THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ISLAND by Michel Houellebecq (Knopf), translated by Gavin Bowd, 337 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
French writer Michel Houelle Becq has become notorious for saying outrageous things, and his latest novel, newly translated into English, is no exception. Sample: "Do you know what they call the fat stuff around the vagina? The woman."
But don't write Houellebecq off as a bad-boy poseur.
The Possibility Of An Island is the story of scabrous comedian and filmmaker Daniel, who achieves success by being as offensive as possible. While this makes for a scathing (and at times darkly funny) critique of popular culture, the book is really about Daniel's affairs with two women, both of which end badly.
Sex in Houellebecq is almost always pornographic. No one has trouble getting erect or wet, the blow jobs are always great and AIDS barely registers as a concern.
But this living the life orgasmic is too perfect, desperately so, and as soon as there are no more perfect moments left, the tragic isolation of the characters' lives stands out in sharp relief.
Sex is also Houellebecq's way into the human condition, and here his vision is bleak and apocalyptic. Daniel's affairs turn out to be an object lesson in how sex and tenderness have become severed in our culture, a fissure that foreshadows nothing less than the collapse of humanity.
Fast forward 2,000 years: clones of Daniel are part of a race of neo-humans who live an isolated existence, sexless and emotionless, on an ecologically devastated planet where the few rag-tag remnants of humanity have reverted to animal savagery.
Can love really matter that much? Think of what happened to Troy because of love gone wrong.
Houellebecq takes an unflinching look at human intimacy and finds very little that is still human: atomized lives, sex as a commodity, relationships that are either sterile or unsustainable. And he is right to see in this the signs of a world in deep trouble.