Ken Bruen's American Skin and
Analyzing Ken Bruen’s novel American Skin, this essay argues that his crime novel illustrates the necessary tension of postmodern identity in the Western world; a tension between individual national and cultural identities and the universalizing force of globalization. The novel is set in Ireland and America and has characters from each country. However, rather than resolve the tension between native and acquired identities that the novel sets up, Bruen chooses to set his novel in the larger socio-cultural scene of the globalized, postmodern world. Consequently, the novel uproots identity from its national context and situates it in the heterogeneous flux of postmodern culture.
Bruen has been described as “the undisputed King (and probably creator) of Irish noir” (McDonald). He has been at the forefront of crime writing in Ireland, a relatively new genre in that country, which has been gathering momentum since the early 1990s. American Skin is the first of a new series set in the USA; the third series that Bruen has written. The White Trilogy is set in the United Kingdom and the Jack Taylor series in Galway, Ireland. In addition, he has written numerous stand-alone novels. Bruen has enjoyed significant critical success: he has received two Shamus awards and a Macavity Award amongst other accolades.
In the context of crime fiction, Bruen’s writing is influenced most obviously by the hard-boiled mode. This sub-genre of crime fiction has been identified as distinctively American for reasons that John Scaggs points out: the Californian setting of the early examples of this fiction, the American speech found in its dialogue, and its depiction of crimes that resonated with day-in-the-life of America in the early 1900s (57). This style can be observed in Bruen’s Jack Taylor series and also in American Skin. In terms of form, a melding of the cultural influences of Ireland and America is at work: the Jack Taylor series features snappy, hard-boiled dialogue and characterization from the American genre, which is transposed onto Irish characters and setting. 1. In American Skin, the two cultures combine again, this time with an Irish protagonist (to understand him, a dictionary of Irish slang is provided at the beginning of the novel) and an American setting. This cultural conglomeration is associated with postmodernism and described by Jean Francois Lyotard as eclecticism; “the degree zero of contemporary general culture” (76). This eclecticism is a feature of Bruen’s fiction, which blends an American form with an Irish context. Consequently, the form resonates with the thematic imperative of American Skin, which also explores overlapping identities.
On a personal level too, the USA has been an influential force on Bruen. Although his writing has still achieved relatively little critical attention or recognition in his native country, he has gained respect and admiration from the American crime-writing elite. Speaking about his relationship to the USA in an interview, Bruen explains:
On the other hand, he evinces an obvious loyalty to and love for, Ireland, which is occasionally manifested in a sense of loss deriving from changes in traditions and behaviors during the economic boom that country experienced in the 1990s. In an interview conducted with the author, he remarks:
The tensions and confluences between national identities (in the case of Bruen and his hero, Stephen, these are Irish and American) and the sometimes homogenizing nature of globalization, come to the fore in American Skin, displacing identity from the national context of the Jack Taylor series and forming a commentary on the workings of postmodernism and globalization. The modes of transmission of globalization are, in this novel, primarily film and music.
In American Skin, Stephen Blake, with his partners in crime Tony (his friend), Stapleton (an ex-IRA member), and Siobhan (his accountant girlfriend), organizes a bank heist in Ireland. Tony gets killed in the raid, Stephen leaves for America, and Siobhan stays in Ireland to handle the cash, planning to follow Stephen later. Concurrently, the novel follows Dade in America, a cruel, violent, and psychologically disturbed criminal, who eventually tries to kill Stephen.
The novel bears the same title as a song released by Bruce Springsteen in 2000; a protest song concerning an incident between the New York Police Department and an immigrant, Amadou Diallo, in 1999. The alternate title of Springsteen’s song is “41 shots,” a refrain that rings throughout, representing the forty-one bullets fired by four police offers that killed Diallo. The police believed that the African immigrant was reaching for a gun, but he was reaching for a wallet. When the case came to court the following year, all four police officers were acquitted of charges. In the chorus, Springsteen emphasizes the solidarity of Diallo with other Americans, rather than his difference from them, by articulating his identity as American (his American skin) rather than ethnic:
Is it a gun, is it a knife
Similarly, Bruen highlights the similarities between the Irish and Americans in this novel, blurring national differences to emphasize commonality. In doing so, he goes a step further than Springsteen, who is still operating within national identity, to comment on the homogenization of national identities in the postmodern, Western world. Springsteen even drew on himself the ire of Mayor Giuliani of New York, who publicly condemned the song, and media coverage of Springsteen’s controversial song took up many column inches. 3. The title of the novel, when taken in the context of Springsteen’s song, uncovers a pivotal theme of the book: the power of the media, and specifically, its power to set up and unravel cultural differences.
