The Possibility of an Island

France's most controversial writer succumbs to adolescent impulses yet again.

With his new novel, The Possibility of an Island (Knopf, $24.95, 352 pages, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd), Michel Houellebecq continues in his usual form, peppering his narrative with the egregious sex scenes and shocking political views that won him widespread notoriety—and a lawsuit—with the publication of his previous novel Platform (2001). He has easily earned the title of "France's most controversial writer." His latest novel takes on the ambitious topic of cloning and, with it, the direction of humankind.

The narrative is told by Daniel—Daniel1—and commented on by Daniel24 and Daniel25. Their personalities diluted, the Daniel clones are not so much characters as they are reporters from the future, describing the fall of human civilization.

The original Daniel is a sex-obsessed egoist, a strangely amoral man whose inner state veers between numbness and sentimentality. The heights and depths to which Daniel rides his megalomania recalls Iris Murdoch's Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea, whose self-importance is boorish, but nevertheless intriguing.

Before his recent retirement to the Spanish coast, Daniel was a comic, "a cutting observer of contemporary reality," mocking the taboo and sacred. Daniel's films and shows, rap albums and performances, such as the appalling "Munch on My Gaza Strip," are disturbingly credible. Houellebecq has a rare gift, writing with a cultural range and acuity that conjures a depraved Don DeLillo.

Though only in his late 40s, Daniel feels that having ended his career, and his marriage, he has only death to anticipate. He believes the Western world is cultivating a culture that only values youth. Daniel investigates this theory with a hot affair with a 22-year-old woman and with a flirtation with the Elohim, a religious sect that promises immortality through cloning. The affair with the fickle youth proves to be short-lived, of course, and when Daniel joins the Elohim, the story returns to its primary trajectory, revealing how Daniel's lineage came to stretch millennia into the future, into the savage, apocalyptic world of his clones.

As in the majority of his books, Houellebecq's personality often overwhelms the narrative. It is obnoxious to watch this writer cave in to his adolescent impulses, manipulating female characters and the plot to explore his erotic fantasies. At the same time, the ugliness Houellebecq displays in his characters is also a statement on the ugly tendencies of humankind as a whole. Undeniably, as we move forward, those tendencies are in urgent need of examination, and it is to Houellebecq's credit that he has the nerve to do so.

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