“Skin Like Porcelain Death” by Daniel José Older
The problem with writing a review of Daniel José Older’s “Skin Like Porcelain Death” is that the voice in this story is so strong, so good, so wise and so funny, I don’t really much care what the story is about. It’s like, just keep talking DJO, I’m right there with you.
Maybe I’m exaggerating. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the read if the story had really sucked, and it didn’t, but on the other hand, the basic plot was not particularly original or interesting: Some dried up, heartless, evil old woman is luring (or using other women to lure) men in through their “wiles” and then stealing their souls (and putting them in porcelain dolls.) How is she able to do this? Why does this make her feel less lonely? Don’t know. Don’t care. We’ve seen this trope and we’re ready to accept it at face value. It doesn’t bother me in part because the way the story is packaged makes it feel the opposite of old and stale, and in part because the stealing of souls thing is not what this story is really about anyway. What it’s really about (in my opinion) is family, friends, community and continuity. And being of use, whatever you have to bring. In this case, the main character, Carlos, is half dead and half alive, which poses some challenges but also has some advantages in being able to help with a supernatural-type problem. This is probably why Carlos’s friend Victor asks him to help his teenaged cousin Jimmy, who’s in danger because Jimmy’s girlfriend is the soul-stealer’s granddaughter.
So what does it mean to be half dead and half alive? Some text from Older’s story might, if not explain this, explain why we’re ready buy whatever it is he’s selling:
“You’re dead, right, Carlos?”
I roll my eyes. We’ve half-stepped this conversation so many times and I’m tired of tiptoeing.
“I’m partly dead.”
“Right, whatever, you’re deadish.”
The difference means nothing to him and I have to remind myself it’s only ’cause he doesn’t know any fully dead people. I deal with their chilly, translucent asses all the time.
Or later in the text when Carlo’s friend and partner Riley, who is fully a ghost, mouths off to some impolite elderly spirit watching them:
“He’s either/or, abuelo, walk the eff along.” If nothing else, it’s good to have crude friends to stand up for you even when you don’t really need them to.
Yeah, it sure is.
I also love this story because of its New York City feel, like the descriptions of Marcus Garvey Park and of getting to Staten Island, where “… that damn ferry goes from occasional to barely-ever after midnight.” I admit that as a New Yorker who moved to Montréal some years ago, I can get kind of nostalgic, but only with accurate and unsentimental portrayals like Older’s. I also love the teenager dialogue, and how Older makes me feel a tenderness towards the six and a half foot kid who actually reminds me of someone in my own family.
There are also things that I didn’t like. Well, yeah, the old soul-stealing bitter old lady trope and the fact that the women in the story could have been more fully developed. At the same time, I did love the sensitivity of the main character and how the emotions of these guys are expressed in a succinct but touching way. My only other criticism is using American Girl dolls as imagery since they are so-not-porcelain. Still, I’m glad they were mentioned in the story because I have always had a pet peeve with those dolls — how they’re supposed to be multi-racial but all have the same features.
It’s clear that this story is part of a longer work. There is too much world-building that doesn’t get used much for it to be otherwise. Ordinarily this would bother me except that the story has a real and satisfying ending, and can therefore stand alone quite nicely. It is an ending that confirms the strength of this story as an expression of the connections between people, no matter how unusual or seemingly tenuous.