Much like the toxic electricity of a power station, this simple epigraph hums over the whole unstable territory of Jordaan Mason’s debut novel, The Skin Team.
“As soon as sex enters into the book, with these questions of identity and its fluidity, it becomes easy to forget that they’re kids,” says Mason, who will launch the book at Glad Day Bookshop on June 15. “We don’t often want to talk about children experiencing those things.”
The Skin Team is a challenging, wildly experimental narrative of two boys and a girl battling an unnamed illness in a small town. The trio find strange and different ways to negotiate a lot of sexual energy and no real identities to speak of.
Constantly slipping between each distinct, if overlapping, viewpoint, the sometimes confusing narrative balances out through a more straightforward subplot, which follows several teams of boys playing a perverse game of tag in the woods.
Despite the sheer quantity of sex shared between the three adolescents, these scenes could hardly be called erotic. Instead, they’re mostly weird, awkward and uncomfortable.
“Children aren’t taught properly about what sex is. So it is this detached, strange bodily experience, this sloppy, confused exploration,” Mason says. “They don’t really have the language to describe what’s happening.”
A lack of language, or better yet, the essential dysfunction of language as a whole, becomes the storytelling lens for a psychedelic, haunting, genuinely queer experience of adolescence.
“People have really intense politics surrounding their identities, the way they’re named,” Mason explains. “I wanted to remove all of that to see what kind of sexuality exists without those names, to see what’s left.”
To this end, the central male voice at one point describes how “our top teeth grew into our bottom teeth and formed a mouth shield . . . The shield protected us from needing to say what we really wanted to. So we did this: exchanged the body instead of words. And then we would watch the window.”
Mason’s use of a triad character structure is also a crucial interruption of sexual or romantic norms.
“The number three is really powerful,” Mason says. “With how we are taught to think about relationships, it’s as though it’s just going to be you and someone else. That’s the acceptable model. But there’s always this other thing; all binaries exclude something else.“
This confusion or displacement that comes with the instability of identities is indeed at the core of Mason’s broader artistic practice. Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head, Mason’s 2009 album with his psych-folk band The Horse Museum, and his yet-unreleased film, I’m Really Scared When I Kill in My Dreams, deploys some of the same bestial and dreamlike motifs and allegories as The Skin Team. But they take on a more subtle, slightly eerier quality in the novel.