THAT the name of the protagonist of Michel Faber’s spellbinding, heartbreaking and mind-bending new novel, The Book Of Strange New Things, is Peter is hardly coincidental. The book opens with Peter and his wife, Beatrice, having impassioned but melancholic sex in the back of their car before Peter departs to take up a new job. Indeed, it is more than a mere employment opportunity: it is a mission. Just beforehand, Peter had confessed to loving the man-made lighting on the way to Heathrow, and was musing on how the idea that ‘unspoiled nature is supposed to be the ultimate in perfection’ buckles when one considers what travelling in the ‘total darkness’ of the ‘natural state of the world’ might actually be like. That conversation will haunt the reader, as will the neat foreshadowing in the ‘vaguely humanoid shape’ of a hitchhiker the couple pass before their elegiac tryst. This is very much a book that rewards re-reading; its subtle echoes and wisps of allusion reverberate across the text like the minimalist music of Philip Glass.
The first reveal: Peter and Beatrice are committed Christians, who use the word ‘crisis’ whenever an unbearable urge to break the third commandment and take the Lord’s name in vain steals upon them. Peter goes to the airport’s Prayer Room and reads the plaintive, angry, tender and sarcastic comments in the visitors’ book. The two of them worry about the divine sanction of his decision to accept the position: ‘You don’t feel God’s hand in this?… Do you think He would send me all the way to – ’. So far this novel could be social realism until we reach the second reveal. We already know that Peter’s career change is being funded by the shadowy acronym USIC (I can’t help hearing ‘you sick’ when leafing back through the book in order to write this review) and that the transport alone is costing millions of dollars. Peter is being sent to Oasis, humanity’s first extra-terrestrial colony, because, we later learn, the indigenous aliens – a lovely paradox – have demanded a man of the cloth. Peter, of course, was the first earthly apostle, originally named Simon and renamed by Jesus as a pun on petrus, stone, the rock on which the Church is founded.
Before Peter can meet the Oasans, we have a beautiful sequence of scenes: the nausea-inducing and eerily vague descriptions of the actual journey to Oasis, with its horrendous version of interplanetary jet-lag; the Vonnegut-esque evocation of the stultifyingly boring, bureaucratically repressive and devil-may-care cynicism of the human colony – sorry, community. It’s a place of Patsy Cline and outdated pornography, heavy engineering and light fizzy drinks deducted from your wage, where Peter has been told that ‘food is provided whenever we need it’ and a new colleague informs him ‘you just gotta make sure you don’t need it at the wrong time’. Then there is Peter’s encounter with the planet itself, its three-day long nights and its green water, its aquamarine sky and its lack of a moon, its humidity and its barrenness. He also meets Grainger, a smart-mouthed, snarky woman from the American South, who becomes a foil-y kind of friend. She takes him to the Oasan settlement, on a regular drop-off of the pharmaceuticals they crave as much as the Gospel.
Then we meet the Oasans. Like China Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer rather than H P Lovecraft, who nearly always gave us almost precise height, weight and number of tentacles statistics for his ‘weird’, Faber leaves a glorious smudge of ambiguity. ‘Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses – maybe three-months-old twins, hairless and blind – nestled head to head, knee to forehead. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s clefted cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged into a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain – in some form unrecognisable to him – a mouth, nose, eyes’.
There’s a phrase in fan discussions about Star Trek – ‘Forehead Of The Week’ – meaning why do other life-forms so often look like badly disguised humans. Faber resists this with elegance: your mind can’t visualise an Oasan. Nor can your tongue imitate one. The book drops in alternate graphemes to convey the Oasan’s inability, with their alien tongues or teeth or lips, to say ‘t’ or ‘s’. The use of different typographies and fonts can often be a sign of lazy writing. When an author just clicks up the font size box to represent shouting, it is because they can’t convey shouting in words alone. Faber is ingenious in this respect: the reader has to decode the Oasan’s approximation of the sounds of English. It ramps up the extent of our ability to decipher. The reader has, by the end, to become alien and alienated.
Across this narrative there are Peter’s letters to Beatrice, full of confusion, optimism and the reveals of why he became a Christian. We have Beatrice’s letters, ‘shot’ into the void, describing a world that Peter thought he was leaving but was in fact escaping. As she sends letters from a Ballardian future, he becomes a variant on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the man undone by innocence. Beatrice is a sly reference to Dante, for as Peter inches towards Heaven, she spirals into a wholly man-made Hell.
Each of Faber’s chapters is headed by a phrase, with which the chapter itself concludes. When one realises this game of predestination, there is a visceral shiver across your brain. You start re-reading before you have finished the book. It extends and deepens Faber’s obvious interest in the relationship between damage and identity: like the tiger-striped heroine of The Crimson Petal And The White, desperately trying to have a life of plenty, or the uncomfortably human-ised A9 alien murderer of Under The Skin, the Oasans are about harm and hope. Faber’s central concern has been about bodies and how they let us down, and how the metaphysics that cocoon our fears let us down even more.
There are narrative hooks which propel the reader through the story. When Peter meets the Oasans for the first time, they touchingly sing ‘How Great Thou Art’ to the best of their physiologies. How do they know about religion? Why has it become embedded in their culture to the extent that they rename themselves ‘Jesus Lover Fifty-Four’ or ‘Jesus Lover Seventy-Eight’? I thought immediately of MacDiarmid’s ‘The Innumerable Christ’ – ‘An’ when the earth’s as cauld’s the mune / An’ a’ its folk are lang syne deid, / On countless stars the Babe maun cry / An’ the Crucified maun bleed’. Likewise, there is an element reminiscent of Conrad: will Peter ‘go native’, become a Kurtz of the cosmos? The human understanding of the ecosystem of Oasis is patchy at best – and a swarm of things is on the horizon (‘What are we gonna call these critters?’ someone asked. ‘Chickadees’. ‘Duckaboos’. ‘How about fatsos?’ ‘Woglets.’ ‘Xenomammals.’ ‘Flabbits.’ ‘Lunch!’)
Then there is a very Scottish dimension to The Book Of Strange New Things. The idealist minister, confronted with something utterly different and often attracted to someone despite themselves, forms a spine in our literary history through such novels as John Gibson Lockhart’s Adam Blair, John Buchan’s Witch Wood, JM Barrie’s Farewell Miss Julie Logan and James Robertson’s The Testament Of Gideon Mack and Ken MacLeod’s The Night Sessions. Peter is cut from the same cloth, though the resulting vestments are somewhat different.
The Book Of Strange New Things is Faber’s strongest, most plangent and most intellectually gleeful novel. It is affecting as much as it is challenging. It not only made me want to read his next book, but re-read his backlist immediately. Faber takes religion and religiosity seriously, and this is to be highly commended in these days of milquetoast secularism and horrendous extremism (and, one might add, a Christian church more concerned with its fissures than its fishers). The other novel which kept coming back to me was David Lindsay’s under-rated A Voyage To Arcturus, a significant influence on CS Lewis. The titular planet reshapes the body of the hero as he goes in search of the ultimate meaning, Crystalman, who, on the final pages, reveals his name on earth is Pain. There was once a school of critics who thought Knox’s Calvinism was the withered hand throttling the throat of creative endeavour in Scotland. We can now, I think, better appreciate the positive aspects of that legacy as well – rigour, self-examination, the individual voice over the collective call-and-response, the sense that we are transitory in this world – ‘for here we have no continuing city’. Faber’s bold, brave, brilliant novel weaves these themes seamlessly. It’s also, by the way, the most wonderful love story.
The Book Of Strange New Things
Canongate, £18.99, ISBN 978 1 78211 406 2, PP550