Adam Ash

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Can humans survive without sex? Houellebecq's new novel

Can Humans Survive Without Sex? by Romain Leick

Michel Houellebecq is back. In his new book "The Possibility of an Island," he tells a virtuoso tale of sex, science fiction and sect madness, delivering what is bound to be the hit of the fall literary season -- and ponders just how important sex drive is to the human condition.

With "The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq once again addresses the question as to what, exactly, sex means for humans. It doesn't take him long to get to his anatomical point; it only takes three pages and about 50 lines for the vagina to make its first appearance. Michel Houellebecq, the sharp-tongued observer of current reality, the harbinger of middle-class misery, the dispassionate witness to the decline of postmodern society, is in his obsessive element: the female gender as the focal point of a life that is otherwise nothing but an arduous journey that offers no particularly convincing reason to be completed.

"The only place in the world where I have ever felt truly happy was in the arms of a woman, as I was penetrating deep into her ... The fact that something like a pussy even existed was already a blessing in itself." This is the voice of Daniel, the tragicomic hero of the new Houellebecq novel soon to appear in bookstores in France, Germany, England, Italy and the Netherlands. One can assume that these words accurately reflect the author's own philosophy.

For almost four years, since he published his last work, "Platform," a novel about sex tourism, the reclusive Frenchman has remained silent and invisible. One could have imagined Houellebecq living in Ireland, a tax haven for artists and writers, to escape France, that "dreary bureaucratic state" as he calls it, with its unrelenting tax authorities. In reality, Houellebecq spent those years living in southern Spain, like a German retiree, where he worked without interruption on his latest novel, the perfected synthesis of his previous works including novels, short stories and poetry collections.

Autumn's literary hit

Michel Houellebecq's "The Possibility of an Island" will be published in English in November by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. This will be his fifth novel translated into English and the first since his controversial novel "Platform" appeared in 2001. The book "Atomised" (published as "The Elementary Particles" in the US) first turned heads in Houellebecq's direction in 1998 -- a novel which the New York Times called a "deeply repugnant read." The novel also brought him critical success in the form of the 2002 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

His hair became thinner and he lost, as he says, "a bunch of teeth," because he was so busy writing that he didn't have time for dentists. He bought a big Mercedes so that he could relate to the typical male fascination with big, fast cars. Predictably enough, the experiment was unsuccessful. He also studied, with great interest, the rapid erosion of social structure in Spain, long a backwards, conservative Catholic country, which has quickly transformed itself into a libertarian, modern society. The result of his observations and work is now finished and, even before the new novel appears in book stores, it's already clear that it will be this fall's most talked-about and hottest-selling book, with an initial printing of 200,000 copies in France and 40,000 in Germany.

In his native France, which isn't exactly his favorite place, Michel Houellebecq, 47, is already the most widely-read author of his generation, the "French Harry Potter for adults," according to literary specialist Marc Fumaroli of the illustrious Académie Française. The Fayard publishing house -- which lured its star away from another publisher, Flammarion, and guaranteed him a fee of almost €1.5 million, a sum considered pure lunacy in France -- treated the manuscript like a secret weapon of mass destruction. Only a few carefully chosen journalists (including our SPIEGEL correspondent) received advance copies, and only after they had signed a confidentiality agreement. The move enraged the rest of the journalistic world, but it also created a feverish sense of anticipation that is now approaching its feverish climax.

Last Thursday, French daily Le Figaro one of the publications Fayard had left out in the cold, sarcastically pretended to have found a forgotten copy of the novel on a park bench. The paper's literature columnist, Angelo Rinaldi, also a member of the Académie Française, got his revenge by transferring his imagined copy of the new Houellebecq into a virtual garbage can. "Nothing," he wrote, "could be more barren, more pathetic or more obscure."

Dirty secrets

French music and culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles was the only publication that was granted an interview with Houellebecq at his home in Andalusia. Without even having read his new novel, Les Inrockuptibles dedicated a special issue, complete with an exclusive interview on DVD, to its cult author.

By now Houellebecq, a complete unknown only ten years ago and himself the archetypical representative of the "simple people" he analyzes is even being granted the honor of a first biography -- unauthorized, of course -- which supposedly reveals his own little dirty secrets.

"Help, Houellebecq is back!" writes despairing essayist Eric Naulleau, predicting a "literary nose-dive," while Spanish dramatist Fernando Arrabal rushes to his friend Houellebecq's side with a defense.

Houellebecq cultivates the depressive, which is what makes him so offensive and, for many, intolerable. He feeds on Schopenhauer's cosmic pessimism, to which he is more than happy to relate. His style is not to have a style. Casually and indifferently, he describes life as an endless scream of suffering, combining the obscene, the banal and the visionary, often without any transitions. His irony is so dark that it seems almost imperceptible. Houellebecq doesn't think of himself primarily as a storyteller, but as a social barometer that portrays radical changes in morals and the downfall of mankind in its current form -- a Balzac-light of contemporary human comedy.

