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What it is to be human: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The book of strange new things by Michel Faber cover
The Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber
Canongate
560pp
$29.99 AU
Published November, 2014
ISBN 9781782114079

Michel Faber writes like a practiced musical soloist, striving to produce the exact effect demanded by the score – no more, no less – irrespective of genre, scale or mood. From the lingering strangeness of Under the Skin (2000) to the Dickensian energy of The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), and even in modest texts, such as The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps (2001), The Courage Consort (2002) and his excellent farce The Fire Gospel (2008), Faber’s narrative technique seems perfectly matched to the originating conceit – at times uncannily so. There are, to my mind, almost no markers of expressive or structural failure in Faber’s oeuvre. Generally speaking, if he doesn’t pull off this or that effect, it is because he hasn’t attempted it.

True to form, The Book of Strange New Things is immersive, lightly surrealist and carefully plotted. It features well-realised characters and delicately carved sentences. The narration is more restrained and focused than in Faber’s epic bestseller, The Crimson Petal and the White, partly because he employs a single focaliser (his other large novels are multifocal), and partly because the bizarre content of the book requires a consistent point of view to render it coherent and credible. On a narrative level, The Book of Strange New Things has most in common with Faber’s adroitly unified novellas. It also draws heavily from the conventions of science fiction: the enigmatic corporate power responsible for sending the central character, Peter, on his interplanetary mission channels a typical sci-fi paranoia; the colonised planet he travels to bears the creepily Edenic name, ‘Oasis’; the Earth he leaves behind is slipping into dystopia; workers for the mysterious USIC corporation are seemingly spiritless and temperamentally identical; the colony is subject to heavy surveillance. Yet all of these generic markers are presented in understated or heavily qualified ways. Faber even mocks the novel’s anticlimactic use of genre-tropes in self-reflexive asides, while indulging readers with cinematic and comic-book imagery. An example of the latter is Peter’s surreal experience of looking at his nurse’s face as he is anaesthetised, before making the ‘Jump’ into space:

her lipsticked mouth started to drift to the left of her face, the lip travelling across the flesh of her cheek like a tiny red canoe. The mouth did not stop until it reached her forehead, where it came to rest above her eyebrows. Then her eyes, complete with eyelids and lashes, moved down towards her jawline, blinking normally as they relocated.

Because plot is important in Faber novels, it is difficult to summarise the story without giving too much away. The nimble shifting from one reality to the next, alongside the unrushed seduction by which the strange is made familiar and the familiar is made strange, is a spectacle in its own right, and deserves to be enjoyed in full. In its simplest (and unlikeliest) sense, The Book of Strange New Things is the love story of two devoted and married Christians, Peter and Beatrice, who are separated by an immeasurable distance – not only spatial, but also experiential and psychological – when Peter is selected to go on an intergalactic mission, in order to bring Christ’s message to the alien inhabitants of a colonised planet. Alongside the partially predictable but nevertheless engaging science-fiction plot, the novel considers questions of sincerity and transmission, manipulation and good faith, love and addiction.

In an early review of The Book of Strange New Things, Dwight Garner complained about the absence of what Alfred Kazin called ‘the marginal suggestiveness which in a great writer always indicates those unspoken reserves, that silent assessment of life, that can be heard below and beyond the slow marshalling of thought’. Indeed, in Faber’s fiction the narrating consciousness can seem strikingly neutral. Even Faber’s celebrated capacity to move from genre to genre has an aura of anonymity about it. His virtuosity may extend far and wide, but Faber’s authorial mark is hard to recognise, leaving the impression of dreams conjured without a dreamer. If the greatest of actors suffer from a personality deficiency, Faber’s work may suffer from – or thrive on – the seeming absence of Faber.

But this needs to be qualified. While critics have often admired Faber’s tendency to produce strikingly different fiction from one novel to the next, it is worth noting that all of the fictions mentioned above have a focus on translation, three of them feature a (predominantly Christian) religious theme, and most hinge on the suspended understanding of a text or musical score. All of them dramatise or are underlined by historical deaths, or else focus on mortality in service of the plot. It is unsurprising, then, that these themes feature prominently in The Book of Strange New Things. Despite Faber’s eclecticism and the apparent neutrality of his narration, those ‘unspoken reserves’ are, I think, faintly detectible.

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To say that a writer’s chief subject is ‘what it is to be human’ typically has two functions: the critic is making a claim for the universality of the author’s fiction (and perhaps its broad market appeal), while signalling that the scale of the fiction is as broad and deep as human experience itself. It is the sort of statement that can mean everything and nothing at the same time. But with Faber the claim can be made in its exact sense: in his first novel, Under the Skin, and in his latest, Faber questions the culturally specific distinctions that are drawn between Homo sapiens and other species, particularly the egotism that prompts normative constructions of ‘the human’. Faber also connects the unsettled and unsettling impulse to categorise with the condition of ‘foreignness’, before teasing out the communicative traps that result from experiential and linguistic variation across cultures and species.

