Under the Skin, by Michel Faber: Existentialist Ecofeminism

 

Michel Faber

Michel Faber

Science fiction and ecocriticism?  What could be better?  Try science and ecofeminismMichel Faber’s novel, Under the Skin, is a science fiction tale that is propelled by feminist and ecocritical themes that explore language and our complicity in oppressive systems which we might not control, but do often facilitate and benefit from.  The work is not as fast paced and technologically involved as most works of science fiction.  Indeed, it is not even obvious that it is a work of science fiction until well into the narrative.  Like many works of science fiction, though, it does create an alternate world that allows the author to explore the implications of social systems and practices of our own world without pointing an overt finger at the reader.  This allows the reader to follow Faber’s dialogue and even agree with the sentiments being expressed before realizing that it is systems readers embrace and facilitate that they are condemning through Faber’s literary social laboratory.  By the end of the novel, the heroine, Isserley, completes her own existentialist and ecofeminsit journey, choosing her own identity and ultimately becoming one with nature.

 

 

The movie posted for the film adaptation.

The movie posted for the film adaptation.

The feminist elements are both some of the most interesting and most compelling elements of the narrative, and Faber manages to highlight them early by juxtaposing the perspective of Isserley and the male hitchhikers she picks up on her journeys.  In one scene a hitchhiker, gawking overtly at Isserley’s breasts, thinks to himself that “Women don’t dress like that, he thought, unless they want a fuck” (34).  There is the overt link to rape culture with this statement as the male hitchhiker seems to think that Isserley has essentially consented to sex because she has picked up a strange man whilst dressed provocatively. The man, indulging in misguided stereotypes, sees himself in the position of predator and Isserley as prey, but he fails to realize that there is more than one reason why Isserley might be dressed in such a way and that women can be more than just preySPOILER ALERT!!!! Isserley is an alien who is abducting men so that they can be carved up for meat and eaten as steak on her home planet.  There is no sexual interest, only a bait, which the hitchhiked had fallen for.  Many assume that picking up a male hitchhiker is potentially dangerous, but these people fail to consider the fact that because women are on equal footing with men intellectually, in such situations they can put themselves in a superior physical position with relative ease.  The sexual preoccupation of the male hitchhikers is a pattern of behaviour in the novel as another hitchhiker plots to feign a connection with women, stating that “Women liked to think there wasn’t a hopeless divide between the sexes; it was a real leg-opener, he’d found” (122).  This sounds like the guy who pretends to be feminist to get laid.  Little does he know that the only leg opening will involve him have his scrotum removed whilst he is under anesthesia.

 

 

Scarlett Johansson, as Isserley, in the film adaptation.

Scarlett Johansson, as Isserley, in the film adaptation.

The idea of rape culture is reinforced with another character who comes along later in the novel.  The man assumes that Isserley is looking for sex and tells her that she has it on her mind.  She replies: “I’m always working too hard to think about” sex.  His response?  Classic patriarchy: “Bullshit… you’re thinking about [sex] right now”.  She corrects him: “I’m thinking about… problems at work”, to which he responds: “A girl like you don’t need to think” (179).  This has a few of layers of wrong to it.  Firstly, he assumes that a woman is incapable of being passionate about work.  Secondly, he assumes that she wants sex based on the way she is dressed.  And thirdly, he thinks that because she is attractive, she should forgo thinking and live off the wiles of her body.  This is consistent with a dog breeder turned gardener who says that dogs are “like kids, desperate for a bit of discipline” (138), but we get the sense that as he says this, the attitude is one that mirrors the patriarchal view on women: that they are kids desperate for discipline.  The man assuming that Isserley is a nymphomaniac soon has a knife in her side, and though he manages to initiate a sexual assault, he discovers that even while he has a weapon and she does not, she is capable of deadly force.

undertheskinThe sentiment that a woman with good looks not having to think is developed further in the novel.  Isserley, it is revealed, was a very attractive ‘human’ on her home planet (the aliens identify as human, though they walk on all fours and have fur).  Isserley alludes to a nefarious work zone called the Estates, and mentions how the working class were forced to work in the Estates and after so many years saw their bodies destroyed because of if it.  In her youth, though she was working class, Isserley’s beauty allowed her access to the aristocracy.  The men she interacted with had said “that they would make sure she was never sent where a girl as beautiful as her should never be forced to go”, speaking of the Estates, and going on to say that it “would be a crime against nature” (251) to send such a beautiful woman there.  Her beauty does not rescue her from the Estates, however, but the sentiment is that a beautiful women need only cash in on her beauty.  Isserley accepts this as true, but in doing so adopts an oppressive system that rewards beauty.  The idea that women with beauty will have more rights than women who are not conventionally beautiful (whatever that means) is a common one in patriarchy and flawed for obvious reasons: each person should be judged based on their ability, not how they look.  Ultimately, though, beauty is only one aspect of an intersectional system of kyriarchical oppression.  Being working class eventually leads to Isserley being forced into the Estates and her beauty does not trump her class status. The scenario suggests that a woman should not rely on their beauty, despite the manner in which flawed elements of patriarchal society prize it.

