The Possibility of an Islandby Michel Houellebecq, Gavin Bowd (Translator)
Surprisingly poignant, philosophically compelling, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, The Possibility of an Island is at once an/i>
A worldwide phenomenon and the most important French novelist since Camus, Michel Houellebecq now delivers his magnum opus–a tale of our present circumstances told from the future, when humanity as we know it has vanished.
Surprisingly poignant, philosophically compelling, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, The Possibility of an Island is at once an indictment, an elegy, and a celebration of everything we have and are at risk of losing. It is a masterpiece from one of the world’s most innovative writers.
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Daniel 1, 1
Now, what does a rat do when it's awake? It sniffs about.—Jean-Didier, biologist
How vividly I remember the first moments of my vocation as a clown! I was seventeen at the time, and spending a rather dreary month in an all-inclusive resort in Turkey—it was, incidentally, the last time I was to go on holiday with my parents. My silly bitch of a sister—she was thirteen at the time—was just beginning to turn the guys on. It was at breakfast; as usual in the morning, a line had formed in front of the scrambled eggs, something the vacationers seemed incredibly fond of. Next to me, an old Englishwoman (desiccated, nasty, the kind who would cut up foxes to decorate her living room), who had already helped herself copiously to eggs, didn't hesitate to snaffle up the last three sausages on the hot plate. It was five to eleven, the breakfast service had come to an end, it was inconceivable that the waiter would bring out any more sausages. The German who was in the line behind her became rigid; his fork, already reaching for a sausage, stopped in midair, and his face turned red with indignation. He was an enormous German, a colossus, more than two meters tall and weighing at least one hundred and fifty kilos. I thought for a moment that he was going to plant his fork in the octogenarian's eyes, or grab her by the neck and smash her head onto the hot plates. She, with that senile, unconscious selfishness of old people, came trotting back to her table as if nothing had happened. The German was angry, I could sense that he was incredibly angry, but little by little his face grew calm, and he went off sadly, sausageless, in the direction of his compatriots.
Out of this incident I composed a little sketch about a bloody revolt in a holiday resort, sparked by the tiny details that contradicted the all-inclusive formula: a shortage of sausages at breakfast, followed by a supplemental charge for the mini-golf. That evening, I performed this sketch at the "You Have Talent!" soirée (one evening every week the show was made up of turns done by the vacationers, instead of by professionals); I played all the characters, thus taking my first steps down the road of the one-man show, a road I scarcely left throughout my career. Nearly everyone came to the after-dinner show, as there was fuck-all to do until the discotheque opened; that meant an audience of eight hundred people. My sketch was a resounding success, people cried with laughter, and there was noisy applause. That very evening, at the discotheque, a pretty brunette called Sylvie told me I had made her laugh a lot, and that she liked boys with a sense of humor. Dear Sylvie. And so, in this way, my virginity was lost and my vocation decided.
After my baccalaureate, I signed up for acting lessons; there followed some inglorious years, during which I grew nastier and nastier and, as a consequence, more and more caustic; thanks to this, success finally arrived—on a scale that surprised me. I had begun with small sketches on reunited immigrant families, journalists for Le Monde, and the mediocrity of the middle classes in general—I successfully captured the incestuous temptations of midcareer intellectuals aroused by their daughters or daughters-in-law, with their bare belly buttons and thongs showing above their pants. In short, I was a cutting observer of contemporary reality; I was often compared to Pierre Desproges. While continuing to devote myself to the one-man show, I occasionally accepted invitations to appear on television programs, which I chose for their big audiences and general mediocrity. I never forgot to emphasize this mediocrity, albeit subtly: the presenter had to feel a little endangered, but not too much. All in all, I was a good professional; I was just a bit overrated. I was not the only one.
I don't mean that my sketches were unfunny; they were funny. I was, indeed, a cutting observer of contemporary reality; it was just that everything now seemed so elementary to me, it seemed that so few things remained that could be observed in contemporary reality: we had simplified and pruned so much, broken so many barriers, taboos, misplaced hopes, and false aspirations; truly, there was so little left. On the social level, there were the rich and the poor, with a few fragile links between them—the social ladder, a subject on which it was the done thing to joke; and the more serious possibility of being ruined. On the sexual level there were those who aroused desire, and those who did not: a tiny mechanism, with a few complications of modality (homosexuality, etc.) that could nevertheless be easily summarized as vanity and narcissistic competition, which had already been well described by the French moralists three centuries before. There were also, of course, the honest folk, those who work, who ensure the effective production of wealth, also those who make sacrifices for their children—in a manner that is rather comic or, if you like, pathetic (but I was, above all, a comedian); those who have neither beauty in their youth, nor ambition later, nor riches ever; but who hold on wholeheartedly, and more sincerely than anyone, to the values of beauty, youth, wealth, ambition, and sex; those who, in some kind of way, make the sauce bind. Those people, I am afraid to say, could not constitute a subject. I did, however, include a few of them in my sketches to give diversity, and the reality effect; but I began all the same to get seriously tired. What's worse is that I was considered to be a humanist; a pretty abrasive humanist, but a humanist all the same. To give some context, here is one of the jokes that peppered my shows:
"Do you know what they call the fat stuff around the vagina?"
