OF FRENCH LITERATURE AND GWEN STEFANI
I know, it’s a bad headline, but it made me laugh.
Michel Houellebecq, the enigmatic French author, on the other hand more often makes me grimace and sort of contort my brain into all sorts of rediculous pretzels. I am in the process of processing “The Possibility of an Island” his most recent novel translated from the French and published by Knopf. Houellebecq is the kind of man you want to keep his hands on the table, and out of his pockets, if you know what I mean. He is very clever, and the structure of the book is quite ingenious. The story of the narrator, Daniel, is told in segments that are written as “commentary” or “personal history” of his life and involvement with a religious cult that looks to clone its members in order to give them a semblance of eternal life. Interspersed within these chapters are commentaries written by clones who are living in a future dystopia where evolved “neohumans” have separated from humans who have devolved back into a primal state and are living in small tribes. The Earth’s climate has gone through several stages, on of which being the “Great Drying Up” and “The Second Decrease.”
I WANT CANDY
The main character, Daniel, is a very loathsome character. Sort of like if you took Borat and made him a nihilist. He is a comedian of shock value, and is quite effusive about his success and money. He feels little outside of his own self-centered world that is mostly a meditation on his own personal pleasure. He has no sense of any of the more positive sides of humanity, the sort of man who falls in love for the first time at 40, and even then, lust is a more intense emotion he could feel that any sort of fleeting love. Daniel is obsessed with his sexuality and what he can no longer get: younger women. Thus, upon aging and being dumped by his young actress girlfriend, his life is over and he commits suicide. For him, if there is no possibility of sex with young girls, there is no reason to live. Obviously he is not a character who is a hero, or even an anti-hero. He is simply endemic of human foibles and an extreme extension of what I believe Houellebecq is positing as the male ego. It was difficult to read, sort of like being stuck inside of the narration of an extremely self-indulgent child who sees the whole world as an extension of their ability to get their desires met.
The chasm between European and English language fiction is vast. Suprisingly so, for me. Reading “The Possibility of an Island” felt sort of like Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” streamed through a science fiction prism (and I am not sure which one, as nothing in my mental library is adding up). English language dystopias are most often fixated on the tyranny of corporations and organizations. Think Orwell’s “1984” or Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Both contemplate how science, social engineering and the hegemony of power structures can subvert the human will. Houellebecq’s novel does not deal with politics, or social organizations. Perhaps this has to do with the long history of Christian religions in Europe that Houellebecq’s dystopia is ecological and religious. His cult, called “Elhomites” are never disturbed by the goverment and there is a general lack of paranoia you see in American fiction, such as in Pynchon. His narrator, Daniel, is fixated on Sex and Power, instead of the American obsession with Money and Power. It is interesting how our societies create different perversions.
Perhaps the way I am reading this book had to do with the fact that I just watched two French films. One was, “The Beat that My Heart Skipped” you may watch it expecting a story of violence as the movie is about a thug. But not just any thug, a thug who wants to be a concert pianist who is decent and kind. The movie is never about the plot so much, it is about the soul, always about the soul. God bless, them, cinema is still art and a potential meditation on philosophy.
But back to the novel, love in Houellebecq’s novel is survival of the fittest. As the character of Daniel states, “love makes you weak, and the weaker of the two is oppressed, tortured and finally killed by the other, who in his or her turn oppresses, tortures and kills, without having evil intention, without even getting pleasure from it, with complete indifference. That is what men, normally, call love.” The life and death struggle of two souls trying to join in an anihilation of the individual. Not exactly the Americanized Hallmark greeting type of love. It’s not “You’re Special!” or the Hollywood type love, boy meets girl, boy disses and loses girl, boy become a bit more civilized and less of an asshole and wins the girl back. As the French would say, “vive le difference!” It seems, one takes love too seriously, and one doesn’t take it seriously enough.
Reading Houellebecq I could see women growing quite disgusted. The main character’s first wife turns forty and basically puts herself out to pasture to die alone. Once desire is gone, love is gone, for this character. I would not say it is a misogynist novel though, only due to two factors, first the commentary of one of Daniel’s clones who because they are neohuman, can see how the original Daniel’s perceptions are archaic. Secondly, there is a portion of the book that shows Daniel’s weakness and the sadness that comes with his aging, and how in the end he is at the mercy of culturally-held ageism, too.
In the end, and after only one read I took “The Possibility of an Island” to be extremely clever, but it did not move me in the same way that Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” did. I think it had something to do with the main character being such a jackass that it was hard for me to empathize with his troubles, and after a while his whining about the state of growing older grew old itself.