Michel Houellebecq has published four novels, all of them bitter and miserable. Their pessimism isn’t the only thing to them, or necessarily the most important thing, but it is probably the first that you’ll notice. Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994), Les Particules élémentaires (1998), Plateforme (2001) and La Possibilité d’une île(2005)—published in America as Whatever, The Elementary Particles, Platform and The Possibility of an Island—are callow, cynical and sex-obsessed, openly racist and misogynistic in turn, rife with B-grade porn writing, full of contempt for art and intellectuals, and operate on a kind of low masculine anger at the indignities of being beta-chimp. They are nonetheless serious, and owe their reputation to artistic achievement as much as any naughty thrill they elicit. Translated into more than 25 different languages, Houellebecq has won the lucrative Dublin IMPAC award and the Prix Novembre for The Elementary Particles, the Grand prix national des lettres and the Prix Flore for Whatever, and sustained critical and popular attention during a decade and a half in which the number of writers to emerge from Europe with any sense of significance is next to zero. This comparatively huge success is worth some attention: Houellebecq’s books are not historical romances or ripping thrillers, they are modern, nakedly philosophical novels, embodying—I should like to say—one of the more significant efforts by any contemporary writer to understand and communicate the tensions of our times, a great many of which are plainly hostile to the production of engaged literature.
Over 45 years ago Susan Sontag wrote that redundancy—an experience of joblessness or irrelevance—was the chief affliction of modern life, a verdict that has yet to fall out of date. Insignificance and redundancy make special problems for a writer. Speaking generally, what a novelist aims to do is to convey or impose meaning, and meaning is what redundancy undermines—precisely why irrelevance is one of the natural and insoluble terrors of writing. If you were looking for a neat expression for the awful sense of uselessness that anyone with a commitment to the written word must feel from time to time, then Philip Larkin’s phrase would be hard to better: “Books are a load of crap.” “Depressive realism” (a clinical term) becomes an occupational hazard for the author and reader. It talks like this: you hide from life; you make it up; your claims to deeper meaning are a charade; you lie; you are stupid. Take it as given that something in the nature of the modern world—its superabundance, perhaps; the overload of information and of competing leisure options—makes it especially difficult now to write pertinent fiction. Literature is anyway a deeply confused business, based on a kind of basic fraudulence. And asking what it is for is like asking what life is for (which is to say: have your pick of answer, good luck finding any proof). Consequently, depressive realism is impossible to inoculate oneself against. It is horrible and hard, and entirely un-abstract in its horribleness. David Foster Wallace, an author who provided some of the most sensitive articulations of the impulse to communicate through fiction, wrote at length about the perils of living by the word. “I get scared and sad too,” he once said rather simply. “I think maybe it’s part of the natural price of wanting to do this kind of work.” Last year, after a catastrophic attempt to quit his antidepressants, Wallace committed suicide at the age of 46. Without wanting to be morbid merely for the sake of it, it is hard to see the silver lining to that particular storm cloud—hard to see Wallace’s death as anything except evidence, if we needed it, that all our efforts to impose meaning on life—to protect ourselves, to cope—are really just made of paper.
I sound this sour note for two reasons. The Point has taken it as an informal mission to provide a space for discussion about the modern novel, about the various challenges it faces and about what we can hope for (or expect) from the genre in the present day. This is an admirable sort of conversation to want, but we should be careful whilst having it to separate circumstantial problems from constitutive ones. It is perfectly fair—and what’s more, manifestly accurate—to say that social and cultural conditions are presently antithetical in lots of ways to creating literature that resonates with the times. A familiar way of putting it is to evoke a nefarious alliance of massively multiplied information sources and stimuli with a clustered and distracting mass culture, and the corresponding shrinkage of the average person’s attention span and willingness to isolate himself with a book. The novelist is caught in a double bind: in order to properly capture the feel of a kinetic, overloaded modern world she must pack more, and more varied, material into her work, but does so for an audience that has less and less inclination to engage with it. Alternatively, the novelist simplifies and straightens her work in order to win readers, but at the expense of representing the world as she truly perceives it to be (i.e. “selling out”). There is a concern that the novel is simply unable, structurally, to harmonize with an era where the written word has been so heavily marginalized by sound and image. Or maybe the form is exhausted—there being only so many different ways to stick words together into a coherent whole, and only so many styles to adopt and tones to take, etc., might the last three hundred years of cultural activity not have burnt up our artistic resources? These worries are valid enough, but in fact there has never been a moment where the novel really was a pure and uncomplicatedly meaningful thing. It has always been a struggle against the elements.
