by Michel Faber
296 pages, Canongate
The New Flesh by Pat Black
Out all by herself on lonely roads, Isserley’s on the hunt for men. She drives past the hitchhikers in her little car, checking out what they’ve got. Sometimes she drives on; sometimes she turns in the road and goes back for them.
She likes her guys to have a little meat on their bones; muscular, macho types with broad shoulders and barrel chests, long-legged, thick-thighed. Weaklings and drips are allowed to keep walking. But those big boys...
As the guys slide into the passenger seat beside her, she takes a particularly close look at what sort of package they’ve got. Sometimes this can be misleading, she muses; the bulge can be mostly balls, with meat at a premium.
She engages these men in conversation, and most of them notice how large her chest is. A minority might reflect on how incongruent her bosom is to the rest of her body, almost as if she’d had porn star implants installed. Strange things to see on such a small, spindly frame. Almost tacked on, unnatural.
None of these men are ever seen again.
The answer to who Isserley is, and her motives in snaring these strapping lads in her car, isn’t too great a secret to hold back. But I won’t reveal it, as to introduce the premise might put some people off what is a beautifully-written book. Faber, a Dutch artist living in the wilds of Scotland (who also penned the door-stop Victorian novel The Crimson and the White), has constructed what is at once an outlandish and yet beguiling and carefully-crafted piece of work. There’s such a richness of theme in here – everything from animal rights, to basic human sympathy, to how society treats women, and how women in turn treat men. And yet you never once feel as if you’re being preached to, or that overtly political points are being made.
Head-hopping is a difficult trick to pull off, but it works well in the pick-up scenes. We go from Isserley’s perspective – her sometimes cold appraisals of the fleshy delights who get into her car – to the men’s views of this odd-looking girl. These range from the meat-headed wolf-whistlings of your average nightclub predator to kind feelings and even deep sympathy. Isserley is badly physically marked, or scarred, in some way. It’s hard to say just what it is that’s wrong with her – almost as if she was in an accident, and her body has slowly repaired itself after being bent out of shape. Some of the men – the really nice ones - wonder how deep those scars run. Although it seems trite to say that the full range of human emotions are on show from these brutes, one important point is well-made: we are all individuals, all unique, all capable of the full spectrum of feelings and emotions. And perhaps most complex organisms are.
As Isserley’s modus operandi is made clear, tension builds as she picks up each man. Will she be successful every time? Our sympathy is certainly being tweaked in some passages, particularly when the kind-hearted family man or the concerned boyfriend are the next to slip in beside Isserley. The ones whose thoughts are dominated not by the driver’s breasts, but by the idea of simply returning to wives and children.
We’re not all capable of love, though. Isserley manages to pick up one absolute monster who turns the situation on its head. In an unbearable scene he strips Isserley and, after a blunt appraisal of her strange, stricken frame, asks the question which lurked in the minds of the more humane passengers: “Have you been in an accident or something?”
She’s got a strange word for all these men; vodsels. Again, to detail their ultimate fate may be off-putting for some readers, but suffice to say it directly challenges the way humans behave towards their fellow creatures on earth. This is no tree-hugging polemic about looking after the planet or not consuming more than we can give back; it’s a sobering and horrifying look at the places mass-production leads us, and the unnatural ways in which we harvest and manipulate living creatures. If you haven’t guessed the central purpose of the hitchhiker collections by now, but can’t bear the suspense any longer, look up the word “vodsel” on Babelfish in Dutch.
One other thing to note is the setting. Taking place in the Highlands of Scotland – along those twisty roads in among the hillsides where the mist can suddenly descend, transporting you to another planet for a little while – Under The Skin manages to convey both the bleak beauty of the surroundings and also the sheer crapness of long-distance road travel. The concrete breaks in the greenery, the dire service stations with their peculiarly lonely staff, the unending asphalt pathways, the same road signs crawling past.
But Faber always has one eye on the stars. Even near the end, as Isserley finds her sympathies torn and her very identity fractured, she issues a prayer, a hope, that she will find her own immortality, somewhere out there in the firmament, a long time from now. As a coda to a very fine novel, it takes some beating.