(This week I am finally reading Neal Stephenson's massive new novel Anathem [which I can tell already is going to be one of the best books of 2009]; but it's going to take me the entire week to actually finish the thousand-page doorstop, which means I won't be getting any other books read or new reviews written until then. Instead, this week I'm presenting a series of reprinted reviews from when CCLaP first opened; they are still books well worth your time, but that new readers may have never had a chance to come across here before. Don't forget, you can always check out CCLaP's main book page for a list of all 240 titles that have now been reviewed here in the last two years.)
The Possibility of an Island
By Michel Houellebecq
Vintage / ISBN: 0307263495
So before anything else, let's just get this out of the way: that if you aren't horrendously and profoundly offended at least once by the work of controversial French author Michel Houellebecq, you're not paying close enough attention. Because Houellebecq, see, is what's known as a misanthrope; that far from being a racist, or a sexist, or a homophobe, he simply hates the entirety of humanity, every last one of us air-breathing meatsacks, and goes to great pains in his celebrated and award-winning novels to detail all the various ways that you too should hate humanity as well. And that of course is what marks him as different than the typical life-hating streetcorner obscenity screamer, is that Houellebecq has some incredibly astute observations about life to back these opinions up; he has an almost magical ability, in fact, to take the detritus from those "news of the weird" departments, and to somehow combine them all into one of the bleakest yet fairest descriptions of humanity you will ever come across. His truths are difficult truths, and they're often insulting truths, and they are truths that very meticulously pick apart the veneer by which most everyday people live their lives; and it's for all these reasons that so many people have such a violent reaction to Houellebecq's work, and why there are as many haters of his fiction as there are champions of it.
Like...say, the Muslims, a group of which weren't very happy at all with what Houellebecq had to say about them in his 2001 sex-tourism farce Platform; so unhappy, in fact, that this group took Houellebecq to court for "attempting to incite racial violence," which like libel is easier to prove in European courts than American ones. And Houellebecq reacted to this lawsuit (which he was eventually cleared of) in the exact way you would expect Houellebecq to react to such a lawsuit; as if the entire thing was beneath him, and simply further proof of the point he makes in his books in the first place, of what a bunch of mouth-breathing jackasses humanity in general is. And let's face it, in a world of full-frontal nudity in movies and high-school massacres on television, it's almost impossible anymore for a mere novelist to arouse this kind of passion and ire in the general public; and thus it was that Houellebecq became a literary sensation in Europe (which was pretty much ignored by the media in the US, what a surprise), and suddenly found himself rich and famous and with several of his projects suddenly being adapted into major movies.
But a troubling question lingers after all this, of course: that when you write the most outrageous novel of the century, the one that simultaneously made you a media star and almost killed you, what do you do for an encore? In Houellebecq's case, he writes the darkly funny tale The Possibility of an Island, which ostensibly is a dystopian science-fiction novel, but as Houellebecq himself admits near the end, is in actuality an autobiography, his private views on all the things that happened to him as a result of Platform. And in this sense, the book is pretty much the most perfect thing he could've done after Platform -- not to try to outshock the public, which let's face it, he'll never be able to do again, but rather to reflect on both his mistakes and the ones made by the rest of the world, to mercilessly tear apart the culture of fame that made him a Continental star to begin with, and incidentally to further argue the main thrust of all of his books, i.e. that humanity is a pathetic, outdated concept that needs to be gotten rid of as soon as possible. As with his entire oeuvre, those who are looking to get pissed off at something will find plenty to hate in The Possibility of an Island; those who take a serious and intelligent stab at it, though, will find a surprising amount of delight in his over-the-top pronouncements, as well as a sincere hope for humanity peeking out from under all that piss and vinegar.
