The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq

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Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq

Plot Summary

“We have discovered immortality … the world no longer has the power to destroy us.” --286

The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq is a hard book to summarize. It is told from the perspective of Daniel1 along with his clone, Daniel 24, who is living 1000 years later in a post-apocalyptic world. Daniel1 is a vulgar comedian whose media career was built upon successful works such as We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts. Blatant sexual references like these make up the bulk of the novel – mixed in with Houellebecq’s, and therefore Daniel’s, hatred for Muslims (and religion in general). He also hates the 60s generation and loves sex, but only with attractive women of course. His clones have an interesting perspective on their ancestor and help tell his story along the way.
Daniel1 is a celebrity. His success came from politically incorrect standup comedy routines and he flourishes for awhile in the public eye. He falls in love first with a dancer named Isabelle who edits a fashion magazine called Lolita that is marketed for sexually advanced ten year old girls because “Nabokov was five years off.” The magazine is mainly purchased by older woman trying to look young. According to Daniel1, “What most men like is not the moment that precedes puberty, but the one immediately after” (22). Therefore it is no surprise when Isabelle starts to age, and becomes insecure about her looks, the marriage fails and Daniel1 moves on to a twenty year old actress named Esther (who is both young and sexy). The much older Daniel1 knows that Esther who readily engages in sexual orgies will eventually leave him. Daniel1 is therefore intrigued by a religious group called Elohimites and their search for immortality.
In the future a clone of Daniel1 is created. The clone has an improved body and access to his memories. However the “Supreme Sisters” vision was to create a more tranquil environment and therefore the neohumans, or clones, don’t feel physical and emotional pain or pleasure to the degree their human counterparts did. “’This is the body’: this introspection is present to him, only for knowledge, only for reflection, thus he stays free, and is attached to nothing in the world” (305). The neohumans’ perfected design also led to a decrease in contact between clones. “We were only conscious machines; but unlike them, we were aware of only being machines” (326). Daniel 24 and future clones don’t have the luxury of strong passions and sexual desires, and his position 1000 years later allows him to comment on Daniel1’s life.

About the Author

“Houellebecq's ambition has been to mingle the libertinage of Laclos with the science fiction of Philip K. Dick, and thereby show us the apotheosis of the self as a totally antisocial entity” (Metcalf).

Michel Houellebecq was born on February 26th, 1958. He was quickly given up by his “hippie” parents and grew up with his communist grandmother. This abandonment at a young age led to his hatred of the entire 60’s generation, and their ideas of freedom. Allegedly his mother also left his dad for a Muslim man, but either way his current view of religion would not be considered friendly. He won the Prix Novembre in France and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His books have inspired a lot of critical acclaim and a somewhat cult-like following. His portrayal of women is nothing more than simple sex objects and his books are filled with sexual scenes and puns. He has been compared to well known authors such as Huxley, Sartre, and Camus. Other than writing novels Houellebecq also writes poems, has created a CD, and tried to make a movie out of this novel, The Possibility of an Island, but failed.

Critical Acclaim?

Houellebecq, who is often celebrated as one of the current French literary “greats,” received mixed reviews for The Possibility of an Island. While he is commended for tackling the basis of human condition “his thoroughgoing contempt for, and strident impatience with, humanity in its traditional occupations and sentiments prevents him from creating characters whose conflicts and aspirations the reader can care about” (Updike). When his “young slut” Esther finally leaves him readers don’t feel bad for the 40-year-old Daniel1 but instead are glad she finally left him. This is most reviews’ main complaint – Houellebecq has great ideas but deals with only the negative aspects of humanity. I think Josayane Savigneau sums it up quite well "Houellebecq does not seek to judge, but only to describe with terribly dark humour, so the image is not necessarily pleasant for those who prefer not know.” However, I’m sure these comments don’t bother him one bit.
Other than simple communication problems some critics argue whether the epilogue should really exist. ““After Daniel24 dies, he is replaced by a more adventurous clone, who sets out into the wilderness. Here Houellebecq seems to lose his way. The first 300 pages of this novel prove that Houellebecq is one of the best novelists writing today” (Thorne). Thorne argues that Houellebecq doesn’t offer a good ending for his novel but instead, randomly, describes a post-apocalyptic setting. However Updike argues that in the epilogue, "The Possibility of an Island arrives at a tranquillized beauty.” In the ending (which I will not give away) he argues that Houellebecq provides an end-note, that “a fulfilled death wish may be the best, all orgies past…”
While the end of The Possibility of an Island may be a touchy subject no one argues that Houellebecq is a bad writer. He is able to touch upon his views of the human condition in an engaging and shocking manor, keeping readers intrigued. He is best when commenting on our current society, but some argue he is even good when describing the future (as he does in this novel). “Those who regard Michel Houellebecq as merely cynical ignore the humanistic nostalgia for what society is losing” (King). Yes, Houellebecq is cynical, and yes Daniel1 may be a bit of an autobiography, but Houellebecq is able to use basically the same character throughout most of his novels and still make it interesting.

