UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber – Review

Under the Skin
Under the Skin by Michel Faber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Michel Faber’s Under The Skin (2000) due to my interest in reading novels that have been adapted as screenplays for films. I watched and reviewed the cinematic adaptation of this novel prior to reading it. I had significant problems with the film, but very much enjoyed the novel.

In part, these contrasting reactions are due to the necessary changes and alterations in the original source material that are involved in adapting it for the screen. Both novel and film are about a female alien being who comes to Earth with the mission to capture and abduct male hitchhikers so that their bodies can be used by the alien civilization. However, it appears that the screenwriter and director of the film used only the basic concept of Faber’s novel and its protagonist, Isserley, in creating their movie. In so doing, they changed the basic focus of the novel — Isserley’s conflictual relationships with her own civilization and its people and with Earth and its “vodsels.”

Faber is very interested in Isserley’s psychology, so he tells the story mostly from her point of view. Granted, there are passages in which others (both her fellow “humans” and some of the “vodsel” hitchhikers whom she picks up on the Scottish highway where she prowls for victims) give their take on Isserley. Otherwise, the reader would have one less way — the observations of others — by which to understand her. Moreover, Faber is able to compare and contrast the two civilizations through these breaks from Isserley’s narration.

Another benefit of the intermittent changes in narration is that they provide relief from Isserley’s daily routine. This effect points out the only relative flaw in the book. As in the film, the pace of the plot slows and becomes less interesting in its middle section because of the very monotonous nature of Isserley’s work. Since the work that she does is both highly unusual and initially shocking, the reader does not ever become completely bogged down. Once the character of Amlis Vess is introduced, the plot becomes much more complicated; the reader forgets the incipient boredom of previous pages. This is not the case in the film, from which Amlis is left out. In Faber’s novel, Amlis plays a vital role as Isserley’s antagonist. The son of the owner of the corporation for which she works, he represents everything she hates about her own society, but nevertheless provokes in her feelings of attraction as well as repulsion.

It should not be surprising that Isserley’s “alien” civilization bears more than a passing relationship to that of the reader. Certainly, readers from the West, and likely others as well, will be able to see the resemblance between Isserley and Amlis’s conflictual relationship and current conflicts in the “real world.” In fact, inhabitants of any place where unrestricted capitalism allows corporations free reign to develop, market, and sell products, without regard to moral or ethical considerations, will find reflections of their world in the novel. On Isserley’s home world, the wealthy have not only destroyed the environment without penalty, but currently profit from the devastation — such as by selling oxygen and water to the impoverished masses who are forced to work in underground sweatshops while the wealthy are able to pay exorbitant prices for the “vodissin” steaks that are the prime end product of Isserley’s misson on Earth. Isserley has to pay a great price in order to avoid the fate of the “have-nots” of her world, but the novel’s conclusion will make the reader question whether her escape was really successful or not.

By this point, it is clear that Faber makes free use of the neologism to further his satirical aims. His use of this literary device is just one small example of the stylistic virtuosity of this novel. Faber’s writing is full of imagery, both of the world external to Isserley and of her dark, bitter psyche and its memories. His evocative sentences are very well written. His word choice is very precise and sometimes slightly archaic, requiring a dictionary for those readers who want to savor the full flavor of his writing. One could even make a case for calling this novel a work of surrealist literary fiction, rather than science fiction. Due to its satirical intent, this reviewer prefers to call it speculative fiction.

The social satire that Faber carries out in the novel is greatly attenuated by the writing and directorial decisions made for the film adaptation. Moreover, Isserley becomes a much less rounded protagonist in the film than she is in the novel. This probably accounts for much of my boredom while watching the film. By contrast, I was enthralled by Faber’s novel. Thus, my advice is to read the book and skip the film.