A second reason for caution would be that it is wrong to expect literature to be therapeutic or life-affirming qua literature. In reaction to all the conditions making it uniquely difficult to produce literature for the twenty-first century it is an easy and often-made mistake to extol the reading of Serious Novels as a type of nourishing, meditative activity—a richer and more fulfilling food contra the junk diet served up by mass culture. This is a bad tack—in principle—because it is egocentric. It tacitly equates good art with what is good for one’s health, and thereby reduces it to something that provides a service for well-being. That might sound like elitism (real art is x-and-y, whether you like it or not), but it isn’t, really. A novel would have value simply for being truthful, and the truth is under no obligation to be pleasant. Given the dreadful psychic mess that fiction is founded on (the mess that gives depression its grip), to make helpfulness a criterion of literature is to make guarantees one cannot fulfill. As enriching and comforting as they can undoubtedly be, stories are primarily expressive. What they express needn’t be healthy or positive so long as it is truthful—and the news might simply be bad.
At the beginning of his first book, not a novel but an extended essay on the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft, Houellebecq set out his premises: “No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.” Or more than a little:
Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don’t care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us. All these prodigiously refined “notations,” “situations,” anecdotes… All they do, once a book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already nourished by any one of our “real life” days.
Certainly these opening notes—those scare quotes around the words “real life”—do not promise a wonderfully appetizing read. But in fact Houellebecq’s debut is a delight. H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is witty, sympathetic, beautifully written and accomplishes the nicest thing a piece of criticism can: it makes you want to read what you are reading about. Lovecraft, a recluse whose single happy adult relationship was wrecked by his inability to find a salary and who wrote horror stories (so Houellebecq argues) powered on virulent racial hatred, also exemplifies in his life and work one of the engines of Houellebecq’s own fiction: the refusal, or the failure, to develop into an adult. However, the claim that it is “useless … to write new realistic novels” is something Houellebecq quickly retreated from. Without exception, his novels are concerned with the revulsion and hardship of quote-unquote real life.
But what value has “realism” like that? It’s pretty easy, you might think, to adopt a manful tone of voice and say that what matters in Art is not well-being but Truth, even if the truth is brutal and distressing. But if a piece of art is not only truthful, but depressing and no good for you in its truthfulness, doesn’t that sound like an excellent reason to avoid it? I don’t mean to be coy if I say that I’m not sure how to answer that question. Right enough, Houellebecq’s characters are defined by isolation and unhappiness, and they take these to be essential rather than accidental parts of human existence. Their social relations are those of failure, determined by what they cannot relate to in others—“[It] is in failure and through failure, that the subject constitutes itself,” as one puts it, and another: “It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it is that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable”—all of which falls perilously close to navel-gazing. Whether in first or third person, the Houellebecq hero (always male) typically takes the form of a soft-bodied, aging cynic, who yearns exclusively for sex with young women and then spirals off into brooding monologues about the impossibility of living when it eludes him. The quantity of invective is high, particularly in The Possibility of an Island, easily the nastiest of the four titles. Its hero, a rich and famous comedian named Daniel, embarks on one love affair with a woman that ends after they both agree that it would be futile to pretend that he could go on wanting her deteriorating body, and then another with a 22 year old nymphomaniac with whom he falls deeply in love, whilst admitting that “[like] all very pretty young girls she was basically only good for fucking, and it would have been stupid to employ her for anything else, to see her as anything other than a luxury animal, pampered and spoiled, protected from all cares as from any difficult or painful task so as to be better able to devote herself to her exclusively sexual service.” Eventually she dumps him before running off to an orgy. Elsewhere, Daniel notes that: “The dream of all men is to meet little sluts who are innocent but ready for all forms of depravity—which is what, more or less, all teenage girls are,” that “living alone together is hell between consenting adults,” that “legitimate disgust … seizes any normal man at the sight of a baby,” that “a child is a sort of vicious dwarf, innately cruel, who combines the worst features of the species, and from whom domestic pets keep a wise distance,” and so on.
