Book Review: Michel Houellebecq’s THE POSSIBILTY OF AN ISLAND

Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island

I was initially going to post an entry complaining about my job, but I think I’ll sit on the draft for a little while longer to see if I still feel the same way tomorrow. Let’s not be rash when it comes to posting on the public domain…

So instead you get a post about whiny French nihilists. But first I will tell you a story, so if you just want the book review skip down a few paragraphs.

I hate the French. Now, I know that this sounds completely small-minded and ridiculous, but I will still say it. I hate the French. Not on an individual level, for I am sure that there are many French people who I would get along with famously. But as a general group,  I hate the French. I could make a list of all the silly, vague reasons for this, but in reality I am holding the entire culture responsible for the actions of one extremely ridiculous boy I encountered while I was in university.

After randomly approaching me in the student union and asking me out to lunch, this boy (I will call him Frenchie) said something to the effect of:

“Stop doing that with your eyes.”

“What?” I replied, more than a little bit confused.

“Stop doing that thing with your eyes…it’s like they’re hypnotizing me.”

“Are you serious?” I said.

Yes, Frenchie was somehow able to deliver that line, which was so obviously Bullshit, to me with a straight face. I have no idea how anyone could say something like that and still expect to be taken seriously. I can only cling to the hope that a line like that would not actually work on a French woman. The reason why Frenchie thought that something so painfully trite could work on me is the sad fact that it had probably already worked for him several times in the past. It is no small secret that American Girls have a thing for Foreign Accents. Well, let’s say European accents. I, too, am guilty of a fetish for foreign men. However, I also have zero tolerance for unabashed Bullshit. Upon coming to America, Guys with European Accents discover that their ability to talk a girl out of her panties has suddenly increased, all due to their new-found status as Exotic. I have had this tactic used on me not only by Frenchie, but also by a German in his first year of residency at Harvard. A Harvard education, as you might guess, serves as another powerful aphrodisiac for inexperienced 20-something girls.

Frnechie also had the fact that he was a graduate student going for him, something that undergraduate girls find attractive because it makes them feel more ‘mature.’ With those two things working in his advantage, Frenchie no doubt though that he could seduce this blond American just as easily as he had the others. Unfortunately, in addition to spouting bad poetry Frenchie was so boring that I could hardly stand sitting though an entire meal with him and was immensely relieved that I was able to extricate myself from the situation and avoid a ‘walk along the river’ that undoubtedly would have led to me biting off my own tongue. Still, despite my hasty exit, Frenchie tried to entice me out to a party that night at the apartment he shared with a similarly Exotic Belorussian with the promise of a hot tub. Ooh baby, did that make me feel special. So, I continue to hold all of France responsible for Frenchie’s bad decision to try and seduce the most cynical girl in the greater-Boston area with whispered sweet nothings.

However, even my animosity for the French cannot stop me from listing Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island as one of my favorite books ever.

Part science fiction, part erotica, this book is mostly just scathing commentary on modern society, materialism, sexuality, aging, mortality and pretty much everything else. Each chapter bounces back and forth between Daniel 1, in the Present, and Daniel 24 and 25, in the Future. Houellebecq presents a rather dismal image of the future of human evolution, one in which humans are almost extinct and the neohumans exist in near-complete solitude, communicating with one another entirely through IP addresses. As a species, the neohumans live in a state of near joyless stasis. Having completely abandoned life, they spend their time rereading and commenting on the life stories of their original predecessors, from which they were cloned. In other words, a life of pure intellect completely divorced from emotion. For Houellebecq, the Future is a time when humanity, or the latest evolution of it, believes that everything can be understood through science and technology alone.

This book puts me in a rather introspective mood. I particularly enjoy Houellebecq’s passages on sexuality and aging (and with it the decay of physical beauty), though I do recognize the ridiculousness of a 23 year old trying to comprehend the inevitable process of aging and decay that everyone will eventually face. Here’s my favorite part of the book (there are many other good parts, but I can’t just quote the book to you for 50 pages):

A very pretty young girl, treated with constant regard and paid enormous attention by the whole male population, including those – the huge majority – who no longer have any hope of obtaining sexual favors from her, frankly especially by them, with an abject emulation that with some fifty-somethings borders on senility pure and simple, a very pretty young girl before whom all faces open, all difficulties are ironed out, greeted everywhere as if she were the queen of the world, naturally becomes a sort of monster of egoism and self-satisfied vanity. Physical beauty plays here exactly the same role as nobility of blood in the Ancien Regime, and the brief consciousness that they might have at adolescence of the purely accidental nature of their rank rapidly gives way among very pretty young girls to a sensation of innate, natural, and instinctive superiority, which places them completely outside, and far above, the rest of mankind. Everyone around her having as their objective to spare her all difficulties, and to satisfy the least of her desires, a very pretty young girl effortlessly comes to consider the rest of the world as made up of so many servants, herself having the sole task of maintaining her own erotic value – in the expectation of meeting a boy worthy of receiving her homage. The only thing that could save her on the moral level, is having a concrete responsibility for a weaker being, to be directly and personally responsible for the satisfaction of its physical needs, for its health and survival – this being could be a brother or a younger sister, a pet, whatever.

