Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Reviewed by Steve Poter
I’m not an avid reader of future fiction but it gets you thinking about the aim of such novels. I suspect that in many cases the intention is not to be prophetic as such but rather to criticise contemporary society and to exaggerate its worst aspects in order to create a dramatic and disturbing dystopia.
Houellebecq’s novel comes into this category although on the face of it his neo-humans of the future appear to enjoy certain advantages over their human counterparts. They do not suffer from the worst consequences of human desire - no war, sorrow or constant searching for the basic human needs like food, sex or shelter. Nor do they strive for an unattainable happy medium between satisfying sexual relationships and isolation or suffer emotionally for the sake of all too brief pleasures.
Daniel 1, the human protagonist of our own times is a man driven by sexual desire. Houellebecq seems to be telling in this novel that so much of human life boils down to our urge to procreate, whether we are interested in producing offspring or not. But this point is rammed home so many times that it soon becomes tiresome in the descriptions of Daniel’s relationships. Meanwhile, his usually young and nubile female characters are there to be fucked and to satisfy the ageing male egos of Daniel and others.
The leaders of the Elomites Sect could be seen as a satire of groups such as the Scientologists. The Elomites believe that aliens created the earth and will one day come down to take over. The young and upwardly-mobile women who Daniel 1 meets are usually up for it and don’t tend to ask too many questions despite having jobs which should make them independent individuals with minds of their own. Sadly, the female characters in this novel are very one-dimensional.
Daniel 1 is a comic and thus sees anything as a fair target for satire. He presumably lives in the near future although the timescale is rather nebulous. Houellebecq is known to be a critic of religion – particularly Islam - and his public statements have courted controversy from Islamic groups. I was prepared for that but despite the comic’s shows like Palestinian Orgy Sluts or Let’s Drop Miniskirts on Palestine there is little criticism of Islam in evidence here. One sentence suggests that Islamic Fundamentalism may be no more than a passing fad: “Islamic Fundamentalists had suffered more or less the same fate as the punks.”
The Possibility of an Island is a critique of our own society. The part of the book featuring Daniel 1 is set mainly in Spain, where people are bored with the old religions and are looking for something fresh to believe in. There is nothing left to fill the void left by the demise of the great religions.
The numeration and sequence of the chapters is fragmented and a bit confusing and the time that has elapsed between the lives of the different characters is quite difficult to grasp. It would also have helped this reader to better understand the neo-human situation if what had happened to human society in the intervening period was explained earlier. This only becomes clearer in the epilogue where Daniel 25, a descendant of Daniel 1, ventures out with his dog.
Before that, we are presented with a situation where neo-humans lead an isolated existence with little “human contact” and relationships that bring to mind virtual Internet friends. Most neo-human communication seems to take place via the Internet or something similar but there is virtually no picture painted of the environment they live in. It’s hard to relate to anything in such a vacuum.
What initially does appeal about The Possibility of an Island is that it’s a novel of ideas with numerous references to philosophers and scientific theories. Having read a few historical novels lately something futuristic was a refreshing change – at first.
The first hundred pages or so were interesting. By the midway point, my attention was drifting towards what I might read next and towards the end I just wanted to end it all like one of Houellebecq’s neo-humans. At just a little short of 350 pages it feels far too long. If it was roughly half to two-thirds that length it would have a better chance of succeeding.
However, there was enough here to demonstrate that Houellebecq is a novelist interested in ideas and we need authors like that. This was my first encounter with Houellebecq. He might be worshipped by many of today’s young writers but I’d be disappointed in the hype if this turns out to be one of his best works.
Steve Porter was born in Inverness, Scotland and lives in A Coruña, Spain. His writing has been published online and in various lit mags in the UK, US & Spain. Among them: laurahird.com, Orbis, Cutting Teeth and Poems-For-All. He has contributed articles to numerous publications including The Sunday Herald, Travelmag, soccerspain.com and threemonkeysonline.com. His ebook entitled 'The Iberian Horseshoe' is available from Barcelona-based www.badosa.com. Links to more of his writing can be found at Steven J. Porter.