Photo: Philippe Matsas Opale/Courtesy of Knopf

“Who, among you, deserves eternal life?”

In Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, The Possibility of an Island, the question, in tiny type, inhabits an otherwise blank second page. Despite its demure appearance, the biblically accusative “you” reminds us that Houellebecq’s earlier books have, at least by their author’s lights, exposed the crapulousness of human nature, big-time, beyond question.

Few characters in The Possibility of an Island seem capable of enduring a normal life span, much less endless existence. Houellebecq’s counterintuitive solution to their inner emptiness is one that enables them to live forever—after a fashion, by having their gene sequences and neural networks infused into successive generations of clones.So, the story of Daniel1, a present-day celebrity shock comic, is an autobiographical artifact. Its chapters alternate with commentary by his latest replicants, Daniel24 and then Daniel25, who puzzle over the tangled emotions of their forebear—sensory glitches snipped from clonoramic, post-human wiring centuries earlier.

If a legible rationale were needed to flush cruddiness out of our species, one wouldn’t have to look beyond Daniel1’s own mentality, a soufflé of racist phobias and porcine sexual consumerism, pimpled with ephemeral twinges of guilt for his lack of empathy. As Daniel1 tells it, his Parisian stand-up show “100% Hateful” featured such sketches as “The Battle of the Tiny Ones,” pitting “Allah’s vermin” (the Arabs) against “circumcised fleas” (the Jews).

Without belaboring similarities between Houellebecq’s literary stardom (the pre-publicity for this book in France rivaled that of The Da Vinci Code) and Daniel1’s notoriety as a “transgressive” lounge act, it’s worth noting that Daniel1’s performances sound too witless to provoke the hilarity Houellebecq would like his readers to feel outraged about, though one can never underestimate how far a lack of talent can take a really nasty exhibitionist.

After the 2001 publication of Platform (which eerily prefigured the Bali bombings) and statements declaring Islam “the stupidest religion,” Houellebecq was sued by Islamists in France for “inciting racism”—an attempt to prosecute blasphemy that unfortunately seemed to ratify his view. He has cultivated a media image of reckless, often intoxicated self-exposure, as calculated as Warhol’s public near-mutism. Works of literature should be considered on their merits. When writers craft a combative persona to advance their ambition, though, it becomes entangled with their art.

Houellebecq has special gifts. His Elementary Particles (1998) contains thrillingly compressed, Zola-esque accounts of multiple generations of its characters’ families and the historical forces that shaped their lives. Its story of two differently tormented brothers etches in acid arabesques consumer society’s false promises. Its choked despair over shrinking human possibilities offsets its smug misanthropy.

But The Elementary Particles’ success proved the worst thing that could have happened to Houellebecq. He seems a victim of the Irvine Welsh syndrome, in which one spectacular, spectacularly overcelebrated novel impels the writer to spin out messy offshoots of his masterpiece’s superfluous novelties.A recurring, even compulsive execration of the ’68 generation is a Houellebecq trademark. While his male characters crave sexual release, the author’s sentiments about those who pursued sexual freedom at the expense of family responsibility are unforgivingly savage. In The Elementary Particles, Michel and Bruno, sons of deliquescent flower child Janine, converge at her deathbed to ease her last moments thusly: “Bruno collapsed heavily into a chair beside her bed. ‘You’re just an old whore,’ he said in a pedantic tone. ‘You deserve to croak.’ ”

The children of the sexual revolution are slaves to its legacy, and in 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. Houellebecq’s clone-o-philia sprouted near the end of The Elementary Particles and resurfaced in his short book, Lanzarote, with its fictional version of the Raelians, who claimed in 2002 that they had cloned a baby and had another replicant bundle of joy on the way. Houellebecq spent time hanging with that cult’s avatar, an elderly roué who has, despite this book’s hilariously unflattering description of him, endorsed The Possibility of an Island. Here the cultists are called Elohimists, and after his first wife leaves him, Daniel1 plays an unexpected, key role in the sect’s mushrooming into the predominant world religion. As a gutsy early adopter, though, he must take his recrudescence on faith, leaving DNA in deep freeze before writing his life story and committing suicide. He rematerializes eons later as Daniel2, then 3 through 25. He also has Fox, his dog, rescued from Dog Heaven.

Clone life is pretty uneventful. Living in far-flung isolation from each other, clones subsist on nutritionally enhanced moisture. Their synthetic epidermis is erogenously supersensitized, but this seems a waste since their only “sexual contact” consists of mutual masturbation via Internet. Their enzymes alert a nebulous sanitation department when it’s time for a replacement (clones go kaput quicker than a tenement refrigerator). A few biological humans, devolved into hairy cannibals, lurk about the countryside.

In this way, The Possibility of an Island reprises Houellebecq’s message that Utopian thinking leads to hell on earth. His hatred of the sixties (and Islam) accounts for his embrace by some conservatives who overlook his pointed hostility to any received ideas, including theirs.

His champions across the political spectrum also misconstrue his literary talents. In every review, Houellebecq is joined at the hip with Céline, who took a wrecking ball to ossified “literary” French and opened it to vernacular, slang, the rhythms of proletarian speech—his arias of anarchistic humor bear no resemblance to Houellebecq’s clipped sarcasm. And Houellebecq, unlike Céline, has a knack for obliterating any moral queasiness associated with the ugly feelings he specializes in.

Still, there are two unforgettable features of The Possibility of an Island: its chronicle of the intricate betrayals, compromises, and willful delusion required to market a religion as a business—a marvelously sly-minded chunk of observation comparable to Gore Vidal’s deconstruction of God, Inc. in Messiah; and the book’s final 40 pages, in which Daniel25, having made contact with a disillusioned female clone and reached the end of Daniel1’s autobiography, abandons his sterile immortality, and on the thread of a hope that real human life could be better than its technologically stripped-down simulation, strikes off into the wilderness.

This jolting finale combines the mesmerizing realism of Daniel Defoe and the suspense of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, as Daniel25 traverses the surreal landscapes of a drastically refigured planet, encountering the remnants of the old humanity (who kill his dog) and quixotically heading for a speck on a map that’s only a possibility, and perhaps not a place at all.

Clones have been popping up in the service of vastly different literary agendas. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go featured not some distant future but a near past where clones were given a proper English education before being slaughtered for their organs. A surprisingly smart clone thriller,Cast of Shadows, came out last year from Kevin Guilfoile, author of the Bush parody My First Presidentiary. And around 2003 there was a boomlet of novels about cloning Christ—like J. R. Lankford’s The Jesus Thief, whose doctor protagonist thinks he can atone for the sins of the Jews by gestating the Messiah within the womb of his virgin maid.

The Possibility of an Island
By Michel Houellebecq. Knopf. 352 pages