Thursday, 24 December 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!

10 comments:

Celine said...

Can't believe you dint like The Road.
Well actually I can. But I wish you'd liked it - just because I did.

Laza said...

I don't think I'd categorize The Road as a dystopia. It's more of an apocalyptic novel. Dystopias reveal the dark side of utopia--what we lose when we try to create something "perfect". (And they don't need to be futuristic). Anyway, sorry you hated this book! It really sucks when that happens! Have you read The Giver or The Handmaiden's Tale? Those are two really good dystopian books.

Colleen said...

Celine: Ah well, no book can please all of the people all of the time!

Laza: You're right, The Road isn't a dystopia; that's the sort of lazy error I make when I write blog posts when I'm sleepy. I was, in my mind, linking the post-apocalyptic aspects of Houellebecq's and McCarthy's novels but then not distinguishing between those and the dystopic aspects unique to The Possibility of an Island in my writing. I'm not certain I'm any more awake now so I should stop commenting. :)

Except, of course, to say that I haven't even heard of The Giver so will keep an eye out for it. And I read The Handmaid's Tale a very, very long time ago - I thought it was just fine but it didn't really strike me forcefully the way say We or Brave New World did. But I think I don't like Atwood's writing style; or at least, I didn't the last time I tried one of her books.

Celine said...

Any book that pleases everyone isn't a book - it's a glass of warm milk.

Happy Christmas, Colleen. I'm so glad you're back. Thanks for all the entertaining posts in 2009, I hope 2010 sees you happy and that each day brings you ore than a little joy :0)D

heidenkind said...

The only writer I've heard Dan Brown compared to is of the simian variety.

Merry Christmas to you, too!!!

dolcebellezza said...

I can't wait to hear what the good book is going to turn out to be! Don't you hate it when you start out liking a book, and then it goes south? I hate it when that happens! But, just as you said you'd know the read after Dickens would be hard is how I feel for the poor chap who's written what I've read after Murakami. The book doesn't stand a chance.

Biblibio said...

"The Giver" is technically a kids book, but it's still one of the best books I've ever read. I mean, you can tell it's for kids (what with really simple writing), but I've reread it countless times since fourth grade and I still find it brilliant.

I never understand why critics feel the need to compare between authors. Is it just so that the publishers will have a convenient blurb on the front cover, or is it simply that they think readers will better understand their point if they can flaunt high-brow names? Neither seems very convincing to me, just annoying...

Celine said...

Biblibio, when your agent/primary publisher is selling your ms to other publishers they compare you to other writers so that the other publishers might know what market they can aim you at.

When they make author comparisons on the cover of your book it's so they can attract a target audience to the book. Mind you, it rarely seems to reflect the actual writing or story and based on my own experiences I wondered if some of the marketing people had even cracked the spine of the novels ( I was - for example - lumbered with the tag line 'for anyone who loved 'Eragon' This was absolute madness because my books are fairly slow moving, character-driven and quite political, not a dragon or wizard or magical power in sight. Any reader buying on the strength of the comparison would be sorely disappointed I'm afraid.

Stefanie said...

The book might not have been great but the blog post about it was! I hope the bench pressing of Jeoffy went ok and you are currently deep into a really excellent book.

Colleen said...

Hey friends, don't let my new Curious/Creepy post make you think I'm a total Scroogey McScrooge. Happy holidays to all of youse guys too!!