Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility Of An Island

Much of the criticism surrounding Michel Houellebecq’s work in general, and The Possibility Of An Island in particular, revolves around the unhappiness – we might even call it gloom – he generates in his readers. His characters are rarely very sympathetic; there is no joy in their worlds, only pleasure, and so their lives become gradually reduced to the single-minded pursuit of gratification. Unsurprisingly, there are no happy marriages in Houellebecq’s works, and few meaningful friendships, and so nothing to mitigate against the onslaught of the years: the graceful aging enabled by marriage and family is denied them, and the indignities of old age – the loss of youth and virility, especially – make their accustomed enjoyments obsolete or unobtainable. Houellebecq is not an author to take to the beach.

Much like Submission, The Possibility Of An Island imagines a dystopian future, but that timeline now plays a much more important role. The book is narrated by three men, who are really all the same man: Daniel, a successful French comedian, and two of his clones, who exist some two thousand years after Daniel’s death. It is gradually revealed that, thanks to the efforts of a cult known as the Elohim, humanity has achieved a kind of immortality through cloning: the DNA of a human being is preserved and, upon their death, a new human – an exact clone of the deceased – is created. But because this clone does not have his predecessor’s memories and experiences, he is made to study the diaries of his predecessor, and thereby – it is hoped – adopt (“download”) something of his spirit. Over the millennia, a handful of adaptive changes are made to the genetic code of these clones, who refer to themselves as “neohumans”: they now photosynthesize their energy, rather than rely on food; their nerve endings have been dulled, to reduce their sensations of pain; and because they do not reproduce, they have a greatly diminished sex drive. The novel’s structure interweaves the diaries of Daniel (referred to as Daniel1) with those of his clones, Daniel24 and Daniel25, but by far the greater chunk of the narration is devoted to Daniel1, to the human who lived in our own time.

The original Daniel is a comedian, someone who made his living skewering the respectable pillars of society, tearing down our false facades, pointing out our hypocrisies. The pitches for one of his projects reads: “To bring together the commercial advantages of pornography and ultra-violence,” and this is representative of his larger body of work. Believing himself to be a “cutting observer of contemporary reality,” he is in fact something of a cynic, incapable of finding meaning in the usual pursuits – religion, career and family – and relishing his success only because it enables him to “behave like a bastard with complete impunity,” and sleep with his young, female fans. As Daniel ages, as his stardom wanes, his capacity for licentiousness diminishes, even as his desires remain constant, and so he marries Isabel, a successful magazine editor. Isabel is something of a kindred spirit, in that she shares some of Daniel’s cynicism (and a dislike of Nabokov), but she ages out of desirability, and they divorce as abruptly as they married. In the aftermath of his failed marriage (his second failed marriage), Daniel, now in his early 50s, begins a relationship with Esther, a 22-year-old model and actress whose sexual powers eclipse his own. He can sleep with her, but he cannot possess her, and her stubborn refusal to commit to him, to be monogamous in our libertine age, drives Daniel to despair. This, in the end, is the novel’s great trick, the joke Houellebecq plays on his comedian protagonist: the cynical Daniel, the womanizer, the lecherous playboy, ultimately falls in love with a woman who does not reciprocate his feelings, and he is devastated by her indifference to him.

In one culminating scene, the apotheosis of Daniel’s suffering, he loses sight of her at a large party, only to discover her much later in the embraces of two younger men, and what follows is both a meditation on love and an extended commentary on the state of romance in the modern world:

Isabelle did not like sexual pleasure, but Esther did not like love, she did not want to be in love, she refused this feeling of exclusivity, of dependance, and her whole generation refused it with her. I was wandering among them like some kind of prehistoric monster with my romantic silliness, my attachments, my chains. For Esther, as for all the young girls of her generation, sexuality was just a pleasant pastime, driven by seduction and eroticism, which implied no particular sentimental commitment; undoubtedly love, like pity, according to Nietzsche, 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. Women had been weak, in particular at the moment of giving birth, early on they had needed to live under the guardianship of a powerful protector, and to this end they had invented love, but now they had become strong, they were independent and free, and they had given up inspiring or indeed feeling a sentiment that no longer had any concrete justification. The centuries-old male project, perfectly expressed nowadays by pornographic films, that consisted of ridding sexuality of any emotional connotation in order to bring it back into the realm of pure entertainment had finally, in this generation, been accomplished.

If you miss (as Stephen Metcalfe did, in the NYT review) the total about-face this passage represents – the pornographer and consummate cynic lamenting the loss of romanticism! – you might be capable of avowing that “Houellebecq too often becomes a proselytizer on behalf of fornication,” but you would be missing the entire thrust of the novel’s message. It is characteristic of Houellebecq that he often undermines his own insights, or couches them in sexually explicit passages where they are easily dismissed, but if you separate Houellebecq from his protagonists (as you must), you find not a sex-obsessed old man, fantasizing through his novels, but an author deeply pessimistic about the death of meaning in the modern world. Take, for example, this quintessentially Houellebecq passage: his narrator has misplaced a desensitizing cream he uses to prolong his sexual escapades, and, having expended himself too quickly, he must confront his disappointed young Esther: “I would have given a great deal to get another hard-on; from the moment they are born, men live in a difficult world, a world where the stakes are simplistic and pitiless, and without the understanding of women there are very few who manage to survive.” What an incredible sentence! What logical relation do these two independent clauses share, what train of thought could lead from one to the other? Houellebecq’s answer is this very novel, a reassertion of the importance of love and a scathing indictment of our times.