The Possibility of an Island: A Novel
by Michel Houellebecq
A review by James Wood
Ten years ago, few readers had heard of a young French writer named Michel Houellebecq. He was the author of some poems and a pungently callow first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994), or Extension of the Domain of the Struggle (translated as Whatever). A decade later, Houellebecq is the most significant provocateur in contemporary literature, whose three subsequent novels have established un monde houellebecquien, in which no target is spared (except, perhaps, an idealized form of love), in which sex is written up in the most basely lucid manner, women insulted (though merely more explicitly than men), religion mocked, existence itself powerfully degraded, in which all imaginable sacred cows are quickly slaughtered in the novelistic abattoir -- or, rather, awarded the fate that Houellebecq wittily refers to in his new novel: analogizing the pointless savagery of French existence, he reminds us that during the British mad-cow crisis, French beef producers stamped their products "Born and raised in France. Slaughtered in France."
In Hitler's Germany, Nazis were supposed to be always "working toward the Führer." You could say that in Houellebecq's regime -- and it is indeed represented as a prison -- his lonely, isolated men are always working toward sex. Typically, these dank creatures are between thirty and fifty, and of modest means. The narrator of Whatever is a middle manager in the computer software industry. Bruno, in Les Particules élémentaires (1999, translated as The Elementary Particles), has worked as a lycée teacher, and now writes scabrous articles for little magazines. His half-brother, Michel, is a biologist who has decided to quit his job. The protagonist of Platform (2001), also called Michel -- Houellebecq likes giving his characters his own name -- is a minor civil servant who oversees the arts. Daniel, in Houellebecq's new novel, is unlike his fictional co-evals in his financial prosperity: he is a very successful comedian and film-maker, who has decided to take some time off in his new house in Andalusia. But all these men are sexual paupers -- or at least the novels begin with their poverty. They may have had more or less successful relations with women, but always years ago. Now, as they age, they face the logic of the sexual marketplace -- "youth, beauty, strength: the criteria for physical love are exactly the same as those of Nazism." They have been priced out of the market; and without sex, they have little faith in the power of love. So they masturbate constantly, consume porn, go on Club Med-style vacations to find willing women, and think resentfully of their childhoods, or of the girls and women who had it in their power to rescue them from their lonely torpor but rejected them instead. Bruno can never forget the moment when, as a teenager, he put his hand on Caroline Yessayan's leg in a cinema, was briefly allowed to keep his hand there, and was then brushed off: "Years later, when some bitch or other was sucking him off, Bruno would remember those few seconds of terrifying joy; he would also remember the moment when Caroline Yessayan moved his hand away."
Even for those familiar with the calm disillusionment of Sartre's and Camus's fiction, or even with the raging of Céline, all of whom are obvious ancestors, Houellebecq's appalling honesty is at first quite breathtaking. He has the "exaggerated honesty" that Nietzsche commends, and indeed he has the nihilist's power to stain the fabric of life so utterly that most other contemporary writers seem by comparison sentimental and untruthful. His novels are at once very French and very un-French. Brutal lucidity, especially in erotic matters, is common to Diderot, Stendhal, and Flaubert, and Houellebecq happily borrows Flaubert's habit, in Madame Bovary, of italicizing idiotic social phrases: "Not only are dogs in themselves a subject of permanent wonderment, but they constitute for humans an excellent subject of conversation," says the mocking narrator of his new novel. Yet these novels are also stripped of most of the signifiers, trivial and non-trivial, of traditional "Frenchness." His characters eat bad frozen food, live in dismal digs, dislike Paris, and refer more often to John Grisham or the film-maker Larry Clark than to Pascal or Sartre. Regular reading material is likely to be a mail-order catalogue. Houellebecq has clearly studied his Schopenhauer, and his fiction abounds with declamations about the suffering and cruelty and pointlessness of life: "Children suffer the world that adults create for them and try their best to fit in with it; in time, they will replicate it."
