Published in France late last summer, Michel Houellebecq’s newest novel has at last landed on American shores. Although, truth be told, “novel” is a bit of a misnomer–The Possibility of an Island is not a novel any more than its author is a novelist. A notorious drunk, a raging misogynist, a racist, a pornographer, a provocateur, a sign of the times, Houellebecq writes treatises dressed up as fictions, with characters who seldom manage to be half as interesting as the ideas that animate them. Life in Houellebecq’s world is relentlessly despairing and bleak, punctured only by the odd moment of sexual gratification; in the cruel free market of sex under late capitalism, some are always losers. His latest work zeroes in on the degradation of the body–the aging process–with a science-fiction twist. For a few sweet years in one’s youthful prime, Island instructs, life is worth living; after that, it is a slow march to the grave. To wit: “In the modern world you could be a swinger, bi, trans, zoo, into S&M, but it was forbidden to be old.”
Island returns to themes Houellebecq has treated before, in Whatever, The Elementary Particles–which made him an international literary star–and Platform: the brutalizing nature of late capitalism; for those lucky players in the free sexual market, the distractions of sex (albeit an increasingly routinized and decreasingly satisfying distraction); and the onset of a future even more rigid and joyless than the present. It stars Daniel, a shock jock who specializes in the most offensive and raunchiest of “comedy,” where Arabs are “Allah’s vermin” and Jews are “circumcised fleas.” He falls for Isabelle, editor of Lolita, a magazine for adolescents and the grown-up women who idolize them. As time passes, their sex life sours; their love follows fast behind. Daniel takes temporary comfort in young Esther–she is an accomplished pianist, but “like all very pretty young girls she was basically only good for fucking.” This star-crossed relationship dies when Daniel catches her doing the one thing she was good for with two gentlemen her own age at a drug-fueled birthday bash.
The narration alternates between chapters that take place in the present, as Daniel becomes slowly drawn into the religious cult of Elohim, patterned on the real French cult of Raëlianism, and chapters written by Daniel24 and Daniel25, subsequent clones created from Daniel’s DNA by Elohim scientists in a future sometime after an environmental disaster. (The end of Elementary Particles is also narrated from a posthuman future where life is reproduced asexually and all members of a species share the same DNA. This futurist orientation allows Houellebecq not only to examine our cultural preoccupation with genetics but to isolate his narrators from the present, sealing off his fictions and looking down on them from the all-seeing beyond.) The Daniel chapters are long-winded but tolerable; the Daniel24 and -25 chapters are unbearable pseudo-philosophical meditations on the meaning(lessness) of human life: “Intelligence permits the domination of the world; this can appear only within a social species, and through the medium of language,” we are told. “Love is simple to define, but it seldom happens–in the series of beings. Through these dogs we pay homage to love, and to its possibility. What is a dog but a machine for loving?” And so on.
Subtlety is not Houellebecq’s strong suit. His typical fare is spiced up with brutally graphic, predictably boring and deeply misogynistic sex; stabs at ethnic minorities, especially Muslims; rants against global capitalism and expressions of raw grief at the broken promises of the 1960s; and tirades against the veterans of May ’68, who in his view shirked their responsibilities in the name of a revolution that degenerated into sheer moral permissiveness. (Houellebecquians trace this critique to his estranged mother, who abandoned her son and later married a Muslim.) He is at once violently reactionary and sentimental, a libertine and a prude. His worldview–like that of Céline, another reactionary French misanthrope–is an apocalyptic one, in which something has irreparably cleaved humanity from its promise. It is this shadow of what was and what can no longer be that lingers, ominously, over his characters.
Whatever (published in France in 1994 as Extension du domaine de la lutte), Houellebecq’s first, finest and shortest book, closes with this betrayal:
Everything which might have been a source of pleasure, of participation, of innocent sensual harmony, has become a source of suffering and unhappiness. At the same time I feel, and with impressive violence, the possibility of joy. For years I have been walking alongside a phantom who looks like me, and who lives in a theoretical paradise strictly related to the world. I’ve long believed that it was up to me to become one with this phantom. That’s done with…. It will not take place, the sublime fusion; the goal of life is missed.
