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Sunday, 30 March 2014

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Mulder: They're here, aren't they?
Deep Throat: Mr. Mulder, they've been here for a long long time.

I should’ve read this book a long time ago. I knew of it but didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know what it was about and really that’s the best way to approach this book so, if you’re willing to trust me, then read no further; find yourself a copy and read it before you even think about seeing the film. (I’ve just watched the trailer and as much as I admire Scarlett Johansson, this looks as if Jonathan Glazer's loose adaptation has about as much in common with Faber’s book as I, Robot had with Asimov’s short stories.) If, however, you’ve already had the surprise spoiled—as happened to me by accident—this is no reason not to read the book. I can’t imagine many people have sat down to watch Planet of the Apes and not had a pretty good idea what they were in for even if it was nothing like the book; scriptwriters can occasionally improve on the source material.

The first I heard about the novel was when Canongate brought out its run of Canons with their minimal covers (the film tie-in reprint has just been published). The blurb intrigued me:

Isserley spends most of her time driving along empty, winding Highland roads in her red Toyota. She is interested in hitchhikers—so long as they are male, well-muscled and alone. But once she has coaxed them into her car, what she does to them is truly astonishing. Meeting Isserley is only the beginning of their journey, and a gateway to a new world.

Cutting across different genres, Under the Skin is a wildly inventive, bold and beautifully written book that launched Michel Faber's international career and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Book Award. And in Isserley, Faber created one of the most memorable and singular heroines of modern times.

but as I recall at the time I was spoiled for choice; I picked two others, The People of the Sea and Chronicle in Stone and pretty much forgot about Under the Skin. The next I heard of Faber was a television adaptation of his 2002 novel The Crimson Petal and the White which my wife and I watched but to be honest I wasn’t a huge fan and I’m glad the book never came my way; it would’ve been a chore to read. Looking at the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon of Under the Skin I see a lot of one-star reviews and a few of them state the reason was it wasn’t The Crimson Petal and the White and for those who loved that book I can see why Under the Skin might be a huge disappointment. All I can say is all credit to the man that he can pull off two such different books with aplomb because there are a lot of people who loved Under the Skin and I was one of them.

It’s not perfect. I know I say that a lot in reviews but if we only sought out perfect books we’d probably have them all read in a month and then what would we do? What it manages to be—despite the fact that it is derivative at times—is original. Some have likened this book to Animal Farm whilst others have objected strongly to the comparison but I can see both sides of the coin: just as Animal Farm is not a fairy tale, Under the Skin is not a science fiction novel but like Animal Farm it uses one story to tell another. Faber could’ve written a Scottish My Year of Meats to make his point with a lot less subtlety. Instead he wrote Under the Skin.

For me the book is fundamentally about understanding or the lack of and it’s not a new one. Blacks, gays, Jews, women, the mentally disabled: all these have (and continue to be) discriminated against as not fully human. I remember reading something in Clare Dudman’s 98 Reasons for Being how it was once believed that the mad couldn’t feel the cold and workers in asylums would think nothing of dumping their charges into ice-cold baths completely insensitive to their protestations. There are those who also believe that lobsters don’t feel anything when boiled alive despite the evidence to the contrary.

RestaurantAtTheEndOfTheUniverseThere’s a scene in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe where the diners are introduced (literally!) to the Dish of the Day:

"Good evening," it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, "I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?" It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them. […] "Something off the shoulder perhaps?" suggested the animal, "Braised in a white wine sauce?"

How would we feel if our food was sentient and could communicate directly with us? Cannibals appear to have no problems with this but the rest of us do. The idea of eating another human being is completely alien to us which is why in science fiction one of the things aliens do is eat people. And mostly we view this literally but science fiction wasn’t always so literal. Look at what was produced in the fifties, all those Cold War stories. Just like fairy stories filled with anthropomorphic animals, science fiction novels packed with bug-eyed monsters are the perfect medium for getting us to look at things with fresh eyes. Which is why the cute variety of aliens are also effective, like Mork or ALF or Uncle Martin (from My Favourite Martian), all of whom see themselves as superior (at the very least technologically) to the humans they find themselves living amongst.

