Thursday, January 24, 2008

Michel Houellebecq - The possibility of an island

Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of and island, his fourth novel, has, like his previous efforts, been somewhat controversial. Hoellebecq appears to consciously court controversy. That, perhaps, should ring alarms.

In essence, this story is one of extreme nihilism, where the apogee of achievement appears to be a blowjob or a bumfuck with a twenty-year-old girl. Love is not to be sought, nor approved: when it arrives, unwanted and unwonted, its shock is overpowering and, in the end, undesirable.

What, instead, Houellebecq depicts for society is a dystopian world where DNA is stored and manipulated, where future generations – mutated replicas of today's fin-de-siecle humans such as the main character Daniel – do not eat, cannot understand love, have no means of personal communication. No-one dies, because a new version of that person will be reproduced from the stored DNA immediately – not precisely the same, because he inhabits a new body with new thoughts, but with identical DNA and with access to the thoughts of all previous incarnations, back to Number One, back, in the case of the main character, to the genesis of it all, the misanthropic Daniel1. This is territory Houellebecq has covered before, notably in Atomised, which similarly created a hell-world of dehumanised disconnection.

This comes out most, of course, this being Houellebecq, in sex. The book is awash with it, to the extent that the reader begins to find it as enervating as Daniel. It takes a certain anti-genius to make depictions of a beautiful, willing and happy nubile young woman, devoid equally of knickers and scruples and offering up any and every orifice to a middle-aged main character, and leave this equally middle-aged reader completely unmoved by it. Unmoved: neither excited nor repulsed, nor incredulous, nor even bored. Just – nothing. As yet more pages of midlife-crisis wank-fest slid by I barely even noticed it: I was reading the words, but not the sense. Perhaps this is Houellebecq's intention? But to what end?

The difficulty with all of this, as is so often the case with Houellebecq, is that he creates such a hell of humanity that there is no humanity left. The neo-humans have no human enotions, nor ways of comprehending human emotion; the humans themselves are so emotionally stunted they cannot live either with or without one another (Daniel's first love interest commits suicide, more, it seems, from ennui than anything else and, in the end, so does Daniel). The religion which takes over the world, Elohimism, believes in nothing except immortality: its beliefs repeatedly shift between polar opposites for entirely manipulative reasons. In such an environment, where nothing matters, it becomes impossible for the reader to care about anyone or anything – the sterile hell of two-thousand years hence cannot be said to be any more hellish than the emotionless hell of the present day.

Why does he do it? Is he really so nihilistic, like Nietzsche with a grudge? Or is he just an opportunist with an eye to controversy? He certainly aims to offend as many people in as many ways as he possibly can: offence is his main character's business, after all, a comedian who makes Lenny Bruce seem like Val Doonican. Nothing is sacred, nothing escapes his scabrous wit: "What's the fat bit around the vagina called? The woman." No taboos can be left untouched: pre-pubescent children are found masturbating on a public stage, Muslims of course get it in the neck ("Palestine Orgy Sluts") and religions of every rank of stupidity are lampooned in the form of the Elohim.

Now, that's okay. If Hoellebecq is challenging lazy, liberal assumptions and our morbid fear of offending anyone (schools banning The Three Pigs for fear of insulting Islam, for example), then it's a telling, if severely laboured, lesson, and one we could learn much from. But is that the case? Or is he taking the piss? It's very difficult to tell with Houellebecq, just as it is difficult to pin down the emotions of his main character, a man who could easily act as a cipher for the author himself.

A problem here is the scattergun approach Houellebecq takes to theme. What is this book actually about? Is it about nihilism? Or religious cultism? A paean to Dionysus? A call-to-arms for Apollo? Is it about the inability of humans to love, or to interact? The perniciousness of pornography? The essentialness of sex? Is it a critique of liberal theory? Is it an attack on humanity? The pricking of hypocrisy (and more, the pricking of everything that moves, especially female?) Is it a plea for dystopia as the natural refuge of our inevitable disappointment? Since his world is ravaged by ecological disaster and nuclear war is it a call for ecological common-sense? Any of those? All of those? Probably all, in fact, and therein lies the problem. There are so many targets here, so many pot-shots being fired, the reader loses the will to wallow in the carnage.

But, more than anything, it feels to me as though this book is nothing more elaborate than a simple raging against the dying of the light. Houellebecq and his characters seem obsessed by age and ageing. He describes the sagging of once-beautiful bodies; he wallows in the loss of libido, in the waning of sexual prowess. It reaches the stage where he seems simultaneously entranced and repulsed by the beautiful body of a beautiful woman, as though he sees its perfection but, at the same time, its slow, frame-by-frame rot into wrinkles and carpet slippers: what the body must, in time, become, is so repugnant to him it overrides any conception of youthful beauty. Youth is merely a transitory state, and the outcome is so hideous it outweighs its benefits.

The question then must be: is this enough to hold an entire novel? And the answer, sadly, is no. One man's obsession is another man's trivia. That Houellebecq is terrified of the ageing process, that he seems permanently stuck in a morass of self-loathing because of it, that his visions of the future taint his enjoyment of the present, all of this is pertinent only to him. It is not enough to form a coherent thesis. It is not enough to concern the casual reader, who, presumably, does not share his morbid pathology. This novel is ambitious. At times it is refreshing. His language, when he peeks above the gutter, is spritely and fresh. But the overall effect is sadly dispiriting. This is not a humanity I recognise, or a vision of humanity I understand.

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