 

The pages of magazines like Maxim are not the best places to go for realistic portrayals of beauty.

Maxim is not the best places to go for realistic portrayals of beauty.

The prizing of appearance is a key cog in the baiting of strange men.  Esswis, the alien who came to Earth before Isserley to do research on the human species, gauged what Earth women’s breasts looked like by reading magazines.  The breast that are surgically placed on Isserley are found to be impressive by most of her prey, but Isserley has never seen Earth women with breasts as big and she notes that one “day she would have to tell Esswis that never, in all her far-ranging travels outside his little domain of fields and fences, had she seen a female… with breasts like the ones in his magazines” (178).  This speaks to the unrealistic body images that the media prescribes to women.  Because Isserley has traveled so much and has seen a variety of breasts, all smaller than hers, and because hers were based on those found in magazines, it is clear that the images in magazines are unnatural and unrealistic.  Which magazines Esswis was using for research is not mentioned, but I have a few guesses.

Did I mention that Scarlett Johnasson is in the film adaptation?

Did I mention that Scarlett Johnasson is in the film adaptation?

Though most of the men in the narrative are typical, clichéd patriarchal scum, there is one character named William who seems far more sincere and thoughtful, and his inner dialogue represents what could fairly be called the contemporary crisis of masculinity.  After accepting a ride from Isserley, he considers several ways in which to open a conversation with her, but deconstructs each one.  After considering offering her a compliment, he worries that she “might think he was trying to harass her sexually” and then notes that it “was so hard to be friendly, in any genuinely human way, towards female strangers if you were a male” (201).  William tries to sincerely empathize with Isserley upon realizing she is covered in mud and blood, but he feels guilty even for his concern because he “hated to judge anybody by externals.  It was the inner person that mattered.”  He notes though, that “when a woman’s external appearance was this unusual, there was every likelihood it would have shaped the whole of her life” (203-204).  Here William recognizes that the woman’s external body and appearance is going to determine how many people interact with her and in turn influence who she views the world and herself.

 

Another poster for the film adaptation.

Another poster for the film adaptation.

It is here that there is a link between the feminist theory and the ecocriticism.  William contemplates speaking about nature, but accurately assesses that Isserley is not close with nature, as the omniscient narrator notes: “He got the impression that the beauties of nature meant nothing to her” (200).  This disconnect with nature is what Williams thinks is the source of the problems that exists between men and women.  He hypothesizes that it “was overt civilization that caused” distrust between men and women, and notes that “two primates, would never worry about that” being accused of sexual harassment when expressing genuine concern for one another.   “If one [primate] was muddy, the other would just start licking of brushing or whatever was needed.  There was nothing sexual about it” (202).  In order to avoid such accusations, people have to censor themselves, creating false selves and, in a way, telling lies which in turn creates mistrust.  “That’s what lying had done to the world… The price everyone paid for it was the death of trust.  It meant that no two humans, however innocent they might be, could ever approach one another like two animals.  Civilization!” (205)  William clearly identifies the separation between humans and links it with the rise of ‘civilization’ and the break with nature.

 

Faber's books seems to share similar views with some of those expressed in 'The Matrix'.

Faber’s books seems to share similar views with some of those expressed in ‘The Matrix’.

Amlis is the voice of nature in the novel.  He is the son of the man whose company is hunting down and killing the humans of Earth, but Amlis, like William, seems to desire a connection with the world around him.  Rather than looking at what makes people different, he tries to find what makes them the same.  When he sees Isserley eating the meat of one of her victims, be challenges her to consider the implications of her actions: “That meat you’re eating… is the body of a creature that lived and breathed just like you and me” (163).  Rather than focus on that which makes them different, he focuses on the shares experiences with the hopes of encouraging empathy.  Isserley seems unable to empathize with the humans of Earth as she later notes upon the death of one, that he is merely “one of billions infesting the planet” (206).  By choosing the word ‘infesting’ instead of ‘inhabiting’, Isserley clearly dehumanizes the humans, framing them as parasitic much in the same way that Agent Smith does in The Matrix.  Amilis later goes for a walk with Isserley and tries to allow her to find her own way to empathy.  When he sees some sheep roaming about, he asks Isserley why they don’t eat them.  She replies: “they’re on all fours, can’t you see that?  They’ve got fur—tails—facial features not that different from ours” (240).  Here, because the outward appearance is similar, Isserley is able to empathize.  Amlis tries to get Isserley to look beyond the skin with a speech from which the novel’s title is derived, telling her that “We’re all the same under the skin” (164).

