Under the Skin by Michel Faber

My used book store is starting to suck.  The fiction area is starting to fill up with mass market big name author books, more expensive new books, and books that are “now major motion pictures.”  I was wondering if it was just me.  The last four out of the five novels I bought I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages.  I was starting to wonder if I’m just losing my attention span to Facebook just as I’m starting to check my Facebook in the middle of Netflix movies that get boring.  But alas, this book has proven that it’s not just me, at least not in this case.  What I’ve really been craving for is imagination and creativity, and this book delivers.  It’s frickin’ weird man.  It’s mysteriously, oddly, bizarrely weird.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen the movie which is also super weird but in a different way.  I think the movie got the weird part, but the novel seems a lot different than the movie.  Without giving away too much, let’s just say this bizarre woman who picks up hitchhikers in Scotland is solo in the movie and in the novel, she has male accomplices.  My guess is that the movie maker wanted to keep the plot simple with only one oddball, but I thought it was too simplistic.  I think she needs a group to dissipate the emphasis on her.  Yes, she’s the main oddball, but if that’s what the entire story is about, this one oddball, it loses a lot of mystery.  The fact that there is a coterie of other worldly oddballs doing rather odd things to these hitchhikers turns it into a broader and deeper mystery.  In the movie, without giving away too much, the hitchhikers just walk into a pool.  There’s much more to it in the novel.  Obviously, there’s more substance in the novel, but you can still capture a lot more in a movie adaptation.

 I think as adults, we’ve lost a lot of the mystery in life.  I mean, we certainly have no idea what our rulers are up to and what our intelligence agencies are doing overseas besides a few leaks, but we can imagine it’s just bribing people, assassinating people, etc. your basic mobster stuff.  We have a frame of reference.  Our intelligence agencies are behaving like mobsters, and our rulers are the dons.  The one thing that enthralled me with reading quantum physics books is that everything gets turned upside down and inside out.  Time and space may be illusions.  There is more space in matter than matter, and matter itself may be nothing solid at all but fields that cannot be penetrated.  Reading quantum physics really shocked me and blew my mind away, and that’s what I love.  I also love nonfiction books that blow my mind away with a shocking new perspective on things, undercovering myths, undermining the otherwise solid reality you once felt comfortable with and now gets destroyed.  But then it makes me wonder.  What if I enjoy this, because it simulates trauma.  Because isn’t that what trauma is?  Trauma can only occur if you have one set of expectations and then they are destroyed in a violent and overwhelming manner.  For instance, your expectations of justice, kindness, loving parents, good people, trustworthy authority figures, all the bullshit fairy tales you were encouraged to embrace, the evil wicked people getting screwed while the beautiful innocent people turn into princesses.  All that gets smashed, and you are left scrambling with a world turned upside down where people who were supposed to love you have either discarded you or hurt you gravely or at least not protected you.  This first trauma of life, is this the reason I am drawn to both novels and nonfiction books that are trauma-like?  When you have your world turned upside down the first time, you get on edge, and there’s a part of you always looking out for other things to turn your world upside down so you don’t get blindsided again.  When you anticipate a worst case scenario, as stressful and worrisome as it is, it really does inoculate you when a bad scenario arrives.  So in a sense, by pursuing a traumatically upending reinterpretation of reality, you are trying to inoculate yourself against being blindsided by another traumatic event where your comfort and security gets smashed apart.

 What I love most about this novel is how it suspends you in this ambiguous, vague, amorphous, ethereal, preternatural, disorienting state, like someone just took away gravity.  But isn’t that how we feel when we are traumatized?  I read a few books ago that we dissociate.  Our mind floats away from our body, and when you read about something that is astonishingly opaque yet dangerous and bizarre, it gives you that same sensation, disorientation.  I don’t like to think deterministically, but my boredom with novels and books that cover known ground, perhaps making it pretty or dramatic, doesn’t touch me nearly as much as these novels and books that upend my world.  However, certainly, I can become aware of this and force myself to read novels and books that confirm the world I know and believe I live in.  Reading books about relationships is pretty normal, but then again I always have to put my crazy spin on things by positing that most all relationship problems are rooted in our social hierarchical system that has exploited us from the advent of the Agrarian Era, and we are all pretty much living a misguided lie, a pyramid scheme.  But I honestly don’t believe I’m just making this up to inoculate myself against future traumas.  A lot of traumas are social traumas, people-made.  So the social hierarchical system that traumatizes us so much, turns us all into these junkies for upended reality and dissociation.  I mean if we lived in a truly egalitarian culture where our relationships are respectful and strong, and traumas are minimized, we wouldn’t be trying to inoculate ourselves against future traumas.  We wouldn’t be trying to look behind the walls, under the floor, or over the roof for a startlingly different reality.  We would be a lot more accepting and comfortable with the reality in which we live.  Perhaps it is an adaptive trait that not only do we seek to inoculate ourselves from trauma by searching for a different perspective or reality, but we are overcoming that trauma by uncovering its true roots and causes which allows us to then combat it directly? 

