Novelists today tend to be pretty bloodless creatures. Look at their bios: They’re mostly workshop professors or M.F.A. hatchlings. They review their peers’ books, sit on grant panels, give readings and interviews, and, during their free time, cook up soft-boiled bores to pay their children’s tuition.
None of that for Michel Houellebecq! The French author, lately of The Possibility of an Island, is an old-style enfant terrible: more lecherous than Pepys; more bibulous than Hemingway; more wretched than his own dim lodestar, H. P. Lovecraft. Here, for illustration’s sake, is what Emily Eakin wrote for The New York Times of her visit to Houellebecq:
Houellebecq answered the door in stocking feet … and ushered me into the living room. He curled up in a chair with a pack of Silk Cuts and a bottle of Jim Beam and hardly moved for the entire weekend… .
By the time we sat down to dinner—in the living room—he was too inebriated to eat. He picked at his boiled crab and got some of it on his sleeve. His head began to nod; his eye-lids drooped. But for the first time all day, he looked almost cheerful. “I am the star of French literature,” he slurred. “The most radical one of all.” He reached over and petted my knee. “What’s your name again?” he mumbled. “How would you like to be in my erotic film?”
Despite that drunken boast, he’s as self-loathing and -destructive as they come, a fellow for whom razor blades and cyanide tablets would be perfect stocking stuffers. In his book-length canticle H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, he writes matter-of-factly, “Of course, life has no meaning. But neither does death.”
Then why write so much?
Houellebecq has produced five books—a few of them bestsellers—to say nothing of his Lovecraft treatise, a great deal of poetry, and articles not translated into English. He’s earned the praise of The Wall Street Journal and the Irish novelist John Banville; he’s been denounced by the Times critic Michiko Kakutani and is disdained by the French literary establishment.
In 2001, the BBC made a documentary about him, of which the Guardian’s Suzie Mackenzie wrote, “I don’t remember a single frame in which Houellebecq appears with another human being, though there is a scene of him in a stairwell throwing a ball at his revolting corgi.”
In 2002, Houellebecq, having told the magazine Lire that Islam is “the dumbest religion,” was brought on trial in Paris for “inciting religious hatred.” He denied that he hates Muslims, but maintained his “contempt” for Islam and proclaimed the Koran’s literary mediocrity.
In an amusing turn, Houellebecq confessed that he’d never read the French penal code. “It is excessively long,” he quipped, “and I suspect that there are many boring passages.” He was acquitted.
So he’s a hellraiser, and seems to enjoy it. His books have sold in the hundreds of thousands; he seems to enjoy writing them. The question, then, is, “Why isn’t this man smiling?”
The short answer is that Houellebecq’s novels describe the decay both of the civilized world and, on a smaller scale, of individual human relationships. For Houellebecq and his dismal characters, the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and long.
In the early pages of Houellebecq’s first novel, Whatever (a fitting, albeit inaccurate, translation of its pompous French title, Extension du domaine de la lutte), his nameless narrator tells us that he isn’t concerned with “varying states of soul, character traits, etc.” His aim, rather, is
to prune. To simplify. To demolish, one by one, a host of details. In this I will be aided by the simple play of historical forces. The world is becoming more uniform before our eyes; telecommunications are improving; apartment interiors are enriched by new gadgets. Human relationships become progressively impossible, which greatly reduces the quantity of anecdote that goes to make up a life.
Call it fair warning. The last thing Houellebecq’s books deliver is quantity or quality of anecdote; indeed, they are catalogues of life’s most mundane, not to say Sisyphean, activities: getting drunk, watching television, preparing frozen dinners, and getting drunk again.
In keeping with this, both Whatever and Houellebecq’s second book, the bestselling Elementary Particles, begin at the sort of dull, insufferable office party that lucky readers will recognize only from sitcoms and movies. The scene in the former case is especially dispiriting, and, in that regard, emblematic of the world Houellebecq intends to show us. The narrator silently endures an inane conversation between female co-workers, about their “right” to wear miniskirts (“The last dismaying dregs of the collapse of feminism,” he thinks to himself). Then he passes out.
On waking I realized I’d thrown up on the moquette… . I concealed the vomit under a pile of cushions, then got up to try and get home. It was then that I found I’d lost my car keys.
