The Possibility of an Island

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Beginning with the 1994 publication of Extension du domaine de la lutte, published in 1999 as Whatever, Michel Houellebecq has lost little time in defining (and redefining) himself as the literary equivalent of a streaker, regaling his audience with obscene gestures and witty epithets as he passes by in search of a destination. His revelations and his antics cannot fail to attract attention, but to what purpose? Thus far, his blatant displays of in-your-face political incorrectness have drawn the attention of many spectators, with few admirers among them. Still, as with the streaker, onlookers have found it hard to look away, at least until after recording what they saw. The result has been a burgeoning secondary bibliography, beginning with book reviews and succeeded by symposia, articles, and books. Informed readers may not like Houellebecq (pronounced “Welbeck”), but they cannot pretend to ignore him.

Obviously intelligent, intellectually curious, and well-read in a variety of fields including the natural and social sciences, Houellebecq delivers biting, nihilistic satire laced with perceptive philosophical and social commentary. What is most noticeably missing is any attempt to establish contact between his narrators and his potential readership.

John Updike, whose review of The Possibility of an Island appeared in The New Yorker just as Updike’s own controversial novel Terrorist (2006) arrived in bookstores nationwide, observes that “The usual Houellebecq hero . . . presents himself in one of two guises: a desolate loner consumed by boredom and apathy, or a galvanized male porn star. In neither role does he ask for, nor does he receive, much sympathy.” Despite the rather confessional tone favored by most of Houellebecq’s narrators, his readers remain at a distance, unable to share in his characters’ fate or even to care about it, in part because of the narrators’ own lack of affect. “On the day of my son’s suicide, I made a tomato omelet,” recalls the present volume’s principal narrator; reminding many readers of the opening lines of Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) whose narrator, Meursault, cannot recall if his mother died today or perhaps yesterday. No doubt the sentence is intended in part as Houellebecq’s hommage to Camus, but whereas The Stranger functions within Camus’s oeuvre both as object-lesson and as stylistic exercise, the callous indifference of Houellebecq’s typical viewpoint character achieves little more than momentary shock value.

As a rule, the author’s narrators are either anonymous or eponymous, but this one is known as Daniel, evoking visions of prophecy, the lion’s den, and, by extension, the jungle. As he approaches the age of forty, Daniel has grown obscenely rich through obscenity, as purveyed in stand-up comedy, videos, and skits with such titles as “We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts.” Interviewed by the editor of a magazine targeting preteen girls and provocatively titled Lolita, Daniel is immediately aware of a mutual attraction: Isabelle is thirty-seven, just two years younger than he, but she could easily pass for thirty, having maintained a fitness routine of classical dance. She is also given to salty conversation punctuated by name-dropping and eventually admits that the interview was a pretext for meeting Daniel. In time, she will become his second wife, by his own admission the closest any woman has ever come to being the love of his life.

Soon Daniel, having amassed more money and possessions that he knows what to do with, is overcome by what seems like existential nausea but turns out to be revulsion at the sight of laughter, “laughter in itself, that sudden and violent distortion of the features that deforms the human face and strips it instantly of all dignity.” After years of striving to provoke laughter from his audiences, Daniel opts to retire from stage and screen; Isabelle gives notice to her publisher, and the two of them depart for Spain. Within a few weeks, Isabelle, sensing the effects of advancing age upon her own body and looks, begins to lose interest in sex, and will perform the act only with her eyes closed. Echoing Jean-Paul Sartre, Daniel then observes, “When sexuality disappears, it’s the body of the other that appears, as a vaguely hostile presence; the sounds, movements, and smells; even the presence of the body that you can no longer touch, nor sanctify through touch, becomes gradually oppressive; all this, unfortunately, is well known.” It is not long before Daniel watches as Isabelle approaches a pack of stray dogs, then a frequent sight in Spain:The dogs, however, watched her approach without aggression or fear. A little white-and-ginger mongrel, with pointed ears, aged about three months at most, began to creep toward her. She stooped, took it in her arms, and returned to the car. This is how Fox entered our lives; and, with him, unconditional love.

In time, Daniel and Isabelle will separate, alternating custody of the dog, who turns out not to be a mongrel at all but rather a Welsh Pembroke corgi, the breed favored, as Daniel notes, by the British royal family. From...

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The Possibility of an Island Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 17 (May 1, 2006): 71-72.

The New Republic 235, no. 9 (August 28, 2006): 23-27.

New Statesman 134 (November 7, 2005): 54-55.

New York 39, no. 19 (May 29, 2006): 69-70.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (June 11, 2006): 14.

The New Yorker 82, no. 14 (May 22, 2006): 76-80.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 13 (March 27, 2006): 51-52.