My vacation book on my family trip to New Orleans was Michel Faber’s elegant, familiar, horrifying novel Under the Skin. I’ve owned the book a long while, and knew very roughly what it was about. I had no idea what a perfect foil it would be for my trip – an escape from my escape, yet apposite too. The Big Easy is vibrant and gorgeous, but its beauty is also painted and its energy pushed with stimulants. It celebrates scoundrels as much as talent, and romanticizes vampires.
Isserley, Under the Skin‘s narrator, is not exactly a vampire, and her hard life in forbidding rural northern Scotland is far from easy. In Faber’s wry, spare telling, she is as sympathetic as anyone in a lousy job, and a monster in the truest sense – one who sees humans as food.
(All spoilers ahead.)
Isserley’s race are intelligent alien ponies with hand-like forefeet, technologically far ahead of us, who live in a feudal-capitalist society under their world’s polluted surface.
Once a beautiful mistress to the rich, discarded when she aged, Isserley escaped a short life of toil in deep mines by going to Earth. Radically altered, her face and body both halved, she can pass as human. She drives around rural northern Scotland, looking for hitchhiking men – only men, muscular and not fat, whom she drugs and takes to her farm. Once castrated and bulked up with hormones, her prey are prized meat, sold by her planet’s greatest corporation, each small filet worth a month’s oxygen and water combined.
Under the Skin is a decadent novel in a hard bitter place, and that is only the first of its many clever subversions. Isserley’s bitter self-pity is thoroughly earned, but she also knows her relative privilege. Even the sleekly beautiful corporate scion of her firm, fashionably vegan and contemptuous of the huge profit his family makes from human meat, envies her the planet where she gets to live, no matter the deformity it required.
Like all privilege, it will fade, from the most obvious of pressures. Despite the astronomical profit, hunting in northern Scotland is too haphazard. The request has come for Isserley to start taking fertile females.
Under the Skin does not preach or lament, though Isserley does a lot of the latter. Rather, it admits. This is how we are, and it’s no surprise that this is how they are too. There is no them or us, save our eternal tendencies to seek an us, and a way to profit from those who become them.