Thursday, September 25, 2014

Michel Faber's "The Book of Strange New Things": Book Review

I have enjoyed all of Michel Faber's fiction, from sly fables to his eerie alien-on-Earth examination as Under the Skin to his triple-decker epic about a prostitute fending for herself in the labyrinth of decadent Victorian London, The Crimson Petal and the White. Faber displays calm aplomb in inventing fresh tales. Faber tends to peer in at human activities with slight discontent, and to present our foibles and ambitions to us as if with a faint air of disapproval or unease. He escorts us into intricate scenes amid inventive locales. Faber keeps readers wondering, through his unruffled, spare, and steady narrative style. He reminds readers of his skill in creating narratives which disorient us, even as they entertain. His subtle detachment doesn't weaken his literary craft, but it sharpens it, for we see through him our own estrangement.

In The Book of Strange New Things, Faber explores Christianity  (mocked memorably in his novella The Fire Gospel) but he (except in one welcome chapter of this more dour new novel) dampens any satire about faith and belief. Instead, we scrutinize a short span in the life of Peter Leigh. He's a reformed English alcoholic and addict who has turned his life over to Christ. He is recruited for a mission to minister the Gospel to natives. We soon learn they live not on our planet, but another, called Oasis by a shadowy corporation, USIC, which colonizes it.

Chauffeured to Cape Canaveral for his space flight, Peter admits he has no idea what USIC stands for. "Search me,' said the driver. 'A lot of companies these days got meaningless names. All the meaningful names have been taken. It's a trademark thing.'" Although Peter seems to be correct that the first part stands for United States, this multinational firm furthers a enigmatic corporate mission, a truly universal one, so to speak, which will extract energy and resources from Oasis. Faber, keeping the scope of USIC's cosmic ambitions shadowy, heightens their impact upon their newest employee.

Leigh leaves behind his wife, Bea, on a near-future Earth wracked by freakish weather, natural disasters, and social breakdown. The distance between this couple, conveyed by their transcribed transmissions, demonstrates Faber's skill in evoking a fraught relationship. Leigh's own confusion begins to grow despite his debriefing and training as to USIC's protocol. On arrival at Oasis, Peter finds "a red button on the wall labelled EMERGENCY, but no button labelled BEWILDERMENT".

Such suspense throughout The Book of Strange New Things remains vivid, for in Faber's alert depiction we must watch him, always at center stage. Faber juxtaposes the tension of Peter's first assignment, to create an ad hoc eulogy for a coworker he barely has had time to meet, with the news of Bea's pregnancy back on Earth. She tells Peter of its devastation from climate change and economic implosion. By contrast, the placid testimony by colonists and Oasans, as far as Peter can discern, appears to cloak two mysteries: what USIC intends, and why a few natives have embraced the Good News. The abyss between a dying Earth and USIC's coddled comforts on Oasis deepens.

Confronting human colleagues chosen for "no drama", Peter struggles to learn why USIC has sent him to Oasis, and why its some of its inhabitants wish to so fervently adopt the Christian message. Cut off from an increasingly fraught Bea and a home planet whose problems he cannot solve, he strives to rise to his new calling as a chaplain. Meanwhile, adjusting to the indigenous diet and trying to talk like an Oasan, he begins to drift away from the mentality of an earthling. Isolated from his colleagues, his brain starts to scatter, as "it sifted intimacies and perceptions, allowed them to trickle through the sieve of memory, until only a token few remained, perhaps not even the most significant ones".  In turn, he immerses himself into his task, to translate some of the Bible, and to go native as much as possible. Tension increases between his devotion and the mindset of his USIC comrades.

It's refreshing to finish five-hundred pages, which I read in two sittings, that refuse to show off a writer's style or parade his own predilections. Faber manages to speak through Leigh sympathetically. Committed to his calling, Peter honestly responds to all who need him, human or alien, as he strives to do good. Even the USIC plant's heliostats, for solar power collection and storage, cause Peter to be moved by "their inanimate confusion. Like all creatures in the universe, they were only waiting for the elusive light which would grant them purpose". Yet, the omnipotent author remains separate from his troubled protagonist, for we learn of his thoughts only by indirect first person narration, and through the letters Peter and Bea exchange from a vast distance, as their own estrangement widens.

For instance, Peter begins to regard himself, cut off from familiar surroundings and stimulation, differently as he ministers more to the natives than to his own needs. As he preaches to the Oasans, and as he learns their language, he increases his cultural dislocation. "He imagined the scene from above--not very high above, but as if from a beach lifeguard's observation tower. A tanned, lanky, blonde-haired man in white, squatting on brown earth, encircled by small robed figures in all the colours of the rainbow. Everyone leaning slightly forward, attentive, occasionally passing a flask of water from hand to hand. Communion of the simplest kind." Faber leaves these analogies with previous holy men or desert scenes for us to fill in. Their sketchiness enables the reader to view Peter's maturation and his acceptance of a hard-earned wisdom. Faber hints at an objective response, but he presents us only with Peter's subjective resolve. This unfolds convincingly, as this novel with its cautious pace takes its time to portray Peter's transformation on Oasis into a different person.

The novel is simply told. The desert climate of Oasis and its vaporous atmosphere challenge Leigh and his human coworkers to endure its harsh environment, mentally and physically. Endurance dwindles for a few. Faber keeps mum about the back story regarding both planet and the corporation he dramatizes. Whoever knows more about USIC, the Oasans, and the mission Peter joins is not telling. As in Faber's previous fiction, the situation the protagonist meets appears to be more complex than what this idealistic but flawed Everyman can fully comprehend. Not all questions find answers.

Therefore, the ambiguity in this tale, and the "elusive" purpose for which Leigh has been recruited and USIC set up so far away may not find full clarification, any more than the message of Jesus may find complete explication for Oasis' natives, or for Peter Leigh himself. While he imagines success, the ultimate lesson of this philosophical novel may lie in its acceptance instead of what one of Leigh's predecessors may have found, during his own "ecstasy of derision". Faber leaves us, along with Peter, wondering about these elusive and haunting, yet ultimately poignant and down-to-earth, life lessons.
(As above 10-21-14 to PopMatters, originally in shorter form 9-15-14 to Amazon US)

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