Personal Analysis

If you are able to get past the sexually graphic scenes and the generally dark, could-be-considered-blatantly sexist and/or racist humor The Possibility of an Island has more than meets the eye. A lot of Houellebecq’s books (from what I can tell) seem to touch on aspects of his life. For example, since he was abandoned as a kid by his “hippie” parents in the novel “Daniel1 believes babies are so disgusting that he attempts to make a film, the first 15 minutes of which consist of ‘the unremitting explosion of babies' skulls under the impact of shots from a high-calibre revolver’” (Thorne). To him children are “mortal enemies” and this is ironic in my opinion because they are the product of sex, the action Houellebecq holds so dearly.
You can’t ignore the sexual component though because it is one of Houellebecq’s major themes. As John Updike said “the twinkle in Hefner's eye becomes a furious glare in Houellebecq's.” The entire book basically revolves around sex, Daniel1 thrives on it and Daniel24 yearns for it. Sexual pleasure “was in truth the sole pleasure, the sole objective of human existence, and all other pleasures-whether associated with rich food, tobacco, alcohol, or drugs-were only derisory and desperate compensations” (272). Daniel1 really believes sexual pleasure is life, as illustrated by this quote: “Subject to aesthetic and functional degradations as much as, if not more than, the female, he nevertheless managed to overcome them for as long as the erectile capacities of the penis were maintained. While in the last generation of the human species, the average age for departure (suicide) was 54.1 years among women, it rose to 63.2 years among men” (70-71). Without sex life just isn’t worth living for men in Daniel1’s opinion.
Overall I enjoyed The Possibility of an Island but what bothers me most is the feeling of impending doom. Without the belief of an eternal afterlife using Daniel1’s philosophy you really have nothing to live for but youth and sex, and since no one is youthful forever your life is “over” way before you die. The lack of affection and love throughout the entire novel doesn’t help either. Houellebecq gives the impression that the only true affection humans can receive are from dogs which makes for a pretty depressing society. However the book was entertaining, well written (kudos to the translator) and while maybe not enjoyable, definitely intriguing, and thought-provoking. It wouldn’t appeal to every audience – feminists and religious folk beware – but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read. This book isn’t easily explained, you really have to find out for yourself why Houellebecq remains to be one of the most popular French novelists today.

Works Cited
Beck, Stefan. “A satyr against mankind.” New Criterion 24.7 (2006): 15. Literature Resource Center. Gale. UIUC. 6 Mar. 2009 <‌itweb/‌?db=LitRC>.
Davis, Alan. “Apocalypse Now.” Rev. of The Possibility of an Island, by Michael Houellebecq. Hudson Review 60.1 (2007): 145-150. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. U of Illinois. 24 Mar. 2009 <>.
Indiana, Gary. “WHO, AMONG YOU, deserves eternal life?” New York Magazine 29 May 2006: 69-71. Academic OneFile. Gale. U of Illinois. 23 Mar. 2009 <‌itweb/‌?db=AONE>.
King, Adele. “Michel Houellebecq. La Possibilite d’une ile.” World Literature Today Sept.-Oct. 2006: 63. Literature Resource Center. Gale. UIUC. 6 Mar. 2009 <‌itweb/‌?db=LitRC>.
Masson, Sophie. “The strange case of Michel Houellebecq.” Quadrant June 2003: 52-55. Academic OneFile. Gale. U of Illinois. 24 Mar. 2009 <‌itweb/‌?db=AONE>.
Metcalf, Stephen. “Clones Behaving Badly.” The New York Times 11 June 2006. 6 Mar. 2009 <‌2006/‌06/‌11/‌books/‌review/‌11metcalf.html?_r=1>.
Taylor, Ihsan. “Paperback Row.” The New York Times Book Review (June 2007): 24. Literature Resource Center. Gale. UIUC. 6 Mar. 2009 <‌itweb/‌?db=LitRC>.
Thorne, Matt. “Unhappy ever after.” Independent 18 Nov. 2005. 24 Mar. 2009 <‌arts-entertainment/‌books/‌reviews/‌the-possibility-of-an-island-by-michel-houellebecq-trans-gavin-bowd-515739.html>.
Updike, John. “90% HATEFUL.” The New Yorker 82.14 (2006): 76. Literature Resource Center. Gale. UIUC. 6 Mar. 2009 <‌itweb/‌?db=LitRC>.
Worton, Michael. “A dog’s life (poodles excepted).” The Guardian 29 Oct. 2005. 23 Mar. 2009 <‌books/‌2005/‌oct/‌29/‌fiction.michelhouellebecq>.