Sunday, June 15, 2008


So I found a book in the bargain stacks the other week and immediately snapped it up, without, unusually for me, giving it a second thought.

I've been reading Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island on my daily commute, and it makes me feel a bit conspicuous — a bit dirty actually. What do others make of the woman so flagrantly reading Houellebecq on public transportation?

Michel Houellebecq is widely considered to be a racist and a misogynist, and it's disputed whether his work has any literary merit. According to Wikipedia, "a recurrent theme in Houellebecq's novels is the intrusion of free-market economics into human relationships and sexuality."

So what am I doing reading this book?

Well, for starters, it's about clones. Who doesn't love a book about clones?!

The book cover beseeches readers to consider, "Who, among you, deserves eternal life?" (Do I?)

Another reason: I read Elementary Particles and I liked it. Evidently I don't hold to the same standards as the New York Times ("a deeply repugnant read"), because I found something appreciable in it. It was — that cop-out of all adjectives — interesting, on many levels, not least because it tested my own limits and sensibilities.

It's the problem of utopia (that book and this one), to which I'm compelled to return over and over and over again, ever since I discovered that there was such a word, that others also dreamed an ideal and tried to design a foolproof blueprint. Now, in Houellebecq's case that ideal seems to be based in sexual freedom and sexual liberation. The problem of utopia lies somewhere in the disconnect between theory and practice. The problem with a sexual utopia is that that disconnect is (for me) felt much more strongly, emotionally.

I'm reading this book openly on the metro, and the vulgarities make me cringe, whether they're directed at Arabs, Jews, or women. Do other commuters know what's inside these covers and judge me? As open-minded as I may be and always eager to hear all sides, this just feels wrong.

Women are valued for sex, and only so long as they are sexually desirable, often traded in for younger models. As if to validate the narrator's (author's?) attitude, the women are fully complicit, knowing their worth to be exactly that and doing everything in their power to increase and preserve it (thus powering the beauty industry).

So why am I reading this book? I guess it's a kind of test. There are some valid points. (Where exactly are my limits?) And it's interesting besides. (And there seems to be a cultish religious angle developing.)

It's boiling down to this: Is the human experience necessarily a sexual one? How do relationships work? How do men really think? (Who didn't try to figure this all out as a teenager, at the first whiff of romance, and why am I bent on trying all over again to figure it out?)

And on this last point, I'd love to know: Is Houellebecq at all representative of the male population? Outlier or straight shooter?

The story? Thus far: Daniel1, from whom the other narrators were generated, is a stand-up comedian, who dabbles in film-making. The world is cultivating indifference, sounding the death knell for morality.

Beyond the hackneyed subject of paedophilia, this film strove to be a vigorous plea against friendship, and more generally against all non-sexual relationships. What in fact could two men talk about, beyond a certain age? What reason could two men find for being together, except, of course, in the case of a conflict of interests, or of some common project (overthrowing a government, building a motorway, writing a script for a cartoon, exterminating the Jews)? After a certain age (I am talking about men of a certain level of intelligence, not aged brutes), it's quite obvious that everything has been said and done. How could a project as intrinsically empty as boredom, annoyance and, at the end of the day, outright hostility? Whilst between a man and woman there still remained, despite everything, something: a little bit of attraction, a little bit of hope, a little bit of a dream. Speech, which was basically designed for controversy and disagreement, was still scarred by its warlike origins. Speech destroys, separates, and when it is all that remains between a man and a woman then you can consider the relationship over. When, however, it is accompanied, softened and some way sanctified by caresses, speech itself can take on a completely different meaning, one that is less dramatic but more profound, that of a detached intellectual counterpoint, free and uninvolved in immediate issues.


They say (you know, "they") that when sex is gone, at least there is conversation. At the end of the day you want to come home and have someone to talk to. Or just to be with? Are they different things?

What happens when there is nothing left to talk about? Do we repeat ourselves, smile and nod. And what of the notion of a shared, companionable silence — is this, then, as mythical as postcoital cuddling? An empty commentary on a nonexistent main event.

I don't know the answers to any of these and many related questions, and the fact is they're very relevant, as currently I feel (experiencing inside) and see (standing outside) both myself and my relationship aging. I can't wait to figure out where Houellebecq stands.

The thing is: it's really hard to critically dismiss a book when it has me thinking so many intense things when I'm only on page 75 (of 345).


kimbofo said...

Ignore everything you've heard about the man. I read Atomised several years ago and loved it. At the time I was unaware of the criticism against him, but even if I was aware I don;t think that would have spoiled my enjoyment of the story.

I, too, have Possibility of an Island in my To Be Read Pile (picked up from a charity shop last year) and I'll proudly read it on public transport whenever I find the time to pick it up!

Carrie K said...

I felt vaguely complicit in my own worthlessness reading Possibility. I didn't get very far - it was extremely off putting although I did read that that was also his intent and would become clearer at the end of the book, because luckily, it was a library book and I couldn't renew it.

I'll be interested in reading your thoughts about the book when you finish reading it.

Bybee said...

I've never heard of him till now, so if I were on the subway with you, I'd probably be thinking: damn, that name would be such a great scrabble word.

Elizabeth said...

I would totally read that book, if I read something other than biology-related texts that is...

Keep it on tap for me for when I finish my degree, eh?

Isabella said...

Does anyone dare speak to the questions the book raises, as opposed to simply the merits of reading it?

¡Benjaminista! said...

"Is the human experience necessarily a sexual one? How do relationships work? How do men really think?"

Not to seem a venal self-promoter, but I've written on some of the themes in his work here: