on 28 March 2006
Houllebecque's most recent work is no Atomised, and nor will it win over those who did not enjoy his previous works. That said, the novel's unusual and chronologically displaced story and aging male protagonist allow Houllebecque to tear through the subcutaneous fat of society and rip into the male psyche. Houllebecque is frank and honest, where others dare not tread, and skillfully incorporates science and biology as a means of explaining human behaviour to much greater affect than any other current author (he has a medical background). Those
who argue that the book is a poor work of science fiction, or lacking a well developed story, completely miss Houllebecque's aim; the novel is not a story - it is an exploration and analysis of human behaviour and society. Houllebecques insights are often hilarious, similarly confronting, but always thought provoking, original and insightful. His equal treatment and command of biology, psychology and philosophy is rare, and to be enjoyed in this fascinating title.
on 26 October 2006
First things first, Michel Houellebecq is one of the most compelling writers about. He may be sexist, misogynistic , racist, Islamaphobic and probably tortures teddy-bears in his spare time but the power of the ideas flowing through his previous book sweep such labellings aside. Who cares about his politics his force of mind projects itself from the page so masterfully? Few other writers today can match him for ability or willingness to engage with the problems of 21st century life. You don't have to agree, just entertain the suggestions and it will lead you into dark places in your mind and questions you've tried to avoid answering.
Thus I was gutted when after the first 100-or-so pages of The Possibility Of An Island it became clear that he hadn't 'done it again' he'd actually produced something of a damp squib. In fact the book picks up in the second half as Daniel becomes increasingly central to the fate of the Elohim and humanity, yet, it still missed something.
This is a great puzzle for me. Everything's there that's made Houellebecq great in the past and is looked at from interesting new perspectives: men are still sexual deviants always looking for the younger woman but now the younger woman is shown to be just as cruel as the older husband, the ridiculous nature of religion in a scientific world is held up for all to see in the form of new-age-cultism, the degeneration of the body in a world that loves youth is examined in detail and reprising the theme of 'Atomised' humanity is to be replaced by a superior new breed. So why does it feel so lifeless?
The Possibility of an Island lacks the sparkle of Houllebecq's previous books, the ideas are there, you can almost always see the points he's trying to make yet somehow they don't quite feel 'made' with the killer lines that summed up complex sociological ideas strangely absent. The savage treatment of his characters, holding their every mistake up, illuminating the tragically self-destructive nature of the human condition, still pervades yet you feel neither poignancy for the victims nor anger at the perpetrators. More disturbingly, whereas occasional chapters revived the vicious, visionary Houellebecq of 'Platform', other passages simply didn't make sense, they read like the arid texts my Phd submits me to where you sense academics are using thesauri to appear clever yet losing any comprehension in the process.
Two possible answers present themselves as to why a book brimming over with ideas, written by an author with a track record for compelling writing if nothing else, seems so lumpen and devoid of passion (beyond the usual gratuitous sex which itself seems at times more clumsily inserted into the narrative than previously). The first possibility is that Houellebecq, renowned alcoholic that he is, failed to stay the right side of comatose long enough to produce a coherent vision of the ideas in his head. The second and more likely possibility is that the translation is poor. For me the likelihood of this is increased by the fact it is a different translator to the one who worked on his previous books and as previously stated, it's the prose that's the problem, not the project itself.
Having read the book a second time, more easily skimming over the words I already knew where were heading I found it a much better read and the ideas and concepts grabbed my emotions and mind more powerfully. So, with the naive faith of someone who really has no idea about the mental state of Houllebecq or his translator, here's hoping for a new translation!
on 29 September 2012
If you are venturing into the novels of Houellebecq, this is the wrong place to start. This is different from Houellebecq's previous two masterpieces, Atomised and Platform, in its format and the translation is not perhaps all that it should be. The book has some moments of brilliance but to point them out to you would be wrecking the moment. Even to hint where they are ruins the book. The power is still there but this feels unusual in a Houellebecq novel - it feels like one you read once, rather than the repeated readings his other novels tend to bring. This is a hard book to read. Quite frankly it is beyond most people's literary stamina. They won't get it. Those who do will be rewarded immensely. The only problem is if you fall in the first camp, it will be enormously frustrating (and there will be many Houellebecq fans who will be in this group). However, don't be disheartened and give the book a go, but if you are new to Houellebecq choose another one first (Atomised, Platform, Lanzarote - all equally good places to start).
