Michel Faber’s Under the Skin: at once sublime, all-encompassing, meaningful, and being characterised by a certain nonchalant, tempered manner of description or, probably with greater accuracy, a certain sprezzaturra. My motivation for writing this up: the lack of reviews I could find on the internet after a short superficial search.
I don’t normally feel inclined to write up book reviews. I feel the novel or roman is a lengthy, personal form of art not really best explicated by a review under the pretence of objective enquiry (conversation via dialectic is much better here). However, I have been unable to stop thinking about Faber’s imagery. Summoned before my mind, constantly, after a put down the book are Isserley’s feelings, poignant, touching, and so so honest. The book at a superficial level is about a female alien in Scottish rurality: Isserley travels up and down A roads picking up male hitchhikers to drive back to a factory, after being made unconscious, so that they can be processed into packaged meat for consumption on an unknown alien planet. The plot doesn’t really sway much from here; the boss’ (of the factory) idealistic son, Amlis Vess, comes down to earth to judge things, and Isserley experiences love and hate towards him personally — this event, alone, necessary but not sufficient for the setting off of a chain of events leading to the end of the story and what increasingly looks like inevitable demise.
And the above paragraph is not intentionally spoiling anything. The book’s theme is betrayed by the title: we are all flesh, bones, and guts, regardless of where we came from; we are delicate creatures, breathing, dying, decaying, pained, subject to our irrationalities and emotions. This becomes all the more poignant when you consider the range of creatures playing a role, although some cameo, in the book which are all united by a bloody, messy mortality. We have humans (vodsels), aliens (humans) (the play on alternative meanings wholly intentional and purposefully revealing), sheep, dogs, animals, and of course the various mutilated and modified versions of these creatures. United in delicateness and breakability, the book messages to the reader that there are more things uniting us than we acknowledge; and that we try to suppress this fact via differentiation and distinctions — Isserley is constantly attempting to define herself against the background of widely differing characters she meets and has to exist alongside. In this sense, Faber points out a feature of humanity we are in some circumstances shamed to mention — rationalisation. And note how I mentioned a feature of humanity — it is Faber’s trick to forget we are reading about an alien because she is so similiar, emotionally, to a human: under the skin she is the same, and the alien surgeons’ attempts to modify her appearance to a human on the outside — in order to serve a profitable activity — are explicitly defined as having failed, despite these Scottish males playing along, mostly. It is this juxtaposition of the failed attempt at (subversive) relation by appearance and the actual similarity with which this alien being feels sadness, depression, anger, and a lack of empathy for others, which beautifully and terrifyingly reveals an irony much more important to us than we daily recognise. It is this shared inheritance of a biological existence which we forget, and, do with this what you will, Faber magnificently explicates it here: a solipsistic life is unfounded, and wrong.
And it is a sad story, because Isserley is such a beautiful person. She is so humanly flawed, not unlike the heroes of Greek tragedies, that it’s a powerful reading indeed to hear her self-confessed seeming inadequacies, sexual or otherwise. She is paradigmatic for so much of what we should be embarrassed about, and yet she stuns us with her resilience carrying out her duty to the end. Of course, she is exploited by business, like, unfortunately, most of us — but that she does indeed do her job till the end, despite everything (and Faber makes clear the horrific effects post-surgery — breaking the spine is significant for we all carry a burden on our backs) is something we are embarrassingly proud of. For, in the various acts of rationalisation — Isserley believes earth to be her playground: denial — we see that it all comes to naught, and that we throw ourselves into exploitation: Isserley wasn’t forced to take this job, although, importantly, circumstances were different for her than for us.
This brings me to Faber’s other important theme: nature, and its perfection. Isserley and Amlis Vess both point out the magic of the planet earth, how its inhabitants only have to do relatively little to survive, and this compared to the back-breaking, surgical nightmare of Isserley’s daily life where even waking up is a nightmare not to mention the psychological trauma of simply a reflection in the mirror. The earth, as Isserley ripely points put, is wasted on vodsels. But, then again, she is in no position to judge — her work affords her a limited view of the spectrum of humanity, and she doesn’t empathise enough until the end for her to care. Indeed, her act of letting the little dog out of the trailer of a recently processed vodsel obviously figures with the apparition she experienced on her favourite beach — the girl (and the dog) are her, in a much suppressed ideal form, and location is key to understanding this. The beach with the waving apparition is a tranquil place untainted by special interest, business, and work — it is Isserley’s haven and an apparition there has to reflect this. We are all tainted by the pressures of economic life, and that this can get out of control is a possibility all too easy to empathise with. However, the aliens in the book represent an extreme: economic life will kill us, production for consumption is killing us, and a more-more-more attitude comes at a price. Ultimately what we all want is respect and love, and that Amlis Vess seemed to offer this to Isserley, and Isserley’s blindness to this fact (whether because of her demanding job or supression etc) is simply tragic. Sometimes, it seems, we can confuse the means for the end itself — what are we working for? perhaps we don’t know; Isserley avoided the Estates; and maybe we are avoiding poverty, perhaps we aren’t. And if not, should we not live for living and not for back-breaking work? The absence of ideals, of purpose in life, is chillingly staring the reader in the face throughout the novel; too many characters don’t know where they are going (hitchhikers going anywhere/as far as possible/wherever the driver is going); too much of Isserley’s life is spent debating within herself. And when a decision finally gets made, we realise we are too late, and like flotsam, we are now subject to the waves of those around us. As slippery ice carries Isserley’s motor to destruction, our fate, too, will be decided soon enough unless we, with a tenacity supplemented by proper volition, make to decide enough is enough and quit the confusion of means for ends to start living real life in a real, beautiful, magical world, where water literally falls from the sky to hydrate the land and creatures.
The book is beautiful, and so is Isserley: like most good reads, it is the protagonist’s relateability which really makes the book a good read. Near perfect; couldn’t put it down; a must read for anyone and everything. More than credit to the most talented author, Michel Faber.