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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Possibility of an Island

Michel Houellebecq

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To purchase The Possibility of an Island

Title: The Possibility of an Island
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 337 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Possibility of an Island - US
The Possibility of an Island - UK
The Possibility of an Island - Canada
La possibilité d'une île - Canada
The Possibility of an Island - India
La possibilité d'une île - France
Die Möglichkeit einer Insel - Deutschland
La possibilità di un'isola - Italia
La posibilidad de una isla - España
  • French title: La possibilité d'une île
  • Translated by Gavin Bowd

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting scenario and ideas, fairly ponderous and crude presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 28/10/2005 Michele Roberts
FASz . 21/8/2005 Volker Weidermann
FAZ . 27/8/2005 Julia Encke
The Guardian D 29/10/2005 Michael Worton
The Independent . 18/11/2005 Matt Thorne
Independent on Sunday . 6/11/2005 Tim Martin
London Rev. of Books . 9/2/2006 Theo Tait
The Nation D- 29/5/2006 Christine Smallwood
NZZ . 27/8/2005 Thomas Laux
New Statesman . 7/11/2005 Jason Cowley
New York . 29/5/2006 Gary Indiana
The NY Sun . 14/5/2006 Adam Kirsch
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/6/2006 Stephen Metcalf
The New Yorker . 22/5/2006 John Updike
The Observer C+ 30/10/2005 Tim Adams
The Observer . 23/7/2006 Jonathan Beckman
San Francisco Chronicle . 18/6/2006 Michael Roth
The Spectator . 22/10/2005 Anita Brookner
Sunday Telegraph . 2/10/2005 George Walden
Sunday Telegraph . 13/11/2005 Tibor Fischer
Sunday Times B- 30/10/2005 David Horspool
The Times B- 29/10/2005 Douglas Kennedy
TLS A- 16/9/2005 David Coward
TLS . 25/11/2005 Emilie Bickerton
The Village Voice . 26/6/2006 David Ng
Die Welt . 21/8/2005 Eckhart Nickel
Die Zeit . 1/9/2005 Iris Radisch

  Review Consensus:

  Limited enthusiasm.

  From the Reviews:
  • "On Planet Houellebecq your duty is to be miserable. His latest offering is repetitive -- as all porn is -- but unfortunately does not provoke, as good porn is supposed to do, the desire to have a good time. He merely recycles his obsessive themes of men’s inability to love, their urge to buy satisfaction, their hatred for those who purvey the fakes and replicas they seek out. The Possibility of an Island gives us just another mocking, self-mocking portrait of a contemporary man in a hell of his own choosing." - Michele Roberts, Financial Times

  • "Das ist die große Kunst von Michel Houellebecq. Die Ehrlichkeit, die Präzision, die Schonungslosigkeit, die Wahrheit seines Schreibens. Der heilige Ernst und seine große, große Traurigkeit. Die Unausweichlichkeit von allem. Die Möglichkeit einer Insel ist ein Roman über das Unglück des Alterns. Neben allen Thesen vom Ende der Religionen und dem Traum vom neuen Menschen, von Nietzsche und vom Ende der Liebe ist es vor allem anderen dies: ein Buch der Angst." - Volker Weidermann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Die Möglichkeit einer Insel ist ein Roman über die panische Angst vor dem Altwerden. (...) Innerhalb des Romans aber geht es nicht um Provokation. Eher sind seine Stilmittel doch die der Übertreibung, Verschärfung, Radikalisierung. Er phantasiert das, was er vorfindet, fort, ohne dabei einen möglichen Ausweg zu suchen. Denn für Michel Houellebecq gibt es keinen Ausweg" - Julia Encke, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "In The Possibility of an Island he once again addresses big ideas, but without giving them big thought or attention. (...) The real flaw at the centre of this novel is that Houellebecq can't think or talk interestingly about love, the novel's main concern. (...) The best way to read Possibility is quickly, without pondering its cod philosophy and portentous metaphysical pronouncements, which take the anatomisation of banality to a paroxysm of the baroque. There is little point in thinking about what Houellebecq says or following up his references, since their irrelevance is the point." - Michael Worton, The Guardian