The song’s sentiments echo strongly with the conclusion of the book, when Stephen is finally killed, shortly after his much-practiced American accent, which he needs to conceal his identity, finally begins to sound authentic. He is not shot because he is the “Irish guy” who criminals are hunting for: his nationality, which he is obsessed with disguising, makes no difference to his ultimate fate. Nationalism, or the promotion of cultural ethnicity, can be interpreted as a direct response to globalization; as a resistance to it, and thereby a product of it. Perhaps alluding to Lyotard’s analysis that postmodernism brings with it the end of grand narratives, Jean Baudrillard espouses this perspective on contemporary culture. He claims that against the “homogenizing, dissolving power” of globalization: “we see heterogenous forces rising up everywhere – not merely different but antagonistic” (Spirit of Terrorism 94). Indeed, he even sees terrorism as a symptom of globalization, arguing that “the idea of extirpating it as an objective evil is a total illusion since…it is the verdict this society passes on itself, its self-condemnation” (Spirit of Terrorism 105). Echoing Baudrillard’s comments on the terrorized postmodern world, in which blame is ambiguously located, in this novel there is no clear perpetrator or victim, and tellingly, an absence of any detective. Perhaps the traditional hard-boiled detective has an unflinching moral code and would be out of place in this amoral universe of postmodernity. Indeed, Robert B. Schwarz argues that the absence of justice is a feature of contemporary American crime novels: “the paucity of justice in these landscapes encourages the emergence of the vigilante” (4). Crimes are committed – a robbery and later, a murder, but there is more focus on the personal journey of the central character, his relationships with friends and romances with women. So, perhaps this novel could be described as noir, in that the individual’s social and mental world is more important than the crimes themselves. However, both the crimes and the personal relationships are marginal compared to the sustained contemplation on the fluidity of identity, so that the colliding forces are not criminality and law, or the self and society, but globalization and its self-perpetuating resistances. Bruen subverts the tropes of the crime genre to pursue a reflection on, and critique of, global media culture. At the center of this novel is the idea that identity is fluid, that in the postmodern, global world, we are all ciphers. This is why Blake’s mastery of the American accent is rendered irrelevant and perhaps why Bruen does not find it necessary to choose between American and Irish identities. In Fiction, Crime and Empire: Clues to Modernity and Postmodernism, Jon Thompson makes a related argument to the one proposed here. He states that “crime fiction is not escapist but hermeneutic: it explores what it means to be caught up in the maelstrom of modernity” (8). Similarly, I argue that Bruen’s American Skin offers the reader a hermeneutic account of postmodernism. Thompson does deal with postmodernism in the last chapter of his book, but perceives problems with Baudrillardian postmodernism. His assessment of postmodernism is unfolded specifically in relation to espionage fiction, and so is not wholly relevant to Bruen’s generically ambiguous American Skin. However, he does raise some interesting points about postmodern theory which are worth recounting. He maintains, in agreement with my assessment of Bruen’s novel, that nation is not a primary concern in the fiction he has analyzed. But, contrary to Thompson’s views on espionage fiction, Bruen does not propose that the “system of social relations” (152) and its effect on the individual is either threatening or determining. On the contrary, the escape from definition by one’s nation is generally seen to be liberating. Thompson claims, contradicting Baudrillard’s view of postmodernism, that espionage fiction deals with “‘real’ history and not simulacra” (159). Bruen’s novel, on the other hand, is much closer to Baudrillard in his problematization of anything being objectively “real,” which is evident in Stephen’s struggle to acquire an American persona. In the end, the persona, the simulacrum, becomes indistinguishable from the real. It is this quintessentially postmodern undecidability between identities, real and imagined, given and chosen, that characterizes the individual’s relationship with society in American Skin.
