Reading

I’m conflicted by Michel Houellebecq’s “The Possibility of an Island” and I’ll try and work that out after the jump.

Read the first two books in “The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel.” Really wonderful, minimalist prose. She doesn’t bend language quite as far as Christine Schutt, but she has more of an emphasis on point of view and some well executed metafiction elements in there.

My wife finished “A Queer and Pleasant Danger,” a transgendered ex-scientology memoir, and the story was too interesting not to read. The author, Kate Bornstein, does a fine job in laying out their narrative — it’s mostly told in a linear fashion, with just a few flashbacks and forwards to fill in the blanks. However, the post-scientology section of the book felt more like a whole book in itself. The level of detail dropped and there were fewer full scenes and more explanation. It may have also worked to structure the book into only two sections (pre and post scientology), but given the number of transitions ze goes through in the book, that may have rung false. A binary structure probably wouldn’t suit this book.

Finished the first book in Vladimir Sorokin’s “Ice Trilogy.” Beautiful, but cryptic. Felt like if I knew more about Russian history more of it would have made sense. Still, expert use of voice and repetition.

First off, the negatives of “The Possibility of an Island”:

-The obvious pair are sexism and Islamophobia. The later is the most provocative — Houellebecq’s seems to take some glee in describing the narrator’s (a comedian named Daniel) offensive sketches. It’s so excessive that I can only conclude Houellebecq does it for shock value, as I can see no content in it. He has little regard for any religion, but particularly for Islam.

-The sexism is more complicated. We don’t see much of the  female character’s (Isabelle and Esther) inner lives, although a lot of that is tied to the limits of the narrator’s voice. All the characters are essentially cut off from one another, an attribute that is exaggerated in the futuristic sections of the book. The women’s motivations (sex, fear of death) aren’t complex, but they are in line with Daniel’s. Just about every character in the book is pulled along by sex and death, so it’s in keeping with his world view.

-Perhaps my biggest problem with his portrayal of women is it’s lack of connection to anything resembling my experience. There isn’t any discussion of day to day activities — anytime Daniel talks about his relationship it feels like he’s talking about some grand, cosmic battle, not the shared lives of two people.  Same thing with his view of sex — I’m pretty sure people have had sex without ruminating on their own mortality, but you wouldn’t know it from this book.

On the plus side:

-Houellebecq is an excellent writer. The plot is tight, he has a fantastic sense of setting, and the sections involving the cult are fascinating. For being a novel concerned with big ideas it’s immediate and gripping.

-The last section is strangely compelling. It takes an almost surreal turn, despite being the most straightforward A to B to C storytelling in the book. The images are strong and vivid: the dead corgi, the blasted landscapes, the bodies of water. He talks about it in an interview with the Paris Review:

“I personally like the last part of The Possibility of an Island. I don’t think it resembles anything I‘ve done before, but no reviewer has mentioned it. It’s hard to explain but I have the feeling that there’s something very, very beautiful in that last part. He opens the door, and it’s another world. When I wrote that passage I wasn’t thinking much about the story, I was completely intoxicated by the beauty of my own words.

I did something special to prepare for that last section. I stopped writing. For two weeks, I did nothing—and I mean nothing. I saw no one. I spoke to no one. In principle, you shouldn’t stop when you’re writing a novel. If you stop to do something else, it’s a catastrophe. But in this case, I stopped to do nothing, just to let the desire grow.”

-There are these little sentimental jags in the book where the narrator talks about his unfailing belief in the possibility of love. It’s not something I expected and Houellebecq seems genuine in his intent — he isn’t trying to expose the narrator’s weakness. He portrays it as almost noble.

-That back jacket photo! I didn’t see it until after I finished the book. I can’t tell what’s better, the insane Corgi or the terrible outfit. Either way this is the best “serious author” portrait I’ve ever seen.

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