It used to be fashionable to describe Houellebecq’s novels as funny. But his earlier fictions, though wry and sometimes amusing, are hardly knee-slappers–unless you count the ease with which women submit to the sexual magnetism of characters named for our author. Neither Houellebecq’s humor nor his prose stylings draw readers to him; his ideas and his ideas alone have won him an audience. Those ideas–and the fearlessly ugly manner in which he trumpets them–are by no means original to him. His bromides about globalization, immigration and feminism have aired the frustrations–indeed, the rage–of a whole segment of French society. Houellebecq didn’t reinvent the indignities of daily modern life, the performance reviews and group travel tours and solo trips to the Monoprix, but no French writer before him had captured them so well. (Indeed, French literature had been something of a barren field before he burst onto the scene.) He shone a harsh light on our humiliating public lives and our mechanized private lives, and most of all, our lowered expectations of both. Like all important writers, he asked us to consider if this is the way it has to be.
Houellebecq is not alone in privileging ideas over plot, or setting, or character; from Camus and Sartre onward, the French novel of ideas has been celebrated at home and abroad, particularly in the United States. Take, for instance, Georges Perec’s 1965 novella Things: A Story of the Sixties, whose target was similar to Houellebecq’s. Perec’s tale of a young couple, viewed with almost sociological detachment, invited readers to identify with their lust for consumption and bourgeois striving; his indictment of consumer society was sharper and more effective for its ability to quietly damn readers who felt themselves slowly eviscerated by their aching need for leather wing chairs and Swedish lamps. (Such was the case for this Swedish lamp-loving reader, at least.)
Yet in Houellebecq, we find not a portrait of our worst selves but of people distorted beyond all recognition, floating in an incomplete world, stripped of all pleasure, all friendship, hobbies, leisure and passion, any intellectual, social or emotional respite from flat despair. So long as Houellebecq sews this exaggerated vision to a political critique, it functions as more or less effective satire. But Island, where science-fiction fantasy retreats into a political vacuum, is unmoored from the ideas that grounded his previous fictions, and fails–as a novel and as theory. It diddles about, describing threesomes in lieu of parodying free love, bemoaning well-trod fixations instead of interrogating their conditions. It is not philosophy but polemic. And as the narrative descends further into the Elohim cult, further into itself, it becomes increasingly difficult to care what befalls any of the Daniels. Alas, the great disappointment of Island is that after causing so much suffering for the reader, Daniel25 does not even have the decency to die.
Houellebecq is dead; long live Houellebecq. Pierre Mérot’s first book to be translated into English, Mammals, treats a slew of Houellebecquian themes: the degradation of modern life, the idiocy of bureaucracy, drinking. The two authors even share some of the same ideas on love–“One always ends up dying of love, or rather of the absence of love, it’s inevitably fatal,” the first writes in Island. In Mammals we get that self-pitying sadness, but with the rug pulled out from under it: “Some people die of being unable to love, others of being unloved. Furthermore, anyone who still believes in love–even some simple, unexceptional love–will be the first to be annihilated.”
Mérot accomplishes this annihilation so skillfully, so hilariously, that devouring his slim book as quickly as possible is a reader’s only recourse. His hero is a man we know only as the uncle, a 40-year-old alcoholic loser who gambols from unemployment to jobs in publishing and teaching while committing “emotional suicide” with two different women. Love may annihilate him, but it does so over and over again. “What we resent about others is not the fact that they suffer as we do,” Mérot writes early on, “but that they have found the same cure. Love is believing that the other person has found a different cure, something that might truly heal us. But most of the time, we clash with people who are just like us, whose pain is just like ours; this is why they are invincible.”
Mérot uses his story of bumbling tragicomedy to skewer the unexamined life but also to question the idea that the examined life would be any different, any less disturbed. When the only transference seeing an analyst produces for the uncle is to move him from whiskey to beer, he concludes that “psychoanalysis teaches you one vital lesson: that seeing a psychoanalyst is pointless, that we are all responsible for sorting out our own shit.” As he navigates a world that intrudes on him from all sides, pressing in with demands and also opening with moments of exhilaration, sorting the shit out is bound to be a losing proposition.