In science fiction humans come from Earth. Aliens sometimes call them Earthlings just as we might call the indigenous population of Mars Martians but what would the Martians call themselves? Would they regard themselves as humans and the inhabitants of Earth as aliens? What exactly does it mean to be human? Isserley certainly regards herself as human. She looks human, a short human female of slight build with thin arms and disproportionately-large breasts, breasts certainly large enough to distract the attention of the exclusively male hitchhikers she routinely stops for along the A90; if they looked a little closer at her they might start to think that maybe she wasn’t quite as perfect as she first appeared:

He could not see her face when she was looking ahead, which was a pity. It had been very remarkable. She wore the thickest corrective lenses he had ever seen. In Germany, he doubted that a person with such severe visual impairment would be approved for a driver’s licence. Her posture was, in his opinion, suggestive of some spinal problem. Her hands were large and yet unusually narrow. The skin on the edge of her hand, along her pinkie and down to the wrist, had a horny smoothness that was texturally quite different from the rest, suggesting scar tissue following surgery. Her breasts were perfect, flawless; perhaps they, too, were the product of surgery.

She was turning towards him now. Mouth-breathing, as if her perfectly sculpted little nose had indeed been sculpted by a plastic surgeon and had proved to be too small for her needs. Her magnified eyes were a little bloodshot with tiredness, but startlingly beautiful, in his opinion. The irises were hazel and green, glowing like … like illuminated microscope slides of some exotic bacterial culture.


She was tough, that was for sure. Probably had been through hell, growing up funny-looking in one of those little seaboard villages. Balintore. Hilton. Rockfield. No, not Rockfield. He knew every single person in Rockfield.

How old was she? Eighteen, maybe. Her hands were forty. She drove like she was pulling a wonky trailer-load of hay over a narrow bridge. Sat like she had a rod up her arse. Any shorter and she’d need a couple of pillows on the seat. Maybe he’d suggest that to her—maybe she’d bite his head off if he did.

Daybreakers_ver2In science fiction terms the core of Under the Skin has been done before: V, Quatermass (the 1979 serial), Torchwood: Children of Earth, Daybreakers—humans as product. Of course if you look at these four examples they’re all different and so is Under the Skin. To say more would spoil the book but we’re faced here with us being the aliens: virtually the whole book is written from the perspective of the … well, we never find out what they call themselves other than ‘human’ because, as far as they’re concerned, they’re the humans; they call the indigenous population vodsels.

In the fifties all aliens are evil and out to destroy us. Well, apart from maybe Klaatu. Later on the notion of aliens with principles started to find an audience and that’s what we have here. More than any other of her kind Isserley has the most direct contact with the vodsels; she has to interact with them, buy petrol from them, offer them lifts and make conversation with them because not every hitchhiker is suitable for their purposes. She’s like a serial killer—in fact for a while one might be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what she is but that’s Faber doing his best to misdirect his readership in the early pages of the book—she’s very selective and often will abandon the men at the agreed upon drop-off point rather than risk doing anything that might draw the authorities’ attention to her true purpose.

She spends hours and hours driving every day:

Isserley had been doing this for years. Scarcely a day went by when she didn’t drive her battered red Toyota Corolla to the A9 and start cruising. Even when she’d had a run of successful encounters and her self-esteem was high, she’d worry that the last hitcher she’d picked up might prove, with hindsight, to be her last truly satisfactory one: perhaps no-one in the future would measure up.

In truth, there was for Isserley an addictive thrill about the challenge. She could have some magnificent brute sitting in her car, right next to her, knowing for sure that he was coming home with her, and she could already be thinking ahead to the next one. Even while she was admiring him, following the curves of his brawny shoulders or the swell of his chest under his T-shirt, savouring the thought of how superb he’d be once he was naked, she would keep one eye on the roadside, just in case an even better prospect was beckoning to her out there.


She tried to project herself forward in time, visualizing herself already parked somewhere with a hunky young hitch-hiker sitting next to her; she imagined herself breathing heavily against him as she smoothed his hair and grasped him round the waist to ease him into position.

Maybe it’s all about sex. She like a praying mantis. (Did you catch the ‘biting his head off’ reference?) Maybe that’s why she’s only interested in the males—she’s ‘cruising’ (definite double-meaning there) and imagining men naked—and this wouldn’t be the first science fiction story where the aliens have come to earth to have sex with us although it’s usually the males who want our women (e.g. Mars Needs Women).

Of course Faber drip-feeds us clues and within a couple of chapters you’ll be dismissing some of your early ideas. And by the time you’re a third way through the book you’ll definitely know what’s what. So what’re we in store for in the rest of the book? Are the police going to close in? Is some secret government alien hunter going to appear and go all Schwarzenegger on them? Actually, no. What happens is the boss’s son, Amlis Vess, appears and it turns out he’s a bit of a tree-hugger, at least that’s what he might’ve been on his home planet if the trees were worth hugging. At one point he says:

‘[E]ven though it was pitch dark, I saw … what looked like … trees, except absolutely enormous, taller than this building.’ His plummy accent was pitiable now; he was like a child, trying to sum up the grandeur of the universe in the stilted language of the playpen.

