How many hitchhikers have you seen in your life?
I feel like I’ve seen, like, two. But Scotland is apparently crawling with them, especially those of the burly male variety.
But their numbers are probably significantly depleted by now thanks to Isserley, a surgically altered alien huntress who broods across the landscape in a compact sedan snatching up loners and sending them back to her planet to be made into prosciutto.
I listened to the entirety of Michel Faber’s 2000 sci-fi novel Under the Skin on headphones at work, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you can hear the words “scrotal sac” with a straight face.* Then, I watched the movie adaptation, starring ScarJo as the skin jacket for a CGI monster who eats shrimpy Scotsmen by dissolving them in her invisible indoor pool.
I recommend both book and film for days when you’re feeling shitty and don’t want to be cheerful; when you just want to wallow in misery and drink whiskey and it’s raining and you just fill up with hate until you yell at your toast for being too hot.
Under the Skin is another case study in the fine tradition of Tough Ladies Who Kill Dudes, from Kill Bill to Buffy to that girl in The Audition. Generally, I take these characters with a grain of salt. They tend to be fantasies at best and straw men at worst.
But Isserley manages to defy the archetype by being utterly miserable and not in the least invincible.
Surgeries meant to make her look human have left her body riddled with scars and busted bones (OK, not the most subtle rape metaphor ever, but just because it’s broadly written doesn’t mean it’s dumb). She’s in near-constant physical and emotional pain, torn between homesickness and revulsion for her own kind. Despite being an alien, she’s more human than about 85% of the female characters I’ve read.
Her humanity makes this book/movie combo a true work of science fiction, in that it is not an escape from, but instead a mirror for, our lives and society. Under the Skin boils down to a discussion of consuming others to stay alive, and through that lens it gets at the class divide, the ethics of meat production, and the male gaze.
A few crutches aside (there’s an unnecessary rape scene to add to the pile), Faber does a good job. Under the Skin accesses a deep subterranean well of fear usually reserved for women walking alone at night or taking an unfamiliar bus.
Apologists for catcalling and street harassment argue that they’re just being friendly. “I’m not a bad guy,” they say. You’re the one who’s infusing society with fear by not responding to them. You’re the one who’s making the world a colder, more distant place by not smiling.
All it takes is one or two guys grabbing your ass or trying to hurt you for your animal instincts to start seeing a pattern.
You get paranoid, afraid to go out. Your roommate tells you she thinks someone followed her home, but she’s not sure. An incompetent new guy gets hired at work and gets promoted above you immediately. You laugh at a stranger’s joke in the coffee line and suddenly he’s badgering you for your number, starting to frown. Women are bedfellows with fear; we know all different tastes and textures, all different temperatures and speeds that fear takes.
Wouldn’t it be excellent, just for a day, to take off that mantle of fear, straighten your back, and turn the tables? To be the hunter instead of the hunted? To slip into the skin of someone in control?
Under the Skin offers a brief respite from running scared, but then shows us that the control we imagine is a fallacy. Reversing roles doesn’t fix societal imbalance; as long as there are hunters, no one is safe.
This book is meant to be a sad book. Michel Faber is a sad novelist. This was never going to be a hopeful story or end on an upbeat note. It’s about floundering in the world during your brief lifetime, trying to understand it, and being mercilessly crushed. Meanwhile, you’re hurting others along the way without fully understanding your actions, and in the midst of finally beginning to understand, you’re snuffed out like a candle.
On that note, you should read it. If nothing else, it’s great pulpy science fiction, with lots of suspenseful gross-out moments paired with lovely evocative descriptions of misty moorland.
Technically speaking, Faber has the plot skills of Philip K. Dick with none of the vagaries, and his book strides ahead with straightforward language that lets the story lead the way. It’s easy to take that kind of writing for granted, since it’s almost invisible, but in a literary landscape full of people head over heels in love with their own genius (looking at YOU, Mark Danielewski, you should be ashamed) it was very refreshing.
As for the movie, it’s a very pared-down retelling that still manages to hit the same themes. Though some changes were predictable (of course director and co-screenwriter Jonathan Glazer wasn’t going to give her the glasses or gnarly scars described in the book; how could anyone with glasses ever seduce anyone), other changes took the story in a more abstract direction without going completely off the rails. But I would still recommend both, the book for its compelling worldbuilding and action, the movie for its provocative images and Big Thoughts.
The meaning that I ferreted out of Under the Skin, possibly against its will, is that trying to understand things from someone else’s perspective and be compassionate is ultimately destructive of your own sense of self.
And maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Maybe your self should be destroyed once in a while.
Take, for example, the recent Pixar release Inside Out (I’ll bet you didn’t think I was going to manage to connect these two things, but hold on); when Riley steps through the threshold from childhood to teenagerhood, the inner world she’s built thus far is destroyed first. Both of these works attempt to show that trying to preserve yourself as a static being is misguided, limiting, and probably impossible.
You should pick up Under the Skin, if only to spook guys snooping over your shoulder on the train. Got to keep ’em on their toes, you know?
* But the Scottish accents are SPOT ON and the actress doing them deserves whatever the Oscar is for reading books out loud.