Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Michel Houellebecq – The Possibility of an Island (2005)

Why, you ask, read Michel Houellebecq now after I’ve ignored the much-lauded Atomised for so long? Iggy Pop’s brilliant new album Preliminaires is one of my top listens for 2009 (of which more soon), and the work is inspired by The Possibility… - so much so that one of the tracks is a spoken-word piece from the book itself. So in a somewhat unwonted spirit of failing to let preconceptions shape a good opinion, I embarked on the work. In some ways, I wasn’t surprised – the factors that I thought I’d dislike in Houellebecq’s work (sexual misogyny and two-dimensional female characters, ill-informed cod-sociohistorical analysis masquerading as fictocriticism) were there in spades. And indeed, I can’t say I liked the book overall. But it was definitely thought-provoking. In a sense, far from being a revolutionary writer Houellebecq is (re)exploring the grand themes of French literature – sex, death and ennui. The Possibility… takes up one of my least favourite themes in literature, and one which is common to the later works of many lionised male writers – the sorrows of aging, in particular in relation to sexuality (which never seems to stand in the way of affairs with nubile young nymphets). Indeed, the tropes which are put in this novel are surprisingly sentimental and banal – apart from the abovementioned, we also deal with love as ‘the only engine of survival’ (as another French-speaking artist put it), masculine jealousy, sexual activity as the ultimate (and indeed only) transcendence and engine on human activity, and the value of the unconditional and pure love between dogs and humans.

In many ways, indeed, Houellebecq is deeply conservative, a fact concealed by his celebration of sexual libertinism. The extreme suitability of science fiction as a vehicle for the moral fable is one which has been well-recognised, and Houellebecq’s tale – which alternates between the story of Daniel 1 (set in the present) and Daniel 25 (his neohuman clone in a post-apocalyptic future where the original humans live in what could be described as ‘barbarism’ while neohuman clones exist isolated, without physical contact with each other) – could be described in this way – albeit that the moral message is ambiguous. The narrative, such as it is, describes Daniel’s sexual and romantic life, intertwined with the story of the seeds of the neohuman society in a Scientologist-esque cult (the fascinating metaphysical questions raised by personal identity as a chain of clones remain underexplored). Houellebecq’s social commentary (which takes place in relation to a constant stream of current pop-culture references which sometimes give the impression that he’s trying a little too hard) swings wildly from extremely acute and original observations, to ones which are so far off that this reader (at least) wondered if there was something he was missing – not least in the somewhat saccharine poetry which peppers the work, or in imagining the rather ponderously philosophical narrator as a successful comedian. Indeed, overall these tendencies left me with the question – is it all a con job, purposefully constructed to induce impressed bemusement as a literary effect in itself, perhaps as a mirror in the reader’s consciousness of certain themes in the work? Or is this actually a blindness on the writer’s part to his own contradictions and critical tonedeafness? In this sense, the work was thought-provoking, although at the same time a more skilled writer, I think, would be capable of allaying such doubts. As a writer, Houellebecq creates some beautiful imagery, in particular of landscape, though I was infuriated by the constant run-on sentences (I’m unsure if this is a function of the translation, or exists in the original French) and some of the slang, in English, seemed oddly oldfashioned in relation to the worldwise (not to say worldweary) tone of the narration.

As I’ve mentioned, this is a book which is never less than thought-provoking – but I nonetheless think that Preliminaires, which brought me to it, is by far the better work. Ultimately, there is certainly something here, but I remain doubtful as to whether Houellebecq is indeed the cutting-edge talent he has so often been proclaimed to be.

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