Friday, August 10, 2012

15. Under The Skin

By Michel Faber

I came across Under the Skin on the giveaway book shelf at work and was intrigued by the premise of the blurb. I had never heard of author nor novel (which was published in 2000) before, and a quick google search assured me that both were well-liked and respected.

Like this reviewer, I was expecting some sort of psychosexual thriller about a strange woman named Isserley who is obsessed with picking up physically fit male hitchhikers. Every day she drives all over the Scottish highlands in her “battered red Toyota Corolla” looking for prime specimens. What she does with them, I was curious enough to want to find out. So this made for my second public transit commuting book.

Under The Skin turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was much better than I expected, and also one of the more unusual novels I’ve read this year. I would say that the character of Isserley should also be included in NPR’s 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900, if not rated as one of the most interesting female characters in fiction of all time, along with Mary Katherine Blackwood.

 It took a while (more than halfway through) before Faber’s novel gradually reveals the true purpose behind Isserley’s obsession with male hitchhikers. By then, the story becomes a kind of allegory critiquing why we kill animals for food, which, not surprisingly, gets a little heavy-handed in its symbolism. But Faber is a talented enough writer to keep the didactism under control, so it never got too annoying.

However, staunch vegetarians and vegans who enjoy unusual novels or sci fi will probably love this book, as its central theme advocates a call for moral vegetarianism. If you’re a staunch veg-head, you may have probably heard of the groundbreaking 1971 collection of essays, Animals, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans, which campaigned for animal rights and raised issues concerning factory farming and hunting. One of the contributors, John Harris, advanced the idea of the immorality of eating meat by using “the Argument from Superior Aliens' Invasion”, which I believe was a definite influence on Faber. I am already giving too much away, but I wanted to call dibs on making this connection since I did not come across other online reviews that did.

There is a movie adaptation in the works by Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer. Sadly, if you read about the film’s premise, the media will reveal the unique twist that was previously kept hidden in the novel. Initially I was interested, but soon became skeptical when I learned that Scarlett Johansson got the role of Isserley. This makes no sense at all, since Isserley is supposed to be a very odd-looking woman – a peculiar cross between an old lady and a pin-up model.  And ScarJo - pin-up pretty as she is - is just not very distinctive looking. I would expect ScarJo to undergo an uglification treatment a la Charlize Theron in Monster, but early film stills reveal this is not the case. She’s not even wearing the coke-bottle glasses that Isserley uses to disguise her non-vodsel eyes!

Here is a nice review by ScotSpec which gives you a better idea of the quality of Under the Skin and the character of Isserley.  It also does a better job of hooking the reader in possibly picking this book up:

Upon the initial publication of his first novel in 2000, Faber was likened to such authors as Alasdair Gray and Irvine Welsh; unfortunate comparisons not insofar as the aforementioned are in any way unworthy, but because the only real similarity between them and the author of Under the Skin is their shared nationality. Welsh, of Trainspotting fame, is notable largely for his vulgarity, and Gray for his authorial verbosity, whereas Faber's strengths lie in altogether different arenas than either of these: what distinguishes his work, and not only from the likes of Welsh and Gray, is his lyrical prose, and moreover, his down-to-earth approach to unspeakable subject matter. 

Nowhere is that disarming frankness more in evidence than in Under the Skin. And nowhere in that novel will you feel the creeping unease that is Faber's stock-in-trade more acutely than when in the company of Isserley, from whose perspective the narrative unfolds. Isserley is "half Baywatch babe, half little old lady," with hands like "chicken feet" and a face "small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie's book." From the outset, her appearance feels... constructed somehow. And the more you read, the more keenly you feel the truth of that perplexing first impression. Somehow, Isserley is not right. She is other, in fact, similar but different - and not merely in her appearance.

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