The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber, Canongate, 592 pp, £12.98, ISBN: 978-1782114062
Michel Faber’s latest book, the enigmatically titled The Book of Strange New Things, is an intriguing phenomenon. An exploration of a pastor-cum-missionary sent to a new planet to bring Christianity to the alien inhabitants, leaving his much-loved wife behind on earth, the novel is not sci-fi and not romance; nor could it be called religious fiction. Such generic ambiguity, of course, is no issue. Many contemporary fictions seek to subvert genre categories. Yet in the case of Faber’s novel the shifts make for an instability of tone that disrupts involvement. At times parody, and at times beautifully sincere, The Book of Strange New Things seems itself uncertain of what ‑ and how ‑ to be.
Faber is well-known as a high-quality experimental novelist and short story writer, whose books, differing dramatically, showcase an impressive range in style and subject matter. Perhaps his best-loved work is The Crimson Petal and the White, which became a bestseller in the USA and in several countries in Europe. The Book of Strange New Things has also been well-received. Yet its odd tonal inconsistency has gone unnoticed.
“They seldom missed an opportunity to show kindness to strangers.” It’s a line that stands out, for a variety of reasons, and not all of them good. The words echo Blanche DuBois, of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, whose reliance on the kindness of strangers is a stark, sad necessity, emphasising her loneliness and utter isolation, along with the impossibility of her ever finding comfort in the living reality of good friendship. “Whoever you are,” she says to the doctor who is taking her to a mental hospital, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” As the play’s most famous line, it is not a formula to be used elsewhere without invoking irony.
Another literary ghost of the phrase is the title of one of Ian McEwan’s early books, The Comfort of Strangers. In that sombre, macabre novel, Colin and Mary find themselves enchanted by the handsome Italian Robert and his wife, Caroline. The latter’s relationship seems dark and frightening, yet Colin and Mary are drawn to it as magnets; their own relationship becomes rejuvenated, their desire rekindled, and they grow sexually more adventurous, to the extent that their intercourse gains a momentum of its own and threatens to take over their relationship altogether. It is the strangers, Robert and Caroline, who are the source of their sexual thrill—a fact that becomes increasingly terrible as the denouement reveals that the strangers are locked in a sadomasochistic ritual obsession, which swells inexorably to murder. Sexual excitement gained by way of violence, fear and a freefalling ecstasy of loss of control needs only the slightest push to spiral into the stuff of horror. Here the comfort of strangers is no more than the exoticism of the unknown, comforting only until it turns hideous. The title of McEwan’s disturbing tale echoes with as much irony as Blanche’s naive, docile and grotesquely misplaced trust.
An odd phrase, then, to find on page 5 of Michel Faber’s latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things. It is used, apparently sincerely, by Faber’s protagonist, Peter, a Christian pastor who, with his wife, Bea, tries as much as possible to show kindness to strangers. The phrase feels odd in the mind of anybody, carrying with it something insincere and slightly disturbing: who tells themselves that they “seldom miss” the chance to be kind? There is a kind of self-stroking flattery in the phrase: a sense of complacency incompatible with the sincerity appropriate to a genuine act of kindness. These are the sort of words no well-meaning person explicitly applies to themselves, not unless their kindness is not about kindness at all but about regarding oneself with a preening glee. The phrase thrills with irony, and not just because of its two powerful ironic precedents. The incongruity of phrase and action, in the voice of the person committing the action, calls for suspicion.
All well and good, were Peter a character to merit suspicion. But he is not: quite the opposite. Nor is this the only phrase incongruous with its speaker. The book’s early pages are marred by such references, which, operating as reminders of the “Christianity” of the two main characters, do so in ways that few Christians would recognise. In fact the sense of Christianity that emerges seems to take as its telos a faux kind of self-congratulation. That Peter is religious is a pivotal part of the book, as well as its plot, and yet in these early pages it doesn’t sit comfortably with him, even in the narrative of his own consciousness. It is as if Peter is secretly mocking himself, or being mocked by his creator.
