Saturday, December 13, 2014

Under the Skin Before the End

That's an odd title for a post.  Let me clarify right away: this book, Under the Skin, by Michel Faber, is crazy and weird and fascinating, and I'm almost to the end but I want to talk about it SO MUCH.  I know myself; I need to write the post before I get to the end or there is no chance that I will say all the things I want to say. Therefore, this post.

The first thing I have to say about this book is that there's a reveal, kind of.  I mean, it's not a twist ending, but when the book opens, you don't quite know what's going on, and that's a huge part of the experience of the book.  So I'm going to talk about the book in two stages; in the second half, there will be spoilers.  I'll warn you when that happens.

As the book opens, Isserly is driving around rural Scotland hoping to pick up a hitchhiker. She's pretty anxious about it, actually--stressed, excited.  She wants one with broad shoulders.  She's got a system.  She's done this before.

Already, something is clearly a bit off.  At this point, you're intrigued in a horribly voyeuristic kind of way.  Does she have some sort of sexual compulsion?  Is she an axe-murderer?  You're pretty sure it's one of those.  You're looking for clues--how she pictures them, what she's looking for, the subtleties of the language.  The narrator is third person, but we're tight inside her thoughts, but this is just a normal day for her, so there's no explanation.  We're looking for clues.

Gradually, across dozens of pages, multiple scenes, I started to have suspicions.  I can honestly say there was no one moment when I knew what was going on.  Suspicion grew to a firm theory grew to real comprehension.  This reveal, this uncertainty, looks easy, but has to have been incredibly tricky to craft.

Okay, before we go to the spoilery part, let me just say that I just looked this up and realized that this author wrote The Crimson Petal and the White, which I've never read but have heard of.  This is fascinating to me, though I'm not sure why, or what it means.

One other thing before you stop reading (which you should because of the spoilers): they made this a movie, with Scarlett Johansson.  I have no idea how they did that.  It looks very stylish, which actually bugs me, because the book is not stylist.  It's very naturally written, very simple in its use of language, structure, everything.  This is deceptive about it, but it's also what allows it to get at the ideas it's trying to get at--style would take away from the real human core of this, and so I cannot see how the movie could do the ideas justice.  And the plot is kind of meaningless without the ideas.

Anyway, fair warning: you do NOT want to read the rest of this post if you are interested in the book.  Actually, you know what?  Go read the book and the come back to the post.  Because the unfolding is really half of the thing.

Here we go.

Time to leave.


So this book is about what makes us human, what makes one a person instead of a creature.  You could look at it from an overly simplistic point of view and say it's about animal rights and vegetarianism, but I don't think that's really the point.  I mean, all those points are contained in the actual main point here, which is that we define what life is worth, what an entity is worth, by some yardstick that we hold for what humanity is.

I'm not explaining this well.  But it's complicated to explain, which is why it kind of takes a novel to do.  Isserly's attitude toward vodsels made me think of colonialism, and the notion that "we" are civilized and "they" are barbarians, because of some arbitrary list of things that we have and they don't.  (I'm picturing an Englishman in a uniform with a walrus mustache mansplaining this to a lady with a parasol, FYI.)  So we have monogamy and corsets and chairs, so we are civilized, but they have none of these things, and so are savages.  And this is nonsensical, right?  Completely ludicrous.

But.  But then you go from the civilized/savage spectrum to the human/inhuman one.  This is a line that has always been blurred in the minds of people who are invested in the former spectrum.  (Note: I am working pretty hard not to start talking about race and social justice, because I am not currently coherent on the subject.  But if you notice how those topics relate to this review, rest assured that this is very much on my mind as I write this.)  And you can approach it from another point of view: what makes an animal--an intelligent social animal, like a gorilla or a dolphin--less a person than a human?

I think that most of us would end up saying language.  I don't know enough about animals to say whether this should change our thinking about dolphins, gorillas, or prairie dogs, but I do know that this book puts the question front and center. Isserly speaks the vodsel language, but it doesn't change her feelings.  But she hides the fact of that language from the soft-hearted Amliss Vess--the perfect picture of a rich kid liberal--because she knows it means something.

There is so much going on here, and it's late and I can't write much more.  But there are issues of class--being forced into the underground Estates, spending most of your income on your oxygen and water rations, and never seeing the sky; physicality--how much of who you are is your body, and when beauty doesn't fulfill its promises, and how looking different separates you (and here I'm thinking about the movie Avatar and the book Eva); freedom--what would you give up, what would you do, if your choices were the Estates or the Scottish coast? 

It's not even that I want to talk about the book, but that the book makes me want to talk about all these things, about what makes us human, and about what makes life worth living.  This is why I have a blog.  But even if you haven't read it, if you want to have a drink and talk about the meaning of humanity, please let me know.  I'm all in.

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