Published in France late last summer, Michel Houellebecq’s newest novel has at last landed on American shores. Although, truth be told, “novel” is a bit of a misnomer–The Possibility of an Island is not a novel any more than its author is a novelist. A notorious drunk, a raging misogynist, a racist, a pornographer, a provocateur, a sign of the times, Houellebecq writes treatises dressed up as fictions, with characters who seldom manage to be half as interesting as the ideas that animate them. Life in Houellebecq’s world is relentlessly despairing and bleak, punctured only by the odd moment of sexual gratification; in the cruel free market of sex under late capitalism, some are always losers. His latest work zeroes in on the degradation of the body–the aging process–with a science-fiction twist. For a few sweet years in one’s youthful prime, Island instructs, life is worth living; after that, it is a slow march to the grave. To wit: “In the modern world you could be a swinger, bi, trans, zoo, into S&M, but it was forbidden to be old.”
Island returns to themes Houellebecq has treated before, in Whatever, The Elementary Particles–which made him an international literary star–and Platform: the brutalizing nature of late capitalism; for those lucky players in the free sexual market, the distractions of sex (albeit an increasingly routinized and decreasingly satisfying distraction); and the onset of a future even more rigid and joyless than the present. It stars Daniel, a shock jock who specializes in the most offensive and raunchiest of “comedy,” where Arabs are “Allah’s vermin” and Jews are “circumcised fleas.” He falls for Isabelle, editor of Lolita, a magazine for adolescents and the grown-up women who idolize them. As time passes, their sex life sours; their love follows fast behind. Daniel takes temporary comfort in young Esther–she is an accomplished pianist, but “like all very pretty young girls she was basically only good for fucking.” This star-crossed relationship dies when Daniel catches her doing the one thing she was good for with two gentlemen her own age at a drug-fueled birthday bash.
The narration alternates between chapters that take place in the present, as Daniel becomes slowly drawn into the religious cult of Elohim, patterned on the real French cult of Raëlianism, and chapters written by Daniel24 and Daniel25, subsequent clones created from Daniel’s DNA by Elohim scientists in a future sometime after an environmental disaster. (The end of Elementary Particles is also narrated from a posthuman future where life is reproduced asexually and all members of a species share the same DNA. This futurist orientation allows Houellebecq not only to examine our cultural preoccupation with genetics but to isolate his narrators from the present, sealing off his fictions and looking down on them from the all-seeing beyond.) The Daniel chapters are long-winded but tolerable; the Daniel24 and -25 chapters are unbearable pseudo-philosophical meditations on the meaning(lessness) of human life: “Intelligence permits the domination of the world; this can appear only within a social species, and through the medium of language,” we are told. “Love is simple to define, but it seldom happens–in the series of beings. Through these dogs we pay homage to love, and to its possibility. What is a dog but a machine for loving?” And so on.
Subtlety is not Houellebecq’s strong suit. His typical fare is spiced up with brutally graphic, predictably boring and deeply misogynistic sex; stabs at ethnic minorities, especially Muslims; rants against global capitalism and expressions of raw grief at the broken promises of the 1960s; and tirades against the veterans of May ’68, who in his view shirked their responsibilities in the name of a revolution that degenerated into sheer moral permissiveness. (Houellebecquians trace this critique to his estranged mother, who abandoned her son and later married a Muslim.) He is at once violently reactionary and sentimental, a libertine and a prude. His worldview–like that of Céline, another reactionary French misanthrope–is an apocalyptic one, in which something has irreparably cleaved humanity from its promise. It is this shadow of what was and what can no longer be that lingers, ominously, over his characters.