 

 

Faber seemed to familiarize himself with the work of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Faber seemed to familiarize himself with the work of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Isserley’s empathy is eventually ignited, but it is not a sudden flare, but one that she carefully considers, until she becomes an existentialist ecofeminist heroine.  Isserley’s existentialist nature are perhaps best encapsulated in a scene where she is trying to start her car.  After having allowed the ocean to flood her car, it will not start.  Midway through the day, when “at last the car seemed to have dried out in the sun, she tried switching on its ignition again” and the “engine started obediently.”  Isserley does not leave once the ignition has turned over, though.  Instead she switches it off, deciding that she “would go when she was ready” (192), and not when the car decided.  This is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of choice.  Without choice one cannot express autonomy.  All morning Isserley had no choice but to remain where she was.  Once the car was able to start, had she left, it would have been the car determining when she left.  Instead she chooses to stay and only leaves when she sees fit, exacting choice and making her a Sartistic, or rather Sartastic heroine.  This approach is applied to Isserley’s view of nature.  Early in the novel it is noted that there are dead animals on the road as “some living thing had mistaken the road for its natural habitat” (2).  Nature does not see the human realm as separate, and so animals walk across the road just as they would a field.  Isserley shows no emotion regarding the dead animals at the beginning of the narrative, but towards the end, after she has killed a man who had a pet dog locked in a van, she feels the need to free it, despite the fact that she had callously ran over dead dogs in the past: “she was losing her hold on humanity and actually identifying with animals” (172).  This shift in view is gradual, but in the final scene, Isserley imagines blowing up the car in which she is in, but first asks a passerby to remove the human she had picked up, knowing that he would be in the blast radius.  Her callousness earlier in the novel would have allowed her to disregard this person’s life, but her she cares enough to try and save him.  Blowing up the car is not framed as a suicide, though, but a return to nature.  Her internal dialogue describes how she will be blow up into the “smallest conceivable particles” (295) and “would become part of the sky”, rejoining nature.  The last line is “Here I come” (296).  It is only as Isserley becomes in tune with nature that “it dawned on her that” the world “must be all a matter of hierarchy and privilege” (258).  This allowed her to recognized “Men and their little power games”, after which she determined to “tackle the… inequalities” (259) she endured.  In the conclusion, though, she does not tear down the system, she circumvents and escapes it, rejoining nature, much like Zora Neale Hurston‘s protagonist Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

 

I wonder which man from Brussels was picked up in the novel?

I wonder which man from Brussels was picked up in the novel?

One of the elements that created the disconnect between humanity and nature is language, and language is something that Faber effectively critics with some humour peppered throughout this dark narrative.  In one scene Isserley is speaking to a man with a defeatist attitude.  She is using the language she has learned, but he seems to be unimpressed.  When trying to feign sympathy, she answers a complaint with “It sucks”.  Her internal dialogue expresses that she hoped “this was the right term for” (35) her one-man audience.  This speaks to how language has to be adjusted and shifted, and how, rather than an authentic form of expression that facilitates understanding, it is a calculated performance that causes confusion.  This confusion creeps up again later after a hitchhiker makes some comments about England.  After hearing the man’s workds, Isserley “couldn’t work out whether he was suggesting that the British were admirably self-reliant or deplorably insular” (44).  This demonstrate the ambiguity of language.  When asking one of her potential victims where he would like to go, her responds: “I’ll go as far as I can get.”  Isserley is unsure as to the meaning of this.  She seems to have developed an understanding for double-entendres, but is unsure if one is being employed in this instance, asking herself, “Had his remark been impish arrogance?  Sexual innuendo?  Or just dull matter-of-fact?” (9), a lack of understanding that is reminiscent of the bawdy 70’s hospital featured in a sketch on That Mitchell And Webb Look.  Another scene has Isserley confuse a man from Brussels with the vegetable of the same name, but the most crucial example of the ineffectiveness of language is when Amlis sees the word ‘mercy’ written in the dirt by one of the humans whose tongue had been removed during the preparation process.  He asks Isserley what the word means.  She tells him it means nothing, wishing to prevent him from finding out that the humans on Earth have a language, but her internal dialogue states that the word ‘mercy’ could not translate into the human tongue (171).  The irony is that even though the word mercy is part of the human language, humans seldom display it to other elements of the natural world, or even to each other for that matter.