Fortunately, this is a quality that disappears as the book continues, and it turns out that the creator – Faber ‑ isn’t laughing at his character at all. But this makes the presence of this irony in the opening section even more of a hindrance. Consider Peter’s remembrance of his lovemaking with Bea. He is departing to another planet and a new civilisation to spread the word of God; he and Bea do not know when they will see each other again. Peter thinks of their last sexual intercourse. “Afterwards,” we are told,
Joshua [the cat] had jumped back on the bed and tentatively laid one forepaw on Peter’s naked shin, as if to say, Don’t go; I will hold you here. It was a poignant moment, expressing the situation better than language could have, or perhaps it was just that the exotic cuteness of the cat put a protective furry layer over the raw human pain, making it endurable. Whatever. It was perfection. They’d lain there listening to Joshua’s throaty purr, enfolded in each other’s arms, their sweat evaporating in the sun, their heart-rates gradually returning to normal.
This is cheesy stuff. It’s also odd. Whose is the voice? The third person narrative shadows Peter’s mind and thoughts, and yet there’s a narrative inconstancy that disrupts immersion in the character. Peter is not the one doing the describing. The cluster of adjectives in the second sentence makes for a peculiar focus in a man occupied in memory. Aside from its hyperbole, the “exotic cuteness” of the cat is almost oxymoronic. Following that, the insistent adjectives of “protective furry layer” and “raw human pain” sound absurd considering what it is that Peter is remembering. Why the concentration on description and analysis, when he is thinking fondly of his wife, cat and home? But what really jars is that “Whatever”. It betrays a tonal inconsistency in Peter’s own mind. Either Peter holds his thought dear, and indulges it, willingly, in every aspect; or he laughs at it and thinks his interpretation of the event excessive, cutesy, stupid. For him to hold both attitudes at once requires more complexity in the portrayal of the memory, and more attention given to the incompatibility of the two attitudes, than is given here. If “Whatever” is Peter’s feeling then we want to know why he exhibits impatience with himself in remembering what appears also to have been a heartfelt occurrence. Like “they seldom missed an opportunity”, “Whatever” feels insincere, reminding us that this character is, along with his thoughts, authored. These are not words belonging to Peter’s voice.
Faber’s opening pages strain towards a presentation of Peter and Bea that remains unrealised. “Of course,” runs Peter’s mind,
everybody on earth had the power to reshape reality. It was one of the things Peter and Beatrice talked about a lot. The challenge of getting people to grasp that life was only as grim and confining as you perceived it to be. The challenge of getting people to see that the immutable facts of existence were not so immutable after all.
As a depiction of Christianity, this is not immediately recognisable. It is certainly not authentic to the Christianity that Peter and Beatrice are shown later to practise and to hold in their hearts: a Christianity that shapes their actions and drives their conduct, and is powerful, sincere and silent. Later in the book there is none of the valedictory piety that overwhelms these early pages. Peter even thinks, for instance, that he and Bea “would have to trust that getting squashed flat by a 44-ton lorry was not in God’s plan”. If this is a sincere hope it sounds like a joke. If this is a joke then why the jovial mention of God by someone supposed to believe wholeheartedly in “God’s plan”? The invocation of God sounds as if Peter is laughing at himself, mocking his own belief. Of course, this would be justified if he was: if Peter’s Christianity was something Peter himself found funny. But he doesn’t. Instead it, along with Bea, is the most important thing in the world to him.
The fault is not confined to the pastor’s inner voice. Before Peter’s flight, he and Beatrice see a woman stealing from the duty-free shop in the airport. Wondering what to do, Bea asks, “So, as Christians, we should just let her get on with stealing?” Peter replies, “As Christians, we should spread the love of Christ. If we do our job right, we’ll create people who don’t want to do wrong.” This sounds like a theoretical discussion of Christianity by people who have never before heard of it, not a couple who have lived for years with their faith and who hold it at the core of their existence. The self-consciousness of “as Christians” is clumsy in both characters, turning them into caricatures. Both Peter and Bea seem to be characters made of Christian ingredients, who speak and think in ways incompatible with who they profess to be. If the third person narrative was not one identified with Peter, this might still work, encouraging the reader to view these narrative specimens with a distant and sardonic eye. One might be forgiven for thinking that neither, really, is a Christian at all. In fact, this was exactly my experience: because of these narrative oddities, I was waiting for a plot-twist, revealing that Peter hated religion and mocked all Christians. But it never comes. He and Bea are supposed to be real.
