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AISHWARYA  SUBRAMANIAN
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

Can narratives about aliens ever be truly alienating?

eading Michael Faber's Under the Skin recently, I realised how rarely I read a book after watching its adaptation to screen. I'm not sure if this is a hangover from my teenage conviction that the book would always be better; if I am interested in something I tend to read the book first or not at all.

But Jonathan Glazer's recent adaptation of Faber's novel, starring Scarlett Johansson as its mysterious main character, left me both intrigued and disappointed; because it was beautifully made and speculative, but also in many ways so tame.

In both book and film a young woman drives around Scotland picking up hitchhikers whom she proceeds to evaluate by criteria that may take us a while to work out. She then either drops them off safely, or takes them home (drugged in the book, though not in the film). It soon becomes clear that the young woman is not from this planet at all. Faber's novel makes explicit that the men she kidnaps are being processed and sent to her home planet for food.

Both book and movie, then, have a non-human protagonist looking upon a human world, but what they do with her is very different. In the film Johansson's character remains an enigma, never even named. Glazer's alterations to the plot shift the action to cities and we're given far more chance to watch human interactions from the outside, as it were. Yet, for all the invocation of the alien gaze, the film treats its humans as human, vulnerable (particularly its naked men) and familiar. It even gestures towards a narrative arc in which the alien observer is gradually humanised, or wants to be. It's a deeply andro-centric film.

his may be less true of Faber's book. Our access to Isserley's perspective (and her name!) gives us a connection to a completely alien world, fragments of class, economic and gender politics that hint at an entire existence to which our own species is largely unimportant. The word "human" is often used, but it's very quickly made clear that Isserley is referring to her own kind, not ours. She is wholly matter-of-fact about the place of the creatures she calls vodsels; they (we) are a resource and her professional responsibility, but no more. Unlike sheep (Isserley's people are furry quadrupeds who I imagine to resemble llamas), they don't even look human.

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Glazer’s alterations to the plot shift the action to cities and we’re given far more chance to watch human interactions from the outside, as it were. Yet, for all the invocation of the alien gaze, the film treats its humans as human, vulnerable (particularly its naked men) and familiar.

"The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphise. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous to human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions." Isserley knows that we turn things into people by recognising that they are like ourselves; at one point in the book she lies to a visitor from her own land, telling him that the shapes scratched out by the captive vodsels (they form the word "mercy") are meaningless — to recognise that they too have a language would confer personhood upon them and jeopardise the whole enterprise.

And I wonder if this notion, that we cannot speak of aliens or grant them subjectivity without humanising them is at the heart of this book as well. I praise Faber's book for giving us an alien character whose life does not revolve around the human; but the conditions of Isserley's own culture very deliberately echo those of our own. Under The Skin is too sophisticated a novel to be merely a satire on the economics of food production, but that aspect is present. In this sense, Glazer's rendering of Isserley as a nameless, unreadable creature may come closer to the sort of truly alien (and perhaps alienating) narrative I crave. I don't know if such a narrative is even possible, and yet I wish someone would attempt it.

 
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