Friday, May 6, 2011

94. Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Genre: Mystery, Science Fiction,
Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Canongate 2004

A lone female, Isserley, scouts the Scottish Highlands in search of well-proportioned men, scrawny specimens need not apply. The first thought is she’s looking for sexual adventure, but there’s more and over time it becomes obvious that the more is something bizarre. Exactly what happens will surprise you, and how it affects you will depend on your opinion of the issues raised by the novel.

First chapter:
There was so much in the first chapter that suggested Isserley was picking up men for sex that I just followed that chain of thought:
1. The books opens with the suggestion of looking for men; sexually suggestive. Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her. (p1)
2. Isserly wasn’t interested in women in that way; sexually suggestive: Sometimes ... she would note that the hitcher was a female. Isserley wasn't interested in females, at least not in that way. Let them get picked up by someone else. (p3)
3. She could have some magnificent brute sitting in her car, right next to her, knowing for sure that he was coming home with her ... (p4)
4. ... 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 ... (p5)
5. "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." (p7)
6. The car's heating is on full and "Isserley watched him surreptitiously, watched the mechanics of his biceps and triceps, the roll of his shoulders." "The bulge in his jeans was promising, although most of it was probably testicles." (p10)
7. She's almost decided whether she will keep the current hitchhiker but she's worried about whether he’ll be missed (when he disappears?): "She made an effort to forestall the adrenaline as it leaked from her glands, by sending calming messages into herself, swallowing them down. ... She must avoid the humiliation of committing herself, of allowing herself to believe he would be coming with her, and then finding out he had a wife or a girlfriend waiting." (p10)
8. Isserley deliberately displays her impressive chest. (p11)
9. Isserley changes her mind about a hitchhiker she initially consider an attractive proposition: "Was he one of those inadequate lugs whose sexual self-confidence depended on not being reminded of any real females?" (p16)
10. It’s as though she’s coming close to a climax: "Isserley nodded approvingly, trying not to let her feelings show. She was covered in sweat now, cold chills running down her back like electric currents. Her heart hammered so hard her breasts shook; she disciplined herself to take just one deep breath instead of many shallow ones." (p20)

I'm going to mention the book's themes up front because if I don’t it's impossible to review this book without resorting to banalities like wonderfully complex, full of pathos, compelling etc, all of which it is. Here goes: massive SPOILER ALERT; this book is about alienation, loneliness and the morality of battery farming. Please don’t read any further if you don’t want to hear any more.

It’s kind of hard to know how to look at this book. Faber’s dealing with complex themes, and I didn’t find entangling his ideas the easiest thing I’ve ever done. At times I felt as though I’d had an “aha” moment and I could see the action from a particular point of view and then I’d get a little further and find myself torn between metaphors and morality. It’s lucky I like a book that challenges and has something useful to say.

Faber’s depiction of Isserley, the main character is wonderful, and I love his physical description of her. She has "Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows", hands like "chicken feet", and a face that was "small and heart shaped, like an elf in a kiddie's book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel." (p12) And I can’t forget the "Fantastic tits" she uses to lure hitchhikers. (p11)

Why Isserley looks different is easy to understand, and now we stray into the realms of the fantastic; Isserley’s a human being from another planet surgically altered to look like a vodsel (that would be us, the human race). Isserley’s role is to hunt the vodsels, who are battery farmed for our meat. Interestingly, Isserley’s surgery has been to make her look like the vodsel’s view of the perfect woman, and she’s learnt what she knows of our society from television.

What Isserley’s does should make her a deeply unlikeable person, and yet she’s not, if only because anybody who has plastic surgery to fit in and learns about life from the television must be fucked up … and that’s exactly what Isserley is. Even Isserley acknowledges this when she thinks: "... there was no point trying to align yourself to reality with television. It only made things worse." (p146) (And here’s another example of Faber’s exploration of our world through the value of television, and there are various examples of Isserley watching pointless and idiotic bits of programs.)

Isserley is isolated emotionally and physically, trapped between the vodsels she hunts, and the labourers who process the meat. She’s indifferent to her prey, what happens to them, how they feel and their future and this is revealed spectacularly when four vodsels are rounded up after they escape: "It was only when both vodsels were safely in the back of the Land-Rover that Isserley and Esswis looked at each other and laughed. Retrieving these animals was a spectacularly messier business than either of them had imagined." (p103)

If she’s indifferent to the vodsels, Isserley despises the labourers that process the meat: “She'd told them she wanted nothing from them, nothing." (p152) "In fact, she'd spelled it out more crudely still, in case they were too stupid to take the hint: what she needed most was privacy. They were to leave her alone." (p153)

And then there’s Esswis. Esswis and Isserley seem like natural allies because they’re both surgically altered to allow them to interact with the vodsels, but I guess such is the nature of alienation that they find no comfort in their shared experience: "Isserley didn't actually know Esswis very well at all, despite the fact that he was the only person in the world who'd been through what she had been through. In theory, then, they had lots to talk about, but in practice they avoided each other." (p54)