And yet the best reason to read Houellebecq, the one I would give if I were asked, anyway, is that his work produces the scandalously rare impression of being relevant, of connecting to how life is, rather than how it might be if there were more adventures. Pessimism is unfalsifiable, of course, which is what makes it so often insipid. If someone is genuinely determined to look on the gloomy side of life there is no turning them. The “honesty” of a depressive realist is sapping and tedious in that way. All of Houellebecq’s narrators present themselves as hard-headed men willing to speak unpleasant facts (explicitly, in The Possibility of an Island, where Daniel comments: “On the intellectual level I was in reality slightly above average … I was just very honest, and therein lay my distinction; I was, in relation to the current norms of mankind, almost unbelievably honest”), but their stories would be banal if their author weren’t deft enough to make them plausible—that is, realistic.
“Realism” is, to say the least, a bit of a tattered banner in fiction. Part of the mythology of literature is that Serious Novels exist as a weather vane to the age, informed by and informing the mood of the times, simultaneously symptomatic and diagnostic, reflecting the particular concerns of their spot in history and in turn informing the deeper concerns of human life. The “conceptual” difficulty, so to speak, for the modern novel might as well be termed the difficulty of realism. Since at least 1919, when Virginia Woolf published “Modern Fiction,” there has been a loose but persistent consensus among “serious” writers that the world has changed in ways that make Jane Austen-type classic realism inappropriate, so that if you really wanted to be realistic you would paradoxically find the best expression in science fiction or postmodernist aesthetics, or deny the possibility of realism as an achievable or desirable aim (cf. the critic Jerome Klinkowitz: “If the world is absurd, and what passes for reality distressingly unreal, why spend time representing it?”). The reasons for this steady, though now almost itself retro, shift in feeling are much discussed but remain ghoulishly unaltered.
“The pain of consciousness, the pain of knowing, grows apace”—that is Jonathan Franzen’s phrase, and it could hardly have been said better. If one were forced on pain of injury to try and say what is characteristic of the present moment, one serviceable answer would be: We know more. Our collective awareness is tremendous; it increases. The sum total of human knowledge has long outstripped the capacities of any individual, however brilliant they might be (it being said that the last person to know everything there was to know was Leibniz, which isn’t true, but would be bad enough even if it were—he died in 1716). As a thought experiment, consider any subject (e.g. cooking) that you could claim some knowledge of. Consider how many people in the world could claim greater knowledge of that subject, how much expertise you lack. Now broaden your thought to cover all the fields of science and sport and art and language and mathematics and commerce and engineering and philosophy and history and geography and medicine. Imagine how much you don’t know, that is known. It is dizzying. The expanse of human activity and enterprise, and our consciousness of that expanse, are vital ingredients for the modern novelist’s stew. The problem being that this enormous weight of collected data—or, more accurately, the fact that we are ever more aware that this gigantic weight of data is sitting out there, collected—has rather awkward consequences for writing novels.
The first, most obvious one is this: there is so much stuff! Far too much to fit into any book, too much for any single talent—how could any lone novelist capture what the world feels like when she has such flimsy snares at her disposal? But the days when there was any broad distinction between the local and the exotic seem gone, and so the pressure mounts on the novelist to pack her work full of data and exoticism, to take her books globetrotting, evoke the sensation that there is more going on in the world faster and everywhere: the interconnected, networked, speeding, modern kaleidoscope. But the actual breadth of the world—the diversity of character and locale that you could encounter just by, say, spending an evening channel-hopping or browsing the internet—humbles the imagination, and it seems impossible to do it justice. The present isn’t so much a moving target as a multitude of twisting, slipping bodies that refuse to remain targets long enough to take aim.
A massive proportion of Western art in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is, in one way or another, a reaction to the feeling of overload. But the issue isn’t simply one of scale, as though in principle, and with enough imagination and effort, one could amass a large enough quantity of information plus character and put it all inside one long book—it is also a matter of fit. In some plain respects, novels just seem like the wrong way to depict life in the information age. A linear narrative without explicit audiovisual accompaniment doesn’t rest easily in the job of conveying a time and place animated by flickering bangs and whizzes. It isn’t merely the problem already sketched, that literature must compete with all sorts of other, extremely colorful, forms of entertainment for the attention of an audience with less to give or desire to give it. It is also that literature aiming to be “realistic” would have to depict all the up-to-the-minute parts of the twenty-first century which make it difficult for novels to be that. It is as though the timely twenty-first-century fiction would have to somehow internalize those elements that make novels seem irrelevant and out of step—that is, represent (in a novel) a form of life that novels do not appear to be representative of; like pushing square pegs against round holes. What would a long story be like where the hero worked all day and then spent all his spare time on the Internet? Possibly very interesting, but also hard to imagine—as a rule of thumb, novels struggle to capture information-age paraphernalia, and very often seem wooden when they try. The problem of fit is more serious by far than the problem of scale—it’s the difference between having a long and arduous job on your hands and having a job you are wrong for. A novelist who feels her medium to be out of tune with the world around her is obvious prey for the specter of irrelevance. It’s a big deal: “[For] a writer of fiction to feel that he does not really live in his own country—as represented by Life or by what he sees when he steps out the front door—must seem a serious occupational impediment,” said Philip Roth, surveying an American cultural landscape that had become unprecedentedly ill-disposed to the means and methods of written fiction. That was in 1961—and like Sontag’s remark about redundancy, it is ominously ageless (once you replace Life with Google and delete the need to leave the home).
