Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Possibility of an Island, by Michel Houellebecq

I bought this book when it came out but failed to make it beyond page 50. I had no desire to read the diary of the protagonist's 24th clone.

But after reading Public Enemies and teaching Platform this winter—after, in short, imagining myself to be an expert on Houellebecq—I picked it up again and this time read it in short order, rapt.

At the center of the novel is Houellebecq's alter-ego: a famous comic, Daniel, who has arrived at middle-age, lost his interest in the people around him, and set about surviving on sex and alcohol. As in Platform, mere survival is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Esther, who restores him to life. But his young love is promptly taken from him—but not by Islamic terrorists, as in Platform, but by the vapid pleasures of Western Civ. (drugs, casual sex, dreams of celebrity).

By linking capitalist hedonism with religious fundamentalism in this way—arguing that they're essentially two sides of the same coin (standing, both of them, in the way of love)—The Possibility of an Island clarifies the source of Houellebecq's hatred for contemporary life:
To increase desires to an unbearable level while making the fulfillment of them more and more inaccessible: this was the single principle upon which Western society was based.
I admit that I find ridiculous statements like these exciting. So I found the book exciting. Schizophrenic moral outrage drives the narrative: on the one hand, the book is nostalgically conservative, yearning for a time when love meant something, when people had souls; on the other hand, it delights in modern libertinism, in the availability of beautiful girls who bounce into one's bed now and then to casually rescue one from despair. The kids are unleashed, and, my god, isn't it lovely?

But Houellebecq's aware of his schizophrenia: the schizophrenia is the point. He spends some time narrating the rise of a minor California cult that will, we learn, eventually conquer the world. At times it seems pretty clear that his heart's not in all the tedious storytelling. He's at his best—in some respects he's our most interesting working writer—when he's outraged, sparing no one, including himself:
If you attack the world with sufficient violence, it ends up spitting its filthy lucre back at you; but never, never will it give back joy.

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