XFX: The Possibility of an Island

This wasn’t the selection at Experimental Fiction but it definitely could have been. Actually, it was nominated over at the French Literature group on Yahoo but was withdrawn from the reading list at the last moment. Wouldn’t you know that I had just bought and received the book and pretty much was committed to reading it. That isn’t too much of a problem:  the French group already read an earlier novel by Michel Houellebecq (Atomized) and I had read a couple of others so I knew what to expect from the author.

We talked about Houellebecq in an earlier post, the infant terrible of modern French literature, so this is just about the novel (The Possibility of an Island is the novel Iggie Pop was excited about).

Two stoners are exploring an island and begin to imagine a supreme life-form that came down to earth and created life as we know it. Furthermore, they posit that this life-form will return and transform the chosen humans into a new phase of neo-humans. Does this sound somewhat familiar? You have to accept, though, that the narrative is not as straightforward or understandable as this. The way to immortality is through cloning, or a reasonable facsimile of cloning. The narrative appears to be a history of a human before before he was replaced with a neo-human created by cloning to carry on the human’s life. This history is being written by what we surmise to be clone #24 (#1 was the human, the next 23 or more are the clones) and the narratives of the current clone and the original human are woven together to maximize confusion (actually, the chapter headings make things clear).

So when the story starts, the human race has disappeared—died out—and the clones have taken over the planet in the name of their god (who originated in a bag of cannibus). This is a clue that the sect’s scientific experimenting into cloning might have been successful. To keep things straight and to avoid the possibility of life being created outside of the chemistry lab, the clones are not allowed to fraternize and can only communicate with each other using an advanced version of AOL Instant Messenger. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine all communication requiring some digital device (we’re half-way there already).

There is an excellent novel by Joseph McElroy called Plus which involves what you eventually understand is an unmanned space probe that slowly gains knowledge and self-awareness until it begins to function as a new life-form. Perhaps these two books should be read together?

Houellebecq  is a well-known misanthrope and this novel is no different from the others. Just look at the big picture:  a religion started by a couple of horn-dog stoners and later solidified by mendacity, illusion, drugs, and even murder. And then the weak, trusting humans go to their deaths gladly because they have been promised eternal life by a non-existent superior race up in the sky (speaking through the chosen ones on earth, of course). Doesn’t that make you want to sing something from Annie?

I don’t want to compare myself to Iggie Pop (he’s younger … a little) but I can see why this novel made such an impression on him. Remember too that Iggy has published his commentary on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, so he may look wild but he still can think for himself). Houellebecq, like always, is a bit hard to take unless you enjoy overcast days and roadkill, but when you look under the armadillo, there’s a lot to consider. Many of readers don’t like Houellebecq; but France does; Europe does; Iggy does; and I do.

Certainly worth a try.

XFX: How do you spell Houellebecq?

Is this an author you know and love (or hate), or are you still convinced that Balzac is the only French author worth reading?

His name is Michel Houellebecq and he has several interesting novels you might want to look into. First, he writes in French and it is always a good idea to read an author in the original language, but if your French is rusty or non-existent, Houellebecq is translated into English about as fast as it takes to bring out a paperback edition.

Houellebecq is a very contemporary writer. His novels express the thoughts and situations that have plagued the world for the last several decades and his fiction tends to suggest a possible direction for the future, bad as it may be. It’s probably not a good idea to expect a feel-good book from Houellebecq:  he is not averse to being a quite raw and frightening, so be prepared. He is called the enfant terrible of deadpan cultural sniping and sloppy French Schadenfreude and I think that fits nicely. Here are a few of Houellebecq’s works:

  • Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte):  A deeply philosophical novel about an alienated young man searching for happiness in the computer age.
  • The Elementary Particles [Atomized] (Les Particules élémentaires): A story of two very different brothers which is also a treatment on the destruction of society and the rise of political incorrectness.
  • Platform (Plateforme):  A misanthropic, sexually frustrated bureaucrat embarks on a package tour, amusing himself with snide commentary on his fellow vacationers and frequent visits to sex clubs.
  • The Possibility of an Island (La Possibilité d’une île):  A caustic filmmaker whose celebrity status earns him access to a cult of sexually promiscuous health fanatics who achieve immortality through cloning.
  • The Map and the Territory (La Carte et le Territoire):  The story of a successful artist that assists in the solution to a horrible crime.

I’m just starting to read The Possibility of an Island today so I should have a report in a few days. However, with the author’s reputation and my knowledge of his earlier works, someone may have to come over and rescue me from my depression.

(Note that there is a very interesting interview in The Paris Review, Fall 2010, and that is where the association of Michel Houellebecq and Iggy Pop comes from. Hey, if Iggy says The Possibility of an Island is the best book he has read in ten years, we better listen up.)