This is undoubtedly Houellebecq's most ambitous work to date. The themes of his previous novels, such as the fragmentation of modern society, the masochistic cult of youthful sexuality in an aging society, and the possibility of happiness in a world in which values have been stripped to those of hedonistic individualism at the same time that the satisfaction of those desires has never been harder to obtain, are again explored, but here in a quite novel setting, and to a more thorough conclusion.
The novel is composed of two parallel narratives, both concerning the character of Daniel, a politically incorrect comedian who has made a carreer out of exploiting the cruelty and prejudices of the masses. The first narrative is of the life of the original human Daniel, the second concerns that of his cloned successors. The two narratives have a kind of symmetry. Whereas the human Daniel gradually loses his faith in humanity, the power of love, and his ability to obtain any kind of love, sexual or otherwise, the cloned versions of Daniel gradually emerge from a completely isolated, pain free environment, to awaken to the desire and possibility of human social and sexual contact.
The isolated world of Daniel's cloned existance seems to portray Houellebecq's vision of the logical conclusion to developments in contemporary society. Each clone lives in a secluded bubble of existance, designed to shield him from the pain and suffering that has been declared to be an inherent component of human biological life. Contact with others is made purely by e-mail, whilst outside in the real world, human society has degenerated into the level of animal savagery. The world of the cloned neo-humans is run by the 'Supreme Sister', in other words feminists have fully succeeded in their present agenda of castrating men and divorcing reproduction entirely from sex. In fact, the whole story of the cult from which the neo-humans and Daniel's immortal successors emerge could be read as an allegory of the development of human civilisation out of a primitive society dependent on basic biological needs (something which Houellebecq seems to see as being a state our present society has regressed to), to its transition to a patriarchal society based on moral aspirations, and then to one were the seemingly innate simian sexual rivalry of men is ultimately exploited by women to castrate them and take control of sexual reproduction.
For Houellebecq, human life is a sexual battle. Darwinisiam should be better described as 'survival of the sexiest', rather than 'survival of the fittest'. He has the honesty and the politically incorrect aptitude to recognise that all our social mores, all our moral codes, ultimately spring from the eternal Darwinian sexual battle to leave as many descendents as possible behind us.
'Contrary to recieved ideas,
Words don't create a world;
Man speaks like a dog barks
To express his anger, or his fear'
Feminism, the latest moral religion to sweep the western world, is no more than another attempt to control sexual reproduction in the interests of one particular social group. The only interesting thing about this particular morality is that this time, it has been invented for the benefit of the reproductive organs of women, or at least certain kinds of women.
Through the possibility of cloning, Houellebecq explores the hope of a human existance that has escaped from this brutal Darwinian war. Can there exist the possibility of an island, where men and women can live in happiness untouched by the brutal biological realities that turn every facet of human life into a savage battle for reproductive survival, fought by nature's cruel weapons of desire and frustration? The grim answer from Houelebecq is a resounding Schopenhaurian negative. We can never escape from our biological, animal existance and find either unconditional love or satisfaction without boredom.
Although obviously stylistically more ambitious than previous works, the writing doesn't seem quite as fluent as before, something which can presumably be accredited to the translation of Gavin Bowd (Frank Wynn haing translated 'Atomised' and 'Platform'). Also, despite having the main character as a comedian, it does seem to lack in humour compared to previous novels. Nevertheless, a briliant book. It might be that Houellebecq sticks to familar themes, but when those themes are the degradation and collapse of modern society, the hypocricy and lies that we base our contemporary society upon, and the very essence of human existance and its possibility of change, then lets hope Houellebecq continues his one man wrecking spree on the politically correct delusions of our age.
on 21 December 2010
I bought this book with some misgivings, often award winning writers, and French ones at that, don't live up to their awards. This one does. My heart dropped at the first few pages, which I could not understand at all, then we were off!
I never got bored, I always wanted to know what was going to happen next. Some of the ideas were not new to me, but presented so subtly as to seem new. Some ideas were new to me.
The only false notes were when the author used modern day technical language to make the book seem more futuristic. I doubt that technologies 1000 years from now will have ISP addresses and I doubt that image transmission and display will have problems of pixellation. 1000 years from now.
The translation is good, it seems transparent. Some translations just seem like, well, translations. This seemed to be the original novel.
on 1 February 2006
Micheal Houellebeck's (pronounced Wellbeck in case you wonder) 3rd novel seemed to me to lack the depth of both of his previous works, which combined with perhaps a new low in cover trashyness made me feel like Houllebeck is resting on his laurels.