Strangely, I managed to throw in that kind of thing, while still getting good reviews in Elle and Télérama; it's true that the arrival of the Arab immigrant comedians had validated macho excesses once more, and that I was genuinely excessive, albeit with grace: going close to the bone, repeatedly, but always staying in control. Finally, the benefit of the humorist's trade, or more generally of a humorous attitude in life, is to be able to behave like a complete bastard with impunity, and even to profit hugely from your depravity, in terms of sexual conquests and money, all with general approval.
My supposed humanism was, in reality, built on very thin foundations: a vague outburst against tobacconists, an allusion to the corpses of negro clandestines cast up on the Spanish coasts, had been enough to give me a reputation as a lefty and a defender of human rights. Me, a lefty? I had occasionally been able to introduce a few, vaguely young, antiglobalization campaigners into my sketches, without giving them an immediately antipathetic role; I had occasionally indulged in a certain demagogy: I was, I repeat, a good professional. Besides, I looked like an Arab, which helps; the only residual ideological content of the left, in those days, was antiracism, or more precisely antiwhite racism. I did not in fact know the origins of these Arab features, which became more pronounced as the years went by: my mother was of Spanish origin and my father, as far as I know, was Breton. For example, my sister, that little bitch, was certainly the Mediterranean type, but she wasn't half as dark as me, and her hair was straight. One had to wonder: had my mother always been scrupulously faithful? Or had I been engendered by some Mustapha? Or even—another hypothesis—by a Jew? Fuck that: Arabs came to my shows in droves—Jews also, by the way, although in smaller numbers; and all these people paid for their tickets, at the full price. We all worry about the circumstances of our death; the circumstances of our birth, however, are less worrisome to us.
As for human rights, quite obviously I couldn't give a toss; I could hardly manage to be interested in the rights of my cock.
In that particular respect, the rest of my career had more or less confirmed my first success at the holiday club. Women in general lack a sense of humor, which is why they consider humor to be one of the virile qualities; throughout my career, opportunities for placing my organ in one of the appropriate orifices were never lacking. To tell the truth, such intercourse was never up to much: women who are interested in comedians are getting old, nearly forty, and are beginning to suspect that things are going to turn bad. Some of them had fat asses, others breasts like flannels, sometimes both. In other words, there was nothing arousing about them; and, anyway, when it's more and more difficult to get a hard-on, the interest goes. They weren't all that old, either; I knew that as they approached fifty they would once again long for something reassuring, easy, and false—and of course they wouldn't find it. In the meantime, I could only confirm to them—completely unintentionally, believe me, it's never a pleasure—the decline of their erotic value; I could only confirm their first suspicions, and instill in them, despite myself, a despairing view of life: no, it was not maturity that awaited them, but simply old age; there was not a new blossoming at the end of the road, but a bundle of frustrations and sufferings, at first insignificant, then very quickly unbearable; it wasn't very healthy, all that, not very healthy at all. Life begins at fifty, that's true; inasmuch as it ends at forty.
Daniel 24, 1
Look at the little creatures moving in the distance; look. They are humans.
In the fading light, I witness without regret the disappearance of the species. A last ray of sunlight skims over the plain, passes over the mountain range barring the horizon to the east, and colors the desert landscape with a red halo. The metal trellises of the protective fence around the residence sparkle. Fox growls softly; no doubt he can sense the presence of the savages. For them I feel no pity, nor any sense of common belonging; I simply consider them to be slightly more intelligent monkeys, and, for this reason, more dangerous. There are times when I unlock the fence to rescue a rabbit, or a stray dog; but never to bring help to a human.
I would never contemplate coupling with a female of their species. While the interspecies barrier is often territorial among invertebrates and plants, among the higher vertebrates it is more a question of behavior.
A being is fashioned, somewhere in the Central City, that is similar to me; at least he has my features, and my internal organs. When my life ceases, the absence of a signal will be registered in a few nanoseconds; the manufacture of my successor will begin immediately. The next day, or the day after at the latest, the protective fence will be reopened; my successor will settle within these walls. This book will be addressed to him.
