Under the Skin features an extraterrestrial named Isserley, who has been surgically altered to resemble a human being, she drives the Scottish Highlands looking for muscular men to farm for their meat, an expensive delicacy on her world. “Scarred and awkward, yet strangely erotic and threatening, she hears passengers reveal who might miss them should they disappear…”
Optimist: One thing I didn’t expect coming from the film to the novel is that the “humans” (as the aliens call themselves, while homosapiens are referred to as “vodsels”) aren’t so advanced as to be able to easily disguise themselves as homosapiens. Isserley has been left angry and bitter at how her body has been contorted and mutilated to make her look like us (and only passably at that), and she suffers from severe chronic pains. Her rage encompasses the surgeons for mutilating her, the elite class of her species for betraying her, and males (of both species) for objectifying and pitying her.
Cynic: Isserley is a great character but I’m not a fan of omnipotent narration, especially when it’s used so sporadically. It almost feels like cheating when we’re explicitly told what the hitchhikers are thinking.
Optimist: We don’t always know what they’re thinking. It’s used sparingly, rather than sporadically, and in a specific context. And besides, it’s these sections which give us some of the funniest and most interesting parts of the book. Like how every single one of the men she picks up doesn’t realise she looks a little odd for a human because every one of them – even the non-chauvinists – are distracted by her huge breasts. It’s funny until you realise how believable it is. It’s part of what makes it, in my view, a great feminist book.
Cynic: I didn’t know whether I felt that more sympathy for the vodsels or for Isserley. That’s kind of fucked up. I mean, look at me calling humans “vodsels”.
Optimist: That kind of divided loyalty is one of the book’s great strengths. Though Isserley shows herself to be capable of unimaginable cruelty against our kind, she is still essentially an exploited worker. She thinks about us in the same way we think about our sources of food, though at times has the same misgivings that I, as a meat-eater, have about the morality of what I’m doing.
Cynic: Don’t remind me. It’s when a few of them escape that we first get the sense of what’s going on. One of them tries to throw a clump of dirt at Isserley, but is so bulky from overfeeding that it isn’t able to. That in itself was a pretty horrific image, but then we find out about the cutting out of tongues and the castration…it’s horrifying. I can’t get some of those images out of my mind.
Optimist: I found that more funny than horrifying, though the book goes for a sense of both. It’s very satirical and over-the-top and yet, oddly, still “realistic”, in a sense. My favourite parts of the book were those with Amlis Vess. The dynamic between him and Isserley is fascinating; he is wealthy, idle and immensely privileged. Isserley is, as I mentioned, an exploited worker. She has suffered because of people like him, and our sympathies lie thoroughly with her. And yet it is Isserley who is preying on us “humans”, while Amlis Vess is – for want of a better term – an animal rights activist, vehemently opposed to the slaughter of living, thinking creatures for meat. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Vess’s idealism doesn’t automatically make him a hero. It could even be seen as self-indulgent – the concerns of the rich and privileged. Isserley doesn’t have the luxury to sit around philosophising on the morality of meat eating. She has a job to do.
Cynic: It’s interesting, this whole thing about empathy and power, but not exactly the most original of conflicts.
Optimist: My description doesn’t do it justice. It’s not one of those sci-fi novels in which characters are just vessels for the writer’s big themes Under the Skin is first and foremost character-driven. We genuinely care about Isserley, and that makes the big ideas of the novel much more interesting as they pertain to her character. All round, it’s a really fantastic novel.
Cynic: On balance, I’d say I agree.
“For Gideon Mack, faithless minister, unfaithful husband and troubled soul, the existence of God, let alone the Devil, is no more credible than that of ghosts or fairies. Until the day he falls into a gorge and is rescued by someone who might just be Satan himself. Mack’s testament – a compelling blend of memoir, legend, history, and, quite probably, madness – recounts one man’s emotional crisis, disappearance, resurrection and death. It also transports you into an utterly mesmerising exploration of the very nature of belief.”
I thought, given the events of the book, it’d be appropriate to review The Testament of Gideon Mack with The Devil. He has a deep, drawling voice and a bored tone, if you’re wondering.
Me: Something I didn’t realise going in was that this book spans Gideon’s entire life, from his childhood to his death. His father was a minister too, and so we see the effects Gideon’s repressed Calvinist upbringing has on him later in life.
The Devil: Because blaming Scotland’s problems on Calvinism is sooo original. We’ve never seen THAT done before.
Me: Somehow I doubt YOU are one of Calvin’s great defenders. You just like being the contrarian. In any case, it’s not solely an indictment of Calvinism. Gideon spends much of his ministerial career raising money for various charities. Helping the poor is one of Calvinism’s great legacies.
The Devil: Except that even in this he can’t bring himself to care or be happy about the people he is helping. It’s just a challenge; can he top himself this time?
Me: I’m getting the sense you didn’t like the book much?
The Devil: It’s unbearably dull. At least until my own little cameo, and that doesn’t happen until I’ve suffered through 270 pages of his mundane life.
Me: I personally found the section where Gideon meets the Devil to be the least interesting.
The Devil: You what?
Me: I guess I found his everyday life more interesting than you did. Things like the in-fighting between Church factions and his preference for the company of eccentrics and atheists were the most enjoyable parts of the book. No, it’s not a book I devoured. I didn’t read it more quickly as the action picked up. As a reader, I saw everything with the same sort of detachment as Gideon. It wasn’t an exciting read per se, but it wasn’t boring. It had an easy pleasance to it.
The Devil: I’ll admit that his childhood and relationship with his father was rather funny.
Me: Let me guess, you’re favourite part was that one anecdote about Gideon not being allowed to watch television on the Sabbath, missing the second-half of the Batman double-bill, and never knowing how Batman and Robin got out of Saturday’s cliff-hanger.
The Devil: Why, yes. How could you tell?
Me: Because you’re a sadist.
The Devil: Quite an important part of the job description.
Me: Anyway. Coming from an island, I thought Robertson really nailed the feeling and dynamics of living in a small town. And his description of the gorge known locally as the ‘Black Jaws’ leaves a vivid image. But my biggest takeaway from the novel was that despite my atheism a career as a Church of Scotland minister doesn’t sound half-bad; talking about whatever you want at sermons, doing a wee bit of charity work, getting set up in a cushy manse somewhere. I could do a lot worse.
The Devil: Then you missed the whole point of the novel. Gideon’s lies devour him and those around him.
Me: I thought that was your doing?
The Devil: I can’t take all the credit. Gideon had dug a hole for himself long before I came along. Besides, who’s to say I was even real?