He doesn’t much approve of the family business and sets his sights on Isserley. Maybe he doesn’t have enough clout to close down the mine but maybe he can blunt the drill bit at the coalface.

Isserley is a bit of a loner though although she’s not entirely immune to his charms. Her job demands it and her job is her life. What life she once had has been sacrificed to enable her to do her job so she might as well glean what satisfaction she can from it. There’s no going back. Would she even want to go back? She’d been saved from a life in the Estates. Tough choice. Of course picking up hitchhikers can be problematic especially if you’re a single female and the men whose company you prefer could snap you in half like a twig. But needs must. And rationalisation is a terrible thing:

The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they’d never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.

And, when you looked into their glazed little eyes, you could understand why.

She could be an explorer in deepest Africa or the Amazon talking about some tribe: the Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god; the Amondawa people have no concept of time or age; the Nukak have no concept of money, of property, of the role of government, or even of the existence of a country called Colombia. Or she could be a Nazi talking about the Untermenschen—the sub-human Jews. Maybe the inhabitants of planet Earth are primitive compared to Isserley’s people. Does that mean they have no rights? Does that mean they’re not also human?

So is Under the Skin an allegory, a satire, a darkly comic sci-fi or a work of metaphysics? There’s no reason why it can’t be all of these but asking a book to succeed at all of these is a tall order and it does run out of steam a bit towards the ending which was probably inevitable even if by the end of the book I’d completely Never_Let_Me_Goforgotten about the aviir, whatever the hell aviir is. Oddly enough as I write this I’m reminded of Never Let Me Go where, again, the issue is the nature of humanity: Do clones have souls? Are they real humans? It’s also a book that refuses to fall neatly into a single genre and has a fairly inevitable ending.

Is it a bit preachy? Without a doubt. That said some people still drag themselves out of bed of a Sunday morning and deliberately go to a building to get preached at. Preachy isn’t necessarily bad. And the best kind of preachers are those whose message is one that many people in different situations can apply to themselves. Faber’s sermonising’s not new. We’ve lived on this planet long enough that someone at some time has come up with every moral that could possibly end any story but the trick for modern day evangelists (or didactic novelists) is to reinvent the wheel, to make the blindingly-obvious seem like something new. And Faber has a good crack at that.

I will watch the film when it comes out. I never saw Sexy Beast but I quite enjoyed Birth and I do appreciate a filmmaker who takes his time over projects. You can read a review of it here which also includes the trailer and an interview with Johansson.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

Once you’ve read the book might I also suggest having a look at 'It is a Question of Words, Therefore': Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber's Under the Skin by Sarah Dillon (Science Fiction Studies 38:1 (2011), 134-54)?


michelfaberMICHEL FABER has written several other books, including the highly acclaimed The Crimson Petal and the White and The Fahrenheit Twins . The Apple, based on characters in The Crimson Petal and the White, was published in 2006. He has also written two novellas, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps (2001) and The Courage Consort (2002), and has won several short-story awards, including the Neil Gunn, Ian St James and Macallan. Born in Holland, brought up in Australia, he now lives in the Scottish Highlands.

You can read an interview with him here.



Ken Armstrong said...

This is one for me, I reckon. I like the sound of it a lot. Oh, you should see Sexy Beast when it comes on the telly again. Ben Kingsley is a study in not-always-repressed anger and violence. It's really good, I think.

Jim Murdoch said...

I actually read this ages ago, Ken, but kept putting off posting it because Canongate were taking… well, ages to get their cover art together but I have to say it’s a great cover. There aren’t many things that can’t be improved by sticking a photo of Scarlett Johansson on them. As you know I review a lot of books that are sent to me and mainly by Canongate these days which I have no problems with because they do publish good books but I do like it when I get a book that I’m genuinely excited over and this was one and I have to say I’m so disappointed that the film adaptation isn’t going to be faithful to the book because that would’ve been amazing. Thanks for the recommendation of Sexy Beast. I’ve had the chance to watch it in the past and d’you know the thing that put me off was the title. It sounds like something Guy Ritchie would put out. I’m dreading to see what he does with The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Loren Eaton said...

Okay, I'm adding it to my list and not reading the post any further.

Jim Murdoch said...

My job is done, Loren.

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