Thursday, December 24, 2009
Offended on Camus's behalf
I knew that whatever poor sucker of a book followed up David Copperfield was likely going to be a disappointment, but Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island greatly exceeded my expectations in this regard. God lord, I loathed this book by the end! I didn't loathe it at first; at first, I thought it quite promising but it turns out that extremely wordy and fairly repetitive cleverness parading as profound genius pretty quickly loses its appeal for me. Who'd a thunk it?
Houellebecq has been and continues to be praised to the stars for this novel; some people who don't read enough have even compared him to Albert Camus. I feel offended enough to roll over in my grave, which I don't have yet, on Camus's behalf! The nerve of some literary critics who want to appear well-read and thoughtful by invoking the names of properly classic authors but who can't discriminate between the likes of Houellebecq and Camus, or Dan Brown and Umberto Eco, or any such obscenely paired writers that strike your fancy in a gorge-raising sort of way.
The Possibility of an Island has been marketed as a modern-day dystopia, and that's why I read it. I love dystopias. Or at least I have in the past; lately (and by lately, I refer to this novel and The Road), I have been much, much less than impressed.
See, the thing about dystopias is that they work because they're scary, and they're scary because the futuristic hell they portray isn't so unthinkable in the here and now; indeed, it should be seen to be the natural culmination of the here and now, i.e., terrifyingly inevitable. Houellebecq clearly understood the formula for writing such books as created and perfected by Orwell, Wyndham, Zamyatin, and Huxley but...
But. He takes too long to reveal what the scary future looks like, what with the primary narrator's story alternating with two of his future clones' stories. I've nothing against the slow reveal but this is much too slow; it's rather like a 4-hour striptease, by someone who's not so sexy under their clothes after all, and isn't even a very good dancer. You see, the writing was fine but in no way stellar; the plotting was fine, but also in no way compelling.
And anyway, this book is much less about a horrifying dystopic future than it is about how cults form and attract people; it's also about western culture's increasing obsessions with maintaining youth and beauty at all costs. It's not that these topics aren't timely and compelling, but that I just don't think Houellebecq does anything new or interesting with them.
The cult thing especially. The Possibility of an Island reminded me a fair bit of Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault, which I found disappointing for being all about cults but not, ultimately, either illuminating anything about cult psychology or making them appealing. The Possibility of an Island similarly failed in these regards, but somehow more so. I was just so bored. Oh wait, sometimes I was irritated too; you see, the narrator of Houellebecq's novel is a clone (ha, get the joke? Eh!) of any number of sex-obssessed, sexist, boring, misanthropic, self-absorbed narrators from novels writen by Roth or Richler in the 70s. Don't get me wrong, I love protagonists who happen also to be jerks - but only if they're either original or funny in their jerkiness, and Daniel1 doesn't have either going for him.
For the airing of the grievances aspect of Festivus, I think this blog fulfills that obligation. Tomorrow, some feats of strength, including bench-pressing my 20+-pound Jeoffy-cat. Also, I'm going to begin a good book, dammit. I don't know what it is yet, but dammit, it's going to be good! Happy holidays, all youse guys out in the etherwebs!