Why is it that a human who can’t bear to watch an animal die, let alone be the agent of its death, should feel comfortable, and think nothing of, consuming animal flesh? Isn’t this a form of self-deception?
Michel Faber’s luminous first novel, Under the Skin (published in 2000, but I’ve only lately found it), messes with the reader’s head by juxtaposing such contradictions. He employs slyly deceptive means to achieve maximum impact, lulling the reader into feeling sympathy for his heroine Isserley. We can relate to the strangeness she finds around her as a foreigner, driving up and down the Scottish Highlands. Who hasn’t felt like an alien on visiting some faraway country or even a culturally unfamiliar if not-so-distant suburb? So, when at length we’re shown the fate of the hitchhikers Isserley’s been picking up, men to whose thoughts we’ve however briefly been privy, her inhuman attitude toward them – revealed by the glare of a torch at night – comes as a kick in the guts.
And here comes a spoiler (it’s 13 years since this fiercely original thriller came out, yet it remains topical, screaming to be thought and talked about): we’ve been set up to identify with an extraterrestrial alien who, it emerges in due course, views humans as food; in other words, someone just like us, who’s exploiting another species cold-bloodedly.
I’ve struggled to analyse why I found the concept of hunting then gunning down these escaped, naked, castrated, massively fattened ‘vodsels’ so shocking. And did I mention their tongues have been cut out? The monstrous plight of these men – so obscenely obese, they can’t climb or run (a condition now rife, no force-feeding needed, in the West) – made me shudder. Despite their anonymity from Isserley’s perspective, I remembered the hitchers with their personal histories. And even had these fugitives been cows, geese or pigs (none of whose flesh I eat), I would have felt excruciating empathy for them. But I think that, for all its realism, the power of this pivotal scene derives from Isserley’s eerie lack of empathy, conveyed via defamiliarisation; to her the tortured, mutilated humans are utterly other.
When compared to Under the Skin – a sustained, often lyrical, feat of imagination – much worthy writing on the theme of animal ethics and corporate atrocities begins to look stodgily rhetorical or academic at best. How does Faber enable the reader’s suspension of disbelief? He maintains a delicate balance between edgy suspense and character development; by the time the plot’s sci-fi underpinning begins to show through, the reader feels as invested in Isserley as if she were human.