For this book, I had one of those movie-poster covers. You know the ones. When a book has a famous adaptation, the film poster is repackaged as the book cover, aiming to entice fans of the film (presumably?) into picking up the book – for rather snobby reasons, carrying around one of these made me worry I looked a bit illiterate, as if I had no other motive to pick up a book beyond the fact I saw and liked a film. All right, I confess: that’s true, in this case. I doubt I would have heard of this book were it not for Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 adaptation, showered in critical acclaim and starring Scarlett Johannson. Ssh. Keep that on the downlow.
Still, in this case, I think a movie-cover-copy was a particularly weird move, as – from what I know about the film – the book is NOTHING like it. Throughout the book I was constantly thinking, ‘how the hell did they put this to screen?’ and, it turns out – after a bit of research – they didn’t. Instead, from the sounds of it, they created an original film that simply shares the name of this novel. This is quite a spoiler-y review, though I wouldn’t worry if you’re interested in checking out the film, as I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers, too – trust me, you won’t get much from this.
I read this on holiday in Rome. It’s not an ideal holiday read. It’s the kind of book you could blast through on a train or during a long car journey – for some reason I’d expect it to be accompanied by a gloomy sky, maybe rain, probably autumnal or winter showers, which might be because it’s set in Scotland – but a city-break read it is not. It’s short, mind, and very readable, following a protagonist named Isserley, a female alien who spends her time picking up lone, male (and generally hunky) hitchhikers in Scotland. After kidnapping them, she takes them back to a farm she and some others from her species live on, where they are processed while alive (taking about a month) and sent back to Isserley’s home planet as meat. In this context the earthlings (human beings to you and me) are called ‘vodsels’. Confusingly, Isserley and her species (weird, giant, feline things) refer to themselves as human beings; a deliberate move by the author, I suppose, as if we are reading the novel in a translation from its original alien language, though it’s never really explained. Isserley looks quite like a ‘vodsel’ because she has been surgically altered, much to her distaste, by the alien corporation who farms and sells the meat (her employer). Much of the plot focuses on Isserley’s numerous attempts to pick up the men: most are successful, but there are some failures that are traumatic at best, fatal at worst.
Alongside that, we have a plot on the farm where the owner of the corporation’s son, Amlis Vess, briefly visits and pities the ‘vodsels’ processed alive, going so far as to publicly protest by setting them free (vegetarianism in alien form). Vess is as exasperated by the process as Isserley is, though more in that he fears the social impact and cruelty involved in the process, whilst Isserley herself is traumatised by her own ‘transformation’ process and by some of her failed attempts (the vodsels can be cruel). Amlis leaves quite quickly, but Isserley falls in love with him before he goes, not that I’m sure why – they don’t spend a lot of time together. Isserley constantly fears the vodsels discovering the ‘human beings’ and the farm, and the book ends with this reality very much in sight, and an ambiguous decision from Isserley.
Does all this sound a bit nuts? Well, yeah. It is. It’s been described as an ambitious debut by Michel Faber, and throughout, as I said, I was wondering how the hell director Jonathan Glazer had been motivated to put it to film, particularly given the downright bizarre appearance of the ‘human beings’ and the grotesque and disturbing process the vodsels go through to be prepared for meat. It’s truly horrifying, in fact; our first encounter with that as readers is when four of them escape for captivity (Amlis Vess’s doing) and Isserley and her colleague have to deal with what’s on the loose. The extent to which the vodsels are surgically and chemically altered is pretty nausea-inducing and, I’ll admit, I was considerably worried about seeing that on screen. But more on the film later.
Overall, Under the Skin had a lot of potential, but it felt like half a book. It wasn’t until 100 pages or so when you felt like you had a good idea what was going on – to prolong the mystery for that long was frustrating. It probably didn’t help that at time of reading I had just finished Oryx and Crake, where Atwood seemed to balance information and mystery perfectly. Once I finally did have a good sense of what was going on in Under the Skin, the book was almost over, which was a shame. I would have liked to have seen more of it. Where did Isserley and her colleagues come from, exactly? What was going to happen with Amlis Vess? Will Isserley fulfil her order to bring a female vodsel back to the planet (presumably so her eggs could be harvested and they could breed the meat on their own planet)? What about Isserley’s backstory? How had she ended up doing a job that required so much sacrifice on her part – which she repeatedly mourned as her only choice? There were hints, too, at a dystopian, government-controlled world back on her home planet – what was going on there?
Some books flourish without sufficient backstory, but I would have liked to have seen more from this – a sequel, a prequel, something. Maybe such a book exists and I’m moaning about nothing, but I haven’t heard of it, yet. It didn’t help that Isserley herself wasn’t convincing – she was an interesting character up to a point, but her rushed and confusing relationship with Amlis Vess didn’t suit her or the story; she went from hating him, to so in love with him she was prepared to kill herself in the space of about half a night. It didn’t feel authentic.
Never mind – time to check out that much-adored film. Scarlett, show me what you’ve got.
The film Under the Skin – I really do hesitate to call it an adaptation – feels more like an art project than a clear narrative. If I had thought the book was nuts, I hadn’t seen anything before I’d seen the movie. Johansson plays Isserley, although she isn’t given a name in the film (and is credited ‘the Female’). Similarly to the book, Johansson drives around Scotland in a van talking to and picking up men – real, secretly filmed encounters, I learned in advance – but instead of paralysing them in her car, she seduces them into walking into some sort of underwater chasm where they are suspended until they are gruesomely processed (not quite as gruesomely as in the book, but nauseating in its own way). The change from enticement-and-drugging in the book to full-blown, naked seduction in the movie felt a bit cliche, but those hyper-surreal scenes must have been incredible to edit.
Had I not read the book, the film might have frustrated me. Where is ‘the Female’ from? What is she doing with the men she captures? Does she regret her work, even resent it? But the film doesn’t dwell on this sort of detail and that probably makes it more powerful as a result. Like I said, it’s something of an art project, and can be merited for that. It’s beautifully edited and gives the bleak Scottish highlands a dark beauty (maybe not so much the Scottish cities and nightclubs). I’m not sure I’d recommend it, mind. It’s for a particular kind of viewing, and can be (whisper it) a tad boring.
So, the book? Only three stars on Goodreads from me, I’m afraid. Not a bad read, but with the incredible sci-fi selection out there, I’m just not sure it holds a candle.
[Coming next: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov]