Anyone up for doing this next week? Forgot I am out of town.
Hey, and pick up the May issue of AHMM to read "The Continental Opposite" by Evan Lewis.
Under the Skin by Michel Faber
(Review by Deb)
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Michel Faber’s Under the Skin was originally published in 2000. It enjoyed a brief resurgence last year when Scarlett Johansson starred in an apparently rather loose film adaptation (I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say how loose). Under the Skin can be read as an allegory—of gender imbalance, of the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves, or of the evils of factory farming—but I prefer to read it as straight-up science fiction and let the allegorical chips fall where they may. This is helped by Faber’s well-crafted writing, full of vivid descriptions of the beauty of rural, coastal Scotland, juxtaposed with scenes of gruesome violence—and, be forewarned, this is a book with a number of horrifically-gruesome scenes.
We initially meet Isserley, the book’s main character, as she drives along the motorways of Scotland looking for muscular, well-built male hitchhikers. Based on her exacting physical requirements, we first assume her goal is obvious: Isserley must be looking for men for sexual purposes. However, as soon as she picks up a man (always giving him at least a couple of passes by first), Isserley asks a series of questions designed to elicit the answers she needs: Does the man have family, friends, a job? Are there people who will miss him and immediately raise an alarm if he goes missing? Isserley has found the divorced and unemployed often give her the responses she requires—which is that the man in question has no support network and will not be missed for a long time.
While Isserley asks her roundabout questions, we see her through the hitchhikers’ eyes: a short woman, barely tall enough to reach the pedals, with thick glasses and long auburn hair that obscures most of her face. Each man notices—and some admire—Isserley’s extremely large breasts. Several also notice her damaged hands which appear to have been burned or undergone surgery.
Once Isserley is confident that her passenger will not be missed, she activates a mechanism in the car that instantly renders the hitchhiker unconscious. She then drives to a remote farm where a group of her compatriots take charge of the victim while Isserley retreats to a dilapidated cottage to bathe and sleep.
[SPOILERS START HERE]
As the story progresses, Faber cleverly teases out the basic facts: Isserley and the other farm workers are from another planet, one of fast-dwindling air, water, and food resources. On their home planet, “human beings” (as they refer to themselves) are quadrupeds with prehensile tails and a somewhat canine appearance. Isserley has been surgically-altered to resemble a “vodsel” (Earth) woman (apparently, only pornography was available as a template for the surgery, hence Isserley’s massive breasts). The surgery has left Isserley by her own estimation neither a human being nor a vodsel, living a half-life, scarred and in constant, excruciating pain, requiring daily stretching exercises just to keep her body from seizing up.
Isserley is not happy with her lot; she rails against the elites of her home planet who have mutilated her and the cluelessness of the men on the farm (only one of whom has also been surgically altered to resemble people of Earth), but she revels in her access to the beach, to water, to rain, to snow, and to fresh air. She mourns the loss of her beauty, destroyed by the surgery she underwent, but she doesn’t miss the claustrophobic horrors of toiling underground on her home planet.
In true fiction fashion, a conflict arises when a stranger comes to town. In this case, the stranger is Amlis Vess, stowaway on a cargo ship from the home planet and son of their world’s richest man (who also happens to be Isserley’s boss). Amlis is equal parts infuriatingly entitled, supremely handsome, and surprisingly clear-eyed and sympathetic. Despite his patronizing attitude, Isserley (and the reader) must admit some of what Amlis says makes sense: apparently, “human beings” used to be “vegetarian,” but since the introduction of highly-prized and extremely-expensive vodsel meat on their home planet, new sicknesses are cropping up and people there are dying inexplicably.
While at the farm, Amliss commits an act of foolhardy idealism that puts the entire operation at risk. Even though Isserley is angry at Amliss for what he has done, his comments about the cruelty of farming and eating vodsels make sense to her. This leads her to being further dissatisfied with her situation and questioning the entire farming set-up. All of this information is communicated elliptically, left for the reader to fill in the blanks, as is the knowledge that the Elite of the home planet are preparing to send more workers to harvest more meat and that perhaps they have even designed some sort of breeding program as is evidenced by their request for a “female vodsel with intact eggs.”
