming of the peripheries of the city, his fascination with actors, and, of course, his impersonation of an impersonator all repeat his inability to give an adequate account of himself. Nonetheless, he is doomed to keep trying. While Jack is talking about sandwiches and Cary Grant and being like water, one senses the weight of other experiences—painful experiences—that he is not talking about.
Much about Jack’s past is left out of the novel. There are few references to people that he knows outside L.A.. He gives the impression of being profoundly, chillingly alone. If his anxiety and depression has an origin (his family? past break-ups? or maybe something in his very chemistry, as we might assume today?), he isn’t interested in it. The subject of origins is vexed: we eventually find out that he has misled us even about his hometown. While the first line of the novel tells us that he is “originally” from New York, he later tells us that he actually grew up in San Diego. He does not explain this inaccuracy. That a man as self-conscious as Jack cannot account for such a misstatement—this kind of elision is an example of what makes Jack so disturbing, and it is also the peculiar genius of Out of My Skin. The narrator of American Purgatorio has a similar voice, a similar sense of dislocation, but the pain at the center of his story is named, thus contained: he has lost his wife, and, we later discover, something even more than that, which explains why he seems so isolated and dazed. Jack’s pain feels all the more oppressive and terrifying for being unnamed.
But Jack is not simply unreliable. There is something broken not only in his psyche but in the narrative mechanism of the novel itself. Haskell reminds us of this by occasionally violating rules of narrative perspective. A whole chapter is told from Jane’s point of view. At the end of the novel, another chapter begins from her perspective:
Jane was standing on the deck—taking in the view of the San Fernando Valley—when her phone rang.
“It’s me,” I said….
Only in the third sentence do we realize that Jack is the person placing the call to Jane, and that he’s going to take over the narration. The sudden, eerie shift is inexplicable in the context of Jack’s story, though it certainly echoes the idea of being out of one’s skin. The relationship between Haskell and his narrator is as slippery as Jack’s relationship to his own story. But while some rules of novel-writing are broken, most of them are not. The novel doesn’t stop making sense merely because Jack can’t always make sense of what’s happening to him. It is essentially a romantic comedy, if one of the strangest ever written, and it meanders its way to the necessary conclusion:
I was standing on the asphalt, looking at Jane and the palm trees lining the street behind her. I was inside my body, in with all the millions of habits I’d spent my life creating. Her invitation was an invitation to be in the world and to see the world in a new way, to see her in a new, and therefore unknown, way. Going to my car and driving off alone, that was already known, and I felt the lure of the already known.
He resists the lure, and decides to get into her car instead of his own. Sort of. Jack both goes home with Jane and stays on the sidewalk while she drives away: like a corny special effect in an old movie, he seems to be split in two, one version solid, the other a translucency that leaves his body:
Looking back through the window of the car…I can see the palm trees receding, and I see myself, a human figure, standing there, watching me getting farther and farther and farther away, until eventually I disappear.
Jack can only drive off into the sunset with Jane if he sheds a part of himself—a part so essential that it leads him to bifurcate his point of view. The fulfillment of one version of himself means nothing less than the abandonment of another. It is typical of Haskell’s art that such sadness infuses a happy ending—or vice versa.