Firstly, the novel seems to take a shortcut in that its main character is a celebrity- a rich and celebrated comedian. This seems a bit dubious at more than several points, especially given the ludicrous and unfunny nature of much of his 'humour', but this as with much else is barely developed by the author.
The sci-fi element to the novel, while giving it an interesting (somewhat unnecesarily)stucture, is equally undeveloped. While some areas, paricularly at the end of the novel, are touching, most of it reads like pretty bad sci-fi.
The book is, customarily, littered with graphic sex, and Houllebeck's standard formula: lonely man meets unbelievable woman, is well and truly present. Sentimental as usual.
Perhaps the major problem with the book is that is barely bothers to convince. Houllebeck more than before assumes that the reader is on his wavelength. If you enjoy Houllebeck, chances are that you are, and should enjoy this book. Just don't expect to be suprised.
on 12 March 2016
This is the five star Houellebecq I've been waiting for - since the last one. I found this a racy, intellectual treatise on human nature and religion that has very few, if any peers. The book is structured by telling the story of Daniel I. the human Daniel, and Daniels in the future who are 'neohuman' - they share Daniel I's DNA, but over the millennia, has lost much of his humanity. At first this is confusing a ammyoying, them it becomes more satisfying as the tale unfurls.
Daniel I is a foul human,driven by ego and sex - but of course, so are we all. He becomes a successful, scandalous comedian,makes a fortune, falls in love, then out of love - but it is not until he becomes an Elohimite that the real story becomes clear. His 'life story' is like a book of the bible, and his tale of the cult is outrageous and yet familiar. It is a ridiculous re-enactment of the New Testament, with the same aim - a group that wants to provide eternal life - and unlike Christianity - it sort of succeeds.
This is not a gentle read - nothing by this author is. It is like a Richard Powers book when it comes to the science, but stands alone when it comes to other books you might come across. It is very strong meat - and a bit gamey - thus is it very trademark Houellebecq.
Amazing and disturbing in equal measure. Top drawer.
on 18 February 2011
After reading ATOMISED upon the recommendation of a friend and finding it negative and depressing, I decided to give Houellebecq another chance.
I can't say I understand those who rave about this author.
Yes, he can write...I quite like his scientific references, I can appreciate his frankness, his cynisism, his dissection of Western society. Unfortunately, I'm always left with a bitter taste after reading his books because there is a consistent undercurrent of misogyny, racism and misery. Maybe this is the point, I don't know...maybe this is part and parcel of his examination of our society, an insight into the worse aspects of our personalities. I don't interpret it this way personally and I'm sure there are those who would say I'm missing the point. I think Michel Houellebecq is a clinically depressed, bitter and resentful man, who can't get laid. And I think he has no more insight than the average person...it's just that most people choose to live life with a degree of optimism and a measure of idealism because it's better than living a life without hope.
If you want to read a book that is raw and unforgiving, that has sex scenes lifted straight from some bland porn movie and where the characters either die horribly or inevitably committ suicide....go for it.
on 28 September 2011
Houellebecq is the only author whose books I buy in hardback as soon as they are published without a second thought because I know he always delivers and because I can't wait to read them. There are few contemporary writers, apart from J G Ballard and Will Self, who are as skillful at portraying alienation and dystopia as Houllebecq. I have his latest book on preorder. Can't wait for it to arrive!
on 20 February 2006
It was with great excitement that I bought this book for all of this French enfant terrible's previous books had, although very controversial and to an extent Islamophobic, been visceral and devastating critiques of modern Western European society and what is wrong with it and the collapse of the socialist liberal dream of Post WW2 Europe, and also very well written with complex plots too. However this book, although again with an interesting premise--an author, Daniel 1, a stand-up comedian and actor, relates the story of his life (mostly love life) and each of his many future clones then, in alternative chapters, comment on the life of their initial 'ancestor'--the novel falls down due to being a rehash of Houellebecq's prvious themes: modern man's obsession with sex, New Age sects who rely on technology to save mankind, misogyny, Islamophobia, cloning, the collapse of morals in today's Europe and so on--except that this time his central plot is too slight and weak to carry it off. The birth and rise of an obscure sect which quickly becomes the planet's premiere new religion, its emphasis on genetically improving human beings by altering them, the centrality of cloning, saving memories into computers and then uploading these into the next clone and so on; though these are weighty subjects, the story used to explore them is too weak and the central character too unlikable.
Big ideas as always but this time the execution was off; too rushed and a rehash of ideas he's already explored. Read Atomised instead--his masterpiece.