The terrors of redundancy are part and parcel of the enterprise of fiction writing—what modern life does is amplify them. It has never been easier to feel anonymous. Houellebecq’s books, which don’t take a massive amount of interest in the world buzzing around them, manage to convey this atmosphere extremely well—the gap between real life and life as advertised, and how the sense of disappointment this generates has perversely become a bit of a cultural norm. “There are some authors who employ their talent in the delicate description of varying states of soul, character traits, etc.,” expounds the narrator of Whatever:
All that accumulation of realistic detail, with clearly differentiated characters hogging the limelight, has always seemed like pure bullshit to me. … The world is becoming more uniform before our eyes; telecommunications are improving; apartment interiors are enriched with new gadgets. Human relationships become progressively impossible, which greatly reduces the quantity of anecdote that goes to make up a life. And little by little death’s countenance appears in all its glory.
In The Elementary Particles—the story of Bruno and Michel, two socially isolated half-brothers—tremendous glee is taken skewering neo-hippies and New Age mystics. A thwarted hedonist, the 40 year old Bruno spends a dismal fortnight holidaying in the Lieu du Changement, a semi-commune founded in 1975 with the aim of “providing a place where like-minded people could spend the summer months living according to the principles they espoused. It was intended that this haven of humanist and democratic feeling would create synergies, facilitate the meeting of minds and, in particular, as one of the founding members put it, provide an opportunity to ‘get your rocks off.’” By the time Bruno visits in the late Nineties the Lieu du Changement has become miserable, a microcosm for one of Houellebecq’s central themes—the cruelty and exclusion of the Sixties’ sexual revolution. For the clientele of the Lieu, “[as] they began to age, the cult of the body, which they had done so much to promote, simply filled them with an intensifying disgust for their own bodies—a disgust they could see mirrored in the gaze of others. … Dedicated exclusively to sexual liberation and the expression of desire, the Lieu naturally became a place of desperation and bitterness.” By the mid-Eighties the commune has become a corporate business, supplementing its promise of sexual liberty with quasi-religious workshops and esoteric disciplines—“Tantric Zen, which combined profound vanity, diffuse mysticism and sexual frottage, flourished.”
Bad luck in sex, the marginalization of anyone who fails to be erotically desirable, is the backbone of Houellebecq’s oeuvre. Whatever, the most overtly philosophical novel, is narrated by an unnamed computer technician—a job that Houellebecq held before he made his living as a writer—on a business trip training provincial civil servants how to use their new equipment. His companion is another young technician, Raphaël Tisserand. “The problem with Raphaël Tisserand—the foundation of his personality, indeed—is that he is extremely ugly. So ugly that his appearance repels women, and he never gets to sleep with them.” The two men travel from town to town, retiring to bars and nightclubs after work, where Raphaël—affluent, but a total flop as a sexual commodity—meets progressively terrible frustrations. The issue, as the narrator diagnoses, is one of simple sexual economics: his colleague cannot offer anything on the marketplace. “Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women, others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’… In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.” Lacking charm and resembling a toad wrapped in cellophane in his looks, Raphaël has nothing he can trade. Characters that suffer because of their biological makeup, the life sentence imposed by being undesirable, or the delayed punishment of aging, recur—sex, we are told, is life’s only real motive. If you are disqualified, or “past it,” then you will suffer unto death: “All energy is of a sexual nature, not mainly, but exclusively, and when the animal is no longer good for reproducing, it is absolutely no longer good for anything.”
