I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself

  • By Marisa Crane
  • Catapult
  • 352 pp.

This thought-provoking debut deftly balances humor and pathos.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself

“The kid is born with two shadows. You better believe I head straight down to the Department of Balance office to appeal their decision.”

With those opening lines, Marisa Crane launches us right into a parallel (or future?) America where crime is punished not with jail time but with the attachment of a second (or third or fourth) shadow, and the accompanying social and economic disadvantages that stem from “Shadester” status. The punishment is just one aspect of a repressive regime that engages in book censorship called “strategic stabilization” and intrusive government surveillance, echoing real-world debates over the balance between civil liberties and keeping citizens “safe.”

Pop Quiz:
Q: What crime could a baby have committed to be punished at birth?
A: Kill its mother.

That’s how the State sees it, at least. Rather than support the remaining family after the tragedy of maternal mortality, the Department of Balance slaps a shadow on the infant, condemning her to a lifetime of official scrutiny and societal judgment. Despite the mention of an appeal, we soon learn there’s no arguing with the all-powerful government.  

Kris, the narrator of I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, struggles to raise her new shadow-burdened baby while mourning her late wife, Beau. Even though queerness isn’t technically illegal, it’s viewed as suspect, as is any deviation from the all-American, cishet-able-bodied norm. The added complication: Kris is a Shadester herself. She became one shortly before Beau’s ill-fated pregnancy and is now stuck in a dead-end job selling mindcasts, scrounging for groceries (and paying more for them) after the NoShads have taken the fresh food, and living with the regime’s cameras — in her home — watching her every move.

Kris spirals, sinking into seclusion and alcohol abuse, struggling to love the baby her wife died delivering, constantly worried the Department will take the child away. Her support network turns upside down: silence from Beau’s mother, while her own estranged father tries to reconnect. What’s more, Kris can’t escape her hidden, pervasive guilt.

Pop Quiz:
Q: What did Kris do to earn her second shadow?
A: Crane reveals all in good time.

The novel follows the first nine years after Beau’s death, as Kris slowly crawls out of her grief and reconnects with the world. She finds kindness and solidarity in new friends, but as the Shadester parent of a Shadester child — and a lesbian who experiments with kink — she also discovers that closeness invites scrutiny. Any hint of defiance to the regime can endanger the people she loves, all of whom struggle to breathe freely in an authoritarian society.

The author doesn’t attempt to hide the parallel between her fictional world and the current state of human rights in America: “We spent countless evenings watching Shadester rights bounce around a courtroom like a beach ball, knowing in that dizzying, tingly way that they could be talking about you or me or both.” There’s something especially fitting about reading this in an era of Supreme Court precedents being overturned.

Pop Quiz:
Q: Okay, how does the book’s title figure in here?
A: It’s the narrator’s self-soothing mechanism: listing all the creatures with exoskeletons she can think of when she gets stressed.
Q: By the way, what’s with these Q&As?
A: They’re an homage to the novel’s creativity.

Crane has structured her narrative in some really interesting ways. It’s written in posthumous direct address, Kris talking to the deceased Beau, telling her what’s been happening since her death. The prose is modular, episodic, often koan-like. Blank lines between paragraphs slow the pacing to create a more contemplative reading experience. Yet Crane’s wry sense of humor shines even in darkness, like in this reflection on the relentlessness of grief and dependence:

“What’s today going to be like?” I ask the kid. “Like yesterday, except today?”

She is covered in snot, needing me.

Prose sections are interspersed with shopping lists, word finds, and quizzes, including this one:

Pop Quiz:
Q: What is the difference between nice and kind?
A: Only one is a result of fear.

Later, a word search asks the reader to locate “Freedom” and “Safety” in a grid of letters in which those words are nowhere to be found. The activity is followed by the ominous statement, “It feels like our time here is running out.”

Rather than chapters, the book is divided into three sections. Sections I and II are about equal length, corresponding roughly to the earliest days of grief, followed by Kris’ gradual opening up and reckoning with her sadness and guilt. Section III, far shorter, deals with transition. This is perhaps a byproduct of Crane’s flash-fiction chops; here, inference and imagery are the engine, and the ending hints at transformation without tying everything up in too neat a bow.

The risk of this slower, contemplative approach is that the first section teeters on the edge of wallowing in grief. But sections II and III, where Kris reenters the world and her daughter challenges the status quo, are worth the wait. The child, only “the kid” until the last section, is a rebel and an iconoclast with “the influential skills of a dictator and the organizational skills of a wedding planner. A terrifying combination.” Though my author brain wondered at times if she was a bit too precocious, my reader brain was all in for her rabble-rousing.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself contains multitudes: dry humor, vibrant characters, unapologetic queerness and eroticism, the political manipulation of safety and respectability, the push and pull of mother-daughter relationships, and the questioning of what one says (and doesn’t say) to those one loves most. It is, in sum, a book about guilt, grief, and forgiveness — the hard kind you have to give yourself.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University in 2019. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Booth, CRAFT Literary, and elsewhere. She's the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and three collections, Circe's Bicycle, Midnight at the Organporium, and Political AF: A Rage Collection.

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