To readers of Bruen, his social commentary will not come as a surprise, because his novels in the Jack Taylor series are saturated with observations on contemporary mores and behaviors. His initial forays into crime fiction were inspired by his experiences with police forces around the world, which make the titular polysemy of this novel and its allusions to the American police force particularly appropriate. Bruen elaborates on his critique of law enforcers and the broader social critique of his novels as follows:
Bruen’s critique of the police to date has had a nationalistic tenor, with his police forces situated in specific countries and cultural contexts: Ireland in the Jack Taylor series and Great Britain in the Brant books. Nationalism could, and has, been regarded as one possible mode of resistance to globalization. However, in Bruen’s novel, nationalism is only another part of globalization, as evidenced by the characters of Dade and Stapleton.
In American Skin, it is unclear whether or not Dade has actually served in the American army, but the reader is told that he lies about a scar he has obtained, which was supposedly acquired in service. The wound was actually inflicted by a prostitute with a broken bottle, whom Dade had refused to pay: “He was proud of it now, told folk it happened in the first Desert Storm, a raghead had tried to take him out” (Bruen 2). For Dade, American nationalism and serving one’s country, is regarded as justifying racial hatred and violence but crucially, the story is false – it never happened – suggesting the opaque nature of nationalism in the postmodern world. It is just another identity that can be chosen or discarded.
In the Irish side of the story, Stapleton’s republicanism is depicted as being only a short step from the outright falsity of Dade’s nationalistic passion. Stapleton was involved firstly with the Official IRA and when they split he joined the Provisional IRA. Unhappy with their acquiescence to the peace process, he joins the fictitious republican paramilitary group, the Patriots, which represent “the newest most ferocious offshoot” (Bruen 101) of the republican paramilitaries. Stapleton keeps a piece of a blanket, which was used in the “dirty protest” of Long Kesh prison like a relic, calling it “a piece of living history” (Bruen 106).
Yet, despite how forcefully Stapleton believes in the authenticity of his cause, to the extent of carrying a piece of physical evidence from one of republicanism’s most iconic scenes, he is unable to root his ideology, and consequently himself, in the geographical location of the Republic of Ireland. This is because his ideology has already been kidnapped by global media. The reader is told that “all the freedom fighters were video literate, not by choice but from enforced confinement, in Long Kesh or safe houses. ‘Nam movies were hugely popular, and of course, Michael Collins, In the Name of the Father, Harry’s Game” (Bruen 102). Stapleton is disgusted with the “starrry-eyed youngsters” (Bruen 103) from Belfast who wore “that sheen of patriotism they’d acquired more from Hollywood movies than from Irish history” (Bruen 104). Although for Stapleton republicanism in reality is the very opposite of its glamorous Hollywood representation, ironically, for his counterparts, their micro-narrative of history becomes merged with its media version by the carrying out of paramilitary activities that cause them to be imprisoned or to seek refuge. Republicanism may have begun as a resistance to the hegemonic power of colonizing Great Britain, but its greatest enemy is seen to be the hegemonic power of global media. Here, as in so many places in the novel, the politics of race and nation are fought out not in or between states, but between social groups and the centripetal force of globalization. According to Lyotard, it is access to information that will determine the distribution of power in the postmodern world because “the old poles of attraction represented by nation-states, parties, professions, institutions, and historical traditions are losing their attraction. And it does not look as though they will be replaced” (14). In terms of systems, the internet and, as Stapleton discovers, the media, are the most powerful channels for the new powerbrokers.
One of the modalities of media culture is music, and the importance of music is foregrounded in the text: for example, Dade is obsessed with the music of Tammy Wynette, and one of the chapters is entitled “DIVORCE,” the name of one of her songs. More interestingly though, Dade, an American, is captivated by the music of the Irish group The Pogues, whom he began listening to while in prison; so much so that he is even inspired to go out and buy a Claddagh ring, with its traditional Celtic design. The Pogues are notable for their evocation of emigrant life in America and Great Britain, in songs like “Fairytale of New York” and “Rainy Night in Soho”; songs that suggest the nostalgia, loneliness, and hardship of exile. In the latter, the song tells of an Irishman who bumps into a woman from home in Soho, London. They take comfort in each other and in their memories of the friends they shared as children:
I took shelter from a shower
That Dade would relate to these songs may seem unusual as an American who has not, as far as we know, left his country for any significant length of time. However, the emigrant wistfulness for home may be a universal symbol of postmodern homelessless and rootlessness that music, in its current modes of consumption, exemplifies. One of Jameson’s key ideas about postmodernity is that it has instigated a focus on space as opposed to the modernist obsession with time. In pre-modernity, the only music that could be heard was played live. With the advent of recording technology, the spatialization of music began to change – music could be played in a different space from that which it was recorded, but this space was still static and unmoving: people would have to go to a record-player to listen – the record player itself was still.
