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Translated by Gavin Bowd
When it was published in 1774, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is said to have provoked more than 2,000 suicides across Europe. Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, The Possibility of an Island, probably won’t have the same effect. But if any contemporary novelist could spark a wave of suicides, it’s Michel Houellebecq.
And if he did, Houellebecq would probably be amused. A caustic cocktail of Albert Camus, Aldous Huxley, Larry Flynt, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, Houellebecq is a writer of extraordinary and unsettling brilliance. He asks big questions. What does it mean to be human? Where is Western civilization headed? Does love exist? And his answers are bleak. Like his two previous novels, The Possibility of an Island is characterized by a fanciful, almost sci-fi-style utopianism, a number of wantonly pornographic sex scenes, and a radically conservative philosophy. Houellebecq may well be many unsavory things—a racist, a misogynist, a proponent of eugenics—but he is never boring. And, unlike most of what’s out there, he actually makes you think—if for no other reason than to figure out why exactly you totally disagree with him.
The plot of The Possibility of an Island is relatively simple. The protagonist, Daniel, is a successful French comedian who finds love, loses it, finds it again, and, after losing it a second time, becomes involved with a bio-utopian cult that promises its members eternal life through cloning. Alternating chapters with the story of Daniel is commentary from Daniel24 and, later, Daniel25, “neohuman” clones of the original Daniel who live a solitary existence in the post-apocalyptic future.
Daniel (or Daniel1, as he is known to the clones) lives in a Houellebecqian version of contemporary France, a materialistic, secular-scientific world devoid of any real meaning aside from sexual desire. As a comedian, he lays bare the hypocrisies of the European liberal bourgeoisie, barbecuing its sacred cows in sketches and films like We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts and Two Flies Later, the story of a “cultivated man, a great reader of Pierre Louÿs” whose “second-favorite pastime” is “having his cock sucked by little prepubescent girls.” (For the record, his first-favorite pastime is “killing flies with an elastic band.”) Imagine a nihilistic, white Dave Chappelle, and you’ll have a good sense of Daniel.
Like Chappelle, Daniel becomes disillusioned with his career and drops out at the height of his fame. Daniel’s disenchantment, however, is sparked not by racist laughter, but by an abiding disgust with humanity. “If man laughs,” Daniel says, just before dropping out and moving to Andalusia, “if he is the only one, in the animal kingdom, to exhibit this atrocious facial deformation, it is also the case that he is the only one…to have attained the supreme and infernal stage of cruelty.” This obviously isn’t a very healthy philosophy for a comedian. “Every evening, before going on stage, I swallowed an entire sheet of Xanax. Every time the audience laughed…I was obliged to turn away so as not to see those hideous faces those, hundreds of faces moved by convulsions, agitated by hate.”
Unfortunately for him, Daniel’s love life is doomed in advance by Houellebecq’s misanthropy (his last book was subtitled Against the World, Against Life)—and, more pertinently, by his misogyny. In Houellebecq’s world, women are either “right tarts” who wear “tight, low-cut jeans” and have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for fellatio or “Fat Asses” with “flabby thighs” and no redeeming qualities to speak of. Should it come then as any surprise that Daniel has a hard time finding romantic love? To Houellebecq’s credit, the female characters in The Possibility of an Island are better drawn than those in his previous two novels. That, however, isn’t saying much.
As cold and meaningless as Daniel’s world may be, the post-apocalyptic “utopian” future of Daniel24 and Daniel25 is not much more appealing. Isolated from social contact, the neohuman clones live a life devoid of desire and attachment, a “solitary routine, intercut solely by intellectual exchanges.” In the words of Daniel25, they seek a “state where the simple fact of being constitutes in itself a permanent occasion for joy.…We must, in a word, reach the freedom of indifference.” Think Buddhism without the enlightenment.
Fenced in and miles from any other neohuman, Daniel’s clones spend their days alone, reading Spinoza and contemplating the teachings of the Supreme Sister. Their only social interaction is through the computer, their only glimpse of love in the eyes of a dog. It may not sound like much fun, but the question is: Are they happy? Have they reached “the freedom of indifference”? Houellebecq’s answer is a resounding no. Desire may be the source of all suffering, but it is also the source of joy. As Daniel25 reflects, “Happiness should have come, the happiness felt by good children, guaranteed by the respect of small procedures, by the security that flowed from them, by the absence of pain and risk; but happiness had not come, and equanimity had led to torpor.”
Like all utopian novels, The Possibility of an Island is mainly a vehicle for social critique. Houellebecq’s forte has always been his acidic and deeply disturbing vision of late-20th-century Western civilization. But in this book, he doesn’t just skewer our meaningless, materialistic world. He also disassembles the utopian ideal. In his second and probably most interesting novel, The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq wrote, “Desire—unlike pleasure—is a source of suffering, pain, and hatred. The utopian solution—from Plato to Huxley by way of Fourier—is to do away with desire and the suffering it causes by satisfying it immediately.” If we believe Daniel25, however, the absence of suffering, pain, and hatred does not necessarily lead to happiness. Life without desire, without highs and lows, is just plain boring.
The Possibility of an Island doesn’t really advocate for anything, which is not to say that it has to. The closest Houellebecq comes to a solution, the only time he even remotely approaches “happily ever after,” is in the epilogue, when Daniel25 leaves his compound to search for a colony of renegade neohumans on the Canary Islands. In his search, he begins to understand pain, suffering, and the beauty of the human condition. His brutally devastating last words are, “I was, I was no longer. Life was real.” Humans 1, Clones 0.
And so the book ends, relatively simply. Or does it? Ever the trickster, Houellebecq leaves the reader (at least this reader) wondering if there isn’t more than meets the eye. At first glance, the relationship between Daniel and his clones seems straightforward: Daniel24 and Daniel25 are distant progeny of Daniel, adult clones made from the DNA he gave to his bio-utopian cult 2,000 years earlier. But when Daniel25 goes out into the world, the world he finds doesn’t quite fit this narrative. It’s highly doubtful, for example, that the cell phones, cameras, and T-shirts that he finds would have survived two millennia of nuclear war and global flooding.
Whether you take this as sloppiness or as an indication that things aren’t as they seem probably depends greatly on your attitude toward Houellebecq in general. For those who aren’t into science fiction, pornography, and conservative philosophy, it’s tempting to dismiss Houellebecq outright, to brand him as a wacko misogynist and move on to happier books—to say, as John Updike does, “The sensations that Houellebecq gives us are not nutritive.” Doing so, however, is missing the entire point. Houellebecq’s world may be stark, ugly, and profoundly disturbing. But Johnny, so is ours.CP