Marisa Crane’s debut novel, I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself, explores queer parenthood in a near-future dystopian America. In it, Kris is a new mother who is grieving the loss of her wife. She’s also a “Shadester,” a person who has been stripped of civil rights protections due to something she did in her past.
The novel is written in beautiful, vivid fragments that will leave a lump in your throat. Crane taps into their characters’ inner psyche with pitch perfect insight. There is a sense of very real realism in this very weird speculative work of fiction. I first read Crane’s book in August 2022 and I can say I have thought about it at least once a week. Exoskeletons will stay with readers long after the last page. It will haunt readers. It will change how readers think about parenthood, grief, and our country. It’s a must read for anyone looking for one of the best books of 2023.
I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself is out now. You can read an excerpt from the book below.
I watch a lot of reality TV in the days following your death, the kid alternating between guzzling down her bottle of hospital formula and sleeping in her rocking sleeper thing (I’ll admit, I don’t know its proper name). I wonder if this is what it feels like to work in the Department’s surveillance unit, although our lives are not filtered and dispensed by editors with a dramatic agenda—the contextual horror of it all!
I lick the salt off pretzels then feed the naked pretzels to Mischief while the people on TV bitch and moan and drink and hurt each other’s feelings. They lie, they cheat, they lose their jobs. It feels nice to feel sorry for people who are far better off than me.
It seems Mischief, for the first time, has discovered our new litter of one. She tiptoes up to the kid’s swinging contraption and wets the kid’s hand with her nose. She shakes her head a few times, wipes her face clean.
I focus on my own recent discoveries: broken egg yolks now make me cry, the kid’s crying makes me cry, the mail makes me cry—who gave businesses permission to print your name? It feels like time has slowed so dramatically that it has begun to move in reverse. My face, although pink and puffy, looks younger than it has in years, as if relieved that all that worrying had been justified all along.
Truth is, I’m terrified the Department will confiscate our baby if they suspect even the slightest hint of neglect, but that doesn’t stop me from dissociating for hours on the floor while the kid learns about her new home, the bassinet. Any floor will do—the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room, even the bathroom. I’m not interested in small answers to small questions, like will formula ruin her standardized test scores? (You were right, the parenting forums do have an agenda, Beau.) And will those ruined test scores condemn her to a lifetime of harassing her friends with pyramid scheme pitches? Those answers will hash themselves out in due time. What I’m interested in are the unanswerable questions—how can I manage to keep on living in a world without you, a world that hates both me and my family?
Before you, whenever I heard the word family, I pictured generations of strangers crowded in a living room, jockeying for position.
“Move over, I can’t see the tree.”
“Which presents are mine?”
“When can I go home?”
“This brandy has eggnog in it.”
“The holidays depress me.”
In middle school, my only queer friend taught me to use the word family when identifying a queer stranger in public. As I got older and gayer, I heard a lot of talk about chosen family, but I didn’t understand why something so beautiful had to be compared to family. Why couldn’t it just be its own good thing?
At your funeral, in your hometown three thousand miles away, everyone wears soccer jerseys and shotguns beers and passes the kid around like a hot potato.
“Stay strong,” people from your past say, gripping me by the shoulder while trying to avoid eye contact with my shadow.
But I don’t want to be strong, I want to be a time-traveler.
After your mom chokes her way through your eulogy, I pass out in the funeral home bathroom. She picks me up off the floor and holds a beer to my mouth.
“You know she would have insisted you finish your beer,” she says.
Before the kid was born, your mom was all, “Here’s your twentieth box of diapers,” and “You better make sure she calls me Nonna,” and “I can’t wait to hear her birth story.” She even mailed us a cheesy poem called “I’m the Mom of a Mom to Be.” Today, she keeps her distance from our baby, from me. Every time I try to hand her the kid, your mom has to run off to greet so-and-so or change the song that accompanies the slideshow of your life.
The birth story thing is an old habit of hers—every time she meets someone new, she asks them to share their birth story. I trust that she genuinely wants to know about everyone’s transition from womb to world, but I also suspect she’s dying to regale everyone with yours. You can see the ask me, ask me in her eyes.
You were four weeks early. Your mom didn’t make it to the hospital in time. She pulled over at a lookout spot on the side of the mountain, climbed into the passenger seat, and gave birth while a family took self-timed photos nearby, bunny-earing each other. She claims you arrived in three minutes flat, as if it were an Olympic qualifying race.
“Notice anything different?” I ask back at her cabin, your old house. I waltz with the kid around the kitchen so her shadows dance across your mother’s face while she sips her 7 and 7.
“You know I don’t judge,” she says, glancing at the Department camera in her kitchen.
“Okay,” I say, afraid of what will happen if the kid and I stop waltzing, afraid of what still moments will bring.
Your mom stares into her drink, running her finger around the circle of the glass. Her skin hangs loose around her jowls, like a bloodhound.
I want her to look up and smile at us. I want to know that, despite your death, we are still hers.
But she doesn’t look up. She stands from her stool, still examining the glass as if it contains your last words, then takes her drink to bed.
“There’s extra blankets in the hallway closet if you need them,” she shouts over her shoulder.
We sleep in your childhood bedroom. It looks like a teenaged you still lives here with her baseball mitt, cleats, shin guards, several soccer balls, and posters of athletes. Your dresser is crowded with framed photos of you and your mom, arms thrown carelessly around one another, as if you’d always have each other.
We haven’t had that much time together, we said. I want to be sixteen with you, we said. Do we really want to bring a child into this mess of a world? President Colestein was becoming more and more of a tyrant, his new shadow implementation shattering everyone’s hopes for recovery and rehabilitation. Maybe we wanted another person to join us while we watched the world burn.
We is the longest word I know.