Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) by Jack Finney

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
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Sometimes reading 50s horror feels like taking medicine. I know that it’s good for me–that it enhances my knowledge of the genre–but I find the characters flat, the plots hackneyed, and the fictional worlds generally inaccessible. So imagine my surprise when, sitting down to “endure” Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955), I found myself really enjoying it. The protagonist feels surprisingly modern, and the elements that are dated have developed an interesting patina. Take the pod people, for instance. While they might have been figures of dread during the Cold War, now their lifestyle is aspirational. It’s interpretive reversals like this that make Finney’s classic a fun read for contemporary audiences.

Miles Bennell is a young, recently divorced doctor with a private practice in his hometown of Mill Valley, California. One evening, his old flame Becky Driscoll visits with a disturbing story: Her cousin Wilma insists that her Uncle Ira–Wilma’s father–is no longer himself but rather a clone, a convincing reproduction of the man who raised her. Soon, several people in town are making similar claims about their loved ones. Confronted with an imposter epidemic and increasingly unconvinced by rational explanations, Bennell begins to connect the change in his neighbors with the enormous seed pods discovered at the Parnell Barn. Can Miles and Becky save Mill Valley from this uncanny enemy, a tenacious lifeform that will do anything to survive?

Characters in books of this vintage often strike me as wooden with about as much depth as paper dolls: Men are men and women are women in the most conventional sense of these terms. Which is why Finney’s representation of gender felt so contemporary or–since modern society still celebrates toxic masculinity–let’s say aspirational. Surprisingly attuned to his feelings, Miles clearly identifies his negative emotions and acknowledges his need for companionship. At the start of the novel, he’s lonely and depressed but Becky’s appearance inspires joy and excitement–and he isn’t ashamed to admit it. Moreover, as a doctor, he’s remarkably sensitive to Wilma’s strange complaint. Rather than dismissing her as an hysterical female, he takes her doppelganger story seriously and treats her with a level of respect that would be hard to find in a modern practitioner. 

This isn’t to say that the novel is a treatise on gender equity. Becky and Theodora rush to perform domestic labor, gladly cooking for Miles in his own home. But they aren’t reduced to servants or sex objects. Though he is a writer and traffics in figures of speech, Jack credits Theodora with a particularly apt metaphor: She noticed that the transformation of alien “blanks” from generic human forms to detailed individuals is analogous to the 2-phase process of medallion printing. While Jack relays his wife’s thoughts, which is a disappointment, Becky speaks for herself. She offers an astute analysis of the ways in which gender representation in film shapes real-world behavior and devises a plan that uses the aliens’ biases against them. Smart and brave–she demands action when Miles would prefer to hide, she’s also comfortable with her sexuality. Becky’s recently divorced (read “experienced”) and stays at Miles house without any qualms about appearances and reputation. 

While Finney gives Miles a nuanced inner life and a complete emotional palette, he makes clear that social masks are more important than true feeling; and it is this emphasis on artifice that, I think, dates the book. While crouching under a window on Becky’s porch, eavesdropping on the clones around the kitchen table, Miles recalls an anecdote about Billy, the black shoeshine, who “was everyone’s notion of what a ‘character’ should be” (133). He flattered his white patrons with silly titles of rank–”Captain,” “General,” and “Lieutenant”–and admired their choice of footwear, polishing their egos as vigorously as their shoes. Indeed, Billy seemed to relish kneeling at their feet and cared little, if at all, for the few coins he was paid. One morning, while in “a run-down section of town,” Miles overhears Billy complaining to another black man about his job. In an explosion of repressed anger, the shoeshine bitterly mimics his customers’ naivete and his own servility, mocking the notion–to which his clients subscribe–that he loves nothing more than handling their feet. Miles remembers this incident because the aliens’ parody of his own social mannerisms–his neighborly greetings, his bedside manner–are as ugly and astonishing to him as Billy’s venom. As the aliens’ drink coffee and banter, Miles knows with absolute certainty that “they [are] not human beings at all” (136). In other words, the clones are inhuman, not because they emerged from seed pods, but because they cannot seamlessly maintain their socially dictated personas.

The tale of Billy looms large in my reading because it’s the first time in the novel that the historical distance between Miles and me felt absolutely undeniable. For most modern readers, Billy’s unguarded expressions of self–his resentment, rage and shame in the face of oppression–are precisely the responses that make him human; while, for Miles, it’s the temporary slippage of Billy’s mask that makes him unrecognizable, a monster among men. And, indeed, Miles presents the anecdote with its high-pitched climax as a kind of horror story, part and parcel of his larger invasion narrative: Before the pod people arrived, there were already “aliens”–marginalized and ultimately unknowable creatures–lurking amongst the unsuspecting residents of Mill Valley. How very frightening for them. 

What Miles finds disconcerting about the aliens–their flouting of social norms–is what makes them so endearing to me. They openly question the American truism that we must always be striving and that peaks of emotion–whether strong feelings of achievement or joy–are normal. Maybe, as Mannie suggests, we would enjoy our lives more if we just dialed it back a little. “Ambition, excitement–what’s so good about them?” he asks Miles. Without these extreme feelings, converts to the alien way find that “It’s peaceful, it’s quiet. And food still tastes good, books are still good to read” (183). You’ve convinced me, Mannie. For so many of us, our sense of self-worth is wrapped up in belongings and displays of wealth. In contrast, the aliens, much to the annoyance of traveling salesmen, practice austerity, purchasing the bare minimum and avoiding waste. This is behavior to emulate, not criticize as Miles does. Nor do they sink money and time into home maintenance and yard work. Miles is distressed by the increasingly degraded appearance of the neighborhood–the chipped paint, sagging porches, and overgrown hedges. But when it comes to keeping up with the Jones–the middle-class pastime of looking like you have endless disposable income for home improvement–the aliens are profoundly indifferent. It’s admirable. 

In the end, I was sad that the aliens were defeated. Not only because they would be better stewards of the planet, but because it’s an implausable conclusion. They had already converted the majority of Mill Valley; and it’s ridiculous to think that a small, quickly doused fire would have sent them running. The ending is a cop-out: It’s easier to imagine the resumption of normal human activity than it is to envision a strange little town in which people shop less, spend more time with friends, and feel calm, undisturbed by the extreme drives and desires that make it so challenging to focus on the present moment. 

Before I wrap up, a quick note on reprints: If you have the 60th anniversary edition, do yourself a favor and skip Dean Koontz’s foreward which is full of absurd and inflammatory rhetoric. For instance, discussing the de-individualizing forces of modernity, he claims that “half” of existing environmental organizations exhibit fascist tendencies and that “many” of them push an anti-human agenda. These claims have no basis in reality. Nor do his statements about personal computers and the internet. Ignoring the experience of most people under 50, Koontz claims that it is impossible to form real friendships online because digital spaces are “ideally suited to the sociopath.” The internet and environmentalists are just signs of the downward spiral that began when we lost our religious faith. According to Koontz, when we stopped believing in the immortal soul, we struck a fatal blow to the concept of individuality. In other words, if we see ourselves as part of nature, as the result of evolutionary processes, then we can’t appreciate the uniqueness and value in particular instantiations of our species. Koontz’s line of thinking blows my mind because it’s precisely this attitude–that we must divorce ourselves from and dominate nature–that has led to the environmental and humanitarian crises that we now face. After all, if you think that God made you separate and special, then it’s easier to justify the exploitation of other sentient beings. Koontz’s foreward does a real disservice to this book by preparing readers to expect an elaboration of the bogus ideas he’s promulgating. Finney’s work is so much better than that.

  


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