Esther was certainly not well educated in the normal sense of the term, the thought never crossed her mind to empty an ashtray, or to clear away what was left on her plate, and she didn’t mind in the slightest about leaving the lights on behind her in the rooms she had just left (there had been occasions when I, following step by step her journey through my residence in San Jose, had to flick off seventeen switches); there was also no question of asking her to think of doing the shopping, to bring anything back from the shop that was not intended for her own use, or more generally to do any kind of favor for anyone. Like all very pretty girls she was basically only good for fucking, and it would have been stupid to employ her for anything else, to see her as anything other than a luxury animal, pampered and spoiled, protected from all cares as from any difficult or painful task so as to be better able to devote herself to her exclusively sexual service. But, nonetheless, she was very far from being that monster of arrogance, of absolute and cold egoism, or, to speak in more Baudelairean terms, that infernal little bitch that the majority of very pretty young girls are; there was in her the consciousness of illness, weakness, and death. Although beautiful, very beautiful, infinitely erotic, and desirable, Esther was no less sensitive to animal infirmities, because she knew them; it was that evening that I became conscious of it, and I began to truly love her. Physical desire, however violent, had, for me, never been enough to lead to love, it had never been able to reach that ultimate stage where it was accompanied, through a strange juxtaposition, by compassion for the one I desired; any living being, obviously, deserves compassion for the simple fact that it is alive, and therefore exposes itself to innumerable sufferings; but, when you’re talking about a being that is young and in perfect health, it is a consideration that appears very theoretical. Through her kidney illness, her physical weakness, which was above suspicion yet real, Esther could arouse an unaffected compassion in me, whenever I wanted to feel this way about her. Being herself compassionate, having the same occasional aspirations toward goodness, she could also arouse in me esteem, which completed the edifice, and even though I was able to desire someone completely contemptible, even though I had even found myself on several occasions fucking girls with the sole aim of confirming my power over them and, it’s true, to dominate them, if I had gone as far as using this unworthy feeling in some sketches, as far as displaying a troubling understanding of rapists who sacrifice their victim immediately after finishing with her body, I had, however, always needed to respect in order to love, never in my heart of hearts had I felt perfectly at ease in a sexual relationship based purely on erotic attraction and indifference to the other, I had always needed, to feel sexually happy, a minimum – for want of love – of sympathy, respect, and mutual understanding; no, I had not given up on mankind.

Clearly, this is not a book for everyone. I do not speak French, but this book definitely reads like a translation, though a very good one.

Upon rereading this book today (yes, I read terrifyingly fast), I was shocked to discover just how deeply it has become embedded in the way I perceive the world. More surprisingly, this happened entirely without my noticing it. When I first read it, I knew that I loved it, but I did not expect that it was going to to integrate itself so deeply into my psyche. Take this passage for example (not as long, I promise):

Your only chance of survival, if you are sincerely smitten, lies in hiding this fact from the woman you love, of feigning casual detachment under all circumstances. What sadness there is in this simple observation! What an accusation against man! However, it never occurred to me to contest this law, nor to imagine disobeying it: love makes you weak, and the weaker of the two is oppressed, tortured, and finally killed by the other, who in his or her turn oppresses, tortures, and kills without having evil intentions, without even getting pleasure from it, with complete indifference; that’s what men normally call love.

No one who has had their heart broken can deny that there is a certain pessimistic truth to that.

The Possibility of an Island is not perfect. For one, the book drops off during the last third. This is not to say that it becomes bad, just that it seems unable to sustain the momentum created by the first two-thirds of the novel. Despite the vaguely optimistic ending, Houellebecq offers no solution or alternative to the present state of humanity. Thus, I am perfectly aware that this book is rather self-indulgent, for both the author and the reader. It allows us to haughtily looks down at the absurdities and flaws of the human condition while simultaneously indulging ourselves in them. I will also admit, that upon rereading, The Possibilty of an Island can sound a bit petulant. But, hey, it’s French.

Comments (7)

  1. john

    Your book reviews exceed your Zombie reviews. A new side line for you: the New York Review of Books. Am forwarding your entire post to a Russian Franco-phile your age who gave me one you may enjoy (If you haven’t already) Boris Vian – Foam of the Daze. I truly love your blog. Some of the livliest writing I encounter. Much better than the economic, political and government blogs I’m stuck reading (yech…). Mata ne, C.-san.

    p.s. – WordPress was a good choice.

    April 9, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Well, I’ve got to work with the material provided to me. =P I love zombie movies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a whole lot say about some of them. This book far exceeds most zombie movies, so it inspires me to talk a bit more.

      Foam of the Daze, eh? I haven’t read it, but I certainly do like the title. I’m the first to admit, however, that when it comes to subjects that don’t connect back to East Asia my knowledge tends to get a bit sketchy. Like the intricacies of Western philosophy…I just don’t know it very well.

      Your francophile friend might take offense to my blanket condemnation of France! I say it all in jest, really!

      I’m happy that this blog is more interesting than government blogs…because sometimes that stuff just makes me want to shoot myself in the face. =/

      April 9, 2010
  2. Lakeisha Cichlids

    Is every post on your website this good? Thanks for sharing.

    April 16, 2010
  3. Heather

    You had me at “infernal little bitch”. The passage reminded me a bit of Nabokov, and he’s one of my favorites, so I will hav eot check it out.

    April 20, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I have to hand it to Houellebecq, he isn’t wrong when it comes to describing the way attractive young women can act like infernal little bitches. I’m sure everyone who reads that passage can relate it back to their own lives on some level. There have been times in my life when I’ve acted like a ‘monster of egoism and self-satisfied vanity.’ =P

      April 20, 2010
  4. David Murphy

    For a refreshing review of Houellebecq’s the possibility of an Island, click on

    August 3, 2012
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