15 June, 2006Issue 5.2EuropeFictionLiteratureTranslation

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The Pursuit of the Hole

Peter Snow

Michel Houellebecq
The Possibility of an Island (trans. Gavin Bowd)
Orion Books, 2005
408 pages
ISBN 0297850989

To some critics, Michel Houellebecq is a refreshing disruption to contemporary French cultural life. He brings long-overdue attacks on the empty individualism, emotional consumerism and social fragmentation of French society. Other critics are more hostile: ‘Houellebecq’s style is one of scattergun misanthropy,’ writes Michael Worton. ‘He seems incapable of creating characters who are more than ventriloquist’s dummies for him … his novels, especially this one, can seem like therapy sessions, with the reader cast in the role of the therapist, condemned to listen silently to a torrent of platitudes and prejudices.’ The writer Will Self was more personally dismissive: ‘He’s just a little guy who can’t get enough sex.’

Houellebecq’s new novel The Possibility of an Island tells of Daniel, a radical comedian whose scabrous humour has brought him equal measures of notoriety and wealth. Cynical Daniel’s saving grace is his candour: the only thing he remembers about the day his son committed suicide, he confesses, is that he made a tomato omelette. Cutting loose from his career after his son’s death, Daniel sinks into anomie and embarks on an affair with a young Spanish starlet while also joining a bizarre cult, Elohimism. Closely based on the real-life Raelians, Elohimists maintain that mankind is the product of genetic manipulation by aliens who one day will return to earth. In preparation for that day, and to achieve immortality through serial cloning, the Elohimists store their DNA inside an embassy building they have erected to welcome the aliens on their return. In the meantime, the Elohimists give themselves over to lives of relaxed sensuality. Yet there is no such release for Daniel. He commits suicide after being spurned by his lover, leaving his money and DNA, along with a record of his sorry life to the Elohimists.

Alternating with the first Daniel’s narrative are those of his cloned descendants, the genetically modified ‘neohumans,’ Daniel24 and Daniel25, living centuries in the future. War and environmental devastation have ravaged the planet, which is now sparsely populated by a handful of neohumans and some bands of degenerate, speechless savages. Observing the Buddhist-like teachings of a ‘Supreme Sister,’ the neohumans lead isolated lives, meditating on their troubled genetic antecedents while they await a silicon-based successor species, the ‘Future Ones,’ who will reconcile the connection and community that the current Elohimists lack with the individuality and permanence that they desire.

Houellebecq seems to be picking a fight over almost everything. In his latest novel, feminism, environmentalism, friendships between men, children, the intergenerational bonds of family, the media, Vladimir Nabakov, Teilhard de Chardin, construction workers, Christianity and Islam all come in for a mauling. Only dogs and the old escape unscathed.

Not surprisingly Houellebecq’s pugnacity has led to some high profile spats. There was widespread outrage at his apparent support for sex tourism in his previous novel, Platform. He has alienated large swathes of the French literary establishment and has been the subject of several major attacks and hostile biographies, which may have contributed to his being passed over for the 2005 Prix Goncourt. More seriously, he was charged—although eventually cleared—with fomenting racial hatred in 2002 by commenting in Lire magazine that Islam is ‘the [most] stupid and murderous of all religions.’ But the beam of publicity turned on the man himself obscures the work he has created, and it devalues his intelligence and luminous imagination, his peculiar prescience (the climax of Platform, published in 1999, is an Islamic terrorist outrage), and his satirical spin on social reality. Proclaiming an ambition to ‘write about the world as it has never been written about before,’ Houellebecq has mapped new tracts of literary terrain—from the nerdish computer programmer in Whatever to the New Age leisure communes of the aging sixties generation, from the liberalisation of French education in Atomised and to Parisian S&M clubs in Platform.

More stylised and apocalyptic than its predecessors, The Possibility of an Island contains less social exploration but it still entertainingly explores improv comedy, teenage magazines, the seedy retirement belt of southern Spain, and the followers of extraterrestrial cults. His account of the Raelians, incidentally, receives glowing praise for its accuracy on the cult’s website—perhaps because no publicity is bad publicity. This obscure applause apart, Houellebecq has three qualities that do him no favours with mainstream critics. He is smart, he loves to shock, and he does not seem to take himself seriously. For instance, he has argued that ‘Really successful art consists of producing new clichés, so if what I do is really successful, it should be considered as a source of future kitsch.’ While such pronouncements are good fun, they encourage critics predisposed to slight the philosophical depth and the complex lyrical delicacy of his work.

