Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Under The Skin by Michel Faber

Like the best of Percival Everett, Michel Faber’s Under The Skin creates a shadow world just like our own, but different. With Everett we have a corpse returning to life, or a baby with a mind like Einstein, and the ensuing satire/farce shines a light on our modern society in ways that conventional drama cannot. The commonplace can often only be truly acknowledged and understood by being presented in a wholly alien way. The readers are shaken out of their comfortable preconceptions. Michel Faber’s particular world within but outside is a satire in which aliens – here called ‘humans’ – predate on humans – called ‘vodsels’ – and essentially subject them to factory farming techniques in order to turn them into a source of food. In this way, of course, the reader is asked to question his or her views on the meat trade and, more obliquely, on relations with foreigners or people in some way different from the rest of us. All interesting stuff, and at least it isn’t didactic. Like Everett, Faber uses satirical techniques to make his point. There, however, the comparison with Everett ends: Everett is wickedly funny; Faber is not.

Technically, there is much to admire in this novel. If you are interested in a manual of modern creative writing, here is an exemplary text, beautifully handled. Initially, the reader has no idea what is happening. The novel begins with an attractive but somehow forbidding woman cruising the A9 in search of male hitchhikers. She is not interested in women, only men – and only young, fit men at that. Thus, the reader is set up for a particular story, and an interesting one at that – the woman as sexual aggressor is rare in fiction, so Faber’s inversion of that particular trope is worthwhile – but there are consistent hints that all is not as it seems. The descriptions of the woman become stranger, dropping hints which might be suggestive only of a malign intent, but perhaps of something even greater. And, of course, that is how it ultimately transpires.

I have two issues with this. Firstly, once the cat is out of the bag and the story’s true intent becomes clear, the narrative tension dissipates almost immediately. Thus, for example, what should be a scene of unmitigated horror falls flat: we’ve been winding up to it for so long that, once it arrives, it is almost anti-climactic. And so the novel quickly runs out of steam and the ending, in particular, seems flat to the point that one feels the author ran out of options and just pushed the button marked explode.

The second issue is the greater one. It is to do with modern writing trends in general and what passes for literature today, and it revolves around the whole, hideous show and tell debate which I think has come to tyrannise and terrorise modern fiction. Under The Skin is a textbook example of the modern interpretation of ‘show not tell.’ Faber never tells us anything, simply alludes to it here, hints at it there, mentions it obliquely over there. It’s a literary tease. The reader has to work it all out, piece by piece and can no doubt congratulate him- or herself for being clever enough to spot it and work it out before the grand reveal. It is plotting by numbers, writing as mechanics, style over substance. It is too clever by half – look at me, look at what I’m doing, I tricked you there, didn’t I?

But the early parts of this novel work solely because the author is deliberately withholding important information from us and feeding it to us a gobbet at a time. Had he written, in the first paragraph, that Isserley was an alien and she was out to entrap men to turn them into fillet steaks to be packaged and sent home for her people to eat, then the novel would have been blessedly shorter than the 300 pages it finally takes up and probably none the worse for it. But no, we are taken through this tortuous exercise in which Faber demonstrates his (exemplary) technique. To what end? The whole debate over show and tell has become bastardised and simplified to such an extent that, all too often in contemporary writing, it overwhelms the rest of the narrative. It becomes an exercise in reader manipulation and instead of allowing the readers to confront the commonplace through the unusual, it becomes a mere literary challenge: work out what’s going on from the little pieces of evidence, string together your own narrative, play the game of guess the plot. Compare this with Percival Everett: from the start, in Glyph or American Desert, we know the situation, ridiculous though it is. We have a talking baby, or a decapitated man coming back to life in the middle of his funeral ceremony. Great. The story now unfolds on that basis – crazy, lunatic, impossible – and we are allowed to make judgements on the various satirical elements that Everett wants us to address. We are immediately drawn into that world of chaos and can suspend disbelief in order to explore the thematic strands. What could be simpler? Set up your story, tell it. No tricks.

Not so the ‘show not tell’ brigade. You have to go through this grind of not being told, of suspecting that something is being described that isn’t what it appears, that a hidden agenda is being slowly and elaborately unfolded before your unsuspecting and marvelling eyes. What happens is that ‘show not tell’ becomes an exercise in ‘don’t tell, conceal.’ Under The Skin falters under the weight of its own archness; it surrenders narrative and thematic cohesion to trickery and style; it becomes a literary exercise instead of a novel. It is a waste of a good idea.

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