The Possibility of an Island
by Michel Houellebecq
translated by Gavin Bowd
Published by Aldfed A. Knopf
352 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island is a social science fiction tale of the extinction of man, and the ascendance of clones. But as is the case with Houellebecq's other novels, plot summation is often as illusive a proposition as it is unimportant. What immediately catches our attention in his novels instead is the depth and urgent integrity of his themes.
Daniel is a clone who tells us about the last days of the humans, the destruction of their religious beliefs, cultural and philosophical institutions that served as civilizing forces. Also gone are all forms of transcendence. After two marriages and many reincarnations in the veneer of successive clones, Daniel becomes, like the humans before him, fully aware and thus assaulted by the gravity, if not gravitas, of the human condition. Consciousness now begins to weigh heavy on these future entities whose sole reason for living, in this Brave New World, is to attain gratuitous moral and metaphysical buoyancy, what Milan Kundera has called The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Unbearable is a fine description of Daniel's plight, but lightness evades him.
Eternal life through cloning? Here we are reminded of Huxley's notion that what man wants most is not immortality but greater and ever-expanding carnal pleasures. Daniel counters the dominant hedonism of the last days of the humans with the love of his dog: "The advantage of having a dog for company lies in the fact that it is possible to make him happy; he demands such simple things, his ego is so limited."
The future is seldom what we envision. Daniel turns 40, an age that Houellebecq also found significant in another of his novels. Finding love and marriage, Daniel attains the apex of happiness, an emotion that he never imagined possible for one of his genetic makeup.
Daniel becomes famous -- rich, even -- as a standup comic. His vocation is that of a clown. He pokes fun at the anti-humanistic stupidity that passes itself off as "post-modernity." The topics that Houellebecq exploits in this work are all taboo. Here we find how Houellebecq's insightful social commentary can only be entertained in this fictional fashion given the present-day state of censorship. The hypocrisy, anti-speak and double morality of fashionable political correctness and its myriad web of nihilism is a major focus of this novel. Daniel understands this and creates sketches that will elicit a response from an infinity of groups that demand special-rights.
Daniel's first wife, Isabelle, is a woman who has a fine grasp of the not so nuanced final days of the humans and thus sheds some clarity as to the thematic direction of the novel:
All we're trying to do is create an artificial mankind, a frivolous one that will no longer be open to seriousness or to humor, which, until it dies, will engage in an increasingly desperate quest for fun and sex; a generation of definitive kids.
This is Houellebecq at his satirical best. This exchange comes about in a conversation between Daniel and Isabelle concerning the banality of empty people. This is also a find example of Houellebecq's prescient commentary on the state of "post-modern" morality and its most daunting and apparently illuminating cultural offerings. Isabelle goes on to instruct Daniel about the nature of his shows, as she tells him: "What you must do is have the rabble on your side, no one can get at you."
If one is going to write science fiction, it is usually more effective to begin with conditions that take place in a near or far off future than it is with the present day. This is just a question of distance, perspective. The former of these possibilities is certainly a more effective device because the distant future may not convey a genuine sense of practical reality. However, to concentrate on the near future also has its share of intricate problems. When we project the problems of the present to the near future we also risk that a portion of the audience will miss the point, given that the unimaginative will dismiss it as mere moralizing. Needless to say, it is next to impossible to be a visionary in an insipid age.
Like some of the spiritual and morally empty humans before him, Daniel seeks meaning but only manages to come up with momentary pleasures that, like a bandage, only cover up the real hurt. He then joins a new age cult, the Elohimites, a group that seeks reincarnation through sexual hedonism and suicide.
Daniel's life bounces about from one frivolous relationship to another. The only problem with this modish meaninglessness, you see, is that as clones go, immortality has already been attained. Houellebecq begins the book by suggesting that if such a state of immortality is desired, we ought to be careful as to the life we lead because this is what we will have for eternity: "Who, among you, deserves eternal life?"
The Possibility of an Island is not as sharp and focused in its plot direction as The Elementary Particles, perhaps Houellebecq's best novel to date. The interplay between present-day humans and future clones that Houellebecq encounters in this work is a monumental task. However, it is a challenge, we ought not to forget, that the author has voluntarily selected. This is an admirable quality in writing of any kind. Houellebecq does not take the easy way out, either in the technical aspects of writing, and certainly not in his chosen themes, "issues" of the day, as some like to call this today.
Not the least of the problems created by the stupidity practiced by latter day man was the decision to attack all human endeavors as unworthy of nature. This "strangely masochistic ideology" turns out to be Daniel's greatest realization, as he rediscovers an uplifting humanism.
The search for a renewed pathos that springs from awe and wonder characterizes Daniel's final odyssey. His bland world has no mysteries or fascination where "the animal world was known, human societies were known; no mystery was hidden it, and nothing could be expected from it, except the repetition of carnage." At the end of the novel he sets out into an unknown world where he hopes to rediscover fear as well as joy. Ironically, Daniel's final testament -- as well as the novel's -- is that a clone comes to possess the very idea of human differentiation and freedom that humans had given up to a positivistic determinism that had become the dominant physicalism in the latter days of man. | July 2006
Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.