You can feel a subconscious life seething beneath the narrative in Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things. This is a book of secrets, only some of which are eventually revealed on the page. Like Faber's debut novel, Under the Skin, Book is a genre-twisting story told in a spare, dispassionate style. In brief, it sounds like a generic science-fiction novel: A missionary named Peter travels to a planet called Oasis to bring the word of God to an inscrutable race of aliens.
Faber offers a clue in the acknowledgements to one of the book's big mysteries by expressing his "appreciation for the team of writers, pencilers, and inkers who worked at Marvel Comics during the 1960s and 1970s, giving me such enjoyment as a child and ever since." In an interview at the Sorrento Hotel's Fireside Room, Faber happily elaborates on his homage, identifying characters' names—"Stanko is Steranko"—and explaining that he wanted to write a book that produced the sense of wonder and possibility he felt as a comics reader. But when asked why all the wonder in the book seems so banal from Peter's perspective, Faber responds in the cheerful-but-blunt manner of someone who spends a lot of time living away from people. "We become less credulous as we become older," he says. "If I'd written a work of literary fiction that was as wacky as the Lee/Kirby stories, then there would be very few grown-ups who could groove to that, because the comics were for children."
He's right: There's very little about Book that you could call wacky. Despite the sci-fi trappings, it's neither space opera nor adventure story. The narrative unfurls with graceful patience, consisting largely of electronic letters shared via a clumsy interplanetary interface between Peter and his earthbound wife, Bea. How best to describe the novel's texture? "Dreamlike" and "hallucinatory" aren't quite right. You can feel the rock-solid narrative girders Faber has constructed, and the alien planet's wet, thick atmosphere is richly described. Even Bea's faint dispatches from an Earth wracked with disasters, riots, and other end-time trappings feel honest and plausible. Still, you can feel something trapped within Peter's story trying to get your attention. If you put your ear to the book and flip around the pages, it almost sounds like screaming.
At the beginning of our interview, Faber reveals that his wife, Eva, died earlier this year of a rare form of cancer.
"This is the first trip I've done without her," Faber says. "It's great to be in the US again, and I'm being treated well by lots of lovely people, and it's always a privilege to be reminded that there are lots of people out there who love books, but it just hurts so much to know that I can't share this trip with her, and the good people I'm meeting are the people she'll never know. That's tough."
His shocking, disarming honesty instantly transforms Book, rewrites it, makes its subtext overt. (It also explains the author's glassy stare, which I had previously marked down to jet lag.) It's now the story of a man so blinded by a desire to share his narrative with strangers that he barely notices his wife's increasing alarm, a million miles away, at the apocalyptic changes happening at home.
Faber is an atheist who says he has "a great deal of respect for the Christian faith while at the same time thinking that it's preposterous and insubstantial." When I tell him I was pleasantly surprised that the book handled Christianity in such a respectful way, he tells me, "I could have had a riotous time satirizing religion, but there's an awful lot of books out there that already do that." His grief has taught him that "if religion is a delusion, then I think it's a very understandable delusion, and one that contains an enormous amount of pathos and poignancy, as well as being scary and ridiculous and all the other things that religion can be."
The author's respect for religion doesn't extend to missionary work. When I ask his personal opinion on his main character's vocation, he reveals that he read "a lot" of books written by missionaries while writing the novel. "What's fascinating about them is how paralyzingly boring they are," he says. "They are mind-numbingly dull." The thing they all share in common, he says, is that "you have people going to very exotic places and interacting with, to us, exotic peoples who have customs and behaviors which from an anthropological view we would adore to know about. But the missionaries have such tunnel vision that they're uninterested in who those people are and what they do. They're only interested to the extent that they get people into the church."
Faber is a gracious and blunt assessor of his own work—it's rare that an author openly discusses the meaning behind his stories. He says Book is about "imploring people to recognize the miraculousness of the human body and the way it can come back from any injury and any illness." The fact that his wife died of an incurable disease before its publication makes him "feel weird about the message of the book," he admits. "But I think overall it is still a valid message."
Novels are unruly creatures. Sometimes not even their authors can tame them. Book depicts a battle between grief, guilt, and powerlessness that Faber seems not to consciously understand. The writing, the story itself, and the passing of his wife are inextricably linked, as are the tangled strands of religion, realism, and imagination in his writing.
Unlike his approach to previous novels, Faber wrote Book without a clear outline for the story, thinking that it would add to the book's sense of mystery. "I did that for a few chapters, and I was very pleased with that decision," he says. "And then my wife was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. It then became impossible to write." His wife had always been his first reader, and even through her illness could see he needed an outlet. "Sometime during 2013, Eva just said, 'Look, just write six lines a day. That's all I ask of you. Just six lines a day. You can do that.'"
He found he could. At first, progress on the book sputtered back to life at the glacial pace of those six lines each day. "But then something happened," Faber recalls. "I was able to write more, and I did then manage to finish it in her lifetime." Knowing that the life seething under the narrative arises from a death can't help but illuminate the novel's majestic sadness. The Book of Strange New Things is a good-bye and an apology from a man who knows he's writing the last thing a loved one will ever read. And since our interview, Faber has sworn that Book is the last novel he'll ever write.