Review of The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq
The Possibility of an Island
by Michel Houellebecq
Do you want to live forever? Most people would say yes. I have to confess immortality tempts me as well. But as with most wishes, this one needs conditionals and caveats to make it truly comfortable. After all, you wouldn't want to be immortal but keep ageing, right? And being immortal alone would really suck, watching everyone else grow old and die as you remain the same. There are basically two ways to solve the ageing problem: either find a way to stop the body from ageing, or find a way to replace the body with a new, identical one—a clone.
In The Possibility of Island, Michel Houellebecq explores the second option. And as for loneliness? Well, he takes a somewhat novel approach, eliminating the need for society altogether. In his future, neohuman clones only interact for intellectual purposes, spending the rest of their time pondering, philosophizing, and writing a commentary on the notes of their predecessors. This is the legacy of the cloning project championed by a cult, the Church of Elohim. It begins as a sort of parody of a benevolent Scientology. The cloning is a side project, but it finds its way to the forefront of the Church's platform. Soon, the Church finds itself a major player and in a position to alter the species for better or for worse.
Watching a cult grow in status and become a world religion has never been so fascinating. Foremost in my mind when a cult gets involved is a question about its leadership: are the leaders true believers, or are they merely using the cultists for more cynical ends? Houellebecq is quick to reveal that most of the Church of Elohim's power structure doesn't really believe in its mythology; he leaves us in the dark about the Prophet for a while. Yet the answer to my question is, intriguingly, both: as the Church's cloning goals become more of a priority, its mythology falls away to reveal that its leaders are true believers—believers in immortality through cloning, that is. And this belief is just as disturbing and dangerous as any other religious zeal, engendering radical shifts in morality, behaviour, and even perspectives on suicide. One of our narrators, Daniel1, interprets these changes as yet more signs of humanity's inexorable decline. Filtering them through is own perspectives on life and its purpose, he decides that, well, there really is no worthy purpose in life, and future generations of humanity are doomed in short order.
The Possibility of Island excels at evincing this depressing manifesto. Daniel1 isn't just complaining about growing old; he shows us why growing old sucks. In one of his most evocative passages, he explains just what sucks about mortality and laments the inevitability of generational conflict. As an individual, Daniel1 is an ass and a misanthrope. There are plenty of books about people who are growing old and having a difficult time adjusting. Few books deal with the ageing populations of developed countries on a systemic scale. Houellebecq, through Daniel1's cutting commentary, touches on how growing old affects society at large. Because when you can replace your degenerating body with a fresh clone, why bother getting old at all?
Of course, the immortality promised by the Church's cloning process is another lie. Once one's DNA is on file, innumerable copies of one's youthful body can be assembled, yes. But memories, or more specifically, the ability to preserve them, remain elusive. Hence Vincent's idea, inspired by Daniel1's own memoirs, for every member of the Church to record a "life story" for his or her clone successor to read and annotate. The Church's cloning process preserves you no better than your blog does.
Thus does the only hope of escaping the nihilistic fate as outlined by Daniel1 turns out to be an even worse trap. Cloning immortalizes you, but it doesn't preserve you. Twenty-five generations later, an entity exists thanks to your DNA, its personality influenced, to some extent, by your life story. But it's not you; it's not even human. It's a consciously tweaked neohuman, a passionless, unempathetic being as distant from humanity as the primitive creatures who, during its lifetime, still lay claim to the name "humans." Surprise, surprise. Immortality is not what it's cracked up to be.
This is not a feel-good book. That at least should be obvious very early in the book. The suffering of Daniel1, Daniel24, and Daniel25 happens not for some greater purpose, nor even to offer hope. To the very end, Houellebecq is unapologetic in his declaration that, sometimes, it doesn't always work out: "I had not found deliverance," Daniel25 declares. It's true that he has changed. He is no longer the passionless neohuman who began his commentary. Unfortunately, that's not enough. Even as he looks at a sunset and grieves over the death of his clone dog, Fox, there is no hope for a better future. The sentiment of these final pages is not hope but a bitter futility and a crushing sense of loneliness.
But there's something missing in between Daniel1 and Daniel24. Within Daniel1's lifetime—within only a few years—the Church of Elohim supposedly becomes a big deal, elbowing out Christianity and every other religion except Islam, taking centre stage. I'm not sure I can believe that. Yes, the promise of cloning is tempting, but it's not like they have much in the way of a demonstration yet. Change in religious belief, much like scientific paradigms, rely as much on generational change as anything else. In his rush to condemn humanity and let Daniel1 chronicle the beginning of something new, Houellebecq gets ahead of himself.
I happen to disagree with his theme as well. His lengthy and erudite descriptions of why ageing and humans both suck are captivating nonetheless. At the end of the book, I was seriously not looking forward to getting older, and any latent desires to have children were flickering, imperilled. I can't bring myself to be that cynical. From an evolutionary perspective, we are just gene vectors. Even so, there's more than one way to ensure the continuance of one's genes. If an organism recognizes it won't mate, it can devote itself to ensuring relatives, who also carry some of its genes, mate. Besides, we're human. Screw evolution; it's a great algorithm for adapting life to new environments. But we can set our own priorities, or we can at least try. I refuse to believe that life, sex or otherwise, ends at forty. But maybe that's wishful, naive thinking on my part.
Daniel1, unfortunately, doesn't even try. His ego is fragile enough that the moment good-looking younger women begin looking elsewhere, he folds and becomes a useless waste of space. All he can do is use his money to hop from Paris to Andalusia and back, periodically visiting Vincent and the Church, flirting with religion. Apparently writing, producing, or performing just isn't the same if it doesn't result, even indirectly, in sex. Daniel1, despite his ability to provide cutting commentary on society, is lazy and wired for unhappiness.
It's Houellebecq's prerogative to create his main character this way. Yet it also strikes me as cheating. He sets out to write a post-apocalyptic elegy for humanity and describe why conventional mortality is so awful, but he gives himself a head start by having a character who is pre-disposed to feel that way. Rather than prove his case in general, Houellebecq has only shown that disconnected fifty-year-old misanthropes feel this way. His descriptions and diatribes on the futility of human survival are numerous and moving, but don't let these fool you. In Daniel1 he's just set up a straw man to advance his thesis. Daniel1 does not become a convert; he starts the book as a true believer. From the beginning, he is jaded.
I'm at a loss when I admit that this book reminded me of Kafka on the Shore. Maybe it's the obsession with incest. Perhaps, as with Kafka, I just didn't really get the cultural and philosophical allusions Houllebecq makes here. The Possibility of an Island is like a neglected beach, with little gems scattered here and there among otherwise unimpressive sand. It's up to you whether you think it's worth your time to hunt for them.