 

 

 

"But the guy in the suit tol me to do it."

“But the guy in the suit tol me to do it.”

Faber also uses the novel as a means to explore how complicit we are in the crimes committed by the systems into which we are born, especially those born into perceived privilege.  Isserley initially dismisses Amlis because she doesn’t feel he can understand her being from a position of privilege.  He concedes that he is rich, but poses a question to Isserley: “Do I have to get myself killed to atone for that?”  (230)  Isserley seems dismissive still, so he counters, suggesting that there is “always a price… Even for being born rich” (231).  Amlis, playing the part of environmental terrorist freedom fighter, releases four of Isserley’s victims.  They are eventually hunted down and killed, after which Isserley blames Amlis.  He responds: “You know, it’s very strange… I don’t recall shooting these poor animals’ heads off” (114).  Amlis refuses to take responsibility for what happened, but the deaths were directly linked to his actions, as Isserley notes: “You might as well have” (114) killed them.  Amilis’s point, is of course, that they were about to be slaughtered for meat anyways.  There are other crimes that Amlis is more overtly complicit it, the exploitation of the workers in the Estates for instance.  Isserley notes that if Amlis’s “kind had notice [she] was a fucking human being they wouldn’t have sent [her] to the Estates”.  Amlis responds: “Isserley, I didn’t send you to the Estates.”  Amlis, refuses to accept that he is complicit in this exploitation, despite the fact that he lives off of the spoils of the system of oppression.  Isserley answers: “Oh no… nobody has any individual responsibility, do they?” (232)  This is akin to the approach employed the participants of the Milgram Experiment.  Though their actions have the potential to cause pain and even death, they refuse to consider themselves complicit in any transgression, insisting the responsibility falls on those who gave the instruction.  Amlis, though he facilitates the system and enjoys its fruits, seems reluctant to accept that he is complicit.  The butchers who carve up the humans are of the same mind as they say they “are doing a job here… Feelings don’t enter into it” (219).  Well let me tell you about another group of hate monger who were just ‘doing their job’.  They were called Nazis!

 

 

Tyra Banks

Tyra Banks

Given that arguments like these are often linked to the actions of the Nazis in WWII, it is important to examine the different way in which humanity divides itself up, and Faber exemplifies this through his would-be rapist.  When he is ranting on about how flat chested models are, he references the “black one” as an example.  There are two glaring  issues with this, the first that he identifies the person by the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character: this person is black, not human.  The second issue is that when a person references the ‘black one’ in the modelling industry, the other person actually knows who they are talking about because people of colour are so grossly underrepresented in the fashion industry.  Given that the narrative takes place in Scotland, this is likely a reference to Naomi Campbell, though had this been an American novel it would have likely been a reference to Tyra Banks.  As if this weren’t offensive enough, the man then suggests that models are flat chested because ‘queers’ run the fashion world and they don’t “care about tits” (181).  The hateful, prejudicial language is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the flawed stereotypes that so many indulge in, but in this instance it is especially problematic because it allows people to be divided into categories, creating unnecessary divisions.

 

planetoftheapesUnder the Skin serves as an engaging narrative, though more methodical and character driven than most science fiction novels, which usually focus on plot movement.  Here, it is the movement within Isserley that is the crux of the work.  The intertextual references show that the author is aware of the texts that came before and he draws on them to enhance his work.  The scene where one of the humans draws letters in the dirt was pulled straight out of Planet of the Apes, and for those who didn’t notice that, Faber makes it even more overt when he appropriates Charlton Hestons’ famous line: “Get your stinking paws off me!” (221)  What Faber seems to take issue with most is humanity’s adherence to hierarchical structures.  For many people, the argument for eating meat is that humans are at the top of the food chain and therefore have a right to eat meat.  With this mentality, though, if an extra-terrestrial life arrived and possessed superior cognitive abilities and were more technologically advanced, then that would suggest that they were perfectly within their rights to consume humanity.  Instead of making arguments for why those on top should continue to exploit those on the bottom, humanity should be concerned with protecting those on the bottom, be they marginalized groups within humanity, or the other species with whom we share this planet.

 

 

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to get updates on my latest posts by following me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.  And since Faber made a point of repeatedly mentioning and singing the praises of John Martyn, I will close with a video from late John Martyn, who I had never heard of but apparently worked with some of my favorite artists.

 

 

 

Works Cited:

 

Faber, Michel.  Under the Skin.  Harper Collins.  New York.  2000.  Print.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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