SOURCE: Green, Maria. Review of Extension du domaine de la lutte, by Michel Houellebecq. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (summer 1995): 550.
[In the following review, Green comments on Houellebecq's depiction of modern alienation in Extension du domaine de la lutte.]
In his fourth novel, Michel Houellebecq deals with our modern mal du siècle, alienation. Can we still learn anything new on this worn-out topic, depicted, described, analyzed, turned inside out by the best artists, writers, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists of our century? It seems that the author of Extension du domaine de la lutte can still display a new aspect of our modern ailment when he ushers the reader into the realm of computer science.
The narrator sets out to chart his own voyage of discovery in a novel about himself. Of course, this modern novel is a far cry from the sizzling passions of Wuthering Heights. The genre of the novel was not invented to display indifference, dehumanization, nihilism. The narrator sees clearly that while society is moving toward the goal of being perfectly informed, transparent, and in perfect communication, meaningful individual communication is simply obliterated in our private life.
The antihero-narrator is a well-paid engineer in a company that has just developed a new program to make statistics easy for government offices. He is sent to various provincial towns with a colleague to teach the use of the new program. In his seminars he meets young, dynamic, ambitious computer experts. He sees and describes them with deft originality in terms of snakes and bulldogs—whereas he himself feels like a trapped chimpanzee. Our modern world appears to him under the rule of Mars and Venus, based on domination, money, and fear on the masculine side and on seduction on the feminine side.
Life in the office is structured, but what are you supposed to do in your free time? Should you spend it looking out for others? Our narrator is not interested in others. After the botched-up seminars, he and his colleague roam and stake their sensual claim in the territory of the young, in bars and discotheques. The colleague is plagued by his calvary: the young man with a froglike face and not an ounce of charm cannot get rid of his virginity. The narrator had lost his Véronique two years earlier. Now he is unable to find a new girlfriend on his own terms. The topic of sexual misery emerges, and the narrator interpolates two miniessays. The first deals with inequality, as pitiless on the sexual as on the economic level. The second is a virulent attack on psychoanalysis, another form of alienation. He bets that if you place a decent, slightly disturbed girl in the clutches of an analyst, she will quickly be turned into an antisocial, egocentric, avaricious shrew, unable to love physically or mentally. Véronique adopted Lacan's motto: “Plus vous serez ignoble, mieux ça ira!”
This bleak novel, in which the adjectives sinistre, morose, and amer abound, ends tragically. The colleague is killed on the highway after a frustrating night at a disco, and the narrator suffers a nervous breakdown. In the mental institution he suddenly understands that none of the patients is sick, they simply crave physical contact. As nobody loves them, they turn violently against themselves. Without intimate friendships, without love, the realest reality, the very tapestry of life is unraveled.
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Prize-Winning Novels from France.” Spectator 282, no. 8891 (2 January 1999): 35.
[In the following excerpt, Brookner discusses Houellebecq's controversial portrayal of sexual excesses and cloning in Les Particules élémentaires.]
The disgusting and depraved Les...
(This entire section contains 243 words.)
Particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq led to the author being suspended from a literary journal on grounds of offences against good taste. (The publicity did him no harm at all.) I liked this, though it is undoubtedly obscene, but, more than obscene, despairing. The sexual revolution to which the protagonist, Bruno, contributes, vigorously though unappealingly, is held responsible for the disillusionment which overtakes its adherents in middle age and beyond. The answer, says Houellebecq, or his other protagonist, Michel, is genetic modification. In future reproduction will be achieved by cloning. It was the eugenic implications of this idea which so offended the authorities, so that to have admitted this novel would be seen as an act of political incorrectness. Yet what is shocking about it is not the sexual extravagance, for which the author blames both New Age philosophies and orgiastic crypto-religious cults (not perhaps adequately documented), but the morose determinism with which he pursues both the addiction and its cure, or rather antidote. Not everyone will be able to follow this writer in his diagnosis of consumer-oriented sex, but not a few will agree with him in his stoical distaste for a phenomenon which has perhaps mutated from appetite to bulimia. His book won the Prix Novembre.
