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Saturday, October 07, 2006

A witness to the 21st century

Houellebecq’s, “The Possibility of an Island”

Much has been written about Michel Houellebecq, and much of it isn’t true. Headlines and past critiques often refer to him as a misogynist, an islamophobe, a misanthrope, or even a nihilist - but all this amounts to is a snowball of politically correct epithets - often copied, and without much insight. Yes, he’s more than a brutally honest and provocative writer. He's also - contrary to popular belief - a spiritual soul. He speculates on our interconnectedness, and the possibility of love in the 21st century and beyond.

The Possibility of an Island, his latest novel, touches on these themes, and more.

Daniel, the protagonist of this book, is a well-known comedian at terminal velocity in both his career and his spiritual life. As a comedian he’s a “cutting observer of contemporary reality”. But he’s reached a point where he’s done it all:

“I had dismantled the cogs in the machine, and I knew how to make it work, whenever I wanted. Every evening, before going on stage, I swallowed an entire Xanax. Every time the audience laughed (and I could predict it, I knew how to dose my effects, I was a consummate professional), I was obliged to turn away so as not to see those hideous faces, those hundreds of faces moved by convulsions, agitated by hate.”

Daniel’s ennui is pulling him back from the game of life. Through the course of his career he’s become a millionaire and a controversial celebrity, but something essential is missing.

Two thousand years later, after wars and drought have decimated mankind, Daniel 24 - his cloned descendant - lives isolated in a compound while savages roam the ruins of the earth. He spends his time with Fox - the cloned descendant of Daniel’s dog - in contemplative tranquility, reviewing and discussing Daniel’s life story.

And here we have another running thread in The possibility of an island. What is immortality? Is cloning a way to achieve immortality? Or is it something more than a fortunate genetic repetition? What about our memories? How do we transmit memories to future generations?

In Ethics, Spinoza writes, “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.” This is the essence of the life story, of writing, in The possibility of an island. Daniel, a comedian, and not a writer by trade, takes up the pen to transmit his life story to his future cloned reincarnations. This, finally, is a form of immortality. It also becomes his reason for doing a literary striptease.

Daniel 1, after meeting Isabelle, an editor for a teen magazine called Lolita, moves with her to Almeria, is Spain’s dusty south. There they continue a love affair doomed to end because of lack of physical contact. This is middle-aged Daniel’s first great love, but it is more about a complete connection on a mental level. The relationship deteriorates, ultimately, because there is no “concupiscence”. Sex plays a pivotal role as it does in his other works, notably Platform - his controversial and prescient novel about sexual tourism and terrorism.

Sex, acerbic humor and clear writing. These things keep the pages turning in this complicated, yet engaging read. In one chapter, after his relationship with Isabelle ends, he describes a fellow patron’s car parked outside a sleazy whorehouse:

“Out of all the sports cars available on the market, the Chevrolet Corvette, with its uselessly and aggressively virile lines, with its absence of true mechanical nobility wedded to its overall modest price, is undoubtedly the one that corresponds best to the notion of pimpmobile; what sort of sordid Andalusian macho type was I going to bump into?”

Eventually he meets Esther, a young actress from Madrid, and the tables are turned. Whereas an aged Isabelle had an obsession with a “plastic beauty” which she would never be able to recuperate, and an inability to surrender to “pleasure and ecstasy”, Esther is the opposite. She’s an “amoral animal”, full of lust, youthful vigor and beauty, and Daniel falls deeply in love with her. Whereas one gave him love without sex, the other now gives him sex without love.

The age difference provides for ruminations on today’s youth-obsessed culture. It’s a very personal and at times exaggerated view of the way society treats the elderly, yet at the same time Houellebecq is a keen, involved observer. He understands cultural trends in Spanish kitsch culture, and even tears apart Larry Clark’s misconceived dud, Ken Park. He is, again, a cutting observer.

Esther, the young vivacious beauty, is the stronger of the two, and because of her he thoroughly degrades himself – even, at one point, waking up in vomit and cum-stained pants. Houellebecq isn’t painting an ideal picture of love, or purposely shocking his audience to make his plight more believable. Rather he describes the full spectrum, from its high points to its most miserable depths, in a consistently detached manner through both Daniel 1 and his later commentators, Daniel 24 and Daniel 25.

And that brings us back to the aforementioned “life story”. Interspersed between Daniel’s chapters are commentary by his future manifestations, Daniel 24 and 25. They are genetic clones originating from the founders of the Elohimite church, who Daniel encounters early in the book. Based largely on the real-life Raelian movement, they believe in our origins from space aliens, and the eventual coming of the “future ones”. They are also on the verge of cloning, for the first time, a human being. Cloning is, they believe, the path to immortality.

His encounter with the Elohimites is seemingly ripe with comedic material, but he rightly observes that when something, such as a cult is so deeply faith-driven, comedy just doesn’t have an effect (he somewhat contradicts himself by satirizing the monotheistic religions in Daniel’s comedic sketches, but he is more of an iconoclast who enjoys tipping our holy cows. The Elohimites would be too obvious).

He writes that the Elohimites “didn’t place much importance” on the extraterrestrial origins of humans, but rather on the idea that “the human being was going to disappear, and that it was necessary to prepare for the advent of its successor.” This is the idea of immortality all over again, and the astute recognition of a spiritual void in modern life. But this is a spiritual void that must be bridged by positivism - that is, a spirituality with empirical predominance, and this is how the Elohimites fit in.

Daniel 1 probably reflects Houellebecq himself as a writer, and his own impasse after a decade of provocation and revelation since the publication of Whatever and Atomized. What else is there to do? In this day and age, post September 11, with reality television, internet portals where just about anything can be watched … what is there, for a cynical comedian - a cutting observer - to exploit? Are there anymore taboos?

Houellebecq, in his characteristic voice, says: “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; my balance-sheet was mixed.”

Houellebecq seems to me a complicated and at times comical character. The dust jacket to Possibility describes him as “The best selling author of Atomised, Platform, Lanzarote and Whatever. He is also a poet, essayist and rap artist.” I can’t help smirking when imagining this slight Frenchman rapping, but at the same time it deepens my respect for what he’s trying to do. He’s not easily pinholed into the category of crude provocateur. His ideas go beyond dogma, whether it is religion or intellectual snobbery. They cut to the essence of who we are today. He’s both ridiculous and profound (that said, I haven’t heard him rap).

If you are to understand this book, or any other by Houellebecq, it’s that his answers are normally negative, in the sense that they do not point to a heroic ideal, which he recognizes as impossible. It’s about getting grounded in this reality, without illusions, and without bringing on any more suffering than is absolutely necessary. Only from there can you find true spirituality. And possibly deliverance.

At one point in Possibility the protagonist muses on maps. At 1:200 000 the whole world seems “happy”. Zoom into 1:1 “and you find yourself back in the normal world, which is not very pleasant; but if you increase the scale even more, you are plunged into a nightmare …” In this sense, Houellebecq also increases the scale with his writing. It’s not poetic justice he’s interested in. He’s interested in the truth, however ugly it sometimes gets.


A slightly different version of this review has been accepted for publication in a future edition of 3ammagazine.com. I'd like to thank the editors for permission to simultaneously publish.