His critics -- usually little more than jealous, hate-filled pursuers -- succumb to a fatal misunderstanding: Just because Houellebecq describes, with provocative flatness, a flat, self-destructive world, the result itself isn't flat and hollow. His subject is the modern trash that pervades all elements of life in a pleasure-seeking society, but that doesn't make the novel itself trash.

Clones and Stone Age savages

"The Possibility of an Island" is an encounter between naturalism and science fiction. The story unfolds at two levels: a current level, portrayed as the life story of humorist and comic Daniel 1, and a future level, in which the world, after experiencing global catastrophes that are never described, only suggested, is populated with Stone Age savages and cloned neo-people.

Daniel 24 and 25 are the reincarnations, in the 24th and 25th generation, of their genetic ancestor, Daniel 1. They comment on the autobiography he left behind, often helplessly struggling to understand what their ancestor wrote.

Like all his fellow sufferers, Daniel 1, who lampoons decadent, declining Western civilization in his provocatively comic cabaret act, is just searching for happiness. It remains out of reach, because the condition of happiness is unconditional love, and that's something Daniel can only expect from his dog, Fox. Two women figure in the life of this first Daniel: Isabelle, the frighteningly intelligent editor-in-chief of a Paris magazine for girls, and Esther, a second-tier but breathtakingly sensual Spanish actress. Both relationships fail, and both fail for tragicomic reasons. Isabelle isn't sufficiently fond of sex, because sex makes intelligence essentially irrelevant. Although she is willing, she only permits Daniel to penetrate her from behind, and even closes her eyes to avoid having to witness what she considers an animalistic act. Esther, on the other hand, isn't sufficiently fond of love. For her, sex is nothing more than an entertaining game, one in which she commands all registers: vaginal, oral, anal. She breaks up with Daniel at her own birthday party, a giant orgy -- leaving Daniel as the only guest who remains sexually unsatisfied on that evening.

This scene points out the basic principal on which, according to Houellebecq, Western society is based: "Escalating sensual desire to the point of intolerability, and making it more and more difficult to satisfy." Although Daniel deals with this contradiction in many of his comic routines, that doesn't prevent him from falling into the same trap himself.

Sex as a purely mental condition?

Daniel quickly believes that he has figured out the reason for his frustration: He is the only person at the party over 25. Age is a shipwreck, because the ability to have sex and access to sex begin to disappear, while desire never completely expires.

In the almost unbearable final stage of life, sex becomes a purely mental condition, as the pitiful victim -- with the body of an old man filled with youthful desire -- can think of nothing but sex. This brings life to an end, because all energy is of a sexual nature. Daniel, desperately searching for the vanished Esther, consequently commits suicide -- and Houellebecq prophecies that life expectancy for sexually-frustrated mankind will begin dropping drastically very soon, to about 50 for women and 60 for men.

In contrast, the desire for immortality persists; in fact, it's the only aspect of religion that's left. Daniel 1 has joined the sect of Elohim, who, thanks to revolutionary reproductive technology, promises her disciples endless rebirth, a process even better than cloning: The troublesome childhood phase is skipped, and when the old model dies the new one is delivered within 24 to 48 hours. Now that's customer service.

Thanks to this process, both Daniel and his dog Fox survive genetically, but without being the same person (or dog). The causes of suffering have been bred out of neo-man, as have all desires and emotions. Neo-man lives in a seemingly pure reality, strictly isolated, and is only able to communicate electronically. The only energy neo-man has retained is a weakened, non-tragic, merely life-preserving form of energy sufficient to ensure intellectual capacity in the form of liberated thought.

Lust equals life

Is this redemption -- the absence of pain, individual freedom and independence? But neo-man doesn't find happiness. The monotony, the routine of life interrupted only by sporadic exchanges of thoughts, leads to sadness, melancholy and apathy. It seems that man is unable to abandon his lust for life, after all.

In the end, two neo-people, Marie 23 and Daniel 25, embark on a journey, one setting out from the ruins of New York, the other from the arid landscape of southern Spain, in search of a new society, an unknown paradise, perhaps near Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. They discover a poem that Daniel 1 sent to Esther shortly before his death and, defying all reason, allow themselves to be carried away by the promise of uncertainty:

"And the love that makes everything so easy, Gives you everything, gives it to you immediately; There exists, in the middle of time, The possibility of an island."

Could it be possible? In the end, Houellebecq the depressed, the exhausted, the stressed, Houellebecq the scandalous sex addict, the embodiment of weltschmerz, turns into what he has always been: an incurable romantic.


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