The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq

Alfred A. Knopf 2006   341 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Is he a forever drunk, monosyllabic sensualist from that F-word country, France, or a blazing intellect whose novels have analyzed the fatal defects of our late-capitalist Western society with surgical precision?  Center-stage in the book chat circles of late is Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Wellbeck), author of the celebrated (and reviled) Whatever, The Elementary Particles, and Platform. Houellebecq’s new novel comes saddled with the baggage of his disagreeable personality, his previous books, and his trial, in France, in reaction to comments characters in Platform make about Islam.

If this sounds vaguely Rushdie-like, it is—and it isn’t.  Like Rushdie, he finds himself in trouble for his previous novel’s treatment of Islam, but no fatwa was issued.  However, exactly like Rushdie, Houellebecq’s critics make the freshman-level interpretative mistake of identifying the characters’ views with those of the author. 

His new book, The Possibility of an Island, will no doubt be subject to the same sadly ignorant critique.  Its protagonist, Daniel, aged 47, is a wildly successful comedian, whose topics for his standup, songs, and short films include “racism, pedophilia, cannibalism, parricide, acts of torture, and barbarism.”  In his view, he shares a social position with the political revolutionary.

“Like the revolutionary, the comedian came to terms with the brutality of the world, and responded to it with increased brutality.  The result of his action, however, was not to transform the world, but to make it acceptable by transmuting the violence, necessary for any revolutionary action, into laughter—in addition, also, to making a lot of dough.  To sum up, like all clowns since the dawn of time, I was a sort of collaborator.  I spared the world from painful and useless revolutions—since the root of all evil was biological, and independent of any imaginable social transformation; I established clarity, I forbade action, I eradicated hope; my balance sheet was mixed.”

Daniel’s views of the world, for which he is handsomely rewarded, are vulgar and hilarious.  “There was not only in me that legitimate disgust that seizes any normal man at the sight of a baby; there was not only that solid conviction that a child is a sort of vicious dwarf, innately cruel, who combines the worst features of the species, and from whom domestic pets keep a wise distance.”

On one level, Daniel’s story centers on the failure of his love life with two women, in particular, the humiliation he suffered from Esther, a sexually insatiable but morally vacant twenty-two-year-old.  However, there is another Daniel in the novel, whose narrative alternates with the first.  The second Daniel is Daniel24 who, we learn, is the 24th generation clone of Daniel1.  As Daniel1 tells his life story, Daniel24 (and later, Daniel25), comment on Daniel1’s sad life, and the difference between human life and clone life. 

Daniel1’s cloning came about owing to his connection with a new religion, Elohimism: “imposing no moral constraints, reducing human existence to categories of interest and of pleasure, it did not hesitate, for all that, to make its own the fundamental promise at the core of all monotheistic religions: victory over death.  Eradicating any spiritual or confusing dimension, it simply limited the scope of this victory, and the nature of the promise associated with it, to the unlimited prolongation of material life, that is to say the unlimited satisfaction of physical desires.”  The story of Daniel1’s immortality through cloning, granted by his association with Elohimism, gives the novel an opportunity to reflect on the traditional concerns of most novels--time, mortality, and desire--while enacting an ongoing cynical and depressing critique of the fate of Western culture.

The Possibility of an Island rehearses ideas readers will recognize from his earlier works, combining lurid sexuality with an avalanche of philosophically informed reflections on desire and death.  Its initially humorous shtick gives way to a more elegiac tone, befitting its themes. In its analysis of a world devoted to pleasure, The Possibility of an Island is essentially conservative.  Yet, owing to the novel’s graphic eroticism (some would say pornography), its attacks on the aging female body, and other contrarian attitudes, the novel will no doubt generate more press for its language and authorial behavior than its traditional novelistic concerns and treatment of them.  Readers will do well to ignore the author and read his provocative, often funny, intellectually engaging novel.