  • "After Daniel24 dies, he is replaced by a more adventurous clone, who sets out into the wilderness. Here Houellebecq seems to lose his way. The first 300 pages of this novel prove that Houellebecq is one of the best novelists writing today. (...) But although world events make this a good time for apocalyptic fiction, the final commentary and epilogue are the novel's weakest sections." - Matt Thorne, The Independent

  • "In both this book and its predecessor Platform there are passages of irresistible black humour, savage condemnation and genuine (and surprising) sentiment. But devotees of the old Houellebecq will have to wait for yet another book to see whether he will tire of ploughing the same furrow, or whether this supremely talented writer really intends to become just a clone of himself." - Tim Martin, Independent on Sunday

  • "It’s difficult to summarise further without sounding completely mad. Let’s just say that the plot illustrates the Schopenhauerian principle that people are trapped between pain and striving, on the one hand, and boredom and emptiness, on the other. (...) By and large, The Possibility of an Island seems like the result of a very uninteresting experiment: to see how much Houellebecq can get away with, how slapdash, how misogynistic, how programmatically ‘controversial’ he can be." - Theo Tait, London Review of Books

  • "The Daniel chapters are long-winded but tolerable; the Daniel24 and -25 chapters are unbearable pseudo-philosophical meditations on the meaning(lessness) of human life (...) Island, where science-fiction fantasy retreats into a political vacuum, is unmoored from the ideas that grounded his previous fictions, and fails -- as a novel and as theory. It diddles about, describing threesomes in lieu of parodying free love, bemoaning well-trod fixations instead of interrogating their conditions. It is not philosophy but polemic." - Christine Smallwood, The Nation

  • "Michel Houellebecq hat in diesen Roman ziemlich alles hineingelegt, was man sich aus kulturpessimistischer Sicht nur denken kann. Seine Vision erscheint komplex, ebenso ambitioniert wie nihilistisch; gleichzeitig, und gerade in den ruhigen Passagen des Buches, gibt es Momente purer Poesie, die nicht nur wie Balsam wirken, sondern gerade in der geschilderten Endzeitatmosphäre einen flüchtigen Moment prekären Glücks vermitteln." - Thomas Laux, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "In truth, The Possibility of an Island is little more than a reworking of, or long appendage to, the earlier novel. The pre-occupations, the political sensibility, the expressions of ennui and drift, the wrenching longing, and the biting misanthropy, are the same. But Atomised was one of the most inspired and remarkable novels of the past 20 years, and this new offering, by contrast, reads more like a work of perspiration than of inspiration -- and much of it is repetitive and tedious, especially the scenes among the Elohimites. Jason Cowley, New Statesman (I)n The Possibility of an Island, Daniel1, bottom-feeder though he is, yearns for something salvational, something more meaningful than pussy, though pussy is all he can think about. Surely there is something better ? God ? Group sex of a spiritual bent ? Less-flaccid vaginas ? Instead he finds science." - New York, Gary Indiana

  • "What makes The Possibility of an Island distinctive, and is sure to gain attention, is its science-fiction overlay, which deals with the fashionable subject of cloning. (...) If The Possibility of an Island is a more diffuse, less effective novel than The Elementary Particles, it is because Mr. Houellebecq relies on this vision of the future to do much fictional work." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

  • "(B)y turns bewitching and tiresome (.....) If The Possibility of an Island is often brilliant and searing, it's not because Daniel's admissions ring universally true, but because they are so incandescently true of this one delightfully lubricious man." - Stephen Metcalf, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is to Houellebecq’s discredit, or at least to his novel’s disadvantage, that his thoroughgoing contempt for, and strident impatience with, humanity in its traditional occupations and sentiments prevents him from creating characters whose conflicts and aspirations the reader can care about." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "(S)ex is his only chance of transcendence. It is also the main motor of Houellebecq's narrative and in its absence, his observation, his cumulatively dulling misanthropy sometimes chokes and runs out of gas. There are, particularly in the setting up of Daniel1's involvement with the Elohimites, more than a few longueurs; just as his characters hardly care about anything but sex, you hardly care about them except when they are pursuing it." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "Houellebecq's satire lacks wit or charm and less-than-classy translation renders it even more unpalatable." - Jonathan Beckman, The Observer

