Yet another "masterpiece" I don't entirely get, SKIN was the third and most widely praised of Kathe Koja's grunge-era horror novels. As with the others, THE CIPHER and BAD BRAINS, SKIN is first and foremost a quintessential product of its time.
Back in 1993, as you may recall, body modification was all the rage among the Gen-X crowd, in the form of tattoos and piercings (tattoo removal, unsurprisingly, became a lucrative business in the ensuing years). SKIN exploits that subculture, and also the underground performance art scene in which it thrived.
It's there that scrap metal artist Tess finds her calling, together with Bibi, a dancer with a taste for extremes. Both characters are superbly rendered, three-dimensional personages, and their rocky yet oddly symbiotic relationship, marked by fights, lengthy break-ups and uncontrollable passion, feels very real.
I'm afraid I can't say the same for the novel's depiction of the early nineties art scene, or the performances Tess and Bibi create. We're asked to believe their act, involving Bibi cavorting amid robotic sculptures, becomes a huge hit, even though all their performances seem to go horribly wrong (for which no consequences ever come to pass). Worse, Tess and Bibiís act seems suspiciously similar to the real life robotic mayhem shows put on by Survival Research Laboratories, although it doesnít seem nearly as impressive.
Koja's vaguely William Burroughs-ian stream-of-consciousness prose style is surprisingly readable, and often yields up some impressive verbiage, but it just as often seems modulated to cover up the fact that not all the details have been concretely fleshed out. Examples of this include the construction of the mechanical sculptures that figure into Tess and Bibiís shows, which Tess accomplishes despite having no evident grounding in robotics, and also the shows themselves, which would have benefited from more straightforward descriptions.
Again, though, the characterizations are top notch, particularly that of Bibi, whose ultimate break from Tess causes her to go off the rails, and take her passion for body modification to horrific extremes. It all seems to be building toward a bloody climax that when it finally occurs is indeed bloody, though also curiously subdued and unremarkable. A death is involved, but as it's not the first it doesn't seem like that big a deal--and in keeping with the rest of the novel, the legal and/or financial consequences that would logically result from that death never materialize.