Michel Houellebecq—the balding bad boy of French letters—has always written himself into his novels, giving his main characters his sad, unusual upbringing (his parents abandoned him and left him to be raised by his grandmother), his marital history, aspects of his employment history and even, in two instances, his name. His fourth novel, The Possibility of an Island, is no different.
Daniel, a middle-aged Frenchman famous for dark, abrasive political comedy, shares a social outlook and many biographical details with his author. As a performer, Daniel is an equal-opportunity offender, following an “Islamophobic burlesque” entitled Let’s Drop Miniskirts on Palestine! with an anti-Semitic porn flick called Munch on My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler): “The actresses were authentic Arab immigrant girls, guaranteed to originate from the hardest Parisian suburbs—sluts but veiled, just the right type.”
Daniel’s profession allows him “to behave like a complete bastard with impunity, and even to profit hugely from [his] depravity, in terms of sexual conquests and money.” Alas, most of his female fans are pushing 40: “Some of them had fat asses, others breasts like flannels, sometimes both. In other words, there was nothing arousing about them.” Whatever fleeting glamour or validation these women may have hoped for in pursuing him, Daniel can only confirm to them “the decline of their erotic value” and their suspicion that it was “not maturity that awaited them, but simply old age.”
Eventually, Daniel meets his match, a magazine editor named Isabelle whose sexual frankness and “incredibly firm and supple body” obscure, for a moment, the canker on the rose: She’s 37 years old. They have three years of happiness, capped with a marriage ceremony, before the dreaded onset on physical decay. At 40, she begins to wince slightly when Daniel glances at her naked body. He would have liked to reassure her that she remains just as desirable as she did at 39, but he can’t. “I never felt, in the slightest way, capable of lying to her,” he explains. “I recognized the look she wore afterward: it was that humble, sad look of the sick animal that steps away from the pack, puts its head on its paws, and sighs softly, because it feels itself wounded and knows that it can expect no pity from its fellow creatures.”
Having shaken off any Muslim, Jewish or female readers, Mr. Houellebecq warms to his typical themes: alienation, nihilist fantasy, cloning, the failures of Western social reforms and sexual frustration. But the canker knows no gender. Daniel, after allowing Isabelle to slink away in shame at her perimenopausal weight gain, realizes with increasing bitterness that his own erotic stock is shrinking. Age—that thief of pleasure—dogs him through the second half of the novel. His ass and balls sag. He follows his fugitive hard-ons with the devotion of a whale watcher, scouting for flukes. After Isabelle, he falls in love with a beautiful, much younger woman named Esther, who bounces on his lap for a while before drifting off to be with other beautiful young people.
Daniel finds Esther so profoundly sexy that he has to use a German cream to stave off premature ejaculation. The application of this cream to his glans before a blowjob is perhaps the least erotic passage you may read this year. At heart, Daniel’s story is a swan song to erectile function, a plea for the continuation of a kind of sexual allure, opportunity and vigor that is in the realm of fantasy for almost everyone.
In all his books, Michel Houellebecq blames sexual liberation for the application of market forces to sex: “In a totally liberal economic system,” he wrote in his first novel, translated as Whatever (1994), “certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment in misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.” It’s a sad picture, based on a ludicrous assumption. Sexual competition is not a byproduct of liberalization, as any visit to the nearest ape cage—or even the nearest bird-filled tree—will demonstrate. And sexually restrictive cultures only mask the competition. It’s not as if the names of the bride and groom are drawn from hats.
Nevertheless, Mr. Houellebecq proposes different, interesting solutions to sexual competition in each of his books. In Whatever, the main character tries to talk his romantically unsuccessful friend into killing a woman. In Platform (2001), the two central characters collaborate to form a Thai-based sex tourism business for Westerners, since Asia contains “several billion people who have nothing, who are starving, who die young, who live in conditions unfit for human habitation, and who have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality.” His second novel, The Elementary Particles (1998), is the closest in theme to The Possibility of an Island. In the earlier novel, two wounded brothers, victims of a self-centered, sexually liberated mother, lunge and shudder through life, one sex-obsessed but physically repugnant and the other too captivated by his molecular-biology research to kiss his first girlfriend. The scientist brother, called Michel, eventually helps humanity transcend sex altogether by developing human cloning.
This resolution is carried further in The Possibility of an Island, and half of the book is narrated by Daniel24, one of the clones of the original Daniel, who became involved with a Raelian-like cult called the Elohimites and contributed to a murky, post-apocalyptic future both his DNA and his life story—a vital tool, it seems, to supplement the memory transfer possible between an original and his clones. Eternal life turns out to be a sedate, solitary undertaking rather than the joyful, sex-filled and harmonious wait for their extraterrestrial creators advertised by the Elohimites. There’s no sexual desire, and social contact is limited to occasional lyrical bursts of e-mail from other neohumans. Outside the security fence, in the blasted landscape, bands of savage human survivors roam.
If Mr. Houellebecq had imagined writing for these contemplative neohumans, rather than for his savage human readers, he might have taken the trouble to shape his flat but expressive prose into a narrative that transcends cynicism, Muslim-baiting and personal bitterness, on the one hand, and sentimentality on the other. The only very funny scene in his new novel (it features Karl Lagerfeld eating with his hands from a buffet) demonstrates Mr. Houellebecq’s comedic gift, but his sour fictional enterprise is, like Daniel’s sagging testicles, showing the effects of age and overexertion.
Regina Marler is the editor of Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex (Cleis Press) and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and The Advocate.