  • "Reading The Possibility of an Island is a cynical experience; the author generates no empathy, no fellow feeling. This is supposed to be a novel of ideas, and the cardboard characters (the artist, Vincent; the scientist, Knowall; the hot young thing, Esther) are there so that the author can give shape to his thoughts. (...) (H)is flat tale to illustrate the idea of the end of history is merely neophilosophy, pseudothought. Without originality, without poetry and with an odor of sanctimonious self-seriousness, he has given us a wanna-be novel of ideas." - Michael Roth, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The futuristic scaffolding of the novel -- the transition from our wrecked civilisation to a superior, cloned future -- is ponderously erected. Even science fiction fans may not stay the course; the rest of us will groan at the Elohims’ technojargon as we are briefed on the progress of their cloning experiments, or their organisational ups and downs. (...) There can be a laziness about his work, a tone of indolent provocation, and you sense it here. We are not permitted to complain about the flatness of the writing, the repetitious obscenities or the occasionally maudlin sentiments because -- as Houellebecq’s champions will quickly remind you -- the banality is the point." - George Walden, Sunday Telegraph

  • "No one can accuse Houellebecq of ducking the big issues. The family, society, religion, love, science and the future of mankind are all present and accounted for. (...) If you liked Atomised and Platform, you'll love The Possibility of an Island. Houellebecq is perhaps the most talented of current French writers, and might be termed the Lord of the New Despair, but he has yet to write his masterpiece. He can do whatever he wants; a happy, but dangerous state for a writer." - Tibor Fischer, Sunday Telegraph

  • "In The Possibility of an Island, Houellebecq’s rage against the world is taken to its logical extreme. (...) True, it is sometimes not helped by a translation (by Gavin Bowd) that can be off-puttingly literal (.....) But in its presentation of a world-view, too, this novel suffers from overstretch. The view of humanity that emerges reduces to a crude version of evolutionary psychology, in which the influence of genetic preservation on human behaviour is paramount." - David Horspool, Sunday Times

  • "Houellebecq is speed-juggling many ideas here. His novel is part-science fiction coupled with a scabrous commentary on the impossibility of achieving personal intimacy with someone else. (...) In many ways, the plot of The Possibility of an Island is ridiculous. It is also a devoid of any emotional purchase; any sense of involvement with the characters. But you don’t read Houellebecq for his narrative skills or for the subtle shading of his characters. You read him for his caustic world view, his delight in speaking the unspeakable. (...) Houellebecq remains an interesting polemicist but diatribes do not a novel make." - Douglas Kennedy, The Times

  • "It is an exhilarating ride for the most part, though occasional banal notes are struck, for example, when Daniel feels the need to point out that more literature has been devoted to love than to money. If such moments jar, it is because La Possibilité d'une île sets out its stall primarily as a book of ideas. As a novel, it has a number of weaknesses. (...) But such defects are minor, and Houellebecq's new novel (his first for four years) will intrigue and provoke, not least because it reveals a stronger sense of his vulnerability and marks a significant deepening of his pessimism. (...) His new novel may not be his best, even though he has told us that it is. But it still takes you by the throat and shakes you. A bracing mix of visionary Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh at his cruellest, and ranting John Osborne, La Possibilité d'une île is a charging bull in the china shop of modern fiction." - David Coward, Times Literary Supplement

  • "He is clear (not simple) and often succinct. A quick, literal English translation risks producing a crude work, further compounding Houellebecq's terseness and losing his original elegance and earnestness. Bowd's translation, as well as being coarse, is also full of jarring literal renditions, misunderstandings, and a lack of interest in the subtleties of the writing." - Emilie Bickerton, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Stylistically, the first half of Possibility often reads like a parody of the author's previous work, particularly The Elementary Particles. (...) Once Daniel1 steps out of his comfort zone, the novel finally finds its calling." - David Ng, The Village Voice

