Thursday, April 8, 2010

Book Review: Michael Faber, Under The Skin

Publisher/Year: Harcourt, 2001

Taking on the challenge of reading a new genre or a new author can be an exhilarating experience. After reading Michel Faber’s Under The Skin, exhilarating is most assuredly not the appropriate descriptive I wish to attach to my dive into this author’s burgeoning oeuvre. No, this recent addition to my list of literary explorations this year requires something a little more centred, a little more meaningful. Grotesque? Possibly. Bewildering? Perhaps. Fucked up? Uh huh.

This may seem harsh, and for any offense to sensibilities I do apologize. But “what the fuck” synapsed through my brain from the start of the novel’s fourth page and continues to this moment of screen posterity. I do enjoy ‘thinking’ novels, and novels that take risks with the story, the storytelling, and the characters. The collision of all these elements within Under The Skin however had me quaking a wee bit in my chair with each turned page. Where was this story taking me, and was I going to survive the journey artfully plotted out by Faber?

Surviving the journey is one of likely a dozen themes cursing through Faber’s study of moral and character components of the human condition, and it is this theme that aligns the best with this particular reader. The story starts out with a woman named Isserly driving around Scotland looking for male hitchhikers. And not just any male hitchhiker – “She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.”

Once she has a ‘hunk’ in the car, Isserly questions them about their life and relationships. Her goal (it is revealed much later) is to assess who would miss the hitchhiker if they were to disappear. At the same time of this questioning, Isserly modifies her physical stance to best showcase her ample breasts for the men’s enjoyment. She well knows that her endowments are a valuable tool to loosen the tongues of her passengers. These conversations are verbally and physically awkward, as best demonstrated by Faber’s tactic of relaying each character’s internal dialogue alongside their external musings. The awkwardness of these encounters, however, serve their purpose well and consistently for Isserly. And those that provide the requisite answers to her test will wish they never had.

All of the story devices employed in the first chapter establish what is rarely achieved reasonably and without heavy-handed grasps at perfunct conclusions – the female as predator. This achievement is reinforced especially so at the conclusion of the narrative’s beginning when Isserly’s car turns into a modified Gadgetmobile and the passenger seat into an unexpected drug mule. She continues the journey to her intended destination, passes the cargo to her colleagues, and then heads for home.

But what is Isserly’s motivation? Is it sexual? Is it maniacal? Faber’s dialogue would lead you down the former path, with comments regarding “the bulge” in one of hunk’s pants. But nothing is as it seems, and Isserly’s nightly passages through the Scotland landscape is a spectacular narrative setup rather than mere sensationalistic and transitional plot point.

For you see, Isserly is not easily a vessel for the reader to project into for full character formulation. There is an odd alienation governing the reader’s relationship with Isserly that is revealed curiously throughout the novel. It is when the reader discovers that Isserly is to be positioned as alien, and not just in psychological rendering on page, that the experience of the novel heats up and the WTF moments increase.

Now, I must be careful of the term ‘alien’ in respect to this novel, as it hinges itself to many a physical and psychological attempt to predict the novel’s outcome. There are various references throughout the novel to Isserly’s discomfort resulting from the surgeries that drastically modified her physicality. In her mind Isserly is now ugly and a freak, her reconstructed body alien to her touch and consideration. Like everything else, the true scope of these surgeries is revealed in snippets that the reader must use to construct a crudely fashioned whole, a construction that flips the narrative head over feet.

Actually, it flips it head over hoof to be more appropriate. Isserly and her colleagues consider themselves human, and certainly Faber’s writing propels this understanding. But he also casts pointed moments of shadow by juxtaposing our understood beliefs of what is to be human against all the plays being made for those that are hunted, better known within the pages as vodsels. WTF, right?

The shadows begin to be cast longer with the arrival of Amlis Vess, the son of the owner of Vess Industries for whom Isserly works. Vess represents a rebelling against his father and the activities conducted at the farm with the vodsels. Isserly resists fully acknowledging his presence for as long as possible as it harshly reminds her of where she came from and what she has lost, for he represents all the beauty that she believes she no longer possesses.

When Isserly does make contact with Vess, she finds herself dealing with an attraction that inspires the vaguest of fantasies that he may also be attracted in return. Vess pushes Isserly to truly consider her actions and the resulting outcomes within the dynamics of the human-vodsel relationships. The beating heart within this novel is the pursuit of feeding the primal appetite in more ways than one. And what occurs in the relationship between Isserly and Vess places the spotlight firmly on this pursuit and all the complexities and paradoxes that comprise the ‘human’ condition informing that pursuit.

Faber has the pacing down pat – clues dropped seemingly at random propel forward to the next and the next. He sets the stage for a horror story, shifts gears to inject suspense elements, then navigates to allegory. All the threads start to jumble a bit as Faber connects his narrative dots yet he still patterns out an artful and coherent narrative landscape. And the conclusion is near perfect in its composition, by reminding the reader one last time that Isserly is not just a predator; she is also, potentially, the prey.

All this narrative jumbling is a-okay because nothing that could be put on paper will match the tiny bombs of philosophical fervor popping off in your head during the reading. Faber makes you want to have these bombs go off, no matter how uncomfortable you may end up feeling. He wants you to strive to figure out the answers alluded to between the lines, to make you work for the payoff.

On a superficial level, Under The Skin could be called bizarre or disturbing. These are certainly two adjectives I heavily used to describe the book to friends. But when I allowed myself to truly consider all that Faber sets forth – and he sets out a full plate to digest – the skill required to produce something so unique, so original is inspiring and curious. He does not back away from the more potentially gruesome elements of the story nor does he linger on them for the shock factor. Everything is presented in an almost matter-of-fact manner, like you are sitting down with a good friend and sharing tales over a drink.

This beat of comfortability, of familiarity is what snags your attention and aids the book in getting ‘under the skin’. It sounds clich├ęd - I know, I know - but there really is no better way to summarize the experience of reading Under The Skin. Faber instinctually knew what he could do to get and hold a reader’s attention, and he plotted it incredibly well. And if that attention is accompanied by more than few exclamations of ‘WTF?’, well, do not say I didn’t warn you.

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