Book recommendation: The Possibility of an Island

I don't often do this, but once in a while a book is so well written (and translated) and stays in my mind so solidly for days or, in this case, weeks, that I feel it would advantage others to be tipped off to it. Such a book is Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island.

The book has an interesting and unusual plot, but what got me is the narrator. The nastiest, most unlikable one I've encountered since Notes from Underground or Lolita. And yet ... and yet ... did you not secretly, with a perverse shiver, sorta kinda like Humbert, did you not connect via humilation with the Underground Man? I had similar fights with myself over Daniel1, the ex-comedian who sets down his story in most of the book, and Daniel24 and Daniel25, his clones, who finish things up 1000 years later.

Love and lust and growing old among the ruins of moral bankruptcy in the West -- all the Daniels bring down blunt hammers on these topics. I just love honesty in a narrator. There is not a moment of relief here, not a chipper falsehood in sight, not a whiff of sentiment. Yet having Daniel1 be a famous former comedian allows Houellebecq to have some serious fun -- one of his hit sketches is called "We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts." Add to this a UFO/cloning cult, a nymphomaniac actress, and a scheme by which humans become replaced by neohumans who have replaced eating with photosynthesis and sex with "intermediation," blend it all up good with a rich cynicism that is somehow actually refreshing, and top it off with healthy sprinkles of good old French libertinism, and you have, in my opinion, a tasty -- yet nutritious -- read.

John Updike prissily slammed the book in the New Yorker some time ago, which should only whet your appetite (I could not understand any of his objections). Other critics can't seem to get enough of this precocious writer. I think he has his finger correctly on the pulse of the times. Diagnosis: Species-wide suicidal madness. Prognosis: Terminal. Prescription: Brutal candor.

Oh, and here is the European cover, which is oh so tackily ooh la la, and which, when I brought it out at pubs and cafes, did of course make me feel a bit dirty.

Come on, now, surely you've been reading and want to also share what's getting you worked up nowadays?


Pete said...

I do want to recommend one book in particular: Cold Skin, by Alfred Sanchez Pinol. It's really best to know nothing about it, but I will say that it struck a chord with my love of Poe, though the prose is more economical than his even as it evokes it. It's more like a very deftly modernized version of that sort of horror. It's just awesome. I also look forward to a screen adaptation-- there are no plans for one, as far as I know, but it's perfect for it. I'm not one to normally think of books as films-to-be, nor am I inclined to cast them, but I think it's a testimony to the cinematic quality of this book that I'm here doing both: I vote for Cuaron to direct, Claire Fisher's art professor from 6 feet under to star (whatever his name is), and Schwarzenegger to return to the screen as the misanthropic and hairy Austrian, Gruner. I just wanted to plant those images in your heads before you read it. Evil, I know.

the plunge said...

I ain't no Houellebecq girl.

(had to)

Trevor said...

LOL at The Plunge.

I read The Elementary Particles what feels like a thousand years ago and remember some provocative stuff in that, too. Not just the sex, though there was a lot of that, but the indictment of the '60's sexual and political revolution seemed like a big tweak for the time.

Houellebecq is probably unfairly tarred as right-wing because of these explorations, and maybe fairly for some things he's said in the media. All the same, I like your word--"precocious"--better as a descriptor for what he seems to be up to.

Or maybe I just like the idea of eating by sitting in some sunlight.

TLB said...

OK, I went out and bought it. I'm going to be teaching a scifi class in the fall and think it might be fun.

zelda said...

Not many women are Houellebecq (dammit lets just write it as it sounds - Wellbeck) girls. Once I got past 'nasty' and 'sensationalist' I got to dull. Maybe its the translation but ...

Trevor said...

A scifi class, TLB? Cool. I'd love to hear what else is on your readings list.