Michel Houellebecq shouldn’t be as good as he is. His numerous flaws, his near-pathological obsession with the same themes, his acidic nihilism – all have been dwelt upon in the many negative review he receives. As is often the case, the pejorative reviews, as much as the positive ones, are what have made Houellebecq into the phenomenon he is. They typically alight on his devotionally pornographic rendering of sex scenes, his colourless, nearly banal prose and his utterly artificial conceits. This is all fairly true. Houellebecq will, for example, introduce a character merely to have them pronounce a polemic (against Islam, or whatever) then swiftly drop them from the story. Everyone in his novels speaks the same way, and, like the villagers in The Castle, they all seem capable of complex exegesis at the drop of a hat. Women in his novels are usually angels (or, better, martyrs, for they usually die) who seem to welcome sex at any opportunity, and like nothing better than performing public fellatio or initiating a threesome with the maid. Houellebecq’s male characters routinely 'howl’ as they orgasm, and when they do it’s hard for the reader to restrain a smile. For all his bitter humour (he is a very funny writer), Houellebecq takes his themes seriously, and his painstaking devotion to rendering sex scenes is rather touching in its naiveté. But ultimately, many of the criteria usually cited as making good fiction – believable characters, gorgeous prose – seem absent from Houellebecq’s books.
That opening paragraph, fairly transparently, is what would be called a book reviewing 'tactic’. Like the critic who disarms the reader by dealing with a writer’s good points in the opening paragraph (the better to knock them down later), I want to establish early that Houellebecq’s books are the sort of books that cannot be perfect, but in their flawed ferocity they create their own antibodies; by the strength and seriousness of intent they swipe away the quibbles of the broadsheets as merely the necessary crumbs that come from such edifying food. But is edifying the right word? Is Houellebecq really a 'healthy’ writer’? The answer, acutely pertinent in this context, is more complicated than yes or no, and it is that way because Houellebecq can be such a thematically ambitious writer.
Houellebecq’s latest novel, The Possibility of an Island, obsesses over the same pains as all of his books – sex, aging (and decline generally), the spiritual bankruptcy of the west. For such a steadfast nihilist, Houellebecq has always carried a heavy streak of romanticism, which can be seen in both his earnest sex scenes and, more importantly, in his solution to the decline and fall of the west. The Possibility of an Island is told in two narratives, the largest a first person account of the final years of a Frenchman in our time. The second narrative consists of 'commentary’ on this account by his cloned epigones. The new novel is, amazingly enough, even more self-hating than Houellebecq’s previous books. The character of Daniel, although he does not share his author’s name, unlike lead characters in previous novels, appears to be Houellebecq’s most loathsome self-portrait yet. A comedian, his one-man shows seem like a reductionist view of Houellebecq’s work (sample title: Munch on My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler)): The routine sexualisation of the feminine Other, the shock-the-squares overstatement; the essentially western bourgeois origins and returning point of the comedy.
What is at once his most outlandish novel – the sci-fi future species that features in the epilogue of Atomised has a massive secondary role here – is also Houellebecq’s most realistic, for it is in this work that he demonstrates so plainly how self-hatred, both his protagonist’s and his own, spreads outward, and how truly murderous – literally and literarily – this brand of nihilism is. More accurately, it demonstrates what is usually assumed ipso facto, that is, how much hatred a belief in nothingness and meaninglessness will really entail. For a novelist, this disdain is particularly dangerous, for it can easily slide into carelessness – if nothing matters, why bother creating a good work of art?
In his best novel, Atomised, Houellebecq managed to control this problem by splitting his nihilistic impulses between the two lead characters. Bruno was pathologically self-destructive, a libertine without the mythic glamour, someone doomed to make mistakes and have mistakes made on his behalf. His half brother Michel epitomised the mandarin disdain for messy humanity that nihilism also carries within it – we are told, for instance, that one of his scientific arguments was that humanity must 'disappear’. Platform, while containing only one protagonist, was a more political novel, and was able to sustain itself on the intensity of its engagement (something, to be fair, Houellebecq has always had to rely on) with politically pertinent issues, even if the only result was an intelligent, engrossing failure.
Nihilistic writing is not exactly unique in literature, and its strains can be seen everywhere, particularly in French literature – Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Some Gide, the Camus of L Etranger. Houellebecq explicitly acknowledges the latter connection: the first line of Platform reads 'Father died last year’. Two other French writers, however, demonstrate how nihilism can be successfully accommodated into a literary vision. Huysmans, in A Rebours, incidentally, a book much loved by Houellebecq’s much-despised sixties counter-culture, gives us a nihilistic aristocrat with such exquisite irony that it was barely noticed by some (cf. sixties counter-culture). Here is a man so fed up with the world that he withdraws from it, only to demonstrate how hopelessly reliant he is on it – on his servants, his material goods, his literature. Celine countered the sickly morality of his work with a marvellous linguistic facility and a ferociously energetic prose. Houellebecq, unfortunately, has neither Huysmans ironic detachment – he is too engaged for that – nor Celine’s verbal felicity – he is too careless for that – and so has to prop up his nihilism, or nihilistic impulses, with the much vaguer category of 'humour’.
