I had high expectations for The Possibility of an Island, having just finished Whatever and thinking I’d found a kindred spirit in Michel Houellebecq. The novel is loosely based on the Raëlian movement, the UFO religion that says humans were created by extraterrestrials called the Elohim who will one day return to earth. (World teachers like Jesus and Buddha were aliens who appeared in human form to guide humanity.) There are a number of other intriguing themes in the novel: old age, sexuality, the degeneration of people the modern world, genetic engineering and the future of humanity, and asceticism vs. a passionate involvement in the world.
At first, the protagonist seems likable enough. Daniel is a comedian who does “Islamophobic burlesque” shows with titles like “We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts” that garner bomb threats from Muslims. To become more popular, he introduces a bit of anti-Semitism in his film project “Munch on My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler).”
He’s surprised by how slutty young girls’ magazines and clothing have become. He realizes that young people have abandoned the idea of love in exchange for casual sex. He hates how laughter distorts the human face and strips it of dignity. He says “the only residual ideological content of the left, in those days, was antiracism, or more precisely anti-white racism.”
But Daniel turns out to be completely unsympathetic. He abandoned his first wife when she became pregnant and didn’t care when his son died. Isabelle, his second wife, eventually looks too old for him and the marriage falls apart. Meanwhile, he ogles naked teenage girls on the beaches of Europe with his telescope.
Daniel loves his dog, Fox, but their interactions don’t provide enough “save the cat” moments to make him appealing.
The only thing that makes him feel alive is banging his 22-year-old girlfriend, and the sex scenes are more pornography than erotica (part of the novel was excerpted in Playboy). Then his girlfriend dumps him and he turns into a pathetic old man—unable to have a long-term relationship with a woman, unable to have a family, unable even to enjoy his wealth.
I’m uncertain of Houellebecq’s intent with the main character. Perhaps he wanted to show the absolute degeneracy of the Kali Yuga manifested in one person—someone who even comments on the decline of the West but takes no steps to fight it within himself or in his life.
Daniel gets involved with the Elohimites, where his money and celebrity ensure his seat in the inner circle surrounding the prophet. But even his involvement in the cult seems the result of happenstance and boredom, not any compelling character trait.
The Possibility of an Island switches back-and-forth between modern-day Daniel and a selection of cloned neohuman Daniels in the future. We learn that at some point, the Elohimite Church became wildly popular in the West, and then Asia. Its success followed a more materialistic adaptation of the typical exoteric formula: In exchange for leaving the Church one’s estate at death, a few of your cells are harvested, ensuring you (or at least your DNA) will have eternal life. After the conversion and death of members like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, the Elohimite Church ensured its position as the richest, most popular church in Europe.
As the neohumans develop, humans degenerate to something less than savages. Living in tribes among the ruins of their ancestors, they’re too stupid to figure out the most basic technology. Physically, humans have become repulsive.
For all of the Elohimites’ technological promises, the neohumans’ lives end up lacking in joy. The need for sex and children has been eliminated by cloning. Physical touch is extinct, except for neohumans with cloned pets. They live alone, though can chat with other neohumans living in isolation around the world. The Supreme Sister encouraged a life of detachment and Buddhist meditations are prescribed for the mornings. Neohumans are so free from desire they no longer even feel it to struggle against. They cannot laugh, or even imagine it.
Overall I’m glad I read The Possibility of an Island. It’s much better than the average novel on the market today. At the same time, I was glad when Daniel died, glad when his clone died, and ready for it to be over.