THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ISLAND by Michel Houellebecq

Book Quote:

“No subject is more touched on than love, in the human life stories as well as in the literary corpus they have left us; . . .no subject, either, is as discussed, as controversial, especially during the final period of human history, when the cyclothymic fluctuations concerning the belief in love became constant and dizzying. In conclusion, no subject seems to have preoccupied man as much; even money, even the satisfaction derived from combat and glory, loses by comparison, its dramatic power in human life stories. Love seems to have been, for humans of the final period, the acme and the impossible, the regret and the grace, the focal point upon which all suffering and joy could be concentrated. The life story of Daniel1, turbulent, painful, as often unreservedly sentimental as frankly cynical, and contradictory from all points of view, is in this regard characteristic.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (JUL 2, 2011)

It’s often said that a critic has no place christening contemporary works as literature; it’s for future generations to decide which books will live on and which will fall the way of obscurity. According to this line of thinking, 19th- century Russians were just as incapable of heralding their literary giants as the ancient Greeks were of immortalizing Homer or the Elizabethans, Shakespeare. But there’s something in this argument I’ve always found hard to believe: great literature lives on not because it’s incidentally suited to future tastes or historically informative; it lives on because it captures some of that elusive essence of what it is to be human, and while that universal quality all literature possesses is hard to pin down, to paraphrase Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it. Tolstoy’s contemporaries knew what they held in their hands with War and Peace just as I knew what I held in mine the first time I picked up a book by Jose Saramago. So let me be clear: Michel Houellebecq is such a writer and The Possibility of an Island is a book that will be read for generations to come.

The book, published in English in 2006, tells of a French comedian’s affairs of the heart. Far from politically correct, Daniel is a raunchy comedian, a social satirist, a “cutting observer of contemporary reality”, profiting from the absurdity of modern life with skits as controversially titled as Let’s Drop Miniskirts on Palestine! and We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts!. Fame comes easily to Daniel, and with it follows money, so when Daniel falls in love with Isabelle, the beautiful editor of a pre-teen fashion magazine called Lolita, nothing stops them from retiring to a mansion on the Spanish Riviera.

But living together for the first time, Daniel discovers that while “[his]animal side, [his] limitless surrender to pleasure and ecstasy, was what [he] liked best in [himself]”, Isabelle, more coldly rational, dislikes sex, and because of this, they will never be true lovers. Moreover, as her body ages, she begins to despise it, letting herself go physically so that before long, they are no longer intimate, and as “the disappearance of tenderness always closely follows that of eroticism”, they are condemned to an existence of “depthless irritation [that] fills the passing days.” Unable to bear her encroaching decrepitude, and correctly convinced that Daniel is no longer attracted to her, Isabelle leaves Spain for Biarritz, alone.

Isabelle isn’t the only one aging, and although he is rich, it’s getting increasingly difficult to attract the young women he desires– the young avoid anything that even hints at aging – until he meets Esther. Esther, a young, sexually adventurous actress makes Daniel’s life worth living again. However, she’s of a generation for whom love is passé and life is about pleasure-seeking and hooking up. While Daniel can’t live without his living-breathing fountain of youth, Esther does not love him, and soon, his pursuit of Esther devolves from warmly pathetic to mildly disturbing.

However, Daniel just wants true love and communion, and while his marriage to Isabelle was a meeting of the minds, it’s through his love for Esther, that “little animal, who was innocent, amoral, neither good nor evil, who was simply in search of her ration of excitement and pleasure”, that he realizes Esther’s generation is right, that “love had never been anything but a fiction invented by the weak to make the strong feel guilty, to introduce limits to their natural freedom and ferocity” and that he is nothing more than “a prehistoric monster with [his]romantic silliness, [his] attachments, [his] chains.”

The decline of Daniel’s sexual life begins just as he is introduced to the Church of Elohim, a cult that promises its members immortality through technology. Members submit their DNA for storage, hoping to be cloned as the technology becomes available in the future. When canny high-level members of the church turn the murder of their prophet into a publicity stunt – staging his resurrection in the form of the prophet’s living son – the church becomes increasingly popular. With the fall of Christianity and Islam in the West (Houellebecq eerily anticipates the Arab Spring), Elohimism, as a church “imposing no moral restraints, reducing human existence to the categories of interest and of pleasure …not [hesitating], for all that, to make its own the fundamental promise at the core of all monotheistic religions: victory over death” is perfectly positioned to become the religion of a post-religious world.

In fact, the novel is narrated by a succession of clones, each one appending the story of their life to the stories left by their predecessors. As the future Daniels meditate over their ancestor’s life, their existence – as bio-engineered neo-humans – reveals itself to be one of isolation in reinforced compounds in a post-apocalyptic world. While the neo-humans live a rational life, free of human desires, they, like humans, are “formatted by death” and shape their existence by the dictates of a prophet, the Supreme Sister, who prophesies the transcendence of the neo-human state and the arrival of the Future Ones. Neo-humans are exhorted to study and assimilate the longings of their human ancestor to further expand their consciousness and facilitate transcendence and the final evolution. However, at the end of their lives, rather than detached understanding, neo-humans often end up demonstrating human traits, creating art and verse, experiencing a shadowy longing , a desire for desire, prompting some to defect to join the human savages that scrounge around the barriers of the compounds.

After Daniel25’s cyber companion, Marie23, defects to seek out a human colony, Daniel25 is left wondering if perhaps there is more to life than this. Setting out from his compound with his dog, a clone of the original Daniel’s Fox, he opts to keep his dealing with the savages minimal. Although his nutritional needs are little more than mineral salts, sun and water, he travels far enough into the dried sea that he begins to feel physical discomfort akin to hunger and thirst. And as he watches Fox frolic in the woods, or the stars shine overhead, or waves lap against the beach, he understands “how the idea of the infinite had been able to germinate in the brain of these primates; the idea of an infinity that was accessible through slow transitions that had their origins in the finite; . . . and how the first theory of love had been able to form in the brain of Plato.” He also comes to realize that neo-humans, limited to the carbon-based existence of their human ancestors, will always be limited, unable to participate in the transcendence they’ve been working towards, however, doubly condemned, unable to experience the ecstasies or terrors of humans.

Houellebecq is a polarizing writer, and while I have no doubt that some readers will put this book down in (misguided) disgust, I’m equally sure others will finish it impressed by Houellebecq’s courageous intelligence. While most won’t agree with everything Houellebecq writes here, it’s hard not to admire his unflinching exploration of his theme –humans, like other animals, find true meaning in the unfettered satisfaction of bodily drives, especially the drive to reproduce. And if he’s to be believed and, for better or worse, we’re unable to escape our biology; perhaps our lofty myths of mated souls and true love have done human society more harm than good. Of course, I can’t really believe that; but I also can’t dismiss such an important book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 31 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; Trade edition (May 23, 2006)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia on Michel Houellebecq
EXTRAS: Excerpt and another (short) Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of: Public Enemies

Bibliography (translated only):

With Bernard-Henri Levy:


July 2, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Speculative (Beyond Reality), Translated, Unique Narrative, World Lit

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