Book Review: “The Possibility of an Island” by Michel Houellebecq
There’s so much happening with this novel, I don’t even know where to begin – so let’s start by saying that underneath the philosophical passages and the Literary way in which it is written, what you have here is essentially a Science Fiction novel. Try to imagine Louis-Ferdinand Céline crossed with Philip K. Dick and you have a pretty good idea what you’re in store for here. I guess I should also say that a little knowledge of a certain UFO cult would greatly enhance the reading experience as well. This is yet another great example of the crossing of genres and much of the tone of this also reminded me much of Haruki Murakami – or at least it does with regard to the imaginative way in which the genres are blended to come up with something truly unique.
The story is about a stand-up comedian named Daniel (referred to as Daniel1 in the chapter headers, but more on that later). He is very successful and lives a life of pure decadence. His comedy routine is based on shock value and misanthropy, often resorting to highly offensive material. He’s made records, films, has done numerous stage performances, each one more profane than the last. He is a man on the quest for pussy and pretty much nothing more and the details of his sexual life is there for all to see in very explicit detail. He ruminates on the nature of sex and love, questions on whether or not love even exists, and the way society treats its aging citizens, something that he is starting to feel himself after a long career. He falls in love with a woman named Isabelle, who works at a celebrity magazine. She loves love, but doesn’t love sex. Over time their relationship deteriorates and he then meets a young sexually liberated woman named Esther – who loves sex but doesn’t know how to love. Daniel1 becomes obsessed with her and her free-wheeling, libertine lifestyle eventually gets the better of him and after all the years of drug taking, partying and fucking he suddenly realizes that he needs something more.
The chapters alternate between the story of Daniel1 and Daniel24 & Daniel25. Little by little it is revealed that these “Daniels” are his descended clones, part of a new species of humans called Neohumans. The neohumans live in a state of isolation, 2000 years into the future where mankind has been virtually extinct due to natural calamities and nuclear war. Only a small band of humans survive and they live outside the protective walls of the neohuman communities. Daniel24 is in the early part of the novel, and what you learn is that he is reading the “life story” of his original ancestor Daniel1. Daniel24 is about to die and make way for the next clone in line, Daniel25, in order to complete the story. Neohumans begin life at 18 years old, fully equipped with their ancestor’s DNA and memories. They live isolated from one another and only communicate sporadically through the internet like computer system. They’ve been designed to be a “better” than human beings, a new species.
Back to Daniel1: After realizing he needs more in his life, he falls in with a wacky UFO cult. They put a premium on sexual pleasure and liberation, although the cult’s leader, a man known as “the prophet” essentially takes all the spoils for himself. They are known as the Elohimites and they believe that mankind didn’t evolve but were “created” by beings from another planet through genetic engineering. A leading member of the cult is a scientist who is experimenting with cloning, with the idea of being able to clone a human being as a fully grown adult. They take DNA samples from all their members and experiment until they can create a fully grown human being (bypassing childhood) with all his/her memories, feelings, experiences, etc. This, they say, is way to conquer death and achieve true immortality. Daniel1 becomes entrenched in the cult (although he is skeptical of their motives and goals) but he agrees to give over a sample of his DNA anyway. The cult is awaiting the return of the Elohim, the true creators of mankind and The Prophet is even in the process of building an embassy for them for their eventual return. (This cult is actually based on a real life cult. You can see what they are all about here).
Something eventually goes awry (I won’t give that away) but this event lays the groundwork for the chapters being told by Daniel’s descended clones and the world in which they eventually find themselves living in 2000 years later.
To find out what happens, I highly suggest you read this book.
There are obvious satirical intentions here, riffs on religion, sex, love, the nature of man, and especially man’s desire to obtain immortality and the lengths that they will go to in order to achieve it – even to “leave something behind” of themselves; the inability to deal with the fact that one day they will no longer exists; that after death, there is nothing. It is also a rumination on the Utopian fantasies man often has – whether scientific, political or “revealed” – and the dangerous outcomes that can occur because of them.
This is a heady book but a highly interesting and entertaining one. Absolutely loved it and am looking forward to reading more of this author’s work.
Rating: * * * * *
Tags: Contemporary Literature, Cults, French Literature, Michel Houellebecq, science fiction, The Possibility of an Island, Transgressive Fiction