As the story evolves it becomes clearer that Isserley’s not only alienated but angry, and she’s been angry for a long time: “She didn’t have those tantrums anymore, now that her adolescence was behind her. Her anger was well under control nowadays …” (p39) But she’s kidding herself that her anger is under control because: "Lately, she suspected her feelings were getting swallowed up, undigested, inside purely physical symptoms. Her back-ache and eye-strain were sometimes much worse than usual, for no real reason: at these times, there was probably something else troubling her." (p39)

Is it likely that, despite her indifference to the vodsels, that she doesn’t like what she’s doing, that the meat processors remind her of what’s she’s participating in and her loathing for the meat processor is actually loathing for herself? It’s a good argument but I got a little confused because Isserley’s anger pre-dates her vodsel hunting days so it could be argued that her anger has nothing to do with what she’s doing. But while acknowledging this, Isserley’s reluctance to interact on any level with the vodsels after they’re caught is interesting to say the least: “… she had never been there [to the farming pens] and didn’t wish to see it now. It was no place for a claustrophobic.” (p109) “She had, in point of fact, been here just once before, at the very beginning before there were any animals.” (p168) Is the claustrophobia just an excuse given Isserley’s home world involves living underground? (You’ll also have to ignore the inconsistency here between Isserley never visiting the pens where the vodsels were kept, and only visiting the pens once before the plant commenced operation, the only instance I saw in the book.)

It isn’t until Amlis Vess arrives and she falls in love that she faces the immorality of battery farming meat. What I like is how gently Faber treats this issue. Vess, the vegetarian, is no militant, and Faber provides us with a range of anti-meat eating arguments: the first is that releasing caged arguments is essentially uselessness. Vess releases four vodsels and Esswis and Isserley must round them up before they’re seen by the rest of the world. Isserley is angry about the pointlessness of it as all it achieved was the death of four vodsels: Good looking or not, Vess was responsible for a juvenile feat of sabotage which had just put her through hell. (p112)

Vess’ response to Isserley’s anger reflects the subtle, gentle way Faber explores the immorality of killing animals. Faber doesn’t have Vess scream or rant but to outline his beliefs clearly and rationally: "Why did you do it?" she demanded bluntly. I don't believe in killing animals," he replied without raising his voice. "That's all." (p114) A soft voice sounded from the doorway of the kitchen. 'You just don't know what you're doing,' sighed Amlis Vess. (p163). And he continues, making one of the central arguments against eating meat: "That meat you're eating,' he said softly, 'is the body of a creature that lived and breathed just like you and me." (p163)

But Faber doesn’t really need to ram home the arguments about the immorality and brutality of battery farming because, in the words of Vess: “This whole trade is based on terrible cruelty." (p229) And the cruelty of it is made all the more uncomfortable and personal because it’s being done to us, the vodsels, and not pigs or chickens or ducks:
• An acknowledgement of what it would be like if the public could see what was being done: "The thought of a shaved, castrated, fattened, intestinally modified, chemically purified vodsel turning up at a police station or a hospital was a nightmare made flesh." (p97)
• What the vodsels eat is managed so that no harm is done to humans: "Nothing which might cause the slightest harm to human digestion survived in their massive guts, every foreign microbe had been purged and replaced with only the best and most well-trusted bacteria." (p169)
• The vodsels are processed before being penned by having their tongues removed and being gelded: "He was already busy sluicing out the vodsel's mouth with a suction pump by the time the smell of burning flesh had permeated the air." (p213) "As soon as he was satisfied with the state of the animal's mouth, Unser turned his attention to the genitals. Taking up a clean instrument, he sliced open the scrotal sac and, with raid, delicate, almost trembling incisions of his scalpel, removed the testicles." (p214)

One aspect that’s interesting is how the men who process the meat are identified as physically reduced, as though their association with farming degrades them versus the beauty of the vegetarian Vess. One quote from the novel compares the two by considering Vess’ beauty: But it was his face that was most remarkable: "Of the males Isserley worked with, there was not one who didn't have coarse hair, bald patches, discolourations and unsightly scarring on the face." (p111) But while the farm workers might be brutish in appearance they’re also professionals plying a trade, and Faber picks up on their treatment of the vodsels: "Oh yes," Unser assured her, combing his fingers through the vodsel's hair. "The speed minimizes the trauma. After all, we don't want to cause unnecessary suffering, do we? Uhr-rhum." He allowed himself a faint smile of pride. "A butcher has to be a bit of a surgeon, you know." (p215)

Wow, what a book. I’ve barely scratched the surface and there’s still so much more. I’m not a vegetarian but it’s long bothered me how unjustly the animals raised for slaughter are treated and how unsustainable the process is. Being asked to look at what battery farming would be like if it was practised on human beings raises the stakes by a couple of notches and makes me glad I eat free range eggs and meat. But that’s not really enough—it lives in the realms of Vess releasing the four vodsels from captivity; ultimately pointless—and the books encourages us, the human race, to consider what we’re doing and act on it.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts - this was a good a read as it was an overview of the story!

  2. What a fantastic and deep review! :) I really enjoyed it.