Things go from bad to worse; for Houellebecq, life is rarely more than a succession of humiliations. When he returns to the area for his car the next day, he can’t find it: “Every street looked to be the one. The Rue Marcel-Sembat, Rue Marcel-Dassault … there were a lot of Marcels about.” This, it turns out, is rather like the feeling of reading Houellebecq’s oeuvre: You’re going round in circles, and there are a lot of Michels about.
Reading a Houellebecq novel—and this is perhaps most true of Whatever—is like reading the author’s own hateful, defeated (but often very funny) diary. Whatever’s narrator is a software technician; Houellebecq was a software technician. Several of the narrator’s colleagues were Houellebecq’s colleagues. (He hasn’t even changed their names.) And, as Houellebecq is happy to admit, the narrator’s unhappy preoccupation with sex is very much the author’s own. Concupiscence may be his most notorious quality.
When his narratives detour from day-to-day misery, they arrive in the thick of pure pornography—where he is always the star. This is curious, of course, given that he is inclined to blame false freedom—the intellectual and sexual “liberations” of the 1960s—for much of what is manifestly wrong with Western societies. Sex, specifically sex with women far younger than he, is the only thing that makes Houellebecq (and his surrogates) the least bit happy, if happiness it be. (The Times profile quoted above claims that Houellebecq sleeps with about two dozen women per year, with his wife’s enthusiastic approval.)
Both The Elementary Particles and Platform revolve around this proclivity. (Whatever does as well, but to a lesser extent.) Houellebecq regards sex as another aspect of human interaction that has been conquered by “market forces,” and thereby cheapened, made into a source of “injustice” and shame. In The Elementary Particles, he writes of Bruno, one of the protagonists:
While he was a teenager, the fierce economic competition French society had known for two hundred years abated… . But human beings are quick to establish hierarchies and keen to feel superior to their peers… . Unexpectedly, this great middle class of laborers and office workers—or, rather, their sons and daughters—were to discover a new sport in which to compete… . Patrick Castelli, a young French boy in his class, succeeded in fucking thirty-seven girls in the space of three weeks. Over the same period, Bruno managed to score zero. In the end he flashed his prick at a shop assistant in a supermarket; luckily, the girl broke out laughing and did not press charges.
In Whatever, we meet Bernard, a grotesque virgin doomed to lonely agony by these viciously competitive mores. In The Elementary Particles, the two half-brothers Bruno and Michel suffer through equally pathetic lives. Bruno, a priapic, frustrated loser, winds up in an institution; Michel, a molecular biologist disgusted with mankind, works toward the creation of a superior species. Platform, the most controversial but least ambitious of Houellebecq’s books, settles for clinically detailed descriptions of a sex tourist’s Third World “adventures.” It is not difficult to identify a progression toward greater and greater prurience and provocation.
Platform culminates in an Islamist terrorist attack that presages the Bali nightclub bombings, but it has no other merit. Houellebecq is correct to attack the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, but he does nothing to decry the immorality that so horrifies the West’s enemies. Rather, he wallows in it. Michel in The Elementary Particles was, like Houellebecq himself, abandoned by an appallingly self-serving hippie mother. (“Houellebecq” is the surname of the author’s beloved grandmother, who cared for him during his childhood years.) But neither the character nor his creator takes any practical lesson from his tragedy. He becomes the thing he hates.
From Whatever to Platform, the only god to which Houellebecq pays obeisance is despair. It’s no wonder he adores Lovecraft, the nihilistic progenitor of what Houellebecq calls a “rigorously material” brand of horror. He writes of Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s memorably ridiculous octopus-headed, bat-winged monster: “What is Great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like us… . From his journeys to the penumbral worlds of the unutterable, Lovecraft did not return to bring us good news.”
In other words, not only does nothing exist beyond our material world, but also—and worse still—all this world can offer us is violent and unrelenting terror. Yet what, exactly, qualifies Houellebecq to talk about the hopelessness of our world?
He is honest, “authentic.” This may truly be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but at least it affords us a clear picture of the way he conducted his research. The man seems to have limited his interactions with women to bars, package resorts, and sex clubs. This is, if true, more or less like basing one’s judgment of mankind on life in a whorehouse.
