The Possibility of an Island

I‘ve just finished reading this novel by Michel Houellebecq and I’m disappointed. It has the same lazy, rather awkward style that’s characteristic of all his work and is intended, presumably, to show that he doesn’t have the time or energy for fine writing (he loves the use of italics to indicate clichés). It has the usual obsessions, familiar to reader of his earlier novels: a misanthropic take on the world, a loathing of political correctness and handed-down truths, a fascination with sex. Its motto could be, in the memorable phrase of Ed Dorn (with whom M.H. has nothing else in common): how really the world is shit/ and I mean all of it.

But, in this book, it doesn’t seem to work. Although M.H clearly regards intellectual pursuits as irredeemably bourgeois, the novel is full of intellectual pretension, quoting from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Woody Allen (though attributing the remark to someone else). It’s a nerdy book, and Houellebecq (or the protagonist in his novel) is a classic nerd; angry with a world that rewards him but fails to appreciate him, a sexual athlete in his imagination (i.e. the world of the book), attracted by the gadgetry of sci-fi, the nuts and bolts paraphernalia of cult worship (though not committing to it).

The novel is divided into three sections: the first and second are interleaved, the most consistent part being devoted to the autobiography of the usual M.H. alter ego; this time he’s a successful satirist, though the examples of his deliberately non-PC material (mostly sexist and anti-Arab) are unconvincing and recall the frisson of rag week bad taste more than cutting edge political satire. Having seen off a wife (divorced) and son (dead) without remorse, his first significant post-marital relationship ends when the woman he loves hits middle age and realises, with regret, that she’s no longer up to the hero’s demanding aesthetic standards. His second affair is with the kind of woman-cum-inflatable fuck doll that always tickles M.H.’s fancy. When she dumps him, because now it’s his turn to be over the hill, he falls into depression, etc. This all feels very familiar from his earlier work, though it’s done less well here, as though he can no longer quite be bothered to go through the ritual yet again.

The second section describes a world of post-humans and is standard sci-fi fare with little to recommend it. Like the first section, it contains some fairly dreadful verse, although I’m not sure that it’s meant to be. (On the cover, Houellebecq claims to be a poet and rapper, though this may be his little joke.)

The redeeming section of the book is the third part. I won’t say too much about it, but the sense of disgust, which is probably the strongest and most authentic arrow in H.’s moral quiver, is finely achieved and reminds me of no one so much as Swift, who is surely Houellebecq’s master, as many others have remarked before me. I almost gave up on the book a dozen times before getting this far, though, and I’m not sure the pleasure it affords – which is genuine – makes up for the tedium of what precedes it.

I wonder if Houellebecq has read Stewart Home. A book like 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess, in terms of sheer offensiveness and subversion, knocks all his work into a cocked hat. It’s also, though Home won’t thank me for saying this, better written. Which is probably why Home is relatively unknown, and Houellebecq a tax exile in Ireland.

This entry was posted in ed dorn, houellebecq, review, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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