But Schopenhauer, that most literary of philosophers, has influenced scores of appropriately gloomy -- or funny-gloomy -- novelists, from Hardy and Lawrence to Mann and Svevo and Hrabal, and Houellebecq's comic philosophical rancor about existence is far less striking than the terrific savagery with which he writes about sex. Denis Demonpion, in his journalistic biography Houellebecq non autorisé: enquête sur un phénomène (Houellebecq Unauthorized: Inquiry Into a Phenomenon), reports, rather dismayingly, that Houellebecq is a great admirer of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. Demonpion writes that in the course of a dialogue with Ellis, arranged by Der Spiegel, Houellebecq asserted that he found most frightening in Ellis's book the fact that the protagonist feels nothing during the sexual act: "That's where there is a connection with my own books."
This "connection" of Houellebecq's produces a horribly compelling portrait of that dirty little percentage of male sexuality that is generally hidden; the abandon with which he writes about male desire and frustration is in turn crucial to the larger panorama of squalor that he describes. Here are a few examples from the novels:
I felt no desire for Catherine Lechardoy; I hadn't the slightest wish to shaft her. She was looking at me and smiling, drinking Crémant, trying her hardest to be brave; nevertheless I knew she really needed to be shafted. That hole at the base of her belly must appear so useless to her; a prick can always be cut off, but how do you forget the emptiness of a vagina?
I said "Excuse me a moment," and crossed the discotheque in the direction of the toilets. Once inside I put two fingers down my throat, but the amount of vomit proved feeble and disappointing. Then I masturbated with altogether greater success: I began thinking of Véronique a bit, of course, but then I concentrated on vaginas in general and that did the trick.
On an intellectual level, I was suddenly capable of acknowledging the attractions of the Muslim vagina.
I liked her soft voice; her mouth was obviously pretty hot, just ready to swallow the spunk of a true friend.
When she stood up to go and order, I caught sight of her thong, also pink, showing above her jeans, and I began to get hard. ... Nuzzling her head in the hollow of my shoulder, she gently pressed my cock between her fingers.
Saul Bellow once had a character admire the "touch-cock" fingers of his mistress -- how demure that seems! Houellebecq's novels are filled with pages and pages of essentially pornographic descriptions of sex. His characters masturbate, are masturbated by unnaturally forgiving women, are endlessly fellated by same; his men penetrate women, occasionally sodomize them, and also like to go off to sex colonies or swingers' nightclubs where they can engage in threesomes and foursomes. In Platform, Michel and his girlfriend Valérie are having sex at a resort in Cuba when the maid sees them at it. Of course, she joins them: "She was wearing nothing underneath but a pair of white cotton panties. She must have been about twenty, and her body was very brown, almost black. She had a firm little bust and finely curved buttocks. ... Valérie took her hand and placed it on my penis."
But it would be unfair not to mention that Houellebecq is often very funny about these same hapless and repellent males, and that his prose can rise to aphoristic power: "Anything can happen in life, especially nothing." Or this, from the new novel: "The sexual life of man can be broken down into two phases: the first when he prematurely ejaculates, and the second when he can no longer manage to get a hard-on." If men are, as Houellebecq has it, "diminished adolescents," then it is hard not to laugh -- in complicit adolescent sympathy? -- when Michel, in Platform, is reading Grisham's The Firm in bed, and starts masturbating to the only sex scene in the thriller: "I was jerking off in earnest now, trying to visualize mixed-race girls wearing tiny swimsuits in the dark. I ejaculated between two pages with a groan of satisfaction. They were going to stick together; it didn't matter, it wasn't the kind of book you read twice." His new novel is funny, in part because Daniel, its protagonist, is an outrageous professional comedian, who likes to splatter his venom all over delicate topics like the Middle East: one of his best-known films is a parody of a porn film, and is called Munch on My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler). And the comedy is not only sexual. In the new novel there is a wildly good outburst, conducted for two extravagant pages in the manner of Thomas Bernhard, about the Catholic writer Teilhard de Chardin, whom Daniel loathes:
If there is one thing that has always plunged me into sadness or compassion, I mean into a state that excludes all manner of nastiness or irony, it is the existence of Teilhard de Chardin -- not only his existence, but the very fact that he has, or could have had, readers, however small the number. In the presence of a reader of Teilhard de Chardin I feel disarmed, nonplussed, ready to break down in tears.