Isserley’s on-going anger and distraction leads her to make several devastating mistakes. She picks up a hitchhiker who we can see right away is bad news—but Isserley, in her fog of misery, fails to register the warning signs until it is too late. The subsequent scene is horrific and difficult to read. Not long after this dreadful encounter, Isserley chooses a victim without sufficient vetting, unaware that he has strong family ties and will be reported missing immediately. Within 24 hours of this mistake, Isserley sees on a news program that the police are searching for the missing man. Of course, by that time, it is too late for the hitchhiker, but Isserley realizes that her act has inadvertently exposed the activities of the farm to the authorities and it may now be too late for all of them. Faber’s writing has been so strong and Isserley’s story so sympathetic and affecting that we now worry that time is running out for her.
I must admit, the ending let me down somewhat. After setting up several intriguing possibilities for Isserley’s future, Faber ends the story with a tragic, if perhaps inevitable, fashion. It’s a testimony to Faber’s skill that, despite the distasteful work Isserley does, we want a happier ending for this odd, almost endearing, “human being.”
THE MAGUS, John Fowles
Sometimes I think the quality of the books I read has deteriorated over the years. Or maybe the time I devote to reading has decreased. Or maybe I am not as smart. Or maybe writing itself has declined. But this was a favorite book of mine back in the seventies along with Fowles' THE COLLECTOR and THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN. I think this became almost a cult book. Does anyone still read Fowles now? I don't know.
Nicholas Urfe is a young Oxford graduate and aspiring poet. After graduation, he decides to leave England. He takes a post teaching English on a Greek island. Struggling with depression and loneliness, he contemplates suicide While wandering around the island, he stumbles upon an estate and meets its owner, a wealthy Greek, Maurice Conchis. They develop a friendship, and Conchis slowly reveals that he may have collaborated with the Nazis during the war.
Nicholas is soon into Conchis's psychological games. At first, Nicholas takes Conchis, (what the novel terms the "godgames)" to be a joke, but the games grow more complex and he is sucked in. Nicholas loses his ability to determine what is real and becomes a performer in the godgame.
This sounds sort of absurd to me now. But I forget the vulnerability of the young. And the persuasiveness of a lunatic when rich.
Sergio Angelini, SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, John Dickson Carr
Yvette Banek, RIVERS OF LONDON, Ben Aaronovich
Joe Barone, THE BARRAKEE MYSTERY, Arthur W. Upfield
Les Blatt, JUMPING JENNY, Anthony Berkley
Brian Busby, THE LAND OF AFTERNOON, Gilbert Knox
Bill Crider. MR. JUSTICE, Doris Pischeria
Detective Beyond Borders, THE CONCRETE FLAMINGO, Charles Williams
Martin Edwards, MYSTERY IN THE CHANNEL, Freeman Wills Croft
Curt Evans, ENTER SIR JOHN, Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson
Elisabeth Foley, THE TURMOIL, Booth Tarkington
Ed Gorman, THE HANDLE, Donald Westlake
John Hegenberger, THE AVIATOR, Ernest K. Gann
Rick Horton, A GOD AND HIS GIFTS, Ivy Compton-Burnett
Jerry House, CHICAGO LIGHTNING AND TRIPLE PLAY, Max Allan Collins
Nick Jones, GIRL'S STORY, Lauren Weinstein and Lynda Barry's ONE HUNDRED DEMONS
George Kelley, MURDER AT THE FOUL LINE, edited by Otto Penzler
Margot Kinberg, THROUGH THE CRACKS, Honey Brown
Rob Kitchin, THE NINE TAILORS, Dorothy L. Sayers
K.D. Laity, THE BLANK WALL, Elisabeth Sanxay
B.V. Lawson, LONELYHEART 4122, Colin Watson
Evan Lewis, THE CONTINENTAL OP, Dashiell Hammett
Steve Lewis, THE DEVIL'S ELIXIR, Raymong Khoury
J.F. Norris, LONELYHEART 4122, Colin Watson
James Reasoner, COMMIE SEX TRAP, Roger Blake
Richard Robinson, by Guy Murchie
Kerrie Smith, THE CARTER OF LA PROVIDENCE, Georges Simenon
R.T. PRODIGY, Dave Kalstein
Prashant Trikannad, NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, James Hadley Chase
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang, UNFAITHFUL SERVANT, Timothy Harris