Brave New World

Reviewed by Merle Rubin
Sunday, June 4, 2006


A Novel

By Michel Houellebecq

Translated from the French by Gavin Bowd

Knopf. 337 pp. $24.95

A fierce critic of a cynical society, the French writer Michel Houellebecq has been compared (somewhat misleadingly) to Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and his own countryman Albert Camus. He has been showered with critical praise on both sides of the Atlantic. The author of three previous novels, including The Elementary Particles (2000), Houellebecq takes on some of the biggest -- and most elemental -- questions, not only about the dangerous trajectory on which mankind currently seems to be headed but also about the very nature of what may be wrong with humans as a species and with life, the world and the universe in general.

The moral bankruptcy of contemporary culture is the starting point of his latest novel, T he Possibility of an Island . It's a skillful amalgam of prophecy, satire and science fiction, covering some of the same ground as Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake but with much more finesse and conviction. Fittingly, perhaps, an excerpt of this searing portrait of a society obsessed with sex and youth appeared in Playboy, for Houellebecq vividly depicts the lifestyle he lambastes.

The central character is a representative man of our times, a comedian named Daniel, who has attained some renown as a social critic: "All in all," he reflects, "I was a good professional; I was just a bit overrated. . . . I don't mean that my sketches were unfunny; they were funny. I was, indeed, a cutting observer of contemporary reality ; it was just that . . . we had simplified and pruned so much, broken so many barriers, taboos, misplaced hopes, and false aspirations; truly, there was so little left."

For Daniel, the targets are all too easy. A few random cracks against globalism win him a reputation as a "lefty" and "defender of human rights," while his vaguely Arabic looks add to his popularity. (As he deftly puts it, "the only residual ideological content of the left, in those days, was antiracism, or more precisely, anti-white racism.") Although he is well enmeshed in the promiscuity and self-centeredness of the world in which he lives, it's not for nothing that he bears the name of a biblical prophet because he clearly perceives the moral vacuity of his life and times.

A rich celebrity, he's even managed to find a congenial woman named Isabelle. Generous and intelligent, Isabelle nonetheless works for Lolita, a magazine dedicated to defining the ideal female image as a nubile preteen. As Isabelle and Daniel move into their forties, the fact that her body is beginning to sag a bit becomes -- for both of them -- reason enough to end the relationship.

Daniel finds himself a younger woman, Esther, who embodies the hedonism of the era and its lack of larger values. As he nears the big 50, though, he is tormented by the fact that he is growing older and jealous of Esther's sex life with people her own age. Around this time, he is invited to join a religious-scientific cult: the Elohimites. They promise their followers eternal life through cloning after death and "downloading" old identities, via artificial neurological circuits, into newly reconstituted bodies.

In many respects, the Elohimites are the logical outgrowth of the materialistic and selfish values of the times: more, more and more of me, me, me. On the other hand, they also represent a somewhat salutary reaction against the selfish values of the age. The scientists at work on designing these reconstituted beings (known as "neohumans") are planning a version that will be free from what Houellebecq sees as humanity's overwhelming sex drive and propensity for violence. Indeed, perhaps taking a cue from Sartre's famous saw "Hell is other people," neohumans are designed to be nonsocial beings free from the need to associate with others.

What are neohumans like? The answer is soon evident, not least because of the way this novel is organized. Chapters of the first Daniel alternate with commentary written by latter-day neohuman Daniels two millennia later. The typical neohuman lives alone, his or her diminished need for company fulfilled by a dog. Neohumans get by on very little food (they've been endowed with a capacity for photosynthesis), they rarely venture outdoors (the natural world has been devastated), and they spend their spare time exchanging e-mails with one another. It's a peaceful life, free from strife and suffering but also joy.

Although there's a glimmer of hope at the novel's conclusion, the overwhelming final impression is uncomfortably close to nihilism. Insightful though Houellebecq is, one can't help wondering if this "cutting observer of contemporary culture" is too caught up in it to envision more viable ways out of the impasse than those offered in The Possibility of an Island . ยท

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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