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Quarantine Reading: Michel Faber’s The Book Of Strange New Things and Undying: A Love Story

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin (Photo courtesy of A24)

As a publication about film, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of publishing during a moment when theatrical access to movies, and their ongoing future, is as much in question as everything else. During this suspension of normal filmwatching habits, we’ve reached out to contributors, filmmakers and friends, inviting them to find an alternate path to the movies by participating in a writing exercise engaging with any book about or lightly intersecting with film, in whatever way makes sense to them. First up: filmmaker Audrey Ewell (Until the Light Takes Us, 99% — The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, Memory Box) on two works by Michel Faber. — Vadim Rizov

In Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, a preacher is hired by a megacorporation to travel to their base on an alien world. However, he’s not sent there to tend to the human contractors—mostly scientists and engineers, competent but distant, who shuffle through their days in a malaise. He’s there for the locals, the aliens, who requested a new preacher after the previous one went missing without a trace. If this sounds like the beginning of a thrilling science fiction whodunnit, you’re half right: there is a mystery in this novel. 

Back on Earth, the preacher has left behind his wife, Bea, a nurse. He had found his way to God through her, when she cared for him in the wake of an overdose. Now they send slow-traveling messages, akin to emails, back and forth across space. Her Earth is much like ours, but a few years hence. Climate catastrophes have made life increasingly precarious, there are food shortages, rampant crime, and the hospitals are overrun. Bea’s only companion is their cat. Left behind in this situation, her desperation, frustration, and anger mounts. There is tenderness, there are memories, but she feels—and perhaps was—abandoned in a frightening world. 

Meanwhile, the preacher becomes ever more absorbed into the strange quiet world, named Oasis, he now inhabits, a place where the sound of rustling leaves fills the treeless air, and rain falls in spirals. A sense of ennui holds sway, and he moves through his days slowly, wonderingly, as he tries to connect with the inscrutable, gentle aliens who tend the land and who seem to have found their own salvation in the stories of The Book of Strange New Things—the bible. Amid this almost pastoral life, a sense of impending doom rises, as the situation on Earth worsens.

I love this book. My filmmaking and life partner, Aaron Aites, and I had wanted to option it. This was before Aaron died, of course. Faber, an atheist who has said he tries to treat the yearning for meaning sympathetically, is probably most known in film circles for his novel Under The Skin, which was adapted into a film by Jonathan Glazer. 

So, can I tell you something a bit personal? When Aaron became sick—he had a fever, and a cough, and fatigue, and nausea—I became obsessed with The Book of Strange New Things. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Bronchitis, the doctor said. We accepted this news, as one does, and went home, and then I turned the novel over in my head, again and again it returned to my thoughts as I fell into its mood, one that enveloped me again completely. The slow moving crisis, trying to connect with others who we can’t understand, using the language we’ve learned from the person we love, as the distance grows ever greater between us… I didn’t know why it hit me as it did. As essential. It seemed like a riddle that my mind was working away at, as if there was an answer hidden somewhere in its soporific world that I couldn’t quite find, that I didn’t even know why I was searching for. And then Aaron was diagnosed with cancer, and everything changed. The book fell away, as did everything that wasn’t immediately concerned with keeping him alive. But it was impossible, and he died. 

A few months after, in the fog of grief, I remembered my strange fascination with the novel. I looked up Faber, to see if he had written anything new. That’s when I found his most recent work. It’s a book of poetry, Undying: A Love Story, written after the death of his wife. She had always been deeply involved in the writing of his novels, giving extensive feedback and notes. It turned out that she had been dying of cancer as he wrote The Book of Strange New Things. 

Perhaps that was the answer I’d been seeking. The mystery at the center of its pages. Perhaps some part of me knew, even then, that distance was growing between Aaron and I that I couldn’t overcome. That soon his life would be ending, and the unknowable would be sliding a door down between us. He would mysteriously vanish. 

I found tremendous resonance and whatever solace was possible in Faber’s book of poems. It’s extremely unsentimental. It doesn’t shy away from the physical horror of what happens to a body dying of cancer. He does not make himself out to be the perfect partner, graceful in the face of this deterioration. He is human, and she is human, and his tremendous pain and loss is evident, along with a terribly gentle love. 

What he captures so well in poems like “The Sorrento Hotel Invites You To Help Conserve Water” is the cognitive dissonance of after; of the overlapping realities that now exist every day, everywhere: the world as it was, just a moment ago it seems, as it would still be (if only), as you can so clearly imagine it. And the lonelier, quiet world that is the present, the physical reality of fact, unruffled by the messiness and vitality of another’s life beside you. 

“The Sorrento Hotel Invites You To Help Conserve Water”

I leave this hotel room the way I found it;

the bed so neat and spotless, it’s as though

nobody slept here, nothing happened, and instead

the guest just paced around it, fully dressed 

and, at the shrouded window, sat and traced 

the slow disintegration of the view.

The maids will love me: all they’ll need to do 

Is smooth the sheets a little, set the pillow straight, 

replace a plastic trinket of shampoo.

But late last night, if you’d been here with me,

after we’d talked about the food, the town,

the petty details of the day, and laid

our jetlagged bodies down to rest, I guarantee

we would have turned to face each other

and, in a heartbeat, been each other’s lover

and this huge bed, this monument of kitsch

would have been joyously unmade,

the pillows crushed, the quilt pulled down,

the blankets pitched onto the floor,

the sheets all churned and christened

with our smell.

And, in the morning, cleaning personnel would wheel

their trolley in, survey the scene, and understand

this bedroom held a woman and her man.

Wake-up call. You’re dead another day. 

The hotel hopes I have enjoyed my stay. 

Our culture is not terribly good at looking at death or grief head on. It’s difficult and painful and frightening. As an agnostic, I don’t share Faber’s certainty that death is the end. And that’s fine, nothing in these works asks me to. They simply, somehow, express in words the almost unspeakable and indefinable experience of the world changing irrevocably.

“The Sorrento Hotel Invites You To Help Conserve Water,” from Michel Faber’s Undying: A Love Story is © Canongate Books and is included here with permission.

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