The Book of Strange New Things (Michael Faber)

Posted: June 25, 2016 in fiction
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The Book of Strange New Things (Michael Faber)

All of my books are still packed up, so I just grabbed the e-reader and picked whatever I had downloaded most recently. So the reading of this book wasn’t exactly premeditated, but it was very good. This is a book intimately concerned with the idea of healing.

Peter blinked tears from his eyes, allowing him to see the doctor’s face in focus. The ragged scar on Austin’s jaw was as conspicuous as ever, but now, rather than wondering how Austin got it, Peter was struck by the scar’s essential nature: it was not a disfigurement, it was a miracle. All the scars ever suffered by anyone in the whole of human history were not suffering but triumph: triumph against decay, triumph against death. The wounds on Peter’s arm and leg (healing still), the scabs on his ears (gone now), every trifling scratch and burn and rash and bruise, thousands of injuries over the years, right back to the ankle-bones he’d broken the week before he’d met Bea, his skinned knees when he’d fallen off his bike as a kid, the nappy rash he’d probably experienced as a baby . . . none of them had stopped him being here today. He and Austin were comrades in stupendous luck. The gouge in Austin’s chin, which must have been a gory mess when it was first inflicted, had not reduced the entire head to a slimy lump; it magicked itself into fresh pink flesh.

And this is what human beings are: self-healing bags of meat and brain.

We are all specialized forms of survivor, Peter reminded himself. We lack what we fundamentally need and forge ahead regardless, hurriedly hiding our wounds, disguising our ineptitude, bluffing our way through our weaknesses. No one – especially not a pastor – should lose sight of that truth.

This book hit me in some very personal places, specifically in the person I was eight or ten years ago. Peter Leigh is a missionary, having been a pastor in England. He started out as a substance abuse addict and petty criminal, but then he met a nurse who introduced him to Christianity. He’s the sort of Christian that I was; more interested in loving and accepting people than in identifying who is going to hell. He’s physically separated from his pregnant wife, but he didn’t know she was pregnant when he went on the trip. They write letters to each other, but it’s not enough. His wife sounds a lot like The Ex; pregnancy and childbearing change women. I suppose they could change women in several different ways, but with Bea (and The Ex), she becomes more domestic, less adventurous, less willing to endure. The universe shrinks to the size of a uterus, which is constantly under attack from the world outside. The man involved is therefore permanently inadequate because his job description has changed without his knowledge. He still thinks the world is a good and happy place, unaware of the reason for the barrage of bitterness and paranoia from the formerly peaceful woman at his side. Peter and Bea have a bit of an extreme circumstance, but what they go through in their relationship is hardly unique.

Extreme circumstance, you say? Tell me more.

Bea is in England at the end of the world. Society is collapsing around her. She’s trying to hold together a job as a nurse in a hospital while being the emotional support for the people in their congregation, all while going through early pregnancy, and it’s too much strain for anyone to do that with grace. In Faber’s book, we’re only about six months away from Mad Max, or Lord of the Flies. Once the infrastructure goes, the garbage stops getting picked up and the lights go out, London falls prey to panic and gang rule, like America in every post-apocalyptic film you’ve ever seen. For Bea, the last straw is when street kids torture her cat and the vet puts it to sleep instead of healing it. I don’t get it myself, being unattached to pets, but she ditches God and country and finds a way to survive.

Peter, meanwhile, being the actual protagonist, has been given the job of ministering to aliens on a distant planet. Strange though that might seem, people who have never seen something as simple as a lake or the type of storm that gains strength over them, are drawn to the message about someone who could make the storm stop. Jesus promises that he will heal, and that those who love him will not die. The perfect message for a group of beings who cannot self-heal. These aliens do not have immune systems, so if something falls on a hand and there’s a bruise, it just stays bruised while the flesh rots and the person eventually dies. Some of the aliens accept Jesus, while others just lap up modern medicine. And that is the promise of humanity, what we have to give the universe: our ability to heal ourselves.

The people are completely alien. Bodies are vaguely human-shaped, but the face is nothing at all face-like. It puts most of the humans off. I found the alien faces difficult to visualize from Faber’s description; one of those cases where a picture would really have helped. As the aliens become more familiar, they actually became harder to visualize as Faber imagines them; the human tendency to see familiar ideas in familiar shapes took over, and in my mind their faces became increasingly human as I read.

This book is also interesting linguistically, because the aliens of course have their own language. They don’t seem to have vowels, and many of our consonants are difficult for them. And of course, being aliens, the familiar concepts of ancient Palestine are incomprehensible. Peter translates parts of the Bible into language that is easier for them, and sometimes they’re okay with it, but not always.

“The Lord be he who care for me,” he recited as he shuffled through the darkness. “I will need no more.” This voice was the same one he used for preaching: not strident, but quite loud and with each word articulated clearly. The moisture in the atmosphere swallowed the sounds before they had a chance to carry very far. “He bid me lie in green land down. He lead me by river where no one can drown. He make my soul like new again. He lead me in the path of Good. He do all this, for he be God. Yea, though I walk through the long dark corridor of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your care wand make me feel no harm can come. You feed me even while unfriendly men look on in envy. You rub healing oil on my head. My cup runneth over. Good unfolding and comfort will keep me company, every day of my life. I will dwell in the home of the Lord forever.”

It is easy to forget how beautiful words are when you’ve heard and sung them in set ways your entire life. Faber’s translations made these Bible passages new to me, made me pay attention to them, showed me their beauty in a new light. The Bible itself is The Book of Strange New Things from the title. I’m not saying I’m going back to that belief system, only that I can appreciate these words that have survived thousands of years.

It actually takes a lot for someone to die. The human body is designed not to quit.

I think this is true not only of the body, but of the . . . what can I call it? The human soul? Heart? Mind? The pain and confusion of being a prospective father rushed back on me this weekend, as well as the struggles of being someone called by God to love and serve humanity, whilst knowing oneself to be imperfect and inadequate. And being in love with someone you can’t touch, and having faith in what you can’t see, and adapting to a new culture so completely that you lose touch with your own, and being isolated and foreign everywhere. In some ways this book brought up some of my worst mental habits.

In the move, and adapting to the new living situation, I’ve not been taking care of myself as I ought. Insufficient sleep and nutrition are addling my head, which opens possibilities for religion and other things that present themselves as lifelines. I’m going to have to keep my self in check, no matter how hard that might be.

Peter isn’t the first missionary to these people. The first was Kurtzberg, who abandoned both the human and alien settlements to die alone. In the acknowledgments Faber says that he’s named for Jack Kirby, the comic book writer, but the name also gives the book this Heart of Darkness feel; when Peter runs into the mad linguist, I half-expect him to say, “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”

This is a good book. Maybe a little problematic for me, but if you don’t have my hangups, maybe it won’t be for you. It’s sad, though; no hopeful note at the end, and Peter’s final message to his flock is in their language. Maybe Faber gave us enough that if I had been taking notes I could figure out what he says to them, but I didn’t, so Peter’s message of doubt and apology is hidden from me. But when they forgive him, it’s a beautiful and touching scene.

After reading this, I can’t say how much of Peter’s religion Faber believes, but he presents it effectively, unlike some of the other Christian characters I’ve seen in recent British fiction. He also does a good job of presenting American speech without Britishisms, which is fantastically hard to do. Our speech is shaped by our surroundings, so when you live in Scotland your characters usually sound Scottish, or at least UK-English-speaking, but Faber gives us believable Americans. It’s nicely done.

Healing. Faith. Loss. Death. The end of one world and the beginning of something new. Survival. Technology used and rejected. Big issues, handled gently and realistically.

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