SOURCE: Leichter, Frédérique. Review of Les Particules élémentaires, by Michel Houellebecq. World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 492.
[In the following review, Leichter praises Houellebecq's provocative depiction of contemporary alienation and sterility in Les Particules élémentaires.]
Les Particules élémentaires, the second novel by Michel Houellebecq, who stepped into the limelight in 1994 with Extension du domaine de la lutte, was the focus of much attention within Parisian literary circles last fall. Despite attacks by the media, it must be admitted that this is an original and profoundly disturbing novel whose ambition, declared almost defiantly, is to be “the chronicle of the metaphysical mutation of our occidental civilization at the dawn of the new millennium.” For the author, the feelings, thoughts, and obsessions described in the book are all symptoms of “l'air du temps.” In this way, Les Particules élémentaires defends itself from any criticism with an unassailable strategy: any attempt to contest the relevance of Houellebecq's analyses will be interpreted in terms of psychoanalytic resistance. Critics beware!
“Ce livre est avant tout l'histoire d'un homme, qui vécut la plus grande partie de sa vie en Europe occidentale, durant la seconde moitié du XXème siècle. Généralement seul, il fut cependant, de loin en loin, en relation avec d'autres hommes. Il vécut en des temps malheureux et troublés. … Les sentiments d'amour, de tendresse et de fraternité humaine avaient dans une large mesure disparu.” The book's sociological and prophetic ambitions are emphasized from the very first sentence: the story of Michel, a researcher in biology, and his half-brother Bruno, a high-school literature teacher, is meant to be emblematic. The novel builds on a series of revealing episodes in the lives of the two brothers—a neglected childhood, frustrated teenage years, and a lonely coming to age—which are narrated either directly or retrospectively, through their later confessions. Born of a negligent mother whom the sexual revolution had liberated from conjugal and maternal duties, the brothers embody the unbearable “mal être” of the modern human condition. In order to escape a desperate need for love, Michel, about forty years of age, takes up with his childhood girlfriend, whereas Bruno spends his holidays in “Le Lieu du Changement,” a sunny New Age camp where aging hippies gather to forget their decay. But love appears only as an ever-futile strategy: “Au milieu du suicide occidental, il est clair qu'ils n'avaient aucune chance.” Sex, with its accursed frustrations and delusions, takes love's place. Ultimately, Bruno ends up in a mental institution, whereas Michel discovers a scientific alternative to free mankind from sexual reproduction.
Such is the analytic grid of our contemporaries that Houellebecq offers by dissecting modern misery with a cold, almost clinical hand. For him, the world we inherited from 1968, obsessed with sexual pleasure, is a sterile one. The psychological depth of individuals has dried up. Everyone has become a “particule élémentaire.” Human interactions are no longer possible. Without common values to share, our conversations are empty. Likewise, Houellebecq's writing remains cold, as if the words were indifferent to their own meanings. Caught between satiric irony and vicious complacency, the author's ideological position might well startle the reader, for Les Particules élémentaires reads like the manifesto of a provocateur. A brilliant provocateur, nevertheless.
SOURCE: Madar, Chase. Review of Interventions, by Michel Houellebecq. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5038 (22 October 1999): 36.
[In the following review, Madar compliments Houellebecq's tone of iconoclastic “left-conservatism” in Interventions.]
The scandal and success of Michel Houellebecq's novel Les Particules élémentaires (1998) has led the editors at Flammarion to deem their author's miscellaneous journalism worth assembling under a single binding. Interventions is a hodgepodge of book and film reviews, feuilletonistic sketches and interviews. Some items, like “Opera Bianca”, a male/female dialogue for a video installation, seem present only to fill space in this slim book, but most of the enthusiasms (for modern physics, Kant and silent film) and anathemas (against hippies, the Maastricht treaty and holidays; a lead-off essay called “Jacques Prévert est un con”) collected here are pungent and amusing. Houellebecq often expresses thoughts which seem blasphemous from a Parisian. He has no use for the practice of écriture, noting casually “Je m'intéresse moins au language qu'au monde.” Less iconoclastic, and less interesting, is his long essay “Approches du Désarroi”, which is mostly about the evil genius of consumer society, much of it second-hand from Régis Debray and Jean Baudrillard. Like many Western intellectuals, Houellebecq is fixated on the mass media, and grants to communications technology, such as word processors and television sets, powers that Plotinus would have blushed to give to his One.