Houellebecq has immersed himself in the ugliest expressions of human nature, and he expects us to accept that this represents all there is. The fact that so many people who know better—from their own experience—are willing to play along is without question the most upsetting aspect of his fame. Consider Banville’s conclusion to a slavering appreciation in the April/May 2005 issue of Bookforum: “If we are to take him at his word … [Houellebecq] achieves a profound insight into the nature of our collective death wish.” Does Banville himself really feel that death wish? And even if he does, do we?
What is true of some is not true of all, and to assume the contrary would be mere laziness on the part of the author and his partisans. Of course, Houellebecq doesn’t assume any such thing. He may be genuinely despondent, but his insistence that this is man’s natural state is pure marketing.
As for his fans, they only fake faith in his contrarian and degenerate ethos; they certainly don’t live it. But why? Morbid curiosity, as with the hordes of housewives who swooned for James Frey’s phony addiction chronicles? And if they appreciate “profound insight” into the “death wish,” whether personal or collective, why don’t they ask of their authors that they discourage it, that they hold up something in its stead? Maybe because they conceive of it as nothing more than a frightening curiosity, something to be marveled at and then put safely back on the shelf. Maybe it merely titillates—the mean and shabby appeal of pornography.
Whatever the case, Houellebecq is weeping all the way to the bank.
His latest effort, The Possibility of an Island, essentially confesses this. Houellebecq’s narrator is, for a change, not Michel but Daniel—an innocent in the lion’s den. He is an outrageous, foul-mouthed comedian, who reveals himself at the outset: “To give some context, here is one of the jokes that peppered my shows: ‘Do you know what they call the fat stuff around the vagina?’ ‘No.’ ‘The woman.’”
Daniel, like Houellebecq, knows full well that he’s a carnival barker, exploiting for profit the willful stupidity of his audience, its greedy appetite for the very nihilism that will destroy it. He expands: “Strangely, I managed to throw in that kind of thing, whilst still getting good reviews in Elle and Télérama.”
One can draw an easy parallel between Houellebecq and the late Hunter S. Thompson: Houellebecq’s life, much like Thompson’s shotgun suicide, would be a valuable object lesson were his enthusiasts not so blind to its meaning, or lack thereof. The best that can be said of Houellebecq is that this latest work (probably his last commercially successful one, since the scam of rewriting the same book again and again can hardly sustain itself) insults and rejects his readers in just the way that they deserve.
In short, Island redeems Houellebecq, by shining pitiless Klieg lights on the premeditated squandering of his career. The book is his first to treat the real problem behind his and the West’s decline, honestly and responsibly: the fetishization of youth and novelty. One of his funniest and deadliest passages appears when Daniel is interviewed by a writer for a women’s magazine similar to Cosmopolitan. She tells Daniel of her boss’s concept for a new publication:
The following morning, I passed by his office, and he explained a little bit more. The magazine was to be called Lolita. “It’s a question of a gap in the market … ” he said. I understood more or less what he meant: 20 Ans, for example, was bought mainly by fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girls, who wanted to be emancipated in all things, sex in particular; with Lolita, he wanted to find the opposite gap in the market. “Our target readership starts at ten years old … ” he said, “but there is no upper limit.” His bet was that, more and more, mothers would tend to copy their daughters.
The notion that what appeals to a ten-year-old girl will appeal to a fifty-year-old woman isn’t misogyny; it is, to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the fashion and “lifestyle” magazine trade, a patent fact. It is the natural reductio of the trouble we’re in: a world in which nothing frightens more than the prospect of growing older, less desirable, less relevant to the interminable bustle of sexual commerce.
The pathos of Houellebecq is that, however completely he understands this condition, he allows himself to be governed by it. He hates himself for being a withered ghoul. He frets incessantly over the decline in his sexual potency. Where a more mature and reasonable man would pursue marriage, children, and family, he desperately chases chemicals and sexual experiences to artificially prolong his youth. (These lead only to embarrassment and heartbreak: “I had left my coitus cream in Lutétia, and this was my first mistake … I sensed she was a little disappointed.”)
There’s nothing new or modern about fear of the twilight years. What’s new is the undignified manner in which people like Michel Houellebecq shuffle toward the end. Simply, he’s a coward.