Pierce's first law identifies personality with memory. Nothing exists, in the personality, outside what is memorizable (be this memory cognitive, procedural, or emotional); it is thanks to memory, for example, that the sense of identity does not dissolve during sleep.
According to Pierce's second law, language is a suitable carrier for cognitive memory.
Pierce's third law defines the conditions for an unbiased language.
Pierce's three laws were going to put an end to the hazardous attempts at memory downloading through the intermediary of a data carrier, in favor of, on the one hand, direct molecular transfer, and, on the other, what today we call life story, initially conceived as a simple complement, a provisional solution, but which was, following the work by Pierce, to become considerably more important. Thus, curiously, this major logical advance resulted in the rehabilitation of an ancient form that was basically quite close to what was once called autobiography.
Concerning the life story, there are no precise instructions. The beginning can start at any point in time, just as a first glance can alight on any point within a painting; what matters is that, gradually, the whole picture reemerges.
When you see the success of the car-free Sundays in Paris, and the walkway along the banks of the Seine, then you can easily imagine what comes next.—Gerard, taxi driver
Today it's almost impossible for me to remember why I married my first wife; if I was to come across her in the street, I don't even think I'd be able to recognize her. You forget certain things, you forget them totally; it is wrong to suppose that all things are stored in the sanctuary of memory; certain events, the majority of them even, are well and truly erased, there remains no trace of them, and it is absolutely as if they had never happened. To return to my wife, or rather my first wife, we undoubtedly lived together for two or three years; when she became pregnant, I ditched her almost immediately. I was having no success at the time, and she received only a miserable alimony.
On the day of my son's suicide, I made a tomato omelet. "A living dog is worth more than a dead lion," as Ecclesiastes rightly says. I had never loved that child: he was as stupid as his mother, and as nasty as his father. His death was far from a catastrophe; you can live without such human beings.
After my first show, ten years passed, punctuated by short and unsatisfying affairs, before I met Isabelle. I was then thirty-nine and she thirty-seven; I was already something of a celebrity. When I earned my first million euros (I mean, when I had really earned them, after tax, and placed them in a safe haven), I realized that I was not a Balzacian character. A Balzacian character who has just earned his first million euros would, in most cases, figure out a way to reach the second—with the exception of those few people who will immediately begin to dream of the moment when they can count them in tens. For my part, I wondered above all whether I could bring my career to a halt—before concluding no.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Michel Houellebecq has won the prestigious Prix Novembre in France as well as the lucrative International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He lives in Ireland.
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I think every book Houllebecq writes is brilliant. The problem is Houllebecq the man ruins it. He sounds like the old-fashioned male chauvinist pig who got deconstructed and eviscerated by those 60's feminists years ago. I thought this type of man had become obsolete - what was he like as a teenage boy, I wonder - probably with acne, painfully shy, watched a lot of porn. There's a French pubescent boy here along with an impotent adult man's desperate sexual wish fulfillments. Added to this mix is the classic male chauvinist's corrosive misogyny. But as I said, the book is brilliant. So go figure.
Now fortyish Daniel built a lucrative career on commercializing his bad taste as a clown who enjoyed the absurd western ideology of evil. He created standup comedy sketches, films and rap records. Once e was wealthy, Daniel and his wife Isabelle chose to escape the stupid malevolent society by moving to a remote estate in Spain. When the couple learns that life is nasty as Isabel falls victim to the droop, their marriage dies.--------------- Daniel joins the Elohim, a sect that seeks immortality through sexual indulgence and artificial human life. However that does not pump up Daniel as much as meeting the much younger virile Esther, whose sex drive is astronomical (perhaps the age difference make sit seem that way). They fall in love, but he can¿t keep it up with her so it ends leaving him despondent with thoughts of is that all there is as he considers suicide. Two millenniums into the future, neohuman clones of Daniel and others including his dog Fox live at the state courtesy of Elohim's success even as the mutant survivors of nuclear disasters and the Great Dry Up die just outside the compound.------------- This is a strange insightful look at what is humanity from various angles. The story line rotates chapters between the ¿present¿ and the future¿ though the latter are small insets. Daniel is a fascinating protagonist as he struggles with the fact that once you are born dying begins, which in middle age is speeded up by biological deterioration. Though at times the philosophy of humanity equates to death overwhelms the action, fans of thought provoking contemporary character study and futuristic science fiction will appreciate this effusive pessimistic glimpse at what is mankind.------------ Harriet Klausner