Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Jess Sauer, Fri., June 2, 2006
The Possibility of an Island
by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Gavin Bowd
Knopf, 352 pp., $24.95Anthony Trollope once remarked that a satirist did best to write little, "or it will seem that his satire springs rather from his own caustic nature than from the sins of the world in which he lives." So it is with Michel Houellebecq's newest novel, which suffers from the flaws of his other works, but lacks their wit and relatively speaking their charm.
Loosely, the novel comprises the life story of Daniel, and his clone descendants' Daniel24 and Daniel25 commentary on it. Daniel is a comedian whose exploitative, violent humor has won him a moderate celebrity and an invitation into the ranks of the Elohimites, an immortality cult that eventually develops the technology to create a new race of "neohuman" clones, including Daniel's future commentators. The time spent with the Elohimites is the most engaging part of the novel, and it is disappointing to realize that most of the details Houellebecq offers, right down to the prophet's enthusiasm for race-car driving, are not invented, but rather unchanged facts about the Raëlian sect, with whom the author spent some time.
The majority of the novel is Daniel's banal and exhaustive account of his day-to-day life: his unshakeable weltschmerz that borders on farcical ("I contemplated the sea, which was immense and gray; as flat and gray as my life"), his misanthropy, and especially a satyriasis Houellebecq seems to see as mankind's defining feature. The women in Island may as well be disembodied vaginas with the exception of older women, who are not even accorded that privilege and are referred to variously as wounded or sick animals of little use to society. Isabelle, Daniel's first love and perhaps the only female character who is not a complete moron, wisely observes in a postcoital conversation that "women have gone completely mad." (For consistency's sake, she eventually goes mad.)
With this novel's sweeping generalizations and extreme, two-dimensional characters, it appears Houellebecq has transitioned from satire to something like polemical pornography. One would hope that the book's dualistic structure would allow for enlightening inner critique, but while this book's clone historians admit to Daniel's numerous flaws, they, too, seem to be vehicles for a worldview that is misanthropic, hopeless, and ... well, just not that original.