………..From the start I guess I should offer a kind of health warning for this review. I’m writing this the morning after reading Jonathan Jones review of the new Damien Hirst exhibition in London. If you’ve not read that review – well, I’d encourage you to have a look – but if you can’t be bothered, suffice to say it is one of those “kicking where it hurts” reviews! For example, said Mr Jones likens the talent shown by said Mr Hirst to be on a par with that of Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif-al-Islam’s attempts at painting!!!! And that’s one of the kinder comments! Later on he makes comparisons between Hirst and Nero and Hirst and Hitler!
So, bearing in my mind I’ve got the fresh scent of that Jones review in my nostrils, my thoughts on Under The Skin by Michael Faber should be read in that context!
Firstly, I really did not like this book. In fact I doubt I’ve disliked a book more than this since I finally left the turgid narratives of ‘Janet and John’ behind in Infant School! I thought it was an awful book! It’s grimy, bizarre and twisted – and that’s the good bits!
It starts with the main character, Isserley, as a sort of ‘avenging angel of death to hitchhikers’, scouring the Scottish Highlands for men to pick up, with a particular preference for those who are muscular, well-sculpted specimens. She only picks up men, she spends most of her time travelling up and down on the A9 ( and so as you read you feel you are schlepping up and down the A9 as well!!!) and when she picks them up she fires a sort of metal prod up their arse (honestly! I’m not making this up! Michael Faber did!) from the depths of the passenger seat which leaves them instantly comatose. After that she delivers them to a sort of experimental-body-farm-cum-human-meat-processing-plant! In the first chapters of the book you get the sense that it’s going to be a standard psychological thriller with a standard psycho killer – but from the outset you get clues that there’s something much weirder than that going on. Much of the novel is then spent looking at Isserley’s search for male meat samples, while it unravels the mystery of what the hell is going on. As you read on the novel quickly turns from psychological thriller to something much more unusual – a world that’s fictional in every sense of the word. I won’t say much more about the plot itself, for though I disliked it intensely, I wouldn’t want to spoil the “fun” for anyone else who reads it!
The book left me very cold. After only a few chapters I didn’t have any feeling towards any of the characters other than disinterest! Even though they all range from mildly psychotic to off-the-richter-scale nutters, I couldn’t even feel any disgust or distaste in them or their actions. There seemed to me to be some themes in the novel around organised cruelty, the attitude of the human race, the influence of the big powerbrokers over the way societies develop and the way it’s inhabitants lead their lives, but to me that was all buried under an avalanche dull violence and more significantly violent dullness!!!
On the plus side, it’s certainly a work of towering imagination, for which Michael Faber has received many plaudits. And having said how much I disliked it, I would admit that I think it’s pretty well written. It seems to have been crafted with some skill and care although for me even this was a bit overdone in places.
“She was driving towards the midpoint of Kessock Bridge, gripping the steering wheel in anticipation of the fierce side-winds trying to sweep her little red car into space. She was acutely conscious of the weight of the cast-iron under-carriage beneath her – the purchase of the tyres on the bitumen – paradoxical reminders of solidity. The car might have been protesting how heavy and immovable it was, in its fear of being moved”
I think this is typical of a book that’s just trying too hard to be literary and too hard to be shocking. I remember years ago reading the press reviews of Ian Banks “The Wasp Factory”. The opinion on that book was split between work of genius and work of a sick mind. Personally, I thought it was great – and this feels like it’s trying to go down similar territory, but for me, Under The Skin seems a much, much, much, poorer relation of The Wasp Factory!
And in essence I thought that this was the crux of the problem I had with it. It wasn’t the griminess, or the shocking nature of the bizarre, twisted plot or the violence in it that put me off - I’ve read other books in a similar vein and really enjoyed them. It was the fact that the book had nothing other than these in it! The first half meanders, it’s slow, repetitive and as a result even the “shock” stuff is muted by the fact that it’s shockingly dull! The second half is more convoluted and complex, but in all honesty, by then, I didn’t care any more. So my eventual dislike of the book was because it just didn’t go anywhere, I thought it was utterly pointless, and I wish I could get back the hours of my life I wasted reading it (and wasted reading about the bloody A9!)
Of course, according to the publisher, the reviews are great, and the book references very glowing tributes from the Observer, The Sunday Times, the New York Times etc, etc, etc. And before I had read Jonathon Jones piece on Damien Hirst, this might have been enough to dampen my own opinion coming through as forcefully – I mean, can I really say this is rubbish, if Kate Atkinson no less, is quoted as saying it’s “…a wonderful book. Painful, lyrical, frightening, brilliant….”!
Well, now I think I can!
I draw solace, comfort and confidence that I should say what I think from the same Jones article on Hirst. He writes: “The exquisitely produced catalogue has an essay by a senior curator at the Prado in Madrid, who draws comparisons with Caravaggio and Velázquez. Yikes. It would be impressive stuff if we did not have the paltry reality of Hirst’s paintings before our eyes. At White Cube, I pass from picture to picture, trying not to crack up laughing or actually swear out loud. …………At their very best these paintings lack the skill of thousands of amateur artists who paint at weekends all over Britain – and yet he can hire fools to compare him with Caravaggio”