It’s not a revelation to say that great literature – or great art of any kind – does not have to be an enjoyable experience for the reader (or viewer, or listener). In fact, whether you’re talking about James Joyce, or John Cage, or Joseph Beuys (or even people whose names don’t start with ‘J’) sometimes the greatest art is precisely that which is the most difficult to absorb, at least at first. Thankfully, most of the books Paul selected for Songs about Books, while certainly excellent across the board, and often challenging in their own ways, have been generally enjoyable to read. He did decide to pick one of the five to be somewhat of a fly in the ointment, and it fell to Ryan Barrett to take the caustic, unpleasant work that is Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island and interpret it into song.
The novel is structured as two parallel, alternating narratives, one penned by a man named Daniel who lived in the early part of the 21st century, and another, in the distant future, by his genetic descendants (more or less clones), Daniel24 and Daniel25. The latter is mostly in the form of commentary on the former, giving us some more insight into things that happened to Daniel1, but also veering into personal diary, giving us some idea of the world the future Daniels inhabit.
This does seem like one of those books that are intended not so much to communicate a story, but as a vehicle for the author to assail the reader with his philosophical agenda (à la Ayn Rand). The problem (a problem) for me was that I became preoccupied with just what Houellebecq was trying to say with one thing or another, and whether this character or that represented his own point of view or something he was satirizing and commenting on – or both, or neither, or somewhere in between? His style of writing pretty much demanded this reaction – at least from me – and it became very confusing and frustrating trying to tease these things out. At the same time, this is an improvement over someone like Ayn Rand, whose narratives are designed as a funnel to pour her putrid, black-and-white philosophy into your brainhole. Houellebecq at least invites question and argument and leaves large grey fuzzy areas. In the end I came to the conclusion that Houellebecq considers himself to be, like his lead character, both a misanthrope and a romantic. He also seems to be possessed of inclinations both shockingly radical and frighteningly conservative. In short, he is a man of contradictions, and this book appeared to me to be a way for him to set those contradictions at war against each other and see who came out on top.
The result is most certainly worth your time, as long as you have a thick skin and don’t mind the occasional passage that makes you want to throw the book across the room. Houellebecq is without question a very smart man (certainly better read than I; there are several references both literary and philosophical that I just had to let go and move past) and a skilled crafter of narrative. This book isn’t difficult in the sense of being particularly dense or hard to comprehend – Houllebecq’s overall style is clear and straightforward. The difficulty arises in the general unpleasantness of the narrator as a human being and, as you proceed through the book, the bleakness of Houellebecq’s apparent philosophy and view of mankind. In the end I managed to finish the book without throwing it across the room, but not feeling too happy about it. I choose not to agree with what I perceive to be Houellebecq’s stark, depressing worldview (though parts of it do resonate with me), and in the end the whole thing left kind of a bad taste in my mouth, but I do believe it to have been a worthwhile experience. Pick it up if you dare, if only to more fully appreciate lines from Ryan such as the following:
I shudder to think of the night
when Houellebecq and Iggy are right
that bitter old men know the truth
and look down upon the optimist youth
but they don’t know.
Get your tickets now, and join us at the Fremont Abbey on August 19th to hear all of the Songs about Books and get a copy of the CD.