Houellebecq has always admired Dostoevsky, and one can indeed see his useless males as postmodern iterations of the Russian tradition of the "superfluous man." In Turgenev's The Diary of a Superfluous Man, the narrator, who is dying, confesses to his inept relations with women, and to the impotent fury he feels toward those men who are amorously successful; and Dostoevsky's underground man has similar resentments. In The Elementary Particles and in his new novel, Houellebecq literalizes this figurative notion of superfluity: he speculates about a time, millennia hence, when men will be so superfluous as no longer to exist. Michel, the biologist in The Elementary Particles, is working on cloning, and seems mystically to long for a post-human age. In The Possibility of an Island, that post-human age has arrived. The new novel is narrated in alternating chapters. One strand tells the story of Daniel, a French comedian known for his anti-Semitic and Islamophobic routines. This man, though rich and successful, is an emotional failure, and pays for sex with prostitutes. He meets Isabelle, but the relationship founders. Then he meets Esther, a young porn star, and experiences sexual and amorous bliss: at last, he has known what true love is. But this, too, must come to an end.
Alternating with this quintessentially Houellebecquian story is a science fiction plot. (Demonpion reports that as a young man Houellebecq devoured science fiction.) Every other chapter is narrated by Daniel's clone, two thousand years hence. This clone is known as Daniel 24, because he is the twenty-fourth version of the original Daniel. Halfway through the book, Daniel 24 dies and gives way to Daniel 25. These clones live in a post-human age and refer to themselves as neo-humans. Quite a lot of this is silly in that effortless way of being silly almost unique to science fiction. But one of Houellebecq's decisions is powerful: his clones are reading the life story of the original Daniel, and attempting to divine his motives. In the neo-human age, laughter, tears, sexual desire, and love have disappeared. The only evidence that they existed resides in the texts the humans left behind. So Daniel 24 and Daniel 25 study the human Daniel's story in the way that we might study Plato or Homer. How could these humans have squandered so much over these strange, archaic emotions? Why would men have ruined themselves in their quests for that unimaginable quarry, love? The superfluous man has become the lost man.
This dual story, obviously enough, allows Houellebecq to frame his customarily sardonic, pornographic, and dispiriting human narrative in a moral context; it is the moment at which the novelist can move away from his characters, and tearfully judge them. Daniel may be a bastard, Houellebecq seems to say, like all the bastards in my other novels, but at least the bastards are fighting, however gracelessly, to exercise the fundamental human capacities -- chief of which is not sex, in fact, but love. "I continued all the same, in my heart of hearts, and in the face of all the evidence, to believe in love," says Daniel.
For despite apparent evidence to the contrary, Houellebecq is not a nihilist but a moralist -- and a moralist who consistently idealizes heterosexual love. This is why, though it is often hard to like his fiction, it is possible to admire the strange tortured creature who writes it. Houellebecq was born Michel Thomas, on the French island of Réunion, in 1956, where his accomplished mother, a reader of Mann and Dostoevsky, worked as a doctor. His father, René Thomas, had left school at thirteen, but was a keen reader. (He liked Céline.) He worked as a grocer, a gardener, and finally as a mountain guide. The only full account presently available of Michel's peculiar childhood is Demonpion's lumpy biography. In it, both Houellebecq's father and mother talk with remarkable frankness about how willingly they abandoned their small son. "I have above all lived my life rather than his, but I knew he was in good hands," the father tells Demonpion. When Michel was five months old, his mother's contract was terminated, and the parents decided to cross Africa in a Citroën 2CV. Michel was sent to live with his grandparents in Algeria, where he stayed until 1961. By this time, his parents had divorced. Subsequently, Michel grew up in France with his paternal grandmother, whose name he later took as an act of solidarity with the woman who raised him.