Raphaël is killed in a car accident, driving home in the mists on Christmas Eve. At his funeral: “A few words were pronounced on the sadness of such a death and on the difficulty of driving in fog, people went back to work, and that was that.” But for the narrator, who until then had taken a cold, if not gruesomely manipulative attitude toward his partner, the news of Tisserand’s death sparks a mental breakdown. After checking himself into a psychiatric hospital, the hero is confronted by a female counselor who chastises him for speaking in overly abstract, sociological terms. His effort at self-analysis emerges: “But I don’t understand, basically, how people manage to go on living. I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in such a simple world you understand. There’s a system based on domination, money and fear … there’s a … system based on seduction and sex. And that’s it. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else?” Afterwards, he asks the counselor if she would sleep with him. She refuses.
Although Houellebecq shoots plenty of venom at the sexual revolution, it is not that he is a reactionary writer, exactly. He never suggests that religious faith is the solution to his character’s dilemmas, for example; the books are all resolutely atheist. The only places in which traditional religion makes a significant appearance are in a subplot of Whatever—a Catholic priest, an old acquaintance of the narrator’s, loses his faith over a failed affair with a young nurse—and at the climax of Platform in the form of Islamic terrorists. In any case, Houellebecq’s heroes are generally no less deviant than the sad revelers of the Lieu du Changement. What the sexual revolution stands for, rather, is the triumph of philosophical materialism: the worldview that erases the supernatural, making it impossible to believe in God and—at its logical conclusion—eradicating the possibility of communion altogether. The starkest material truth, after all, seems to be that we are all ultimately alone inside our skin: “elementary particles.” In Houellebecq’s fiction, the real brutality of post-sixties sexual economics is that it is based on fact; it is, in its way, progressive. One way of putting it is that in our enlightenment we are able to see ourselves as merely creatures, rather than God’s creatures, and nature as purposeless matter, rather than divine plan. Humans are just animals, and, unsurprisingly, that knowledge gives precedence to biological impulse; to strength, health and beauty over weakness, infirmity and repulsiveness; and it makes self-interest paramount. Houellebecq’s men find themselves incapable of considering anything but themselves, but they also apprehend, with some horror, the essential unsustainability of individualism. Living with nothing other than your own desires and urges makes your frustrations, increasingly awful and unavoidable as you age, torturous—and the prospect of death unmanageable. “Contemporary consciousness is no longer equipped to deal with our mortality. More than at any time or in any civilization, human beings are obsessed with aging. Each individual has a simple view of the future: a time will come when the sum of pleasures that life has left to offer is outweighed by the sum of pain (one can actually feel the meter ticking, and it ticks inevitably towards the end). This weighing up of pleasure and pain which, sooner or later, everyone is forced to make, leads logically, at a certain age, to suicide.” It is, to paraphrase Houellebecq on a different topic, an insoluble condition, but not really a complicated one.
“Old age; there was not a new blossoming at the end of the road, but a bundle of frustrations and sufferings, at first insignificant, then very quickly unbearable…” The Possibility of an Island is probably the worst of the novels, a long and caustic monologue against a cardboard backdrop, but even it achieves a kind of demonic power thanks to the intensity of its will to communicate the slide of bodily decay, “the sadness of physical decrepitude, of the gradual loss of all that gave life meaning and joy”:
Not only did the old not have the right to fuck … rebellion was forbidden to them, rebellion too—like sexuality, like pleasure, like love—seemed reserved for the young and to have no point for other people, any cause incapable of mobilizing the interest of young people was disqualified in advance, basically, old people were in all matters treated simply as waste, to be granted only a survival that was miserable, conditional, and more and more narrowly limited.
Esther, the aging narrator’s 22 year old mistress, never strikes the reader as much like an actual person, but the hero’s desperation as their romance comes to an end—an end that he does not think he will survive—is palpable to The Point of suffocation; you want to put the book down for air. Love is very real in Houellebecq’s fiction, “immense and admirable,” the nearest thing there is to true communion, but it too is part of a game one cannot help but lose. Houellebecq is hardly above mining sentiment on this score. Indeed, the two best novels, Platform and The Elementary Particles, succeed because they approach classical romantic tragedy. Bruno’s vacation in the Lieu is saved when he meets Christiane, a 40 year old whose eyes “were blue and a little sad,” who travels to the Lieu for the sex rather than the mysticism. “The whole spiritual thing makes the pick-up lines seem less brutal,” she admits, but is unreservedly cynical about its value otherwise:
I know what the veterans of ’sixty-eight are like when they hit forty, I’m practically one myself. They have cobwebs in their cunts and they grow old alone. Talk to them for five minutes and you’ll see that they don’t believe in any of this bullshit about chakras and crystal healing and light vibrations. They force themselves to believe it, and sometimes they do for an hour or two … but then the workshop’s over and they’re still ugly, still ageing, still alone. So they cry for a bit—have you noticed? They do a lot of crying here.
