The Possibility of an Island, by Michel Houellebecq, trans Gavin Bowd

Unhappy ever after

Matt Thorne
Friday 18 November 2005 01:00 GMT

Although a more pressing concern over the last two decades, the concept of cloning has intrigued storytellers for thousands of years. It is obvious why: the possibility of doubles resolves all kinds of narrative problems. Euripides, in his play Helen, suggests that his protagonist had a double made from air, redeeming her from responsibility for the Trojan War. Michel Houellebecq, whom many consider the most significant French novelist today, uses cloning to address a perennial problem of science fiction (and The Possibility of an Island is, at least in part, a science fiction novel): how to interest the reader in an imagined future far removed from our era.

He resolves this by making one of his protagonists (Daniel24) the 24th replication of a character who lives in a very recognisable present day. In doing so, he addresses the biggest crises of our age. No longer believing in religion, denied the comforting fantasy of an eternal afterlife, what possible ambition could we have besides remaining young and living as long as possible?

Having children offers no satisfaction: 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". Sex offers only temporary consolation, and the only real affection a human can receive is from a dog - which Houellebecq, in a rare flash of sentimentality, calls a "loving-machine". As the author guides us towards the possibility of a neo-human world, being cloned seems as good as it's going to get.

Before giving up on the human race, Houellebecq's depressed 47-year-old does manage to fall in love. Much of the middle of this novel is taken up by a description of Daniel1's relationship with Esther, a 22-year-old actress. She is described in the same reductive prose that Houellebecq uses for descriptions of female characters in all his novels, lovable for not wearing knickers and possessing what Daniel describes as the greatest skill a woman can have: knowing when to put your hand on a man's penis in public. Daniel1 knows this relationship is pathetic, and it's not long before she leaves him. The last time he sees her, she is in the middle of a public ménage à trois with two other men at a house party.

Still, his fate is far better than that of poor old Daniel24, who lives in a time when neo-humans are denied all physical contact and spends his days showing Marie22 his penis via the video mechanism in his computer. She responds by sending him jerky images of her vagina. Daniel24 is even more disillusioned than his original, describing said image as "a hole for dwarves, fallen into disrepair."

When not lusting after Esther, Daniel1 spends his time as the only sizeable celebrity interested in a religious sect who worship the Elohim, "extraterrestrial creatures responsible for the creation of mankind, and due one day to return". As this sect is based in Lanzarote, it seems reasonable to assume they are another version of the Azraelians, who appeared in Houllebecq's Lanzarote (one of countless references to the author's previous work). They are a fictional version of the real-life Raelians, famous for their human-cloning claims, who have spoken of their admiration for Houellebecq and their approval of this novel.

But the pleasures offered by the Elohimites are not enough to distract Daniel1 from either the human condition or his doomed love affair, and it is not long before he commits suicide. Before he does so, he pens a letter to Esther that gives the novel its title and will have a devastating effect on at least three of the clones after he is dead.

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. His contemporary references suggest an author at ease with all aspects of modern culture: arguments about whether Larry Clark is as good a filmmaker as Michael Haneke; his description of Steve Jobs as the first to join the cloning cult, followed by Bill Gates and Richard Branson; his narrator's name-checking of Coetzee's Disgrace as a novel that sums up his situation. But although world events make this a good time for apocalyptic fiction, the final commentary and epilogue are the novel's weakest sections.

I have no problem with science fiction as a genre, but Houellebecq's descriptions of the debris of ancient human activity ("flat screen televisions, piles of shattered CDs, an immense point-of-sale advertisement depicting the singer David Bisbal") are the product of a much more predictable imagination than evident elsewhere in the novel. It's unsurprising that a misanthropic talent with a love of science fiction would want to realise his vision of the end of the world, but Houellebecq is undoubtedly at his best when he uses his forensic skills to dissect our present age.

Matt Thorne's novel 'Cherry' is published in Phoenix paperback

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