Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island. Trans. Gavin Bowd. Toronto: Knopf, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

In Europe, Michel Houellebecq is compared to Camus. Recently in France he was shortlisted for the Goncourt and won the Prix Novembre. His second novel, Les particules elementaires (1998), translated in Britain as Atomised and in North America as The Elementary Particles, won the 2002 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Since 1999, Houellebecq has lived in Ireland, having received death threats for describing Islam as the stupidest religion (“La religion le plus con”). The Literary Review says he “captures the spirit of the age better than any other novelist, or any social historian, writing today.” Last fall, a bookstore in Montpellier, France, had on display a rack of his books, and studies of his books, that covered half a wall. If North Americans have hardly heard of him, we will. In this neo-con hell we’re living through, we probably should — or deserve to. For better or worse, genius or fraud, Houellebecq is on the money.

As a novelist, Houellebecq is more interested in the big ideas — love, freedom, death, immortality — than in character, except in a narcissistic/thematic way. His last three novels have been blends of three particularly idea-friendly genres: autobiography/confession, pornography, and science fiction. A Houellebecq protagonist is a cynical, sentimental, desperately horny sad sack of a self-loathing male. At some point, by a stroke of luck baffling to the reader, he finds himself in a perfect relationship, with a young woman who is intelligent, gentle, loving, beautiful, all ears, and ready for fellatio at any time. In a poem written shortly before his suicide, the alpha narrator of The Possibility of an Island,Daniel1, describes this state of perfect love, “where all is easy,/Where all is given in the instant,” as the “possibility of an island” in the flow of Time. Inevitably, alas, the perfect mate is lost, the island vanishes, and the hero floats on to decrepitude and death.

The Possibility of an Island consists mainly of narratives by Daniel1 and his 24th and 25th clones, Daniel24 and Daniel25. Dandiel1 is a stand-up comic who inserts into his sketches such short films as Let’s Drop Miniskirts on Palestine!, but he has no illusions: “Deep down, I knew that not one of my miserable sketches, not one of my lamentable scripts, mechanically stitched together, with the skill of a wily professional, to entertain an audience of bastards and monkeys, deserved to survive.” Still, thanks to the “West’s absurd attraction to cynicism and evil,” he is a rich man. His first wife he abandoned pregnant. His scathing indifference to the death of his son he considers “the only noble gesture . . . in which . . . I could take any pride”: “On the day of my son’s suicide, I made a tomato omelette. ‘A living dog is worth more than a dead lion,’ as Ecclesiastes rightly says. I had never loved that child: he was as stupid as his mother and as nasty as his father.”

Daniel1’s second wife, Isabelle, though she understands him — “There’s a completely abnormal frankness about you” — he marries out of pity when she turns forty and is facing the reality of the “total [physical] degradation” of age, with “the humble, sad look of the sick animal that steps away from the pack.” But when the decay becomes too humiliating, Isabelle, who has her dignity, leaves him to live alone with their dog Fox. Isabelle is replaced by the younger, infinitely accommodating Esther, an actress who eventually tires of Daniel1’s neediness and leaves him for the bright lights of America. His last image of Esther is at an orgy, smiling as she taps a penis on her nose. Distraught, he masturbates by the pool. He doesn’t think a woman nearby has even noticed his presence, but she spits to one side as he ejaculates.

This is all classic Houellebecq. So is the rest of the story, involving the Elohimites, modelled on the real-life Raelians. The Raelians are the ones who believe human life was started by visiting aliens called Elohim and who announced recently they’ve cloned human babies. Houellebecq’s Elohimites are a sex-and-immortality cult, which Daniel1 is drawn to as he’s losing Esther. It’s the Elohimites who preserve the genetic codes of Daniel1, his dog Fox, Esther, and others, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson. Daniel24 and -25 live on as neohumans, subsisting on solar energy, water, and mineral salts excreted by perspiration. Meanwhile, following a couple of Great Decreases, caused by climate change, the human population is down to its brutish scrag ends, in the form of “slightly more intelligent monkeys,” who are, “for this reason, more dangerous.” The original intention of a mysterious prophet named the Supreme Sister was “the extinction of desire in Buddhist-like terms,” which would issue in “thought that knew deliverance.” Unfortunately, the only result for neohumans has been “sadness, melancholy, languid and finally mortal apathy.”

Houellebecq’s message is that there can be no deterring humankind from its path to eternal youth and infinite freedom, at whatever cost. In this he has shown himself in touch with contemporary events. Platform, which ends with an Islamic attack on a sex-tourism resort in Thailand, was first published the year before the Bali bombing.

About the 2003 summer heatwave that killed hundreds of elderly Parisians, a character in The Possibility of an Island comments, “Only an authentically modern country was capable of treating old people purely as rubbish.” Daniel1, torn between emotional isolation and love, considers himself the last of a dying breed: “I was undoubtedly one of the last men of my generation to love myself sufficiently little to be able to love someone else….”  It’s a statement that nicely encapsulates Houellebecq’s strange charm. Maybe you can buy the wacky psychology, or maybe you find it so sloppily, so ludicrously grandiose that you succumb to its comic sublimity. Either way, Houellebecq is the writer for you.

As for whether Houellebecq’s books are any good, as opposed simply to popular or hilarious or timely, it’s hard to say. The thing is, like artists such as Ezra Pound, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, and Thomas Bernhard, he has good reason, from the facts of his biography, to be psychologically damaged. As he has said of himself, “Until my death, I will remain an abandoned little child, howling from fear and cold, starved of caresses.” This is not a pose. But neither are his sexist, racist, fascistic pronouncements and fantasies. Then again, look at the majority of the names on the above list. What will determine judgment on Houellebecq as an artist is not his sentiments but the quality of his art. And here it’s possible he works a little too casually, with too much disdain for the pretensions of literature and the motives of his readers, to do the necessary work to last.

The Globe and Mail, May 2006