Now, the term “music center” is going out of use because music has effectively been de-centered. With walkmans, Discmans, mini-disc players, and MP3 players, the music moves with the listener and can be a completely individual experience, heard only by the listener through his or her earphones. Jameson states that in the postmodern period “you no longer offer a musical object for contemplation and gustation; you wire up the context and make space musical around the consumer” (299-300). It is no surprise then that Dade can identify so readily with the music of Shane McGowan – there is no need for him to be aware of the social, geographical, or musical context of the songs because he creates his own spatial and musical context when he listens to them. Correspondingly, Stephen’s knowledge of America is largely based on his affinity with American music. Distancing himself from the Irish showband renaissance, at the gigs of which “young people wore suits and the women, what my mother used to call frocks” (Bruen 28), Stephen’s list of musical favorites is distinctively American: Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Tom Russell, Gretchen Peters, and The Beach Boys (Bruen 29). (Ironically, the showbands to which he refers disparagingly are also inspired by American rock and pop, specializing in covers of artists like Elvis, The Beach Boys, and Buddy Holly.) When a criminal boss, Juan, shows off his gun to Stephen, he is reminded of “the guy in the Johnny Cash song about a guy going round taking names” (Bruen 161). The song is “The Man Comes Around” from the American IV album. Immediately afterwards, he and Juan arrive at Clinton Street and Stephen thinks “another song, Leonard Cohen, another heartbeart”; the song being “Famous Blue Raincoat” in which the street is mentioned. Music, along with telecommunications, facilitates the floating subjects of postmodernity; no longer, as Lyotard has pointed out, grounded by nation, politics, or social traditions. In Stephen’s case, his identification with the music allows him to actively resist interpellation into traditional Irish identity and to situate himself in another country and culture. In fact, Stephen’s American musical “skin” has a corollary in the music technology that enables it, as skins are now available to change the appearance of one’s iPod. The impact that this portable music technology makes on personal identity neatly, if somewhat exaggeratedly, summarized by the title of a recent book on the subject: Dylan Jones’ IPod, Therefore I Am. Music has lost its local connection and is now as free-floating as the concept of national identity, which is similarly fluid, personal, and chosen in Bruen’s American Skin.
If individual identity is no longer determined by race, nation, or religion, then it is no surprise that the projected personas of both Stephen and Dade are deliberately false: because they can choose how they will present themselves to the world much more freely than before. We see this with Dade’s character: he is presented as a force of evil and his actions appear to be unmotivated by personal, political or ideological self-justification. No reasons are given for Dade’s psychosis save that “He was the Great White shark of urban malaise” (Bruen 15). Beginning by killing small animals as a child, visits to a doctor intended to pinpoint the source of his violence were unsuccessful. With no obvious structuring forces on his identity, he chooses how he will be perceived by others. The reader is told that at fifteen, on a fishing excursion with his father, he murders him by drowning: “He’d mastered the art of mimicry and knew how to fake grief, so to all, he appeared inconsolable” (Bruen 17). It is only when Dade falls in love for the first time that his mask begins to slip (Bruen 246), perhaps because of the transformative nature of the relation to the other – a relation that is precluded when it is impossible to respond to the other, as is the case with the media, which will be discussed below.
Stephen too takes on a fake identity when he arrives in the States, although initially, his persona is far less successful than Dade’s. Even before he leaves for America, he begins practicing his accent and idiolect: “I poured the lemonade, made a mental note to call it ‘pop’, get into American mode” (Bruen 10). On the plane, a nun who sits beside him is his first guinea pig. He tries to convince her that he is American, but his plans are foiled when she wakes him up to tell him that they’ve landed and remarks mischievously that when he was talking in his sleep “you had such a strong Irish accent, isn’t that the quarest thing?” (Bruen 44).