  • "Michel Houellebecq ist ein Übertreibungskünstler der besonderen Art. Er versetzt den Leser mittels der Untertreibung seiner lapidaren Sprache unmittelbar in die Unmenschlichkeit seiner Figuren, die nur in ihrem Leiden an sich selbst noch ihre Existenz verspüren. (...) Die Moral von Michel Houellebecqs gleichnishaftem Roman ist ein so verzweifelter Aufschrei nach Romantik und Liebe, daß dieser nur durch den gleichzeitig vorhandenen großen Humor zu ertragen ist." - Eckhart Nickel, Die Welt

  • "Der neue Roman ist ein Klon seiner Vorgänger. (...) Ein Roman, der sich selbst aushungert, stirbt. Denn minus mal minus ergibt in der Literatur nur in Glücksfällen plus." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Possibility of an Island Michel Houellebecq has pretty much given up on mankind. In the present-day it's all going downhill fast, and just to make sure his point comes across much of the book is an account from two thousand years in the future -- after that: "succession of tidal waves and extreme droughts, the clouds of atomic radiation, the poisoning of the water supply" that have ravaged the planet, and long ago wiped out civilization and most of humanity.
       The book is narrated by Daniel, in various incarnations. Much of the book is the present-day account of the original -- Daniel1's -- own life, but there are also accounts by his future selves, Daniel24 and Daniel25. The later Daniels are, essentially, clones; conveniently they are 'born' (or rather, sent out to replace their predecessor) fully formed (adult). The later incarnations are also of what amounts to a different species, called neohumans. Among the differences: they're not as high (physical) maintenance, and require limited sustenance for their survival.
       The life -- if one can call it that -- of a neohuman is rather different from human life, too. For one, they live in isolation -- every wo/man an island. And their ambitions are of a different sort, too. As Daniel25 explains:

The rigorous duplication of the genetic code, meditation on the life story of the predecessor, the writing of the commentary: such were the three pillars of our faith, unchanged since the time of the Founders.
       What they've achieved, of course, is immortality. Yes, Houellebecq's novel is about confronting -- and conquering -- mortality, which (at least technically) seems to have been accomplished here.
       One has to grant him this at least: in the end, he's not satisfied with that solution either. There's only the dimmest 'possibility of an island'; Houellebecq's vision is utterly bleak: he seems convinced that mankind and every one of us is fucked (even when there's no fucking involved any longer).
       Much of Daniel1's account is of this aging (well, forty-something) man worried about the ravages of age -- especially as regards sex (which is a pretty big part of his life). Anything goes, he notes, except the one thing:
The age difference was the last taboo, the final limit, all the stronger for the fact that it remained the last and had replaced all the former. In the modern world you could be a swinger, bi, trans, zoo, into S&M, but it was forbidden to be old.
       So Houellebecq posits a world in which procreation has been superseded by cloning ...... Sex becomes entirely unnecessary.
       Daniel1 isn't solely sex-obsessed, but descriptions of his sexual escapades fill a good deal of his account. (Far too much, actually, but that's the character.) His two relationships don't end particularly well; not surprisingly, his closest and ultimately most lasting companion is his dog Fox (which also gets cloned, and copies of which accompany the successive generations of Daniels).
       Daniel1 is a successful entertainer, a comedian who is "a cutting observer of contemporary reality". His first great love, Isabelle comments ? complains ? that: "there's a completely abnormal frankness" about him, and he certainly seems to be willing to share any- and everything with his audience -- on stage, in films, and in this account (though just because he doesn't come off looking very good doesn't mean he's been completely honest). In his account -- which is also studied by (and apparently influences) successive generations of his self -- he forces a particular interpretation on his life, always maintaining control; sure, this is a book of self- (selves ?) analysis, but the supposedly frank presentation binds the reader into the (arguably dubious) interpretation on offer here. In fact, it might very well all be much simpler than Daniel1 (and the after-Daniels) allow for.
       Daniel1's wallow in shallow political incorrectness and self-criticism (he doesn't think highly of himself, most of the time, though he admits to some qualities and talents), that whole self-deprecating approach, are meant to be disarming. Necessarily so, because there's really not much substance or depth at work here. What Houellebecq packages isn't even very impressive for nihilism. Not that it's not fun, on occasion, but it gets very wearing.
       A significant part of Daniel1's account is how he gets mixed up with the Elohimite Church, a thinly disguised version of the nutty Raëlian cult that believes aliens are responsible for life on earth and that they're coming back to check on us. Like the Raëlians, the Elohimites' are also into cloning; at least Houellebecq is honest enough to present the first 'success' as a massive fraud -- but it's one Daniel1 goes along with. Unfortunately, Houellebecq posits that the Elohimites will ultimately easily meet with complete success -- both in their cloning endeavours, as well as in attracting followers. As civilization collapses, they supposedly offer what people want (easily absorbing "the last residues from the fall of Christianity before turning towards Asia", and meeting only some resistance from Islam).
       Daniel's (and, one suspects, Houellebecq's) basic problem resides in one tiny part of his anatomy:
throughout my entire life I hadn't been interested in anything other than my cock, now my cock was dead and I was in the process of following it in its deathly decline, I had only got what I deserved, I told myself repeatedly, pretending to find in this some morose delectation, while in fact my mental state was evolving more and more toward horror pure and simple, a horror made all the worse by the constant brutal heat, by the immutable glare of the blue sky.
       The cloning solution is ingenious, avoiding death and sex. Procreation is taken out of the equation, and so sex -- which Houellebecq (and Daniel) see as the root of so many problems -- becomes an irrelevancy. While the original Daniel likes it well enough (or at least engages in it when he is physically capable of doing so -- and, if possible, can find someone to help him out), it's fairly clear to him that it's more of a bother than it's worth. His clone-offspring of course don't have this problem.
       But the cloned future is no idyll. Personal satisfaction isn't found in a sexless world either. Yes, one has to grant it to Houellebecq: he's willing to see his bleak vision through to the bitter end -- an end where no one is happy. So this is the sort of novel in which mortality is fairly easily conquered -- and yet it is filled with suicides.
       So what's the point ? It's a bleak and literally barren vision he offers -- arguably meant as a critique of our present-day civilization, already beyond redemption. But Houellebecq doesn't go much for complications, too often taking the easiest path and explanation, the downfall of humanity passed off as barely more than a footnote. Perhaps it really is so obvious to him that it doesn't require any more explanation than this, but readers might think otherwise.
       Much of Houellebecq's bleak vision does have some entertainment value, and the fundamental issues he's addressing certainly are of interest. It's just too bad he's not willing to penetrate deeper (and, yes, the flaccid prose doesn't help matters along ...). He's often in the vicinity of worthwhile targets: much of mankind continues to be fixated on mortality (though that's not exactly a new problem), and so many people seem to be willing to take the most desperate measures to fight the aging process (or combat things like 'erectile dysfunction' ...). And the willingness and need of people to believe -- in gods, or, as here, in the 'Future Ones' -- even when they know they're fooling themeselves is, of course, also a long-familiar human weakness.
       Houellebecq does convey the emptiness of sex like no other: few writers offer more of it in their books, and yet The Possibility of an Island is about as unerotic a novel as you can find. The solution for the characters -- and the species ! -- is, of course, to give up on sex entirely, and in a way Houellebecq does make a case for it. Fortunately, it is not entirely convincing.
       Given the widespread fears of mortality, Houellebecq may also be onto something here with his ingenious never-ending set up. (It's noteworthy that he nevertheless feels obligated to give his essentially immortal characters a goal: they are waiting for something/one. True immortality surely should be an end in and of itself, but for some reason he stopped short of that.) Significantly, Houellebecq warns that immortality is no good either. Which leaves us back more or less where we started (and where we are) .....

       Crudely and bizarrely entertaining, and with a few decent ideas, The Possibility of an Island is worth reading. But it never achieves what it seems to be aspiring to, falling short because Houellebecq simply isn't daring enough. (He's a lazy if not entirely untalented writer too, which doesn't help matters.)
       A loud but impotent rant.

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The Possibility of an Island: Reviews: Michel Houellebecq: Other books by Michel Houellebecq under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.

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