Houellebecq is suffused with a great sense of righteous vengeance, personal and cultural. For him, his parents' selfishness is emblematic of the sexual revolution that would sweep through the 1960s. "In a sense, it was one of the precursors of the vast movement of familial dissolution which was going to follow," he says in Demonpion's book. "I developed the clear consciousness that a grave injustice had been committed in my regard. I developed out of this a concern for my father and a great disgust for my mother."
In his fiction, Houellebecq prosecutes this "vast movement of familial dissolution" with a Nietzschean hammer. His "diminished adolescents" are all orphans of the 1960s. Platform begins, like Camus's The Stranger, with the narrator saying a bitter farewell to a parent. Michel, the narrator, looks at his father's corpse and thinks: "He had made the most of his life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt." Houellebecq awards the half-brothers Bruno and Michel, in The Elementary Particles, an exaggerated version of his own family history. We infer that neither man can achieve successful relations with women because of how their mother, a sexually wayward beatnik, abandoned them. The burden of caring for a child "was incompatible with [her] personal freedom."
Houellebecq's male characters are exiled from what the author sees as a sexual market that is merely an extension of capitalism -- an extension of the domain of the struggle. Each of his novels devotes passages of exegesis to this idea. As Houellebecq sees it, the liberal individualism of the 1960s turned Western man into a sexual commodity, a market that benefited some and excluded more. As the narrator of his first novel explains:
It's a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours, sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. ... Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. ... It's what's known as "the law of the market." In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system, certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.
In Platform, this connection between the two markets, sexual and economic, is made even more explicit. Michel's girlfriend, Valérie, works for the director of a major French tour operator. Together with Michel, they conceive, and put into action, a commercial plan to establish a number of resorts in Third World countries. Through subtle marketing, these resorts will attract sexual tourists by winking at the availability of cheap local prostitutes. The Elementary Particles locates the date of the downfall: the late 1950s and early 1960s were a "golden age of romantic love," argues Houellebecq, "but at precisely this time Europe was flooded with prurient mass-market entertainment from America (the songs of Elvis Presley, the films of Marilyn Monroe) ... the sexual, self-indulgent American option received great support from the liberal press." These newspapers and magazines were notionally left-wing, but in fact embraced "the ideals of the entertainment industry: individual freedom, the supremacy of youth over age and the destruction of Judeo-Christian values." The sexual revolution would "destroy the last unit separating the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day."
One can see why Houellebecq has excited such ecstatic reviews. It is exciting to encounter a vision of such furious logic, unafraid to do its angry computation on the page, bold with social and moral outrage. And Houellebecq's vengeful conservatism, though familiar in many ways -- the 1960s is once again the culprit, with Charles Manson the inevitable fruit of all the enjoyable excesses -- can indeed fire into brilliance. The best chapter in his best novel, The Elementary Particles, mobilizes this conservatism to argue, with unexpected power and rectitude, that Huxley's Brave New World, far from being a dystopia, is actually "our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society." And note the canny way in which Houellebecq's critique is at once left-wing and right-wing. Right-wing, in that unrestrained sexuality is pinned on the degradations of the 1960s and on American self-indulgence; left-wing, in that unrestrained sexuality is likened, in Marxist fashion, to the ravages of the capitalist market.
This must explain some of Houellebecq's success with young readers in a post-ideological age. There is something here for everyone, and especially for the laddish reader of Maxim and GQ. The Possibility of an Island adumbrates Houellebecq's vision of the misery of sexual liberalism. Middle-aged Daniel first finds happiness with Isabelle, a woman his own age. But as her middle-aged body begins to sag and crease, she decides that she must leave him. The law of the market dictates that Daniel will no longer find her sexy, and will look among younger women, or whores, for satisfaction. Being wise, she fatalistically breaks off the relationship. Daniel does indeed find another woman, Esther, a porn star in her twenties. Psychologically speaking, Isabelle's action is completely incredible, but Houellebecq is not much interested in this kind of realism. Rather, Isabelle's willing sexual self-exile proves what Daniel -- and, it seems, his author -- believes, that sexual pleasure is the province of the young: "young people, leading a lazy, carefree life, partially occupied by scarcely absorbing studies, were able to devote themselves unlimitedly to the liberated exultation of their bodies." But once they marry and have children, they will be witnesses to "the irreversible degradation of their own bodies." Thus Houellebecq's vision both chastises and flatters the young. In time, they will be the victims of a pitiless sexual system -- but, true children of Augustine, not yet!