A few pages later ‑ and we’re still in the first thirty pages of this six-hundred-page novel ‑ in conversation with a non-religious family, Peter and Bea are “perfectly united in purpose”, intent on the possibility of converting their interlocutors. “They’d done this hundreds of times before. Conversation, genuine unforced conversation, but with the potential to become something much more significant if the moment arose when it was right to mention Jesus.” The second sentence has a sense of an eerie excitement about it that feels quite disturbing, as if Peter and Bea’s most heightened moments of existence come at these points. (Maybe it does: hundreds?) It goes on in a similar way: “Maybe that moment would come; maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe they would just say ‘God bless you’ in parting and that would be it. Not every encounter could be transformative. Some conversations were just amiable exchanges of breath.” The triplet of maybes emphasises the sense of anticipation begun by the previous sentence. The idea that the couple should be so excited by the prospect of mentioning the words Jesus or God does not sit with their existence as Christians in a country where Christianity not only exists but is a majority faith. Peter and Bea are not exceptions, stunned in the delight of discovering Christianity’s existence. It shouldn’t feel so novel to them. Faber writes about Christianity as if it is a mystical rumour, and his view determines Peter’s.
This means that the quality of Peter’s Christianity feels false. His religion seems to make everything easy to him. “If it weren’t for God, the almighty vacuum [of human insignificance] would be too crushing to endure, but once God was with you, it was a different story.” But God is not an easy or simple answer. A pastor, working with men and women whose plight it is his vocation to care for, would not dismiss their difficulties as straightforwardly as this. Nor would he see God as a tasty tonic. Take one pinch of belief and swallow whole. The sentence above captures the simplistic nature of Peter’s thought-process. The momentum towards the turning-point, the but, carries the first two clauses forward, so that the “almighty vacuum” can never take on its full significance as something worth encountering. The “but” informs the sentence from the beginning. Peter’s narrative voice knows where it is going; and where it is going is easy-street, where human misery is not something to be taken seriously. Peter sweeps it simply aside: it isn’t just that the vacuum is no longer too crushing to endure; it isn’t anything at all; it’s a mistake. This view of humanity and of human life is not the Christian approach. Worse, in terms of the novel, is that it is not Peter’s approach either. Human suffering troubles him. He takes his vocation as pastor immensely seriously, and he is good at it. It’s not the plot that betrays him, it’s the voice of his consciousness that Faber provides.
Later, talking with Grainger, a woman struck by sadness, Peter registers the look she gives him, “a look that he’d seen on thousands of faces during his years as a pastor, a look that said: Nothing is worth getting excited about; everything is a disappointment. He would have to try to do something about that look, later.” He cares, and he tries, and he is, apparently, a good man. But his Christianity is felt from without. Even this sentence frames the exteriority of his inner thoughts. They seem imposed on him: the Christian thoughts that a Christian pastor ought to have. Instead his thoughts at such moments comes across as superior, self-satisfied, and, most self-defeating, as unsympathetic. One would not think that, a mere page before, Peter has struggled with doubt and difficulty himself. In his narrative voice he seems almost to thrive on the unhappiness of others. This felt-without quality defeats the depiction of a sincere Christian character; instead, what we have is someone obsessed with his Christianity in a way that keeps him from identifying with others. Peter never recognises Grainger’s pain; instead, he sees the role for himself in her life. There is something curiously self-centring about it.
This is a shame, because The Book of Strange New Things becomes more and more intriguing and insightful as it continues, gaining in complexity and, with it, narrative sincerity. The book has received good reviews for its presentation of relationships (and even for its authentic portrayal of Christianity). But the tonal strangeness I’ve looked at is not just a tic, easily brushed aside; in some way, these blips constitute the narrative of the early book, so that as a whole it makes for an erratic reading experience. Authentic is not an epithet that jumps to mind. And yet the book’s beauty and power increases as the storyline emerges and narrative subtlety grows. Peter’s voice becomes more natural; there are less awkward, self-conscious, reminders that he is a Christian. Instead, the narrative just accepts it, and the story is able to evolve. Perhaps it is only once the plot gets going, and Faber feels that his protagonist is sufficiently proven to be Christian, that he is willing to leave all the ear-marking references behind. But the novel would be better from the beginning, exhibiting the strength and beauty it shows compellingly throughout the novel’s latter half, if Peter and Beatrice were less I am Christian and more their Christian selves.