 In order to discuss the book further, I have to give away the big secret, so this is a spoiler alert.  The big secret reveals itself slowly, but it’s the fact that the heroine is an alien that wears a human skin.  Her job is to pick up hitchhikers, sedate them, then take them to a farm where they have their tongue cut out and then they’re fattened up to be shipped off as food for aliens.  The last part is different than the movie.  In the movie, she just kills them.  I think the movie is disappointing, in that it turned a story about humans raising animals to eat them into a story about an alien that kills humans.  The real story, as an allegory, is about how we treat animals, and how we morally justify it.  In my opinion, morality is a cultural code we use to help us cooperate, but it’s a double-edged sword, in that, we treat people inside our group better than people outside our group.  Although it makes us extra nice to insiders, arguably, it makes us extra cruel to outsiders.  While reptiles may eat their own young, because they’re just stupid, they don’t torture, abuse, humiliate, persecute, and terrorize others.  As technology allows us to better identify with foreigners and add them to our inside group, especially when language translation technology improves, we appear to be more moral.  However, we will always be indifferent to the suffering of those outside our group, and when threatened, we will always be happy to oppress, torture, murder, and persecute outsiders.  There is nothing more to morality than this.  We like to think that our morality is logical, that it is based on some bizarre index of intelligence, ability to feel pain, consciousness, emotional intelligence, etc.  But if a human with a mental disability is no more intelligent than a pig, then why do we eat pigs and not mentally disabled humans?  If a human has the inability to feel pain (this is an actual condition), does this morally allow us to beat them up and eat them?  Many humans are emotionally stunted and inept, in fact, more so than a pig, so can we eat them?  And if difference between intelligence is the measure of moral treatment, if an alien race comes along, and the difference between their intelligence and ours is greater than the difference between our intelligence and the intelligence of pigs, then are they justified in treating us like pigs and eating us?  And if an artificially intelligent robot acquires greater intelligence and emotional intelligence than us, do they get to vote, do they get to mistreat us?  There really is no logical standard for moral treatment.  We simply treat others better if we consider them a part of our group.  A man who loves his dog will easily murder another man who is attempting to kill his dog.  And this brings us to a concept I’m developing and that I’ve written a novel about.

 What if Santa and Jesus as God are not the only things that are lies.  What other lies are there?  How about this one?  Civilization stops us from being savages and killing and eating one another.  Without civilization, we would have no morality.  Okay, obvious lies.  We had morality long before civilization.  In fact, the Agrarian Era and civilization undermined our morality by constricting our group identities.  Instead of identifying with your clan or tribe, humans created a social hierarchy where you never wanted to identify with your own class.  You were always striving to be part of a higher class.  But you couldn’t yet identify with them, so you really never identified with anyone, so essentially, you had no morality.  You didn’t care if rich or poor people suffered, because you were not in their class.  You didn’t even care if people in your class suffered, because you always saw yourself ascending to a higher class.  But here’s the big lie.  We’re all treated equally and get to vote, and we can all make a difference and ascend to the highest class where we will become infinitely powerful, rich, and happy.  Fact is, we derive most of our happiness through social interaction, and the big lie is that you only get happiness by ascending the social hierarchy and the ones on top are the happiest.  But here’s another lie.  What if the people at the very top are inaccessible.  Even if you become a billionaire like Richard Branson, you don’t get accepted into elite British royal society.  Even if you become a billionaire president like Donald Trump, you find out you’re not the most powerful person in the world.  What if there is a group of people who sit at the very top, and they control everything and create the illusion of democracy and equality?  And what if they didn’t even identify with anyone else?  When humans learned to domesticate animals and enslave them for farm work, they also learned to enslave humans.  What if the elite humans, all this time, have taught their children that all other humans are cattle, that they do not belong to their group, that while they look and act like them, they are ultimately a different creature altogether, a creature that can be enslaved, raped, exploited, and perhaps even eaten?  There are reports of some secret elite pedophile ring.  The elite have no problem having human cattle fight and kill each other in wars to increase their profits, so why would they have any qualms about raping human cattle children, and what this book proposes, eating them?  Now, you may think I’ve gone off the conspiracy theory deep end, but think about this.  If you can agree that there is a group of elite who are actually running the world, and they do not morally identify with anyone else, that they have no problem exploiting us for profit, then it really isn’t that far a stretch to say that they also use us for whatever degenerate thrills they desire, whether raping us, our children, or possibly eating us.

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