Under the Skin’s protagonist, Isserley, rehearses familiar cautions against anthropomorphising the animals that she and her fellow ‘humans’ hunt and eat:

The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphise. A vodsel might do something which resembles a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

The sharp irony, of course, is that the ‘people’ referred to here are members of the alien species to which Isserley belongs and the ‘vodsels’ are Homo sapiens, who are a culinary delicacy in Isserley’s home civilisation. Faber goes on to satirise the rhetorical techniques employed to distinguish between human and non-human creatures. Isserley muses:

In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they have no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they’d never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.

Isserley’s conception of ‘the human’ is the product of an ego-driven bias combined with culturally specific ideals, just as it is in the Western world. It is likewise flecked with tautological justifications, whereby simple difference is taken as proof of superiority or inferiority.

Under the Skin’s dramatisation of this instinct for self-privileging categorisation, alongside the common impulse to justify the cruel and unnecessary exploitation of other creatures, is sharpened further by the fact that Isserley – Faber’s intricately conceived and strikingly ‘human’ protagonist – is deprived of her own species status. In order to hunt Homo sapiens, she is forced to become one, physically, and this agonising and shameful brutalisation diminishes any capacity she might have for an empathic connection with her prey. When one of her more sympathetic hitchhiker-victims, William, perceives Isserley’s psychological agony, she is too trapped in her own turmoil to register his empathy and concern. Under the duress imposed upon her by her own kind, and barely surviving the conditions of her exile, she simply cannot entertain the shared interests of a different species. When the wealthy Amlis Vess, who is an exemplar of perfect ‘humanity’ in Isserley’s world, argues for compassionate treatment of vodsels, Isserley can only dismiss his sentiments as childish posturing from an over-privileged snob.

By contrast, the protagonist of The Book of Strange New Things exhibits a strong capacity for interpreting and understanding other people. Peter employs a combination of behaviourist psychology and empathy in the service of a subtler form of predation: his religious mission to convert the inhabitants of Oasis to Christianity. Isserley is fundamentally disconnected from her prey and must interpret their behaviour through distorted lenses (literally as well as figuratively), but Peter’s keen observational skills, his attention to body language and his sensitivity to psychological distress put him at an advantage. These talents open up the prospect of psychological manipulation. For Peter and Beatrice, the faintest signs of vulnerability, or any tell-tale marker of misery or despair are opportunities for conversion. Their desire to quell misery is strictly and pragmatically conjoined to their religious mission, and their kindness to people (or extra-terrestrials) in need extends only as far as their chances of converting them to the Christian faith.

An early scene gives us a sense of the couple’s predatory rapport, as they engage with a family who are in mild distress, and who exhibit markers of susceptibility (they are uneducated and lower-middle class):

Beatrice and Peter got into rhythm, perfectly united in purpose. They’d done this hundreds of times before. Conversation, genuine unforced conversation, but with the potential to become something much more significant if the moment arose when it was right to mention Jesus … Not every encounter could be transformative. Some conversations were just amiable exchanges of breath.

Isserley’s philosophy, as she hunts for vodsels, is identical. Unrushed and hyper-vigilant, she tracks her prey with a strong preparedness to release them if they prove to be unsuitable. But Faber’s notable achievement in The Book of Strange New Things is to nudge readers away from this kind of rote criticism of religious manipulation. Because Peter is the type of person who is occasionally ‘struck by a vision of human insignificance in all its unbearable pathos’, and because he is someone for whom, ‘If it weren’t for God, the almighty vacuum would be too crushing to endure’, he elicits sympathy, despite his compulsive drive to ‘save’. If Peter is manipulative in the service of his mission, it is because he sincerely believes that he is helping people; his motivation may well be the product of self-deception, but it is far from cynical.

The connection between Under the Skin and The Book of Strange New Things becomes deeper still when the former’s dialogue between Isserley and Amlis Vess is restaged between Peter and the USIC colony’s pharmacist, Alex Grainger – so much so that The Book of Strange New Things, which is reportedly Faber’s last novel, can be read as a direct extension of his first. In The Book of Strange New Things another self-assured male, Peter, tries to convince another psychologically and physically damaged woman, Grainger, that the distinctions conventionally drawn between species are arbitrary and subject to linguistic mutations. Grainger says of the planet’s original inhabitants: ‘They’re not people.’ Peter replies (and here Faber is very generous in equipping us with a terminology and a framework to consider the problem):

‘How about we agree to use the term ‘people’ in its extended sense of ‘inhabitants’? The original Roman etymology isn’t clear, so who knows? – maybe it meant ‘inhabitants’ anyway. Of course, we could use ‘creature’ instead, but there are problems with that, don’t you think? I mean, personally, I’d love to use ‘creature’, if we could just take it back to its Latin origins: ‘creatura’: ‘created thing’. Because we’re all created things, aren’t we? But it’s suffered a bit of a decline, that word, through the centuries. To the point where ‘creature’, to most people, means ‘monster’, or at least ‘animal’. Which reminds me: wouldn’t it be nice to use ‘animal’ for all beings that breathe? After all, the Greek word ‘anima’ means ‘breath’ or ‘soul’, which pretty much covers everything we’re looking for, doesn’t it?’

