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Review By David Ravensbergen

If the content of his novels is any indication, Michel Houellebecq is constitutionally incapable of experiencing happiness, and he wants us to believe that we’re miserable too. Building on The Elementary Particles’ resounding denunciation of Western civilization, The Possibility of an Island reads like a tortured eulogy for an already-dead planet, a “dull place, devoid of potentialities, from which light was absent.” In response to the novel’s opening line, “Who, among you, deserves eternal life?” I can say with conviction that this misanthropic French author does not.

It’s not that I don’t like this book—in fact, I love it. The problem is that, in order for me to appreciate Houllebecq’s work, I have to maintain critical distance. His writing is so seductive, so convincing in its abject portrayal of human existence, that to be swept up in his narratives is to court suicide. The unsuspecting reader would do well to heed the warning of Kilgore Trout in Breakfast of Champions, that bad ideas can have potentially disastrous health consequences. Another option would be to maintain a sense of perspective, and bear in mind that blowjobs need not be the ultimate measure of happiness.

Much like The Elementary Particles’ Bruno, Houellebecq’s latest protagonist is an unrepentant hedonist, on an endless quest for women amenable to penetration. Where Bruno was a damaged soul, shunned by men and women alike, Daniel is a critically acclaimed and well-liked comedian, with ready access to the “pussy” that he requires. Yet Daniel’s aging body proves incompatible with his insatiable sexual desires, and it’s hard to remain unsympathetic as he becomes increasingly frantic at the prospect of his own physical decline. But the shocking misogyny on display in sentences like, “The dream of all men is to meet little sluts who are innocent but ready for all forms of depravity—which is what, more or less, all teenage girls are,” prevents any unreserved identification with the lead character, or, for that matter, the novel on the whole.

Yet the trouble with critiquing The Possibility of an Island’s chauvinist sexuality or bleak misanthropy lies with Houllebecq’s masterful use of irony, self-deprecation and deliberate liberal-baiting. The novel is aware of its own transgressions, and disclaimers and safety valves are built into the text. For example, the story of Daniel’s life is actually his autobiography, written in order for his personality to be passed down through successive generations of Daniel-clones. In between chapters, we are treated to the commentary of Daniel24 and, once his body expires, Daniel25, both neohumans living in complete isolation a millennium after the events of the story. Upon reading a particularly pathetic description of his progenitor’s romantic despair, Daniel25 notes, “The incredible importance accorded to sexual matters among humans has always plunged their neohuman commentators into horrified amazement.” The two interwoven narratives complicate Houellebecq’s authorial stance, partially absolving him of responsibility for his genital fixation.

The same ironic distance is on display in the author’s depiction of Daniel’s career. Mirroring his own project as humanity’s Grand Inquisitor, Houllebecq describes Daniel’s comedic work as pornographic reflections of human violence and hypocrisy. In his cinematic indictment of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Munch On My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler), Daniel, like Houellebecq, simply represents the madness of war and nationalism, stripped of the justifications of government and the media. In the book as in our world, both character and creator alike refuse the label of “humanist” applied by journalists. Rather than betray any longing for a renewed humanity, Houellebecq’s black arts advocate an honest understanding of oblivion. Reflecting on his career as a comedian, Daniel explains, “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.”

Daniel’s vision of complete stasis is fully realized in his clones. In contrast to the frenzied myopia of Daniel’s life story, the neohuman commentators observe from afar, rationally extrapolating the consequences of human behaviour. Having realized that the biological and metaphysical conditions of individuality are the cause of insurmountable anguish, the neohumans live in an affectless, isolated state, cultivating a Zen-like detachment from desire. As Daniel explains, the last generations of human civilization reached a consensus on the cruelty of mortality, and rather than come to terms with a brief existence, the world placed its hope in a transhumanist immortality, and the unmitigated pursuit of eternal pleasure. Yet Daniel’s descendants can hardly be said to experience pleasure—at best they feel a nostalgia for pleasure, at worst a slight sensation of sadness. The neohumans pass their lives aimlessly, living in the vague hope of the coming of the Future Ones, beings that will efface the pain of individuality through some kind of collective form of existence.

While these passages may sound sterile, they act as the fulcrum for the novel’s moral vision. Houellebecq has already articulated his hypersexual critique of Western culture with greater success in his previous novels; by now we know that individualist, consumer society acts to “increase desires to an unbearable level while making the fulfillment of them more and more inaccessible.” What is truly interesting about this novel is Daniel’s sublimated awareness, buried beneath a novel’s worth of caustic observation and sexual obsession, that the only possibility of happiness lies in unconditional love. Shortly before killing himself, Daniel observes, “There is no love in individual freedom, in independence, that’s quite simply a lie, and one of the crudest lies you can imagine; love is only in the desire for annihilation, fusion, the disappearance of the individual.” Without recognizing the need for love, the neohuman project is doomed from the start. In our failure to transcend individual selfishness, we—Houellebecq, Daniel, all of us—are undeserving of eternal life. The possibility of an island exists, but we have yet to realize it.