What sets all this apart is a left-conservatism, similar to that of the Frankfurt School and of the American scholar Christopher Lasch. Houellebecq blames, as he did hyperbolically in his best-selling novel, the problems of post-war France on the generation of 1968. After that mythical year, he writes, “la machine sociale a recommencé à tourner de manière encore plus rapide, encore plus impitoyable”. The author elsewhere argues that the pursuit of personal liberation has only engendered selfishness and the destruction of the family, here posited as the last breakwater against the encroaching, devouring market. Closing the book are feuilletons on topics including life on Mars, German retirees, pornography and the uselessness of male Homo sapiens; these miniatures are happy marriages of l'analyse froide and unexpected lyricism, the same marvellous combination that worked so well in Les Particules élémentaires.
SOURCE: Besser, Gretchen Rous. Review of Les Particules élémentaires, by Michel Houellebecq. French Review 73, no. 4 (March 2000): 763-64.
[In the following review, Besser lauds Les Particules élémentaires as a “major tour de force,” akin to the works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.]
What could partake more of millennial fever than the apocalyptic vision encountered in Houellebecq's compelling and unsettling Particules élémentaires? As in the best of suspense fiction, the key to the novel's mystery—a celebratory poem inserted at the beginning—is not revealed until the “Epilogue.” Only at the end do we realize the temporal perspective from which the novel's events (beginning in July 1998, proceeding in fits and starts, with prognostications of the future and flashbacks to the past) are to be viewed—the year 2079.
Until this ultimate revelation, we assume we have been reading, in antipodal counterpoint, the life stories of the eminent physicist Michel Djerzinski and his half-brother Bruno. Diametrically different in temperament, interests, and ultimate achievement, the brothers share certain similarities of background and accident: from broken homes, solitary, unloved, and fatherless, each loses the woman of his life to suicide.
Determinism marks the future of society and individual. When in his forties, Bruno reflects: “Considérant le passé, on a toujours l'impression—probablement fallacieuse—d'un certain déterminisme” (87). Similarly, for Michel: “Les conditions initiales étant données, pensait-il, le réseau des interactions initiales étant pénétré, les événements se développent dans un espace désenchanté et vide; leur déterminisme est inéluctable” (113). In line with this deterministic outlook, each of the two protagonists is the product of biological, social, historical, and psychological forces. In ontological terms, each is a “mutant”—Michel a pure intellect, devoid of emotion; Bruno a sex-driven animal.
Houellebecq anchors his narrative in the here and now with concrete, quotidian details. Michel keeps champagne in a “Bendt” refrigerator, drives a Toyota, sleeps on a “Bultex” mattress. Bruno participates in graphically described group sex. The author intersperses his narrative with scientific explanations (analyzing sexual pleasure according to “Krause corpuscles”) and with sociohistorical reflections. As frames of reference, he alludes to the work of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Kant and Comte. Although the book may appear to ramble, we recognize in retrospect that every aspect—its self-reflection, temporal lapses, historical sketches, overviews of sexual mores, scientific emphases, orgiastic descriptions, metaphysical queries or reflections—is essential to the “thesis” which the novel illustrates and expounds.
Instances of torture, brutality, violence, as well as sexual libertinism and family fragmentation, convey a sense of progressive decline—the necessary precondition for the utopia (a word Houellebecq carefully avoids using) which Michel's work will herald. The cult of youth, legalized contraception and abortion, divorce, emphasis on the individual and fragmentation of family, growth of materialism, replacement of traditional religion by alternate forms of spiritual seeking—the endless ripples that Houellebecq decries in the current of late twentieth-century Western evolution—are dramatized in his characters' lives.