This double-argument, staged in much the same context across both novels (two ‘aliens’ debate the status of their host-planet’s inhabitants), and mouthed by much the same character-types (cocky male and withdrawn woman), with much the same result (neither give ground), is an indication of Faber’s ambition for The Book of Strange New Things. He enacts this startling reiteration in the early part of the novel in order to signal its philosophical connection with the latter part of Under the Skin. From there, he extends the dramatic and philosophical scope of the original disagreement between Isserley and Amlis Vess. He does this through two significant reversals: this time, the cocky male who has his head in the clouds is absorbed into the local culture, while the damaged woman remains at a distance; and this time the predatory ‘aliens’ are also Homo sapiens, who seek to colonise the planet.

This sort of cross-novel connection has little to do with David Mitchell’s concept of the ‘Über-book’: it is not akin to the complex network of references and recurring characters that Julian Novitz has identified across Mitchell’s oeuvre, even though the cover of The Book of Strange New Things carries an endorsement from Mitchell and the marketing has emphasised its Mitchell-like ‘monumental, genre-defying’ properties. The correlations with Mitchell’s fiction are, in fact, pretty tenuous. A richer reading might take inspiration from Faber’s Australian connection (he spent his formative years in Melbourne). The novel could be better likened to Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013), with its ‘nostalgia for foreign things’ and celebration of narrative transmission, and J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (2013), which features a similarly anticlimactic setting (and plot), as well as a passionless ‘alien’ culture.

The Book of Strange New Things is richest when exploring how messages are translated between vastly different languages, or when it signals the near-impossibility of sending and understanding messages across profound physical and experiential divides. Peter has endless difficulty translating the Bible from English into the alien tongue. ‘Without any English to bind it together,’ he discovers, the Oasan language ‘sounded like a field of brittle reeds and rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete.’ For a long time, Peter fails to detect tones in Oasan speech or signs of emotion in their comportment. But it also transpires that, in the given circumstances, understanding and engaging with members of his own species – in face-to-face interactions with fellow employees of USIC or written communication with Beatrice – is just as difficult, requiring an equally intensive effort.

Jonathan Glazer’s film version of Under the Skin (2013) ignores the novel’s central plotline; instead, it stages a sequence of striking images, combined with unlikely and occasionally improvised interactions between characters. Faber has demonstrated a talent for dealing with material in equally unconventional ways in his collections of short fiction. Stories like ‘Fish’ and ‘Some Rain Must Fall’ are remarkably compressed and generically unfixed. Their images and atmospheres are instantly striking. In Faber’s larger novels the power of such images is, I think, diluted by dialogue and plotting.

My ambivalence when first reading The Book of Strange New Things sprang partly from this sense of dilution and partly from the author’s near-mechanical narration. The unfailing sense of proportion, the flawless pacing, and the wholly plausible confusions and misunderstandings that serve as plot-drivers are admirable, but there is something unsatisfying and all too predictable about them as well. Even Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov aimed too high and faltered on occasion; even Conrad published an unconsidered sentence here and there. Not Faber. If the dialogue is uninspired throughout The Book of Strange New Things, it is because it serves to ground the character construction; if Faber makes things too obvious at times, it is to ensure that the needs of all readers are met; and if he fails to arouse the passions, it is because he sticks to his guns when the story seems (to me) to demand something more. A roll of the dice, an unheralded compositional convulsion, a breach of sensibility, or just plain abridgement would have served as markers of authorial striving – but none are apparent here. Instead, Faber keeps pulsing along to a metronomic beat, carrying the story across its predetermined path before placing it carefully on the spot marked ‘X’.

Despite that, The Book of Strange New Things leaves a powerful, haunting impression. In fact, I have come to suspect that the seemingly de-authored, neutral aesthetic (which Garner perceives as a lack) and the near-mechanical fidelity to narrative unity (which frustrated me) are crucial to the novel’s lingering afterlife. Perhaps the true signature of Faber’s fiction is its uncanny tendency to encourage extended reflection and uneasiness in readers.

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In each of the several promotional interviews that I have come across since reading The Book of Strange New Things and drafting this review, Faber has spoken of the personal tragedy that coincided with, and partly inspired, the novel’s composition. His wife, Eva, was diagnosed with terminal cancer after he began working on the novel and died weeks before it was published. I did not know this when I read The Book of Strange New Things or as I was writing, yet it seems certain, now, that most readers will be made aware of these circumstances before they read the novel.

Even without this knowledge, Peter’s miscarried efforts to communicate with Beatrice, who is left behind on a dying planet, is the most haunting element of the story (I hoped to allow readers to discover this for themselves, but Faber and his interlocutors seem to have other ideas); with this knowledge, however – and in view of the author’s willingness to liken the plight of Peter and Beatrice to his own experiences – the story is all the more resonant. Given the emotionally charged conditions under which the novel was written, what I have called Faber’s ‘near-mechanical’ narration takes on the aspect of staggering poise.

 

References
Michel Faber, Under the Skin (Canongate, 2000).
Dwight Garner, ‘Galaxies Away, as His Wife Flails on Earth,’ New York Times (28 October 2014).
Julian Novitz, ‘Rise of the Über-book,’ Sydney Review of Books (28 October 2014).