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Neohuman, All Too Neohuman: Michel Houellebecq

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

The American and English versions of The Possibility of an Island

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Possibility of an Island
Michel Houellebecq
Alfred A. Knopf

Reviewed by Steve Finbow

In The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq lives up to his reputation as a provocateur, attacking various manifestations of, among others, radical Islam (which he has called the stupidest religion), ecologists, feminists, the left and Christianity.

Possibility describes a grave new world set 2000 years in the future, in which humans replicate from a master body and live lives of detachment and disaffection. The novel contemplates the comedy of brutality, the indifference of desire, and the end of poetry. It is also a meditation on memory and identity, love and loss, sex and failure. The West?s obsessions with sex, youth, aging and death are robbing its inhabitants of their vitality, Houellebecq warns. There are narrative nods to the dystopian/utopian theories of Huxley?s Brave New World and to Nabokov ? Daniel, the main character, meets a future lover who writes for a magazine called Lolita ? although Houellebecq later dismisses Nabokov?s prose style as ?a collapsed pastry.?

The narrative comprises the story of Daniel, a politically incorrect comedian who makes a film entitled Munch on My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler), and his sexual partners ? Isabelle, who is fond of love but not sex, and Esther, who is fond of sex but not love. Both women provide the narrative with the question: Can mankind survive in a world without sex and love? This ?present? narrative is interspersed with reflections from the distant future on the nature of emotion and love in a posthuman society and the pointlessness of humankind?s search for authentic experience, as related by Daniel24 and Daniel25, Daniel?s cloned successors. Houellebecq?s inspiration here is Nietzsche: these ?neohumans? embody Nietzsche?s dictum that ?man is something that must be overcome? ? the human species will evolve. Daniel questions society?s ethics and values; he is the missing link between the last man and the superman. Meanwhile, back in the present day, Daniel attends meetings of the Elohim, a sect modeled on the Raelians, who believe aliens created the world. The sect is in the process of cloning a human being. This extends the themes summarized toward the end of Atomised (2000), in which Houellebecq speculates on the evolution of humanity, whether into space ? la William Burroughs or through replication ? la Philip K. Dick.

For Houellebecq, humankind?s last refuge is in sex, eroticism and pornography. He does not believe that sex is separate from, or against, love. Sex does not disgust him; life does. Very few writers write well about sex, but it is in the very banality of eros that Houellebecq comes into his own; though some critics have labeled Houellebecq a pornographer, his deadpan, matter-of-fact descriptions of sex are more erotic for being so: ?Leaning on her knees and forearms, the young woman turned her face to the lens as if she were surprised by this unexpected intromission, which came at a moment when she was thinking of something completely different, like washing her tiled floor; she seemed, however, rather pleasantly surprised, her eyes betrayed a bland and impersonal satisfaction, as if it was her mucous membrane that was reacting to this unexpected contact, rather than her mind.?

Much like Burroughs, Houellebecq uses comedy (the abrasive and black variety) and Swiftian rectitude to challenge popular views on the merits of sexuality and pornography. His male protagonists may be bruised nihilists, but they are almost Christlike in their acceptance of suffering: they suffer so we might understand the plight of modern man in a failed world, where the revolutionary impulse has been choked off and male sexuality rendered redundant: ?A few meters away from me there was a girl dressed in black, with a vacant look in her eyes; I thought she wouldn?t even notice my presence; but she spat to one side when I ejaculated.?

Houellebecq has been accused of humorlessness (by the author Anita Brookner, among others), but his distrust of the Americanization (or commodification) of world culture is primarily satirical ? he has targeted Donald Duck on aesthetic grounds, for example. Houellebecq uses humor the way Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin did: his comedy resides in the tragic.

Houellebecq?s polemics engage the world by questioning the irresolute, invertebral acquiescence of a society confronted by what he sees as out-of-control governments, fundamentalist religions and corrupt international corporations. Like Huxley before him, Houellebecq mistrusts all political, religious and social systems that discourage humankind from thinking freely. Hate is not a foundation for Houellebecq; I would argue that it is love.

*****

The review of the UK version of The Possibility of an Island, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, originally appeared in STOP SMILING Issue 25: The Documentary Issue. The American edition was released by Knopf in May.


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