The end provides an unexpected (but, of course, predetermined) apotheosis for humanity. The proselytizing scholar Frédéric Hubczejak, during the first decades of the twenty-first century, succeeds in having Michel's theories accepted worldwide. The scientist who first cloned cows, Michel has brought about a new species of humanity, infinitely reproducible and thus immortal. By eliminating the individual and suppressing sexual difference, humankind has at last achieved the godlike dream of world peace, eternal youth, and immortality (while the multiplication of “Krause corpuscles” offers unimaginable erotic sensations). Thus, Michel's ascetic lifework and Bruno's lifelong sensual obsession—fantasies derived from opposite ends of the human spectrum—are reconciled in the asexual, fraternal composition of a new world order.
However unpalatable and improbable Houellebecq's thesis may appear to be, however confounding his appraisal of Western “erotic/publicity-driven society” (200), his book is a major tour de force in the lineage of Huxley and Orwell. Structurally suspenseful, succinct in purpose, clever and biting, humorous and persuasive, Les Particules élémentaires tells a fascinating story, with exhortatory admixtures of science and eroticism, social commentary and metaphysical inquiry. The result is a heady and exhilarating brew, intellectually challenging, emotionally disturbing, and philosophically controversial.
SOURCE: Harkin, James. Review of Atomised, by Michel Houellebecq. New Statesman 129, no. 4487 (22 May 2000): 57.
[In the following review, Harkin commends Houellebecq's sense of foreboding, grand themes, and cynicism in Atomised.]
Released to a fanfare of outraged publicity in Paris nearly two years ago, Les Particules élémentaires quickly became a bestseller and made a minor celebrity of its author, Michel Houellebecq. Already translated into 22 languages, it is at last available in English under the title Atomised.
It is not hard to see why Paris was so offended. Atomised is a hugely ambitious novel of ideas—or, more accurately, a novel about the lack of ideas and morale in contemporary French society. It interweaves the disparate biographies of two half-brothers as they face up to their respective mid-life crises.
Bruno is a teacher whose hopes of becoming a writer have turned sour, and whose opportunistic enthusiasm for free love is never quite matched by his success with the opposite sex. Michel, on the other hand, is an other-worldly scientist who has devoted his life to a lonely programme of research into molecular biology, but who is now on leave and reconsidering his vocation. Both their predicaments, it is implied, can be traced in part to the influence of their hippy mother, Janine, now in a hospice, whose faddish experiments in counter-culture led her to neglect her children.
Houellebecq uses these three characters to take a pop at just about everyone: New Agers, feminists, the French literary and scientific establishments and the values of a “consumer society”. The mother, in particular, functions as a cipher for Houellebecq's disgust with the pitiful trajectory taken by Sixties radicalism since its heyday in 1968. In Atomised, Houellebecq moves towards a much more general novelistic expression of social disintegration. In his account, economic inequalities converge with sexual and biological inequalities to create an overarching mood of gloom and fatalism.
All of this might be a bore if the book were not put together so stylishly; and it is often very funny. Despite an austere prose style and little in the way of plot development, Houellebecq sustains our interest by conveying a mounting sense of foreboding, the feeling that something of world-historical importance is about to be disclosed. The philosophical disquisitions of his characters, too, are punctuated by a mordant and irreverent humour. It is his knack of weaving grand themes into the most inauspicious material that gives Houellebecq his distinctive edge.
Atomised upset the French left because of its harsh judgement of the consequences of a “permissive society”, and its apparent endorsement of eugenics and the case against abortion. While the sometimes hysterical response to his book cannot have done Houellebecq any harm, much of it seems misplaced.
Houellebecq is no reactionary, and we need not take the ideas of his characters at face value. Rather, Atomised showcases the kind of virulent cynicism that can have come only from the pen of a disillusioned leftist, and the novel is best understood as the detritus of the manifesto for sexual liberation presented by the soixante-huitards themselves.
The French newspaper Le Figaro astutely placed Houellebecq within a new wave of French writers identified by their deprimisme, or depressionism. Just as in Catherine Breillat's recent film, Romance, there is plenty of in-your-face sexual experimentation in Atomised; but, instead of liberating its subjects, it degrades them. Sex becomes a powerful metaphor for decadence and perdition, and the reader watches as Bruno loses himself in an orgy of self-abasement.