Like Houellebecq, Mérot is a man writing with other men in mind. Women figure in both their stories as problems–in the first, women are either the fresh meat that taunts aging lions or the sagging flesh that disappoints their lovers. And in Mammals women are mothers or potential mothers–“the unhappy passages through which we are born.”
With special attention to these unhappy passages, these “worried mammals,” Mérot fixates on the problem of the individual in the bizarre yet frequently occurring entity known as a family. He cites two models: One belongs to a throwaway character, Bruno Michel, who just happens to combine the names of Houellebecq’s main characters in Elementary Particles and who, like Houellebecq, just happens to have been abandoned by his mother. (In an especially funny touch, one of Bruno’s “most inspirational epigrams” is his screaming of “I despise you! I despise you!”) The second model, the uncle’s, is a “life sentence,” served under a parent who “wields absolute control over every member of the family.” The uncle’s mother is the culprit here; she is guilty not merely of being dominant but, like all mothers, of perpetuating the species in the first place. “Where is it written that life is so wonderful that we continually have to force it on others? Why, just because life has appeared on this planet, does it have to carry on?”
Yet the uncle does carry on, clinging to his panic attacks and wasted nights, to his “freedom, paltry and inadequate as it is.” His story concludes thus:
There are buildings, and neon signs flickering, this is a life, and it is here for the taking…. You are alive…today, the sight of these extravagant, fleeting treasures has been granted to you and you alone, and no one can claim to be here in your place…. This is the age of mediocrity. The more mediocre the times, the greater the disappointment. Lonely hearts beat silently, side by side, in suppressed or still unconscious rage. The explosion is imminent.
Mammals does not promise transformation but the promise of transformation: It cannot be so bold as to grant salvation, but it does admit the chance that one day, outside this novel, a little light may spill through the cracks of the uncle’s moldering world. For while the disappointment, banality and petty everyday nastiness of human relationships create a fever pitch of tension, the tension cannot explode. The uncle’s laziness, shallowness and cowardice, his willingness to settle for mediocrity, his ordinariness, and his excessive fondness for blue champagne and curaçao cocktails all undermine hope. But while in Houellebecq’s world all promises have been broken and humans are left mucking about in the rubble, in Mérot the possibility of something better lies hidden in that very mediocrity, not in one’s sexual urges but in the social fabric, where “neighbours slap you on the shoulder” and “café owners greet you.” By any measure the uncle is a failure. And yet somehow not all is lost, for in the chorus of ordinary, lonely hearts beats the future.
Houellebecq’s books are profoundly, defiantly lonely; his narrators yearn for contact but judge and condemn all of society out of hand, from behind the gates of their homes or the future’s vista. Humans cannot come together, they always fail to connect–and always will, as long as their author’s world is a morass of indistinguishable, interchangeable subconscious bodies punctured by one thinking man. Mammals is lonely, too, but it reaches out continually–the uncle’s hand is slapped, but he doesn’t give up. He has one small consolation, the knowledge that in this middling world “no one can claim to be here in your place.” It is this uniqueness of each life, and Mérot’s great talent for the quick character sketch, his masterful storytelling, that balance the abundance of sweeping claims and dismissals of the gross incompetents and morons whom the uncle must tolerate and outwit.
Which isn’t to say the sweeping claims aren’t fun. Mérot knows how to play with generalities (“Even people who don’t usually allow themselves to be caught up in social strife quickly wake up and become committed activists when it comes to hounding smokers”) and how to casually invite readers into a joke (“The uncle’s sex life is a disaster, though it has to be said, it got off to a bad start”). He effortlessly twists phrases to make them zing (“The big guns of Christianity tell us that God bestowed freedom on mankind. Boredom is one of the chief freedoms which God bestowed on man”) and leaps nimbly from vignette to vignette, pulling the reader along with him. Mammals understands how to be all serious and all joke, at one and the same time.
And so nothing can be sorrowful, only pathetic; even–especially–unhappiness is not in earnest. “You long for tenderness, but hatred, with its little cruelties, is not so bad.” No, being at once self-absorbed and self-conscious, sincere and sarcastic, with your feet fast in the gutter and your eyes on the stars, is not so bad. It is not so bad at all.