When Pauline Kael rang in the come-dressed-as-the-sick- soul-of-Europe party more than 40 years ago, could she possibly have foreseen the ascendance of French novelist Michel Houellebecq?
Prince of perversity and debauched emcee of continental misery, Houellebecq has helped keep the fête alive with his singular brand of literary misanthropy. His novels (four in the past 10 years) amount to a running catalog of Europe’s millennial ills, including familial breakdown, burgeoning xenophobia, and pervasive economic torpor. The depressive anti-humanism runs deep and spares no one. Only committed self-loathers should RSVP to this exclusive celebration.
In his latest novel, The Possibility of an Island, the author casts his cynical-chic eye toward organized religion, assembling a large cast of decadent hypocrites and obnoxious charlatans. Quelle surprise! But instead of driving down his usual road to damnation, Houellebecq swerves unexpectedly and gives us a handful of characters who are intelligent, not entirely loathsome, and deserving of some kind of forgiveness. Which, for party-hardened Houellebecq, must be the closest he’s come to finding God.
Possibility‘s first words echo ominously from the heavens down to Earth: Who among you deserves eternal life? The question serves as a bedrock of Christianity and our youth-obsessed culture, though for Houellebecq, it’s intended as a dystopian warning. “The idea of immortality had basically never been abandoned by man,” says the novel’s futuristic protagonist. “[H]e was ready, in return for any explanation, however unconvincing, to let himself be guided by a new faith.” The speaker, Daniel25, is a neo-human clone living 2,000 years in the future. From his isolation cell, he recounts the story of his ancestor, Daniel1, a present-day artist, and the novel alternates between today and the distant future, brutally collapsing our yearning for eternal life and the less-than-perfect outcome of that arrogant obsession.
If you’ve read anything by Houellebecq, Daniel1 will need no introduction. Bourgeois, middle-aged, and horny, he’s an internationally acclaimed shock artist living in expat seclusion in the Spanish countryside. His stage plays and films, with titles like “We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts,” are high-art grenades designed to both offend and gross loads of euros. Sound familiar? In Daniel1, Houellebecq has created a stand-in and send-up of his own reptilian public persona. Numb to everything, our hero basks lizard-like in the Andalusian sun, screwing female members of the species and playing with his only friend, his dog Fox. As the years pass, Daniel1’s success and testosterone gradually dry up and he’s left with the undeniable feeling that he blew his creative wad a long time ago.
Has Houellebecq? Stylistically, the first half of Possibility often reads like a parody of the author’s previous work, particularly The Elementary Particles. His signature flat, Camus-style prose feels mechanical and false. The ridiculous dialogue sounds like Joe Eszterhas channeling SNL’s Dieter. (“Have you still not fucked any whores?” “No.” “Well, me neither.”) Gavin Bowd’s uneven translation doesn’t help matters. Run-on sentences and awkward phrasing litter the autoroute, though Bowd skillfully transforms “baignole de frimeur” into “pimpmobile.”
Once Daniel1 steps out of his comfort zone, the novel finally finds its calling. Invited by a new-age cult called the Elohimites to an island retreat, Daniel1 discovers a massive cloning project intended to perpetuate the human race. His initial skepticism slowly turns into fascination—here’s a religion that’s actually trying to deliver on its promise of immortality. A freak accident involving the cult’s Dionysian leader draws Daniel1 deeper into the circle of power. If all religion is fraudulent, he comes to understand, then the Elohimites are the most unabashedly fraudulent of them all, which could count as a kind of honesty.
Houellebecq’s Elohimites share some genes with the real-life Raëlians the French sect that claimed to have cloned a baby in 2002 and believes in an extraterrestrial ancestry. Houellebecq reportedly spent time at a Raël retreat, and when Possibility was published in France last year, the Raëlians praised the author for his sympathetic portrayal. But the Elohimites also carry some Christian traits, especially their faith in a resurrected savior. In the Old Testament, God tells the prophet Daniel exactly when Christ will come to deliver mankind. Houellebecq’s Daniel also becomes privy to a messianic coming, though this one is far from divine. Life loosely imitates scripture. Possibility’s section titles (“Daniel1,3” or “Daniel25,16”) suggest a sci-fi Bible whose chapter and verse numbers point unmistakably toward an end-of-days reckoning.
Mankind asks for everlasting life, and he receives it. But as Daniel25 learns, it’s a mixed blessing at best. What does zero times infinity equal? Each Daniel realizes in his own way that life is neither good nor bad; it’s just there. And so are Houellebecq’s novels, which exist far beyond the realm of morality. Reviewers intent on taking him down (as John Updike attempted in a recent New Yorker) come off as prudish and puny. Houellebecq’s infinite void swallows everything and spits nothing back. It’s enough to make Daniel25 wish for the certainty of death. “I was, I was no longer,” he intones, longing for oblivion. Until then, there’s always money, pussy, and if we’re lucky, more novels by Michel Houellebecq.