Alas, Houellebecq's critique has more holes in it than a sabotaged condom. Like all nostalgias, it is happily vague about the details of its golden age. An economic system in which everyone "more or less" managed to find "their place" was also a system in which, to borrow Houellebecq's language, people stagnated in misery, precisely because their place was so miserable. Correspondingly, a sexual system in which adultery was prohibited and in which everyone managed to find "their bed mate" was also a system in which many married people stagnated in misery, precisely because their bed mate turned out to be a bad mate: nineteenth-century fiction abundantly tells us this. Do more people stagnate in solitary misery in today's system than stagnated in conjugal misery in yesterday's system? Interestingly, for a writer so obsessed with sexual questions, what is elided in the coy term "bed mate" is the question of sex itself. Without of course admitting it, Houellebecq surely comes close, here, to arguing that sex itself is the problem. Things would be better, he seems to be about to say, if we could only will ourselves back to a closed system in which sex did not bulk so large, in which finding a true "mate" was what mattered, a "bed mate" who was a mate for life. So underneath Houellebecq's obvious conservatism is an even deeper conservatism, I think, in which the novelist is always on the verge of saying the unsayable, of speaking the kind of Catholic truism that, say, Chesterton would have endorsed but which must repel the atheist Frenchman who so dislikes Teilhard de Chardin: that the consolations of sex are as nothing to the ecstasies of love.
This explains the sentimentality that always hovers over his treatment of love. For Houellebecq's novels share the same helplessly latent shape, and that shape is tellingly emotive, not to say sentimental. The novels all establish, as their premise, a lonely, love-starved, sex-deprived man, who has been cast out from life's feast, and who returns the insult with resentments to spare. Readerly sympathy for this man is rigorously negated by the author, who labors to make him disagreeable. Daniel, in The Possibility of an Island, tells us that he cannot remember why he married his first wife. On the day of his son's suicide, he had calmly made a tomato omelet: "I had never loved that child: he was as stupid as his mother, and as nasty as his father. His death was far from a catastrophe; you can live without such human beings."
But in the course of Houellebecq's last three novels, with uniform patterning, this Timon-like character is gradually softened and humanized, so that the reader can begin to feel something approaching ordinary compassion: the misanthrope will meet a woman who understands him. The narrator of Platform encounters Valérie in a Thai resort. In The Elementary Particles, Bruno meets Christiane at a New Age sex colony. Meanwhile, his half-brother, Michel, who lacks any libido, hooks up with an old flame, Annabelle, and together they coax a few sparks out of the old embers. (They even try to have children.) And in the new novel, Daniel meets Esther, his porn star. Each man realizes that this is the first time he has ever found love, and understands, fatalistically, that it will be the last. Daniel thinks of his blissful time with Esther as a second age, "in which you already know, at the moment when you begin to experience true happiness, that you are, at the end of the day, going to lose it."
And lose it they do. Whatever his talents as an exaggerator -- and they are not inconsiderable ones -- Houellebecq is a fairly primitive novelist. In repeated acts of crudely blatant manipulation, he deprives his male characters of their gorgeous women at the very peak of their happiness. Valérie is gunned down by Islamic terrorists as she and Michel sit together at the bar of a Thai resort. He survives, she dies. Rather grossly, Christiane and Annabelle are killed off at the end of The Elementary Particles; for different reasons, they both commit suicide. This information is delivered by Houellebecq with such town-crier-like brutality and speediness that the reader almost laughs at the plot's ideological obviousness. And in the new novel, Esther leaves Spain, and the relationship, for New York. Daniel, who had not before believed in love, is at least glad that he has now known it: "I could only, like so many who had finally been defeated despite their sniggers and their grimaces, bow down: immense and admirable, undoubtedly, was the power of love."