The only character who emerges with any integrity is the sexless Michel, who finds redemption in a lunatic scheme to iron out base human desires through genetic manipulation. But even this, it seems, is no more than Houellebecq's final, sick joke at the expense of his contemporaries.
SOURCE: Madar, Chase. Review of Atomised, by Michel Houellebecq. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5513 (23 June 2000): 33.
[In the following review, Madar commends the disturbing realism, dark humor, and occasional tenderness of Atomised.]
Published in France two years ago as Les Particules élémentaires, [Atomised] won the Prix Novembre, and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies throughout Europe; it has also provoked charges of nearly every prejudice imaginable and fervid denunciations from readers across several generations.
Atomised tells the story of two half-brothers, each an exemplary loser: Bruno, a high school teacher, is an undersexed hedonist, while Michel is a brilliant but emotionally desiccated biochemist. Abandoned by their hippie mother when they were small, neither has ever properly recovered; all their attempts at the pursuit of happiness, whether through marriage, the study of philosophy or the consumption of pornography, merely lead to loneliness and frustration. This despair is meant to characterize not just post-war French society, but the human race in general; at the end of the novel we learn that a breed of genetically modified humanoids, designed by Michel, has supplanted a terminally unhappy human race.
As this indicates, Atomised is an ambitious novel of ideas, in which the characters casually comment on the decline of religion, the rise of consumerism and, most prominently, the corrosive effects of liberal individualism. What makes this tolerable, irresistible in fact, is the author's supreme talent for illustrating his Left-conservative message with vivid scenes from a wide range of social milieus. Michel Houellebecq has clearly done a considerable amount of research in order to realize his brutally realistic settings: the sterile habitat of scientific researchers, a New Age camp site for greying soixante-huitards, a naturist beach resort, a classroom full of inattentive teenagers who are supposed to be studying Proust. And the frequent scenes of bad sex between forty-somethings make for excruciating reading. While this masochistic naturalism is often surprisingly funny, it is also periodically relieved by moments of tenderness.
Atomised (the French edition of which was reviewed in the TLS, January 15, 1999) is an engrossing and inventive novel, moving briskly from lyricism to cold-eyed reportage, from Buddhist prayers to theories on DNA replication. The translator Frank Wynne handles these clashing linguistic registers with grace and authority. Although he has starched out some of the original's colloquialisms, he has still managed to preserve the novel's urgent, confessional tone.
SOURCE: Abecassis, Jack I. “The Eclipse of Desire: L'Affaire Houellebecq.” MLN 115, no. 4 (September 2000): 801-26.
[In the following essay, Abecassis contends that the outpouring of critical controversy surrounding Les Particules élémentaires stemmed from Houellebecq's iconoclastic assault on Western ideological, moral, and metaphysical ideals surrounding sexuality and the rights of individual self-fulfillment.]
Sous l'être humain, il y a la brute Configurée en profondeur Mais au fond de sa vie sans but, L'homme attend le deuxième sauveur.(1)
Paris, October 1998. The routine of la rentrée littéraire breaks. Instead of the usual quarrels limited to a small circle of literati, there erupts a serious and sustained public debate in literary reviews, newspapers, radio and television. After a pause of many years, perhaps dating back to the publication of Voyage au bout de la nuit and L'Etranger, Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires becomes the focal point of a national public debate.2 On this point Le Monde's Van Renterghem is categorical: “Rarement un roman aura fait couler autant d'encre, suscité tant de passions, d'emballements ou de détestations, de gonflements incontrolés en débats et en polémiques.”3 At its heart, l'Affaire Houellebecq has little to do with literary value per se; it concerns, rather, the desecration of the regime of desire, our last idol.
