by Scott Heim
"'Yes,' Avalyn said. 'And it's okay. As hard as it is to believe, it's going to be okay'"
The entry below will openly analyse Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.
A lot of debut novels are the product of a master's thesis, it's not a particularly uncommon occurrence. The downside to these works, despite that many are very good, is that they often have in them the ticks and missteps of a young writer. Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim is one of those kinds of books.
This a book is concerned with sexual trauma: exploring the different avenues in which a mind comes to cope with it, but how ultimately rooted in each is simple denial of the truth. Neil and Brian both grapple with their past in significantly different ways, and to a far lesser extent, some of the supporting characters share in that as well. However, this is a difficult book to make a case for thematically without simply outlining the plot, and that thematic monotone is just one of the problems with the novel.
The great danger of writing a novel with multiple narrators is that you have to be assured that each of your narrators as equally interesting as the others. The other great danger is that if your narrative is one that converges, as is the case with Mysterious Skin, you have to be assured that the assembling parts are equally interesting. I'm unconvinced that Heim does this successfully.
The narrative is split between its two major characters, Neil and Brian, and I believe that the major problem here is that Heim manages to imbue a fascinating perversity to the sections concerning Neil that is aptly absent from Brian's sections, but to unsatisfying effect as there is nothing equally fascinating in his narrative line. You're forced to read Brian's sections with a certain apathy as they lack anything especially compelling, and are -- I believe-- leading to an obvious resolution. Sex will always trump people talking about aliens.
Heim is also very fond of similes. He shouldn't be. His have a tendency to be silly, contrived, and on occasion, unnecessary. Do we really need to know the toothpicks were like "tiny swords"? Also, why should the toothpicks be like tiny swords when they might as well be tiny sword toothpicks? There is exactly one simile in the entire novel I remember liking, something to the effect of "like the clouds had been dunked in grape juice"-- and, well, that's all.
Unnecessary components are a large part of the issues with this novel too. It goes far beyond similes, and well into major narrative points: some of which aren't even adequately resolved which furthers the problem. I, for one, liked Eric Preston as a narrator and was a little tiffed when he left the story without any indication of his romantic future but was the story component necessary at all? Why play it up if you're not going to resolve it? Sure it helped give him a character, but that's all and the disinterest in resolution speaks to its general and thematic unimportance.
Heim's novel is certainly readable: It's never especially boring, and the depths of perversity that he explores are fascinating and engaging, but the novel is weak in the knees and it's only a slight push away from collapse at times.
Up Next: E.M. Forster's Maurice