I just read Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island. It was a mistake for me to do so. Given my literary tastes (Pynchon, Nabokov, Kafka, Borges, Cortázar, Calvino, DeLillo, etc.) I’ve long thought that Houellebecq would just my style but unfortunately, instead of reading what is likely a better Houellebecq novel, Elementary Particles, I picked up up The Possibility of an Island. On the surface, this book sounds great – a provocative, imaginative French writer does a sci-fi-ish, post-human, post-apocalyptic novel. What’s not to love?
Well, the tedious writing for one. While there are some good riffs in here, in general the flat prose is repetitive and tiring, executed with a light ponderosity that quickly becomes boring. I’ve got nothing against ‘novels of ideas’, but my experience is that a novel centered around ideas (as opposed to say, one focused on plot or character sketches) is generally a failure unless it also succeeds as art, because without art this kind of a novel typically is about as compelling as the classic dinner party bore who spends the whole evening droning on with poorly articulated banalities.
As I mentioned, the premise of this book has potential. Daniel is a fabulously wealthy, famous, middle-aged shock-jock comedian and filmmaker, whose life loses its meaning as he ages and realizes that the most unsexy thing is to be old. He lives through two relationships, one loving, one primarily erotic, and both end badly. Daniel begins to take up with a cult that is basically a lightly fictional version of the Raelians. This cult promises eternal life through cloning. It eventually becomes clear that the primary narrative of Daniel’s life is actually an autobiography being written with the encouragement of the cult’s leader. Alternating with this narrative is a commentary by Daniel24, a clonal descendant of the original Daniel who lives 2000 years later in a post-apocalyptic, post-human world. (No justification is given for the apocalypse, because for Houellebecq it is clearly unquestioned that the human species is headed for a bad end.) Daniel24 and all his fellow clones (descendants of cult members who finally achieved eternal life through science) are contemplative autotrophs with a severely reduced sex drive (kind of like Atwood’s neohumans in Oryx and Crake). The clones live an isolated life of pure contemplation. Their monastic text is the autobiography of their originals; thus the neohuman Daniel24 contemplates and comments on the narrative of the human Daniel1. Eventually, the next Daniel, Daniel25, realizes that maybe Daniel1’s life wasn’t really so bad, and that it’s really the neohumans whose passionless lives suck. Daniel25 leaves his compound and sets out into the empty, ruined world populated by human savages living nasty, brutish, and short lives characterized by sex and violence.
Life just sucks in general in this book – for pre-apocalyptic humans, it sucks if you’re over 30 and can no longer participate in all night, drug-fueled orgy parties; for neohumans, your life is simply pointless right from the get-go. To some degree, these two ways of living miserably form an interesting counterpoint; the bleakness of aging is contrasted, sometimes effectively, with an utterly unfulfilling immortality. In the end, in a straightforwardly cliché ending, Daniel25 puts an end to immortality and steps out into the post-apocalyptic world to experience life, sensation, pain, and maybe death.
The premise may have been good, but the book was unimaginative. Daniel24’s commentary on Daniel1’s life came off as gimmicky instead of original and enlightening. Daniel1’s life story was basically told within the first 100 pages, and then it began to repeat itself with slightly different actors. All of the characters basically shared the same nihilistic outlook, which undermined any attempt to build up conflict and tension in the plot. I wanted to like this book, and probably would have liked it if had been only 150 pages long, because in the end, Houellebecq just didn’t have the prose, the imagination, or the sustained development of his ideas to fill a 300-page book. This is an attempt at a novel of ideas that fails to be expressive, that fails as art, and that fails to be interesting.
See my other discussions of science and post-apocalyptic books right here.