Debut novel marks shame with extra shadows
San Diego-based writer, poet and essayist Marisa Crane is out with their debut novel, "I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself." Book Riot named it one of their top indie queer book picks for the season, and among the critical acclaim is a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
The novel takes place in a dystopian, future America where surveillance, public shaming and marking criminals have become the norm.
In "I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself," Crane has built a world where the government, known as the Department of Balance, assigns criminals and wrongdoers an extra shadow. When you've hurt someone, you become a "Shadester," as they're known in the book.
The shadow serves multiple purposes.
"First of all, it's supposed to basically shame the person who did the wrong thing. It kind of follows them around forever. They can't ever forget about their crime," Crane said. "It's really hard to heal and grow and move on and whatnot when this sort of actual, literal shadow is following you around, reminding you of what you've done. Then it also is this mark or warning for other people in society."
Additionally, "Shadesters" have restrictions on their rights in society. They can only grocery shop on certain days and are denied fresh food. Health care and housing are also limited for those with extra shadows.
The book's protagonist, Kris, was previously given an extra shadow after a mysterious situation in the past. The book begins as Kris witnesses the birth of her daughter and the death of her wife, Beau, during childbirth — and on top of that, another thing to grieve:
"The kid is born with two shadows. You better believe I head straight down to the Department of Balance office to appeal their decision. It isn't right, giving an extra shadow to a baby. It's not like she killed you on purpose, Beau. She's a newborn baby, for fuck's sake. She's basically a more sophisticated potato."From "I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself" by Marisa Crane, page 1.
The novel unfolds as "the kid" grows up, and is structured as a sort of missive to Beau, with occasional references to her in the second person — though Beau's stronghold on the narrative loosens as the story progresses and Kris navigates through grief and healing.
Crane previously worked in the public school system as a behavioral health worker, where they saw in action the ways rehabilitation, shame, behavior and justice failed or helped young people.
Before her shadow, Kris also worked in the school system. After her shadow assignment, she was relegated to working from home in telemarketing and is charmingly successful at hawking self-help "mindcasts."
Years ago, Crane wrote a short poem that they posted on social media: "If the shadows of everyone you've ever hurt followed you around day in and day out, would you still be so reckless with other people's hearts."
"And I had written it sort of to shame myself. I was carrying around a lot of guilt and shame about hurting people in my life and I very falsely believed that shaming myself would actually make me behave better when I think we all know that that isn't really useful," Crane said.
The society in which Kris and her daughter live was inspired, in part, by the early part of the Trump administration.
"It would be ridiculous to claim that the president in my book doesn't at least have a little bit of an influence as far as Trump is concerned. This president in the book is a fascist, but he also relies on a lot of rhetoric and scapegoats and just getting people riled up in the way that Trump does," Crane said. "So I think, yeah, he has a lot of similarities in the way in which he gets people to blame others and buy into certain narratives. But at the same time, I didn't want this president to be so 'of that time,' and I didn't want him to be a fully realized character."
For Crane, what was more important than a villain was the way the leadership's decisions and policies impacted the individuals.
Kris and her daughter build community with a small but trustworthy group of close friends and family. Crane's handling of parenthood, grief and survival — as well as love and intimacy — offers a disruptive and hopeful antidote to the dystopia around the characters. For all the fear, hate and shame on the pages, at the heart of the book is the redemptive, healing power of love and chosen family.
Crane will discuss "I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself" at The Book Catapult at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.