In spite of his maladjustment and her damage, Bruno and Christiane find tenderness with one another. As their relationship progresses, Bruno’s bleak worldview (“second-rate Nietzscheanism,” he calls it) begins to thaw. The two fall in love. During a happy week together in Paris: “They took a taxi to Les Halles and ate in an all-night brasserie. Bruno had rollmop herrings as a starter. ‘Now,’ he thought, ‘anything is possible.’ He had hardly done so when he realized that he was wrong.” What he thinks of is not a rival lover or external interference, but rather the course of nature—the implacable reality of separation and decline. The end that Bruno and Chistiane’s affair eventually comes to, wrenching as it is, is only an accelerated version of the fate of all affairs: sooner or later the body fails. “Though the possibilities were endless in [Bruno’s] imagination… in reality his body was in a slow process of decay; Christiane’s body was too. Despite the nights when they were as one, each remained trapped in individual consciousness and separate flesh. Rollmop herrings were clearly not the solution, but then again, had he chosen sea bass with fennel it would have been no different.” The burden of materialism, and by extension atheism, is that it is less—not more—able to manage suffering and evil than religiousness. Nature is indifferent to human interest, cold and amoral without a God to make it good. What we are left with once the divine or supernatural is eliminated is not a life devoid of meaning but a life whose meaning is essentially dependent on bodily function: health, pleasure and physical ability. By nature, those things expire, and the hardships of being a vulnerable, fearful, mortal human thing are left bare. It’s no accident that once the Lieu du Changement’s business began to sag (as its customers’ bodies sagged), the Zen workshops arrived.
The lone exception to Houellebecq’s standard template for protagonists is Michel Djerzinski, Bruno’s half-brother. A scientist of genius, Michel has little in the way of normal human appetites. His work shows, “on the basis of irrefutable thermodynamic arguments, that the chromosomal separation at the moment of meosis can create haploid gametes, in themselves a source of structural instability. In other words, all species dependent on sexual reproduction are by definition mortal.” The solution to this essential fallibility is to remake human material—the epilogue of The Elementary Particles tracks an epoch-shifting transformation as Djerzinski’s genetic research lights the way to the creation of a race of sexless, benevolent, “neo-human” immortals. The book ends with a tribute to humanity: a species that finally learned enough to be able and willing to engineer its own extinction.
Something that David Foster Wallace made much of in his career was the idea that literature served as a comfort to loneliness, and that this was maybe its most basic virtue. If you accept that loneliness is the great existential terror that we all, in our different ways, try to escape, it isn’t hard to apprehend the fraught relationship that necessarily gives us to our own bodies, because it’s our bodies that keep us so basically and dreadfully apart. It’s interesting to note how often words used to express the value of literature (or art more generally) conjure up kinds of immaterialism: “seeing the world through different eyes,” “being transported,” forging a “psychic connection” with the author, “losing yourself” in a book—all of these are expressions that run against what seems to be the brute material truth: that we are prisoners inside our skulls. Nor is it a great challenge to draw connections between this and the spiritual immaterialism inherent in religion (think about the phrase “Giving yourself to God”). Partly, these ways of speaking may be extensions of a vague but deep-rooted sense that what is distinctive and important about being human are things that find their best expression in non-biological, non-material terms—like when someone says that intimacy is the genuinely valuable part of sex. The villainy of materialism is that it undermines such talk—for instance, when it tells us that love is only a disguise for the urge to reproduce. Along this road we lose the use of a very fundamental and comforting terminology, or at least are obliged to admit that it gives a false or misleading account of human behavior. It emerges that there is basically no getting over yourself, no escaping your skull—and the more you are led to feel this way the more you are inclined to see life as isolated and vanishing.