The novel is primarily the story of Daniel, who as mentioned shares a lot of the same qualities as Houellebecq himself: instead of a novelist, he is the one-man writer and performer behind those various cabaret shows that are so popular in Europe (Americans, think Spaulding Gray or Henry Rollins, but with a more formal and narrative structure to the script), who like Houellebecq has become rich and famous for the outrageous productions he mounts, most of them centered around how idiotic both the Jews and Muslims are for fighting each other for so long over a nonexistent deity. Ah, but as we learn very quickly, Island is also about another Daniel; one who lives two thousand years in the future, who is the 24th perfect clone now of the original Daniel (and later in the book, the 25th clone as well), living in a time when a series of manmade and natural disasters have wiped out most of the human race. In this dark future where "Daniel24" lives in solitude off the Spanish coast, humanity has been divided into two distinct species: there are the pathetic leftovers from "old humanity," the ones who caused the global disasters in the first place, who have lost all capacity for knowledge and communication, and who now live in ragged bunches of tribes in the post-apocalyptic ruins; and then there are the "neohumans," who in actuality are the descendants of a 21st-century religious cult called the Elohimites, who over the centuries ended up not only perfecting genetic engineering and cloning, but even in changing human physiology so that they need only water and salt pellets to survive. This is what allowed the neohumans to thrive and maintain modern technology, Daniel explains in his personal journal, at the same time that starvation and disease were killing off the majority of the former humans.
The structure of the novel, then, is to cut back and forth between the two Daniels' journals, although with most of it taking place in Daniel1's time (i.e. our time); of the ways the public reacts to his work, of the various women who are in and out of his life at the time, of the endless and various ways that humanity disappoints him on a daily basis. And make no mistake, humanity disappoints both Daniel and Houellebecq on a daily basis throughout Island; between the simpering liberals, the fascist conservatives, the teasing females, the weak-willed males, and all the rest, Houellebecq can find barely anything good about humanity even worth mentioning, much less worth saving, other than that at least they treat their pets nicely. And let's face it, that this is the one thing that most separates Houellebecq's fans from his haters, is in how much or how little they agree with his central concept that humanity is going straight to hell, and that for the most part it's good riddance to bad rubbish. For example, have you ever had the sneaking suspicion that a lot of women use their own sexual attraction as a weapon to manipulate men into giving them what they want? And that most men should be despised for being so weak as to fall for it every single time? If so, you're gonna love Houellebecq; and if not, please don't send me an angry email telling me so!
Because ultimately, I want to make it clear, I only believe in half of what Houellebecq has to say in Island; that on top of humanity being an utterly unsalvageable mess of violence, sex and jealousy, I believe humanity randomly capable of great acts of love and kindness as well, acts that can sometimes be as overwhelmingly and surprisingly good as their bad tendencies are overwhelmingly and surprisingly awful. And this of course is always the ultimate problem with a misanthropic writer, is that in the end they ignore the dual nature of humanity that has haunted artists for millennia; that we as a species are just as capable of kindness as ugliness, and that it's just as unfair to sweepingly indict the entire human race as it is to sweepingly defend it. When all is said and done, I in particular believe in the power of every single individual to rise above the petty weaknesses and vices they have, even if most humans choose not to accept this challenge; Houellebecq believes that even individuals are beyond saving, that we are all destined to finally give in to the most pathetic sides of ourselves, and it is there where he and I most profoundly disagree about life.
Nonetheless, I did end up falling in love with Island from even the very beginning of the book, and now consider it one of the best novels I've read in years and years, and I'll tell you why -- because I think it's so incredibly important to be occasionally reminded of what Houellebecq says here, of just all the endless ways that humanity can manage to screw itself over, simply from the innocuous activity of not being the smartest they can be at all times. It's ultimately laziness, Houellebecq argues, that causes the bad things between humans to occur; people who are too lazy to rise above their stereotypes, people who are too lazy to educate themselves about the subjects that matter. I couldn't agree more with a statement like this, and in fact in many ways I started CCLaP specifically to argue this myself -- that it is always the most ignorant who cause life's biggest problems, that the world is always better off the more that people choose to be intelligent and rational about their life decisions. The main difference between Houellebecq and myself is that I think individuals capable of this if they really try, while he feels that all humans are destined to follow their most base and destructive instincts, that it's simply embedded in our genes and that there's nothing to do about it than simply wipe that particular species out and to bring on the neohumans.
It's not an easy read, not by any means, and it's not pleasant conclusions about life that he comes up with; that said, I do believe Houellebecq to be one of the smartest living writers on the planet right now, and that we could all benefit from being regular readers of his, if only to learn what we shouldn't be doing with our lives. I encourage you to approach The Possibility of an Island with this attitude in mind, and to not get too bogged down on the specifics of what a hateful son of a b-tch he actually is.
(And for even more about Houellebecq, don't forget as well my 2007 review of his nonfiction book HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.)