A fierce critic of a cynical society, the French writer Michel Houellebecq has been compared (somewhat misleadingly) to Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and his own countryman Albert Camus. He has been showered with critical praise on both sides of the Atlantic. The author of three previous novels, including The Elementary Particles (2000), Houellebecq takes on some of the biggest -- and most elemental -- questions, not only about the dangerous trajectory on which mankind currently seems to be headed but also about the very nature of what may be wrong with humans as a species and with life, the world and the universe in general.
The moral bankruptcy of contemporary culture is the starting point of his latest novel, The Possibility of an Island. It's a skillful amalgam of prophecy, satire and science fiction, covering some of the same ground as Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake but with much more finesse and conviction. Fittingly, perhaps, an excerpt of this searing portrait of a society obsessed with sex and youth appeared in Playboy, for Houellebecq vividly depicts the lifestyle he lambastes.
The central character is a representative man of our times, a comedian named Daniel, who has attained some renown as a social critic: "All in all," he reflects, "I was a good professional; I was just a bit overrated. . . . 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 . . . we had simplified and pruned so much, broken so many barriers, taboos, misplaced hopes, and false aspirations; truly, there was so little left."
For Daniel, the targets are all too easy. A few random cracks against globalism win him a reputation as a "lefty" and "defender of human rights," while his vaguely Arabic looks add to his popularity. (As he deftly puts it, "the only residual ideological content of the left, in those days, was antiracism, or more precisely, anti-white racism.") Although he is well enmeshed in the promiscuity and self-centeredness of the world in which he lives, it's not for nothing that he bears the name of a biblical prophet because he clearly perceives the moral vacuity of his life and times.
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May 23, 2006
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Excerpt from The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq
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!" soir e (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.