Houellebecq’s men don’t think about God: all they think about—all there is—are the dictates of their biology, and their diminishing capacities to meet them. It is as if to say: the facts are what they are. So long as the facts are in your favor you can be happy, but there’s nothing else to it. Not only is this position terribly lonely, it ridicules concepts of common good. Immanuel Kant, in arguing that God must be judged by the same morality as men, was saying, partly, that what is good would have to be as eternal and universal as God himself, because if what is good is only open to some—if it is dependent in any way on luck, for example—then it cannot really begood, since its contingency would be an evil. A value system like that of a hedonist, one that depends entirely on the working of the body, is akin to the kind of contingent good that Kant thought couldn’t possibly be the real thing, i.e., it is good only for whomever it is good for. So sexual liberation is a boon if you are able to enjoy it, but that “if” carries with it the reality of all those people—the Raphaël Tisserands—who are left out. Moreover, materialism entails that Tisserand’s condition is accentuated, but not unique. The picture Houellebecq paints across the nightclubs, resorts and restaurants of the West is of a society that understands the facts but won’t spell them out—where concern for the body (health, beauty, sensation, etc.) has been raised to a cultural zenith, only without any corresponding apparatus to give meaning to decline and death. This, he opines, is the bleak consequence of the ongoing march of consumer capitalism—“which, turning youth into the supremely desirable commodity, had little by little destroyed respect for tradition and the cult of the ancestors—inasmuch as it promised the indefinite preservation of this same youth, and the pleasures associated with it.”
Modern materialism has this strange kind of double effect on self-perception. On the one hand, it isolates the individual by (seemingly) dispelling various illusions of communion (the decline of religion being the paradigm example). On the other, progress in social sciences, psychology and neurology, which has seeped into the wider cultural air, encourages us to think about ourselves in various “external” fashions— as the product of genetic resources, social and economic starting position, etc. These modes of thought are uncomfortable, in that they imply that our view of things “from the inside” is illusory or distorted, and that what we experience as central and singular in our personal day-to-day are actually nothing more than instances of general truths about human behavior. To a certain extent, it is healthy to be objective about yourself (you aren’t at the center of the world, despite appearances) but at its limits it becomes dehumanizing. “Flattening” is, for me, exactly the word for describing how the materialist double effect feels when you reach these limits—subjective consciousness is squished between the material barrier separating our inner life from those of others, and the inferential awareness that this inner life is itself the product of a hardwiring that we are subjectively blind to. The deeper way in which Sontag was right when she said that redundancy was the affliction of modern life is that the ascendancy of materialism not only attacks the meaning of this very precious “immaterial” vocabulary we use to talk about what it’s like being human; it breeds biological fatalism, lending weight to the idea that our actions reduce to, and are determined by, dumb physical process—an ultimately pointless set of natural drives. Helplessness is the current running beneath all of Houellebecq’s narratives, the soul-crushing inability to either find what you want or change what you want; to avoid death or believe that death is anything except bad.
“Is it really possible to live and believe that there’s nothing else?” Thinking about a question like that is like trying to swim deeper and deeper underwater; oxygen becomes scarce and the pressure pushes you back to the surface. It is a shrill, self-pitying and impractical question, sure; and of course it would be nice to dismiss it, as it would be nice to dismiss the outlook in Houellebecq’s books as so much moaning—except it’s hard to evade the conclusion that the main reason for their success is that enough people identify with them; that they put into words things that people think and want to hear, but are either unable to articulate or unwilling to admit to. This, if it’s true, is obviously kind of grim, because what Houellebecq has given voice to is such a downer—but then the curiosity of it is how the writing manages to be so powerfully invigorating. There is more life in The Elementary Particles, at least, than any number of contemporary novels—take the brilliantly banal awfulness of the scene recounting Bruno and Christiane’s visits to Parisian sex clubs, where “He could not help but feel that many of the women they met in clubs were somewhat disappointed when they saw his penis. No one ever commented; their courtesy was exemplary, and the atmosphere was always friendly and polite; but their looks couldn’t lie and slowly he realized that, from a sexual viewpoint, he just didn’t make the grade.” The combination of wit, pity and brutality is not common. But whether there’s actually an imperative in Houellebecq for would-be novelists to digest is a difficult question. One’s first instinct is to say something about the value of honesty, how maybe truthfulness is always fundamentally preferable in some way to its opposite. Certainly that is part of the appeal, and there is probably a good lesson to take in about trusting your instincts; if it feels true, it will be better writing than something that only feels like it ought to be true—literature isn’t essentially normative. The downside is that actually taking what Houellebecq expresses seriously seems self-subverting. What good are books if you are sick, alone, and unloved? They are no good. At best they are make-believe to help us disguise the facts of life—unbearable facts. When Michel Djerzinski’s lover, Annabelle, terminally ill and very frail, commits suicide, we are told that:
She was very far from accepting; life seemed to her like a bad joke, an unacceptable joke, but acceptable or not, that was what it was. In a few short weeks her illness had brought her to the feeling so common in the elderly: she didn’t want to be a burden to others. Towards the end of her adolescence, her life had speeded up, and then there had been a long dull stretch; and now, at the end, everything was speeding up again.
