“The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear.” – M. Houellebecq, The Guardian, 2005.
As Houellebecq continues his literary voyage through the irrationality, hedonism, and chaos of the modern world, his most recent book questions the possibility of human love in the not so distant future, providing that refreshing je ne sais quoi that I have been longing for among many contemporary literary talents.
In a nutshell, The Possibility of an Island reveals the story of a stand-up comedian, Daniel, and the personal narratives of his cloned descendants thousands of years after the end of mankind as we know it. It examines the fragmented histories of the clones, projecting and reversing its subject through history.
After thousands of years of earthquakes, disaster and war, the earth has become a wasteland and the human race a savage pack of animals. Thus, the modern world has, in the full light of modernity and reason, fallen into barbarism.
The cloned descendants of Daniel exist in a safe compound with the luxuries of preservation, social reproduction, cloning and constant modification of human beings. From Daniel1 through to Daniel24, and Daniel25, each begins to speculate on what it means to be and live like Daniel (the original human) as perceived through his diaries. In particular, the focus is on what Daniel and previous clones mean by ‘love’ and ‘sex’ in their diaries and recollections. Even though Daniel, the original human, struggled with the notion of love, he knew of it. His futuristic clones eventually have no grasp of love as they live sedate in their preserved environments.
It often approaches a novelistic critical theory as each successive Daniel clone looks upon the previous Daniel’s in a critical and reflective way to realise the joys and limits of these pre-existences. Through the perceived experience of eternity and immortality (the promise of cloning), the subsequent potentiality of love, or believing in such a concept, meets its demise.
The title itself is never fully elucidated upon. However, through Houellebecq’s esoteric poetry clues, the reader is led to understand that the “possibility of an island” equates with the “possibility of love”. In one of the final chapters, a modified neo-human reflects on a poem written by Daniel (a human), the final verse of which is:
And love, where all is easy,
Where all is given in the instant;
There exists in the midst of time
The possibility of an island.
Concerned, as the entire book is, with the possibility of love, it charts the reflections of Daniel’s descendants through various “neohuman” communities in an attempt to comprehend love in its debt to fleeting snippets and moments in history. He typically paints relationships as they come and go with temporary and varied reflections – in his typically humorous-cynical style.
The tales of sexual perversion, including his obsession with genitalia, are as transparent as in his previous novels – particularly Platform, Atomised, and Lanzarote. This is no bad thing. Houellebecq clearly has a talent for putting to paper the short-lived nature of sexual relationships. In fact, the entire book is clearly a testament to the possibility of love in light of the fragmentary, chaotic and tragic condition of history. Of course, not everyone will enjoy his descriptions of sexual acts – you name it, oral sex through to orgiastic fondling – and it is best to know your friend well if you are about to buy it as a gift for them.
A redeeming feature of Houellebecq’s sexual odyssey – as with the journey through Bangkok’s sexual tourist culture in his earlier book, Platform – is that the events are frequently related to ageing. This gives his experiences a touch of humility. The events are not told through the eyes of pure and perfect sexual barbarism and savage passion. Houellebecq’s text is a perfect reminder that glorious sex never lasts and something always goes wrong (especially as Daniel grows older). This, I felt, was related to a larger theme in the book – the capacity for future generations to experience their limitations through the study of previous ones. After all, it is only through the examination of Daniel’s history that Daniel1, Daniel24 and Daniel25 begin to struggle with the idea of love in their increasingly loveless semi-consciousness.
Following Houellebecq’s court case in France in 2002, subsequent to the author being tried (but then acquitted) for inciting racial hatred, one would expect an equalled level of anti-religious sentiment. There is, but it is well directed through the telling of a history of a new religion throughout the book. This is achieved by reporting Daniel1’s commitment to Elohimitism. It represents the largest fraudulent commercial religious dogma the world has ever seen and in principle, it stands for nothing. It sweeps across the globe quicker and more forceful than Christianity. Its promise is eternity. It holds that each person’s DNA will be frozen after death and each will be reborn when suitably developed technologies of the future rise. If you sense overtones of George Orwell here, be advised, it smacks of Orwellian critique – Houellebecq exchanges the political dogma of “Big Brother” for the omnipresent religious dogma in the neohumans, the “Supreme Sister”.
Houellebecq is concerned primarily with chaos. The writings of Houellebecq – including his latest novel – essentially assume a world of chaos. The conscious perceptions of characters relate to the impeding doom and chaos of an uncontrollable social world. In this chaos, his tragic characters exist within a culture of liberal individuality but are viewed as debauched rats offered the consolation of short-term love in modernity. In essence, people are a random collision of elementary particles formed loosely in space and time, heading towards an ever-increasing chaotic world.
There is such a feeling in his own philosophy that the liberal state, a makeshift society, ideology and individual have achieved such a grand place in the modern world, that from their very birth they have transcended the things that made them – that is to say, they become the essence of an uncontrollable dominating chaos encroaching over his fatigued, battered and sick-of-life characters.
The picture of chaos is the natural sense in which irrational man deals with the space in which he is chaotically thrown yet depressingly determined. Houellebecq sticks fast to the notion of determinism – especially with regards to age – in spite of his theory of human beings acting as elementary particles floating in the irrational world of religious schisms and ideologies. All religion is undermined in his novels, portrayed as the workings of irrational man. Rational philosophy, thus, provides false hopes. The philosophy of the “irrationalists” on the other hand – with citations of Nietzsche on almost every other page – is the centrepiece of Houellebecq’s philosophy. Indeed, it should be: if there is no sense of irrationality, criticism, stupidity, ignorance or even reaction towards rationalised ideologues in the modern world, then the chances of exposing the true humanity of a character is very slim.
With its peculiar taste for irrationalism and chaos, I would recommend this book to anyone searching for that missing something in modern fiction.