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Biomedicine in museums

Cloning and misanthropy — Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island

By August 25, 2006No Comments

I’ve just finished reading (or rather struggling my way through) Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, The Possibility of an Island (originally published as La possibilité d’une île). It’s crafted as the autobiographical story of a few years in the life of a successful stand-up comedian David who, after being co-opted by a religious sect and disbandoned by his female lover, commits suicide; his DNA is used to clone him into a so called neo-human, with eternal life.

The story of David (which borrows slightly disguised details from Houellebecq’s own life), is centered around his drive for pure sexual satisfaction, his fear of progressive bodily decay as he grows older, and his yearning (after all) for love, and is intercalated with short sci fi-sounding comments by his 24th and 25th generation clonal off-springs who wonder why humans were so terribly emotional.

I guess I belong to Houellebecq’s core readership — the tired upper middle-aged academic male whose world outlook is a kind of sentimental Schopenhauerian misanthropy, who loves to hate political correctness, who is refreshed by the banality of everyday life in contrast to the self-righteous seriousness of the usual cultural suspects, who is fascinated by the future possibilities of cloning and other technologies in the biomedical armamentarium — and who likes to think of his life in autobiographical terms.

So I’m supposed to be the perfect Houellebecq fan; yet I’m not impressed by my potential alter ego. True, the enormous hype around the author is not entirely undeserved: Houellebecq has an acute and disillusioned understanding of contemporary Western culture, its shallowness and sad emptiness, he is not afraid of politically sensitive topics, and he produces some provocative one-liners that have already entered the quotation circuit. Nevertheless his quasi-philosophical reasoning, his uneven narrative drive and his monotonous prose turn me off. Not even the frequent descriptions of his penetrations of Esther can turn me on again.

Agreed, there are not that many books that keep you awake and reading until 3am, but after the first ten chapters (armed with the expectations of the hype) I gave up on The Possibility of an Island. The next ten chapters were a sleeping pill. I’m still waiting for the perfect biomedical/autographical sci fi story.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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