Kathe Koja
Skin Cover



Skin is on the Horror Writers' Association list of the "bests" of the genre, this despite it total lack of the supernatural or any traditional horror trappings. Koja's first novel, Cipher, involved the discovery of a sort of black hole in the storage area of a rundown apartment building and would seem a more likely candidate for the HWA's list. Locus, the sf and fantasy critical journal, lists Skin as an "associational horror" novel, a term I've read nowhere else but I think I get what they mean. The descent of Koja's characters from artistic dedication to obsession to psychosis is undeniably a horror story, even if there is not a werewolf, ghost or vampire in sight.

Tess Bajac is an artist who works with metal, picking up day jobs in body and welding shops so she can create her personal work at night. She does not expect to appeal to the corrupt gallery system and I am going to say up front that I find this kind of stance of the noble outsider tinged with ridiculousness. Koja depicts gallerists and their artists as posseurs and cop outs, but what is Tess really making? Her elaborate constructions with pretentious names sometimes in Latin sound like technical stunts far removed from the discourse of contemporary art. But Tess has no trouble finding a home for them in the underground culture of the early 1990's where Koja's novel takes place. The setting goes unnamed, but the author is from Detroit, and the bitter winters and sense of urban blight would fit that city. Tess finds admirers and eventually acolytes. She joins with a young woman named Bibi, first introduced as the girlfriend an innocuous young man who soon fades from the scene. Bibi recognizes in Tess's transformative works a reflection of her own own interests in transformation through dance, body piercing and scarification. Together with the machine shop zombies, young guys who like to blow things up, a performance group, The Surgeons, is formed. Their shows gain notoriety as personal relationships and the performances themselves spiral out of control. Some one dies, everything falls apart, and inexorable moves into darker and darker psychic spaces begin.

These first shows sound like performances by the San Francisco group Survival Research Laboratories. But Koja knows this and has characters discuss how the two groups differ. In her acknowledgements she mentions the two books distributed by Re:Search Publications, Modern Primitives and The Industrial Culture Handbook as invaluable resources. Those books laid out the philosophical positions behind the most extreme performance groups and the cult of body modification in whose milieu Koja places her book.

Skin becomes the love story of Tess and Bibi, who although they have a brief and intensely sexual affair, spend most of the book refusing to speak to one another. Tess ensconces herself in her alternately freezing and sweltering workshop, creating more and more intricately conceived pieces and teaching a small group of devoted followers. Bibi becomes part of the hardcore body modification scene, continuously altering herself through piercings, cuttings, and ultimately surgery. Koja's fevered and at times overripe prose gives the reader all this grime and illness in one lush package of disjointed scenes and intense encounters guaranteed to alienate many readers. Tess, delusional as she may be at times about her own situation, has a clear vision of what is happening to Bibi and what Bibi is doing to those around her. But Tess loves Bibi, and in forcing the reader to see the workings of that relationship, Koja creates a brilliant and tragic novel.