“Acceptable or not, that was what it was.” Life carries on regardless until the day it doesn’t—any question about what you make of it is secondary. How are you supposed to reconcile the human need to impose meaning on life, through art or other means, with the apprehension that life is arbitrary and beyond one’s control? And how does it help to be honest about it if it is so? The dark joke at the bottom of the pessimist’s project is that it ends up attacking its own grounds; ridiculing the futility of human action ultimately makes the art itself seem pointless—demonstrates the emptiness of its honesty. In Platform, the hero arrives in a Thai brothel, chancing across two other men from his package tour. One of these men, Robert, is a weary cynic. The narrator’s final judgment could be Houellebecq’s own:
I nodded to Robert to take my leave. His dour face, fixed in a bitter rictus, scanned the room—and beyond, the human race—without a hint of affability. He had made his point, at least he had had the opportunity; I sensed I was going to forget him pretty quickly. I had the impression that he didn’t even want to make love to these girls anymore. Life can be seen as a process of gradually coming to a standstill … In Robert, the process was already well advanced: he possibly still got erections, but even that wasn’t certain. It’s easy to play the smart aleck, to give the impression that you’ve understood something about life; the fact remains that life comes to an end. My fate was similar to his, we had shared the same defeat; but still I felt no active sense of solidarity. In the absence of love, nothing can be sanctified. On the inside of the eyelids patches of light merge; there are visions, there are dreams. None of this now concerns man, who waits for night; night comes. I paid the waiter two thousand baht and he escorted me to the double doors leading upstairs. [The girl] held my hand; she would, for an hour or two, try to make me happy.
It may be depressing that we live in a time where such a barren philosophy resonates; there is a tiny sliver of hope—possibly, maybe just—if at least it shows that resonance is still possible. Something is head-breakingly paradoxical about the concept of necessary illusions—but if we have them then, by definition, we cannot get on without them. Michel Houellebecq offers nothing that feels much like comfort, yet the force and the counter-intuitive vitality in his work might allow that there is some irreducible solace just in feeling as if you are really connecting with someone, even if you can’t—and even if it hurts.
- 1. For one minor example: hip-hop, a decidedly modern music. Hip-hop never seems right reproduced in a novel. Part of this, I think, is that a novel that reproduces a rap verse invariably writes the words out line by line, which is fine but palpably not how the music (which is, on the face of it, one of the most “articulate” or “wordy” types there is) makes itself felt—often the rhythm of a rap song pulls you along in spite of the fact that you usually can’t really separate or understand many of the words if you aren’t already familiar with the verse. This “pull” just isn’t there on the page, although it is there on the radio, television, street corner, coming out of car windows, i.e., all the everyday circumstances where one has the opportunity to hear rap music and compare it favorably to how it comes across inside a novel. Further minor example: I find email exchanges “written out” in a novel almost unfailingly clunky and awkward, e.g., pp. 497-502 of The Corrections. Is it that email, too, simply feels wrong and not at home on the printed page?↵
- 2. Fair to say, Houellebecq’s books don’t shy away from what Wallace called “the bizarre and adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair.” Interestingly, that judgment was part of Wallace’s famous review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time; the same John Updike who disapprovingly quotes Houellebecq’s bit about all energy being sexual energy in the rather sniffy review of The Possibility of an Island he gave for the New Yorker.↵
- 3. In 2001, French courts agreed to hear a formal case brought against Houellebecq by four French Muslim organizations on the charge of racism, after he was quoted (inaccurately, he claims) in an interview promoting Platform saying that Islam was “the most stupid of all religions.” The case was eventually dismissed, but in between the publication of Platform and his appearance in court two planes smashed into the World Trade Centre—which made Houellebecq’s eye for subject matter seem like an uncannily sharp one, whatever else.↵