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Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh by Jay Lake

Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh

Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh by Jay Lake (Prime Books, 2013) is a novella in a limited edition of 1,000 hardback copies which explores a human body both figuratively and literally. Ostensibly this is about Markus Selvage and his lover Danni as they make decisions about themselves as individuals and as a pair. At every point in their lives, there are limits on what they are prepared to do. The questions, of course, are under what circumstances they are willing to break through those limits and what the results will be.

As a context for understanding this work, I need to remind readers that Jay Lake has cancer. In many cases this is a disease that strikes without fault on the part of the victim. It just happens. Consequently, he’s a dead man walking. The chemotherapy has recently produced a period of stability, adding another six months to his life expectancy. This is not without its costs, depression being one of them. No matter how much a man in this position may aim for stoicism, living from day to day can’t prevent him from wondering when the cancer will resume its progress. He may take some satisfaction from having delayed the inevitable and to having a not unpainful month or so in remission. But when you have no sense of walking into the future, it’s difficult to avoid considering the fallibility of the body and the inevitability of death. Not that I’m suggesting this novella is explicitly autobiographical. But it does draw on the author’s preoccupations and fears, offering him and us a chance to assess the relationship between the intellect and the physical body, and to muse on the way in which it can sometimes be convenient to forget some aspects of our life when memories would be too painful.

Jay Lake staying strong in the face of adversity

Jay Lake staying strong in the face of adversity

So the story of Markus Selvage is divided into discontinuous narrative threads. At one moment, we are with him as he nears death, considering the nature of his body, travelling into the highways and byways of the blood circulation system, and visiting essential organs like the liver to consider whether his lifestyle may have weakened it. Then we might voyage back with him to his childhood, or spend time with Danni. As a child, there are signs of innocence. He seems to misunderstand the relationship he’s supposed to have with his erratic mother. As a man in a partnership, he’s also not entirely sure who he is. His solution is to wait for Danni to expose him to new experiences, to enable him to find facets to his personality he never knew existed. Since she’s a Goth and somewhat extreme, this quite quickly takes him into a strange landscape.

Indeed, this novella is a work of extremes. The prose is, at times, achingly beautiful and tending to the poetic. Yet the content is sometimes remarkably explicit and will not be to everyone’s taste. It would not be unfair to identify a dissonance in the use of the language to describe somewhat perverse activity. However, when viewed in context, it’s perhaps a direction to be expected. If the body is not quite what the “owner” wants, the question would always be why it should not be modified. This story does not, you understand, involve the usual choreography of invasive or merely cosmetic surgery by licensed professionals. Anyone can pick up a knife and make experimental cuts. After several cuts, the self-modifier becomes increasingly confident and the cuts more radical. Characterising the body as a form of machine, the owner tinkers with it, changing parts, adding others. After a while, there can be pieces of metal where previously there was flesh, or there can merely be less flesh. The advantage is the metal parts cannot know fear or pain. All they can do is leak the machine oil, i.e. blood, from the surrounding flesh.

In the end, the book is unsettling. The author as artist has the power to puncture the wall of indifference we erect around ourselves as a defence against caring for or about other people. Perhaps Markus Selvage is betrayed and led into undermining his body’s strength by trying to make an impossible transformation. Or perhaps his body is inherently weak and he can only survive by adding incorruptible parts to his body. Either way, there’s an inevitable result. Flesh and metal cannot fuse into a single being. No matter what a mind may tell itself, unsterilised piercing and installations induce a source of corruption. The metal rusts and pollutes the flesh. Then he’s not capable of being salvaged. He’s only fit for being thrown on to the scrapheap of life.

So Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh is a kind of existential horror story. It has great power. I’m not sure it’s in any way entertaining, but it certainly provokes thought and, in these superficial times, that’s high praise.

For reviews of other books by Jay Lake, see:
Endurance
Green
Kalimpura
The Sky That Wraps.
Jay Lake and Nick Gevers edited Other Earths.

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  1. November 1, 2013 at 6:58 pm

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