Since love and sex seem to be causally connected for Houellebecq, most of these women, with the exception of Annabelle, are sexual A-graders, with what amounts to a biologist's expertise in how to handle the male member. An advanced degree in fellatio is an absolute prerequisite. Christiane helpfully explains to Bruno that as a professor of natural science, she understands how the genitals work: "The shaft of the clitoris and the glans of the penis are covered in Krause's corpuscles, rich in nerve endings. When touched, they cause a powerful flow of endorphins in the brain. ..." More important than their sexual efficiency is that that these women are kind, and delight in giving sexual pleasure. Michel tells Valérie that most Western women have lost that art: "You enjoy giving pleasure. Offering your body as an object of pleasure, giving pleasure unselfishly." And perhaps love can break away from sex? Significantly, the most affecting relationship in Houellebecq's fiction is that of the unsexual Michel and Annabelle, for whom sex is not as important as tenderness.
Just as a hidden conservatism runs beneath his obvious conservatism, so underneath the apparent radicalism of Houellebecq's jazzy forms -- his riffs and diatribes, his savage essays and intellectual excursions, the novelties that have excited his thousands of readers -- lies a nice, solid, cozy old box spring: nasty man lacks love and sex; nasty man finds love and sex; nasty man, now a bit less nasty in our eyes, loses love and sex -- above all, love. Tears and handkerchiefs follow. It is the essential template of popular fiction, which merely provides a happy ending where Houellebecq deprives us of one.
Houellebecq, as I say, is a moralist: he wants to rub our faces in the vileness he so avidly represents. But why does he so avidly represent it? Because he wants to rub our faces in it. Does this explain away the contradiction? It does not, exactly. But the contradiction may be unavoidable, and in turn explains the self-immolating rage that makes his fiction so interesting. On the one hand, the liberal sexual system is savagely vilified; on the other hand, the solution to the misery engendered by that system can only come out of that system. These men find their female saviors, their modern Dulcineas, within the system they despise -- in nightclubs and nudist colonies and tourist resorts -- and in turn their Dulcineas have a sexual prowess burnished by time served inside it. And in a further paradox, this one nearly unspeakable, the solution that these women offer to male sexual misery and isolation may not have that much to do with sex at all, but instead with what Philip Larkin, who knew about these things, called "that much-mentioned brilliance, love." So these women not only offer to defeat, in their loving-kindness, the hated system; they threaten to defeat also the validity of Houellebecq's critique of the system. For if sex is not finally as important as love, then sexual pauperization is not the most important misery. These women embarrass Houellebecq's vision as maniacally over-sexualized. And if these wonderful women, these wish-fulfillments in thongs, exist somewhere in the world, then the system is not the cruel sexual machine it is alleged to be. No wonder that Houellebecq must kill these kind women off with absurd rapidity, lest they turn his cold, savage, moralistic novels into warm, soppy, moralistic ones.
Whatever one thinks about this body of work, it is scandalously alive. And his new novel suggests a deepening moral vision. Still, there is a difference between fruitful ambiguity and helpless confusion. Houellebecq's fiction seems at present incoherent, seesawing between a savage critique and a barely expressible solution, and likewise seesawing between the author's distaste for modern sexual excess and the pornographic zeal with which he documents it. Houellebecq may not be the racist misogynist of popular allegation, but his fiction partakes a little too easily of the vileness it supposedly dislikes. There is an obvious quality of moral resistance on the part of the author, expressed in his furious exegeses, but the fiction itself -- the dramatic representation -- offers no mimetic resistance. It is the fiction that is itself comparatively weak, and comparatively uninteresting. Which magazine ran an extract from Houellebecq's new novel? Playboy, of course.
James Wood is a senior editor at The New Republic.
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