Unknown countries (4): The Possibility of an Island

Posted by Ken Edwards on Sunday, January 17, 2010 Under: writing
This is an investigation of eight novels incorporating the fantastic, with a view to drawing some conclusions about the place of speculation in fiction.

I knew a bit about Michel Houellebecq, the supposed bad boy of French letters. How he was prosecuted unsuccessfully for racism for asserting in his 2003 novel Platform that Islam was the stupidest religion. How he hated his mum and his mum hated him. That he’d written a book about H P Lovecraft. His repudiation first by French leftist writers’ circles and then by the political right too. His penchant for inserting a character called “Michel” into his own fiction (much as Paul Auster and Martin Amis create avatars of themselves in theirs – and in fact Houellebecq’s literary persona seems to have been designed to out-Amis Amis, another writer bent on annoying Muslims etc).

But I’d never actually read him. I selected Possibility of an Island (2005) for this series because of its fantastical content: it spans a thousand years, alternating between the narrative of Daniel, a successful comedian playing on outrage (a thinly veiled self-image, as it happens) and his cloned “neohuman” successor(s) who live without companions (save for a beloved dog, Fox) in future compounds secured against the prevailing barbarism. And also because I was curious about him; a writer capable of incensing so many people could surely not fail to be interesting.

Well, to cut to the chase, I was grievously disappointed. I was prepared for delicious outrage, but not for the novel to be quite so dull and, in some respects, so inept.

The trajectory from Daniel, or “Daniel1” to the solitary clone at the far end of time, “Daniel25”, is facilitated by the protagonist’s involvement with a radical cult obsessed with cloning, the Elohimites. They are apparently based on the real-life Raelian sect, believers in divine astronauts, with whom Houellebecq briefly flirted. They are seriously into free love, which suits the protagonist fine, and in thrall to their leader, “the prophet”, a Santa Monica resident who avails himself of all the luxury commodities and free pussy at hand: standard religious cult stuff.

Daniel’s extreme wealth and notoriety as a comedian (a show entitled “We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts” is his greatest hit) make him an ideal celebrity recruit and ambassador for the cult. He has by now left his long-term partner and there are pages and pages of description of strings-free and frankly improbable fucking with a much younger woman, Esther. The affair with the Elohimite Church appears to end disastrously with a bloodbath on the Canary Islands. But the Elohimites survive under a new leader to take over the world with their programme of suicide and resurrection as neohumans by means of cloned DNA. This process, which involves a period during which the cult’s only rival is a resurgent Islam, is narrated rather perfunctorily as reconstructed history by Daniel25.

Character development is, I believe, rather an overrated quality in novels, particularly when, as in much contemporary English fiction at any rate, it ousts other qualities: wit, ideas, adventurous writing, imagination. But if you are constructing a fiction in which the central character moves towards a point of despair that results in his suicide you do need to convey something of the psychological truth that would lead a reader to empathise, and Houellebecq never comes remotely close to doing that, nor does he create any other credible characters that would act effectively as mirrors to the protagonist. The companionless clone, Daniel25, ironically, seems more human than his original predecessor.

Ever since Cervantes and Swift, satire has been an important aim of fantastical writing, and there is some intent here to satirise the superficial, empty world of celebrity-worship we currently inhabit, and its strange co-existence and clash with fundamentalist religion. In the novel’s far future, Western civilisation’s only remnants are isolated clones who never meet, and only ever communicate, sporadically over long distances, through their computer keyboards, while savages eat each other in the wilderness outside. This could have been a cutting verdict on the future of our virtual world of text messaging, FaceBook, Twitter and (yes!) blogging, but the opportunity is fudged by the author.

Similarly, the frequent goading references to Islam are only ever titillating, when there could have been some good material here to explore around rival approaches to death, resurrection and apotheosis. But that would entail taking such questions seriously enough to interrogate them.

It may be that Gavin Bowd’s English translation has to take some of the blame for the general clunkiness of this novel; I regret that my French isn’t good enough to enable me to read the original. But it’s hard to know, in any language, quite how to take Daniel1’s last reported words, which give the novel its title; at the end of a poem to his young lover, Esther:

    …And love, where all is easy,
    Where all is given in the instant;
    There exists in the midst of time
    The possibility of an island.

There could be an interesting ambiguity here. Is the “possibility of an island” a wish for solitude? Or a desire for the chimeric “love, where all is easy”? Are they in fact the same – a masturbatory self-love? Not for the first time, porny satire and bourgeois kitsch appear to inhabit the same space. I think the author gives himself away here.

Next episode – Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled

In : writing 

Tags: "speculative fiction" 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at http://www.kenedwardsonline.co.uk