Throughout the novel, Stephen keeps trying to perfect his accent, only to have his nationality comically discovered. It is when he finds out that Siobhan has been killed and will not be joining him at the end that his chosen identity finally becomes convincing. Speeding down the highway and embracing the ferocious, vengeful anger of grief, his actions mirror those of Dade at the beginning of the novel. Dade was chasing Karen, a woman who had broken up with him, with the intention of murdering her. The description of Stephen echoes that of Dade, emphasizing the complete re-creation of his identity: “The Browning was in the glove compartment, I reached, took it out, understood how guys ‘go postal’, why they climbed a tower and began open season. My skin was burning, my American skin?” (Bruen 259). The authentic sound of Stephen’s accent and the ability to enact his chosen identity saves him from death when Dade chases after him. Another Irishman, the republican Stapleton, is mistaken for him and killed instead.
The personas of Dade and Stephen are second level simulacra in Baudrillard’s terms – defined as simulacra which mask and pervert a basic reality (Selected Writings 173). The reader knows the “given” identity of these characters, American and Irish respectively, but both characters are able to disguise this and choose their own. The films about Irish nationalism that Stapleton refers to could be considered as this sort of simulacrum as well. They are perverted versions of events that actually took place. Speaking of simulacra, Baudrillard comments on the “murderous capacity of images; murderers of the real; murderers of their own model” (Selected Writings 173). The Second Life website is an example of such a simulacrum that has murdered the real. By registering on this website, individuals can take part in virtual lives – getting married, having children, choosing what their virtual personalities will do, where they will go, and what jobs they will have. There are “murderous” simulacra because there was no real life equivalent to begin with – no society of which this is a representation. This is why Baudrillard states that simulation heralds “the death sentence of every reference” (Selected Writings 173). Ken Bruen’s American Skin, a novel that is everywhere concerned with postmodern identity, describes how the distinction between the real world and the illusory world is being murdered by globalized media and telecommunications, with virtual realities, chosen personas and increasingly personalized identities becoming removed from social, national, or political contexts.
Baudrillard analyzes the impact of the media on the modern Western world and its modes of social relation in a manner pertinent to Bruen’s novel which discusses postmodern media in the form of film and music. From Baudrillard’s point of view, the relationship between the media and masses is neither positive nor negative because it is a non-relationship. When we undertake such an analysis, it is necessary that “an operational system which is statistical, information-based, and simulational [the media] is projected onto a traditional values system, onto a system of representation, will, and opinion…there is no relationship between a system of meaning and a system of simulation” (Selected Writings 212). The two are in an asymptotic relation. He argues that we are not even alienated as a result of the media because for that to happen there would have to be an other from which to be alienated: the media and the masses cannot be positioned in a self-other relationship because they are incomparable – one is real and one is simulated. There is no scene of the other: instead the social becomes obsessed with itself in the simulated mirror (the media) of the mirror (of the self), becoming “its own vice, its own perversion” (Selected Writings 213).
In this regard, my analysis of American Skin is in opposition to Matthew C. Strecher’s view of another postmodern crime writer concerned with identity in the postmodern world, Murakami Haruki. The two writers emerged from similar cultural contexts. Murakami’s early writings are set in the “bubble” growth period of Japan from 1970 to 1979, when interest in politics was diminishing and consumerism growing. Similarly, Bruen’s early novels emerge from the context of the Irish “Celtic Tiger” economy, during which similar trends can be observed. There is a crucial difference however. According to Strecher, in Murakami’s novels, “the concept of identity runs counter to the dominant social structure of post-1970 Japan, what he refers to as the 'system' in which contemporary Japanese live” (280). In Bruen’s case, the “system,” and the one he is concerned with is postmodern media culture, is ultimately not a threat to authentic identity. Instead, for some characters at least, it facilitates freedom of identity, which can be abstracted from politics and nationalism, and created at an individual level. A person’s “skin,” the outer layer which hints at psychic identity, can, like the skins of an iPod, be changed at will. Identity is no longer fully determined by external forces, but is, to a degree, self-determining.
It may be possible to take this relationship between simulations and identities which the novel explores and apply it to the novel itself, which at times appears like a simulated mirror of crime fiction. There are many lawbreakers in this book, but no investigating detective or PI; there are crimes committed but no one is punished; there are criminals, but they act like chameleons, creating simulated personas to disguise themselves; perhaps most notably, nothing is solved and a moral compass of any sort is absent. Perhaps it could be suggested then that Bruen’s American Skin, as well as exploring the effect of media simulations on identity in the postmodern world, is itself a simulation of the traditional crime novel: a literary illusion, mirroring in form the simulated realities of postmodernity with which it is concerned.
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