Perhaps, then, it would be fruitful to look to Phillip Roth’s hateful, explosive, and hilarious Sabbath’s Theater. Hilarious may, at first, seem like a strange adjective to apply to a very dark book, but, like Houellebecq at his best, Roth is able to use hatred to fuel his outrageousness, and then let this run the humour. By letting their hatred fire the comedy both Roth, and, at times, Houellebecq, are able to generate a kind of unselfconscious humour where the reader ends up finding herself both shocked and amused by the baldness of the writer’s intent. There are, of course, many differences between Roth and Houellebecq, and Roth to my (non-French speaking) mind is much more of a stylist. Roth, too, shares a closer affinity with Celine, whom he has called 'my Proust’, particularly in their common devotion to language as it is spoken.
It seems that one cannot, at least today, refer to Roth without raising the spectre of misogyny, and, in this case, it’s a very helpful spectre indeed, for it allows us to bring into sharper relief the difficult relationship to women that Houellebecq’s books evince. It is impossible to think of Houellebecq ever writing a convincing female character, and one would be tempted to argue that all the women in his novels fall into that old dichotomy of angel/whore. This would be premature though: the angels of his novels, the ones whom no word can be said against, tend to have as one of their main positive characteristics the fact that they behave like whores in the bedroom (and in the street, and in the sex club). Really though, the only thing that makes them angels and every other woman a whore is that they love the pathetic hero, whereas the 'sluts’ ignore him. There are glimmers of sympathy for certain women in his novels, but they tend to be either fleeting characters, the narrator’s co-workers, for example, or women who are affected by the clunky plot: Aicha, the North African woman whose brother kills the narrators father at the opening of Platform (another echo, in reverse, of L’etranger), or Christiane and Annabelle, both hideously injured, in Atomised. Houellebecq’s problems with women can’t be reasoned away, but in the end they are just part of his larger problem with the life; he hates men even more.
There is one more thing I should add on the topic of reviewing 'tactics’. Sometimes a reviewer will recite all the negatives of an author in the opening paragraph, only to then argue that “somehow” the author’s such and such talent overcomes these – almost every review of a good Norman Mailer book runs along these lines. The reviewer may also choose to take this tactic one step further, and say that while in previous books the author may have overcome the faults so obvious in his or her work, in the book currently under review, the original negative comments are emphatically correct: such is the case with The Possibility of an Island.
Coming back to what I was referring to earlier, Houellebecq novels rest, ultimately, on their humour, and it is amazing that a novel whose main character is a comedian is so hideously unfunny. As we follow Daniel through the collapse of his first marriage (she gets a bit old and loses interest in sex), to his pathetic and ultimately hopeless infatuation with a 18 year-old Spanish actress (who 'like all very pretty young girls, was basically only good for fucking’), we see his growing interest in a cult called the Elohimites, who believe in the possibility of cloning, and all this is commented on by Daniel’s clones (the cult was right!), whose routine interruptions of the main narrative serve only to give the novel a sci-fi sheen and make the reader think 'hey, life as a clone is pretty empty and boring’. There’s more to the plot than that, of course, but it’s too silly and convoluted to summarise, and absolutely irrelevant to one’s enjoyment or understanding of the novel. The story, needless to say, ends in the future, with one of Daniel’s clones on an apparently pointless wander.
Like talking to a guy who puts himself down all the time, the reader starts to wonder 'why am I here?’ Houellebecq’s earlier novels evinced a sense of hard won brevity, of banality pushed so tight it becomes aphorism: 'I don’t subscribe to theory by which we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult’. The pages of The Possibility of an Islandgo by much slower (this may be the fault of the translator, Gavin Bowd, who must have hurried this as the book was published almost simultaneously in French and English), and I felt none of the same bite in his supposedly 'offensive’ lines. Houellebecq is like one of those poor dancing bears, way past their prime, but forced to perform the same repetitive tricks for an audience that demands them. At times in the novel it seems that Houellebecq is painfully aware of this. I can only hope that this novel of almost unrelieved awfulness is one big joke on his audience, a comedic tour de force where Michel Houellebecq writes the book that everyone expects from 'Michel Houellebecq’. If this isn’t the case, then Houellebecq has lazily served us up a reheated novel, full of his usual obsession, but older, staler, less flavoursome, and then taken the massive advance, laughing all the while. Whether it’s the former or the latter, though, it remains a depressing document of self-hatred, and deserves exactly what it seems to desire: to be ignored.
Bohumil Hrabal, the Czech novelist, once said of The Good Soldier Svejk that it was 'written as though he tossed it off with his left hand, after a hangover’. He was being metaphorical, of course, and added that 'it’s pure joy in writing’. The Possibility of an Islandliterally reads like it was written while the author was recovering from a drinking binge, and there’s no joy in hangovers.