The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houllebecq

[22 May 2006]

By John Schacht

In the first few pages of controversial French author Michel Houllebecq’s new novel, The Possibility of an Island, the narrator offers the following as casually as an aside about the weather:

“On the day of my son’s suicide, I made a tomato omelet. I had never loved that child: he was as stupid as his mother, and as nasty as his father. His death was far from a catastrophe; you can live without such human beings.”

It’s quintessential Houllebecq (pronounced Wellbeck), the emotional detachment of Albert Camus’ The Stranger multiplied ten-fold into active distaste. But Houllebecq has forged a successful literary career by exposing the hypocrisy behind France’s most sacred secular humanist shibboleths—sexual liberation, racial and religious tolerance, the ‘68 revolution; in short, liberte, egalite, fraternite. He’s become so infamous in his own country that when the heat his novels generated threatened to engulf him—he was taken to court after an interview in which he called Islam the world’s most “stupid religion”—he relocated to - quelle horreur - the British Isles (he now lives in Spain).

But Houllebecq is also France’s greatest literary export since Camus because his themes transcend their French genesis. His multi-national appeal is as much a by-product of globalization and cultural homogenization as a McDonalds on the Rive Gauche. His works have been adapted to plays in Denmark, England, and Spain, his novel Elementary Particles has been made into a film in Germany, and Houllebecq himself was the subject of a BBC documentary.

The Possibility of an Island is Houllebecq’s most personal novel. It’s an amalgamation of themes the author has explored before in Whatever (1994), Elementary Particles (1998), and Platform (2001): Consumerism, sexual profligacy, cloning, the tyranny of youth culture, and the drift of society toward its basest instincts in the absence of traditional moral hierarchies. This time, however, these themes play themselves out in a dystopian future from which mankind has all but erased itself.

Possibility is written in alternating chapters by primary narrator Daniel1 and a series of cloned “neo-human” Daniels two millennia in the future. The majority of the text is narrated by current-day Daniel1, a misanthrope who attains commercial success and cultural notoriety (or infamy, the difference is irrelevant) through caustic one-man comedic skits with outrageous titles like We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts. These earn him the reputation of “a cutting observer of contemporary reality”—a thinly veiled allusion to the author himself.

Daniel1’s skits are a “commercial exploitation of bad instincts,” resorting to racism, religious war, and pedophilia as topics. But as his performances—the cultural equivalent of shock-jock fare—get more caustic and outrageous, the contempt he feels for the whole process eventually results in a kind of creative paralysis that coincides with his mid-life crisis. The chief benefit of the humorist’s trade—“of a humorous attitude” toward life in general—was “to be able to behave like a complete bastard with impunity, and even to profit hugely from your depravity, in terms of sexual conquests and money.”

“Like all clowns since the dawn of time,” Houllebecq writes, “I was a sort of collaborator.”

The italics are Houllebecq’s, and they are no accident; the term still carries significant baggage in post-Vichy France, though Daniel1’s critiques are not exclusive to the French. Nevertheless, Houllebecq cites the infamous summer, 2003 “Death March of the Elderly” (as the headline in Liberation read), when an estimated 10,000 elderly French perished in a heat wave while much of the country was on its traditional August holiday. Houllebecq ridicules the hand wringing that followed.

“‘Scenes unworthy of a modern country,’ wrote the journalist, without realizing that they were in fact the proof that France was becoming a modern country, that only an authentically modern country was capable of treating old people purely as rubbish.”

Daniel1 is disgusted by this “generational holocaust.” But his mid-life crisis is coloring this sentimentality, because Houllebecq views such moral abominations as a natural outgrowth—even an evolutionary step—of a modern consumer culture fixated on the young. Moral outrage is merely a dying vestige of a religious tradition foreign to most of the West’s young. In a single generation, Houllebecq writes, the familiar moral underpinnings formerly provided by the Catholic Church in countries like Ireland, Spain and Poland have simply vanished, as they had in the rest of post-World War II, post-holocaust Europe.

As one of Daniel1’s successors comments, “prolonged belief in a manifestly absent divine entity provoked in them displays of idiocy incompatible in the long term with the maintenance of a technological civilization.”

Into this breach step the Elohimites, a health-and-youth-obsessed sect that Houllebecq bases on the Raelians, who gained infamy in 2002 when a Raelian bishop and biochemist claimed that the group had created the first successful human clone (still in hiding, apparently). Initially attracted to the group’s “free love” approach, Daniel1 is a grudging admirer of the Elohimites’ promise of immortality through DNA cloning, which he sees facilitating the next stage of human development.

“Elohimism marched in many respects behind consumer capitalism—which, turning youth into the supremely desirable commodity, had little by little destroyed respect for tradition and the cult of the ancestors—inasmuch as it promised the indefinite preservation of this same youth, and the pleasures associated with it.”

But Daniel1 is far too cynical to believe he will benefit from the Elohimites. When his one-sided love affair with Esther, a woman half his age, runs its course—“unrequited love is a hemorrhage”—Daniel1 commits suicide, an increasingly popular exit strategy referred to now as “voluntary departure.”

The rest of the novel is narrated by Daniel25, one of the neo-humans whose existence is completely self-sustained. Houllebecq’s brave new world is a “calm,” humorless place where the mercurial passions that characterized Daniel1 and his fellow humans have been spliced from the gene pool to eliminate the cause of so much suffering. But curiosity about these ancient human feelings drives some neo-humans to “defect,” and Daniel1’s distant relative eventually leaves the comfort of his existence to wander the world alone. If, as John Donne wrote, “no man is an island,” the possibility of one suggests that the sacrifices made to get there come with a hefty price tag: Our common humanity.

As novels go, Houllebecq’s are weak on plot, and Possibility is no different; beyond sex scenes that careen between Penthouse Forum titillation and Henry Miller-like adoration, as well as often hilarious screeds against pretty much everything else, nothing much happens in a Houllebecq story. As in Platform, there is a violent act in Possibility upon which the plot pivots, but outside of the narrator the characters are so insignificant that any act—lust, love or violence—seems immaterial, mere by-products of the author’s deterministic outlook. Like Daniel1, Houllebecq is a wounded animal lashing out in fear at the unfathomable mysteries of existence. Admiration for Houllebecq’s considerable skills as a writer is tempered by pity, because joy seems, in the end, simply beyond him. As Daniel1 acknowledges:

“My career had not been a failure, at least not on the commercial level: if you attack the world with sufficient violence, it ends up spitting its filthy lucre back at you; but never, never will it give you back joy.”

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