Still, he isn’t to be written off entirely. Our times offer numerous, unprecedented opportunities for degeneracy, and few know these and their consequences more intimately than those who let themselves be demolished. He has something to tell us by his poor example.
Island is the product of a man who wishes it could have been otherwise, and who admits that desire, however obliquely, for the first time.
The book echoes The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq’s earlier sojourn into science, in that it is a work of science fiction: “Daniel” is in fact “Daniel1,” the first of a long series of super-rational clones created through the work of a religious cult called the Elohimites. The narration of the book alternates between Daniel1 and his distant, less entertaining successor, Daniel25.
(The Elohimites are based, to amusing effect, on the real-life Raël Movement, a UFO- and cloning-based “religion” founded by a French former performer and racecar driver, Claude Vorilhon. Categories in the “Frequently Asked Questions” on Rael.org include “Where is Eve, the clone baby?” and “I read in the papers that you have orgies. Is it true?” Houellebecq’s attraction to the Raëlians—he reportedly “flirted” with the cult—couldn’t be more obvious.)
The Daniels have a dog, reconstituted each time a Daniel dies, called Fox. Fox is, for Houellebecq, love personified. Even in the first pages of Island, he writes, “The advantage of having a dog for company lies in the fact that it is possible to make him happy; he demands such simple things, his ego is so limited. Possibly, in a previous era, women found themselves in a comparable situation.”
In the London Telegraph, Tibor Fischer writes, “Houellebecq seems to have reached that Brigitte Bardot state of disillusionment where only dogs are truly admirable,” but there is more to it than that. The little dog is not the last thing left for Houellebecq to love—it is, it certainly seems, the first thing he has loved in a long time. And Island shows a faint but unmistakable change in its author’s demeanor. Houellebecq has given up a little bit of his hatred for curiosity. Here is the great insight of Daniel25, speaking of the race to which he belongs:
Our collective history, like our individual destinies, therefore appears, compared to that of the humans of the last period, peculiarly calm… . Daniel1 lives again in me, his body knows in mine a new incarnation, his thoughts are mine; his memories are mine; his existence actually prolongs itself in me, far more than man ever dreamed of prolonging himself through his descendants. My own life, however, I often think, is far from the one he would have liked to live.
Houellebecq’s characters, like most deeply unhappy or suicidal people, lack imagination. They cannot posit an existence other than the one they’re in, the one they hate. Houellebecq, likewise, is good at describing what he hates—but struck dumb when it comes time to name what he could love. (“Young girls” don’t count.) So it’s no small thing for Daniel25 to refer to the life his predecessor “would have liked to live.” It’s a nod toward the dream, the domaine de la lutte, to recall the French title of Whatever.
In that book, the narrator writes:
Your total isolation, the sensation of an all-consuming emptiness, the foreboding that your existence is nearing a painful and definitive end all combine to plunge you into a state of real suffering.
And yet you haven’t always wanted to die.
You had to enter the domain of the struggle… . You long believed in the existence of another shore; such is no longer the case.
By the time Daniel25 comes into being, no one searches for another shore, because there is no longer any ocean to cross. But he is correct to guess that no one would prefer that life, devoid of struggle, to which he and the other neohumans are doomed. (Lest Houellebecq’s position on that point be in doubt, he shows us that the Elohimite future—a dystopia whose hedonism, even, lacks the vigor of Huxley’s—was purchased, as the Radiant Future always is, with blood and lies.)
It was never either “peculiar calm” or life eternal that Daniel1 desired, only the possibility of happiness. But one man’s failed or abandoned hunt for happiness, if the game is rigged from the start, is not literature. It’s a propaganda of defeat.
Michel Houellebecq has banked on defeat for so long that he cannot even inch away from it without checking himself. With Island, he comes close to disowning his commercialized despair—but finds he has nothing to offer in its place. A suggestion, by way of a passage in Whatever. Our narrator is speaking of his psychiatrist:
She took me to task for speaking in general, overly sociological, terms. This, according to her, was not interesting: instead I ought to try and involve myself, try and “get myself centred.”
—But I’ve had a bellyful of myself, I objected.
Have you, Michel? So have we all. But you’re not dead yet, and it’s never too late, after all, to try something different.