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The Possibility of an Island
By Michel Houellebecq

(Hamish Hamilton, £12.99stg/€19.04)

In many ways, this new novel by the bad boy (or hot property, depending on your point of view) of contemporary French letters, could be described as a sequel to his breakthrough, second novel, 1999’s Atomised. Less generously, it could equally be dismissed as ‘more of the same’.

All the previous and expected particular elements are in place: the jaundiced disdain for the rampant yet alarmingly unselfconscious self-indulgence of hippie-liberal hangover values (or, rather, lack of them); the acerbic appraisal of the selfishly hedonistic West, fixated as it is on the glorification of youth, the accumulation of wealth and the instant gratification of pleasure – in short what is generally rather euphemistically described as ‘progress’, the dark corollary of which is its incapacity to accommodate its own old, sick or poor – much less those of what is usually somewhat optimistically referred to as the ‘developing’ world; an equal contempt for the power-hungry absurdities of traditional, atavistic, family-values orientated religion, be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim; and a quasi-science fictional fascination with the possibilities opened up by biochemistry and genetics for curing man, the sick animal, of his desires, violence and neuroses, sometime in the distant future.

 

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Daniel is a successful forty-something French comedian, who has built his reputation on envelope-pushing, near-the-knuckle shock tactics, in his stand-up routines and films. Having amassed a fortune but, in the process, grown blasé about what he does, he goes to live in a depopulated part of southern Spain, in semi-retirement.

There have been two significant women in his life. The first is his contemporary Isabelle, a magazine editor whom he marries and takes to Spain, and with whom all goes well until her aging body initially puts her off herself, and then puts him off her. They divorce, and she goes to live in Biarritz, with the morphine-shooting old biddies. The second is younger model Esther, the twenty-two year old Spanish student of philosophy and piano, who supplements her income with acting and, well yes, modelling. But their intensely erotic affair, described in copious detail, is doomed, since, ‘For Esther, as for all the young girls of her generation, sexuality was just a pleasant pastime, driven by seduction and eroticism, which implied no particular sentimental commitment.’ Through her Daniel realises that he too, at forty-seven, is careworn and past it. Isabelle wanted love but not sex; Esther wanted sex but not love: therein lies his conundrum.

While in mainland Spain, and subsequently in Lanzarote, Daniel becomes involved with The Elohimites, a cult espousing free love and eternal life through DNA cloning. When the cult leader, The Prophet, is murdered by a jealously disgruntled acolyte, and Daniel’s artist friend Vincent takes over the reins, Daniel donates his own DNA sample for posterity. Thus, in a kind of Biblical pastiche, the narrative is shared between him, Daniel1, and Daniel24 and Daniel25, his distant descendants, who have been culled from his DNA, with all the annoyingly rancorous human traits ironed out of the mix. When one incarnation dies, he is replaced by the next number in line. So, we are transported to 2000 years in the future, where Daniel25, like the rest of these ‘neohumans’, passes his days in neutral tranquillity, adding his commentary to his ancestor’s personal history, striving to understand what could have made him so unhappy, while the remnants of the old human race roam in primitive packs outside his secure compound.

In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound asked a pertinent question: ‘Can you be interested in the work of a man who is blind to 80 percent of the spectrum? To 30 per cent of the spectrum? Here the answer is, curiously enough, yes IF…if his perceptions are hypernormal in any part of the spectrum he can be of very great use as a writer – though perhaps not of very great ‘weight’. This is where the so-called crack-brained genius comes in. The concept of genius as akin to madness has been carefully fostered by the inferiority complex of the public.’ Houellebecq’s range may be limited, but his gaze is intense, the jettisoning of a balanced and well-rounded worldview being the price for the unflinching and penetrating stare which produces insight. However, he is far from being a prophet, or even the prescient social and cultural forecaster he has been hailed as. For he is merely describing things as they already are, as he sees them (and his objective reality is certainly as verifiable and valid as those who cheerfully persist in ‘looking on the bright side’), but as most people are still too blithely unaware or too wilfully unwilling to see for themselves.

While never a very elegant stylist (at least in translation), his true metier is that venerable, almost forgotten genre, ‘the novel of ideas’. As for the repetition and lack of progression in his oeuvre, that is something which can only trouble his longtime admirers rather than those new to his work. But even the old fans may well find themselves making allowances. For, while he may only have a couple of things to say, hardly anyone else is saying them, and he says them very well. Whether or not he needs to keep on restating them is another matter, and the choice to continue listening is ultimately yours. His choice is whether or not he needs to change his tune, or at least to conduct some variations on it. But for the time being, he has decided to leave well enough alone.


Desmond Traynor’s novel The Myth of Exile and Return was nominated for this year’s Hughes & Hughes/Sunday Independent Novel of the Year Award.


First published in The Sunday Independent

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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