The Possibility of an Island deserves to be taken very seriously indeed. It is a moving, open-ended meditation on the possibility of human love and to understand it fully, you must first understand the impact of other writers and thinkers on him. Houellebecq often acknowledges being influenced by Schopenhauer, who maintained that ‘all life is suffering,’ and that egoism can only be transcended by aesthetic contemplation, ethical awareness, and ascetic renunciation. The Possibility of an Island explores these themes.

The novel’s prologue presents claustrophobic, terminal isolation in the form of a telephone box from which, after the end of the world, you can make as many phone calls as you want, but without knowing if anyone is listening or what their reactions are. As a terrifying image of the artist’s situation and the human condition in general, it is counterbalanced by the image at the end of the book of Daniel25 confronted by the endless ocean—an image of infinity and oneness and a symbol of Plato’s famous ‘desire and pursuit of the whole that is called love.’ Daniel1’s futile promiscuity exemplifies the first half of the Schopenhauerian thesis. Believing love to be rooted in cruelty (‘love makes you weak, and the weaker of the two is oppressed, tortured and finally killed by the other,’ Daniel1 identifies what he calls life’s Evil Secret: that ‘the true goals of men, the only ones they would have pursued spontaneously … were of an exclusively sexual nature’ and argues that ‘when physical love disappears, everything disappears.’

There is an escape, though. The first of Schopenhauer’s three palliatives—aesthetic experience—is, for example, a possibility. Daniel1, an artist himself, characterises artists, if neither decorators nor revolutionaries, as gods. He meets Vincent, the son of the founder of the Elohimist cult and the creator of complex art installations. Presenting his masterpiece, a vast work of numinous opacity, Vincent links art and faith ‘I call this space love … man has never been able to love, apart from in immortality … We have discovered immortality, and presence in this world: the world no longer has the power to destroy us; it is we rather who have the power to create through the power of our vision.’

Daniel1, however, greets this with the sneer that ‘this immense artist, this creator of ethics … hasn’t yet learned that love is dead.’ Yet this is not the end of the story. Daniel1 continues, ‘all the same in my heart of hearts, and in the face of all the evidence to believe in love’ and he cannot bring himself to abandon his doomed love affair with the young starlet. Thus he finds himself caught in the characteristic trap of the Houellebecqian hero: a libertine overtaken by self-transcending love during casual fornication, only for the beloved to prove unattainable or, more often, be killed off, leaving the hero grief-stricken. Realising he stands no chance of lasting love, Daniel1 commits suicide after sending her a letter with a poem that ends, ‘There exists in the midst of life / The possibility of an island.’ These lines, which give the novel its title, are both moving and ambivalent. They introduce into the novel the dominant image of an island, which suggests, on the one hand, a state of separation and isolation but also of security and union, of elective affinities successfully fused.

In the lives of Daniel1’s cloned descendants, Daniels 24 and 25, we find Schopenhauer’s two other palliatives: ethical awareness and ascetic renunciation. They spend their austere lonely days meditating on ‘the fury and the mire’ of their predecessors’ brief lives. But is the Schopenhauerian alternative enough to satisfy them? An undefined longing still bubbles into their sedate brains, prompting them to defect in increasing numbers from their secure cocoons in search of they know not what. Daniel25’s final odyssey parallels Daniel1’s original quest for love and self-transcendence, and, like his, comes to a dead end. Daniel25 accepts the Schopenhauerian thesis that life is ultimately wretched and delusive.

Despite the Daniels’ failures, the novel closes with lines that are curiously ambiguous, and, if read closely, offer an exquisite balance of positives and negatives, a poignant and non-cancelling juxtaposition of reality and insubstantiality:

I bathed for along time under the sun and the starlight, and I felt nothing other than a slightly obscure and nutritive sensation. Happiness was not a possible horizon. The world had betrayed. My body belonged to me for only a brief lapse of time; I would never reach the goal I had been set. The future was empty. It was the mountain. My dreams were populated with emotional presences. I was, I was no longer. Life was real.

In its measured melancholy balance, it is a characteristic Houellebecqian conclusion reminiscent of the ending of his first novel, Whatever. There, in an ecstasy of hopelessness, the narrator rides off into an unknown landscape ‘at the heart of the abyss.’ Or as Houellebecq has remarked elsewhere: ‘My typical narrator is often in the position of zigzagging between holes of nothingness. And strangely enough he doesn’t fall in.’

Peter Snow is a writer and journalist. He is the author of Oxford Observed, and is an Associate Fellow of Templeton College.