Having triumphed on the economic and political level, post-1945 liberal democracy sought to expand the range of rights (and implicit duties) consistent with its underlying logic: the exponential increase in individual autonomy in all domains, including the most private and intimate. For the first time ever, the possibilities of desire availed themselves to the citizens of democracies. With its refrain—the Rolling Stones' “I Can't Get No Satisfaction”—sexual gratification became almost a form of civic duty. In this new cultural regime, rights were no longer exclusively limited to the political and economic. Libidinal potential (love, sex, orgasms), first postulated as a possible social state by Margaret Mead, then scientifically described and explained by Master and Johnson, and finally consecrated as personal epiphany in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, now donned an urgent imperative aura. This urgency simply meant that orgasms, both in quantity and variety, were to become the focal point of a cultural project. Orgasms became a must. Obviously, except for doing away with legal barriers (i.e. laws regarding privacy), one cannot grant desire on the formally legal and political level. That is, the law may, for example, stipulate minimum wages, but the law cannot guarantee minimum sexual satisfaction. Desire nevertheless did attain the level of an implicit promise, integral to any form of genuine self-enactment. Such was, and still is perhaps, the cultural project of the post-1945 period. Yet Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires deflates desire in all its permutations, from a cultural and political project on the grand conceptual level, to the minute details of contemporary daily life on the phenomenological level. In short, Houellebecq postulates the impossibility of desire as a generalized cultural project. This polemical roman à thèse describes and analyzes the implosion of the sexual babble. By now we, as Westerners, have a huge investment in our libidinal and desiring selves: we cherish this libidinal babble, as demonstrated by the vehement polemics detonated by the deflationary Les Particules élémentaires. Houellebecq's fictional-essayistic grinder minces through our most cherished beliefs—that happiness equals sexual and romantic satisfaction, that Being equals desiring and becoming the object of desire.4 As a genre, the novel accomplishes its principle task of grinding down to a pulp the very grains of ideological self-understanding to which its readers cling with comic tenacity.5
The Affaire Houellebecq swept through the Parisian cultural landscape. The novel was the best seller of the rentrée and well beyond (250,000 copies sold by June 99 in France and translations by important publishing houses in all major languages). Not only was the novel wide-ranging in its devastating critique of cherished idols, but its ideological grounding was also disorienting. A critique from the right; a critique from the left—these are moves that cultural players understand and therefore discount accordingly. But a player who seemingly mines and undermines all premises at the same time; a player who derides the very sacred grounds upon which all other players carry out their ideological rituals—that constitutes true transgression. And all the more so in France, where the worn discourses of the classical right and left still dominate most public debate. Again, Le Monde's Van Rentherghem, described best this ideological ambiguity:
Inclassable, Houellebecq dérange, divise. Quelle est la “position” de cet écrivain venu de la gauche qui rend hommage tour à tour à Staline et à la “compassion,” aux “cathos traditionalistes” et à l'eugénisme? On lui reproche d'être nihiliste, “déprimiste,” “antihumaniste,” pessimiste. A gauche, on le voit “communiste utopique” (Les Inrockuptibles) ou au contraire “flou,” proche de la pensée d'Alain de Benoist et encensé par la “lepénisation des esprits” (Perpendiculaire). A droite, le livre embarrasse, comme en témoigne le feuilleton contradictoire paru en divers épisodes dans le Figaro: d'abord dénoncé comme “interminable porno-misère,” puis réhabilité comme victime d'un terrorisme intellectuel de gauche.6
To understand the Houellebecq phenomenon requires thinking in fluid and unconventional categories. Inasmuch as their moves are entirely predictable, the awkward pronouncements from left and right pro et contra Houellebecq offer little insight. Yet at least two serious French intellectuals, Alain Finkielkraut and Philippe Sollers, recognized in Les Particules élémentaires a conceptual and esthetic turning point of real value.7 Another article in Le Monde, this time by Frédéric Badré, singles out Houellebecq's novel as being a prime representative of a new tendency in the French novel. The common theme of all these authors (Houellebecq, Darrieussecq, Gran—and I would add Masséra) is the deflation of the regime of desire in a style which is “sans esthétisme, sans pudeur, sans séduction particulièrement artiste.”8 In what follows I will take my cues from Finkielkraut, Sollers and Bardé, leave aside the trivial and purely sectarian aspects of the Affaire, and concentrate on Les Particules élémentaires as a polemical roman à thèse, thereby fleshing out the deeper fracture lines which were at the origin of this polemic. I will proceed from history to metaphysics. That is, from the exterior contingency (the world of objects, sex and public/private selves) to the interior permanence of a given consciousness (ahistorical metaphysics and idiosyncratic religious temperament). I show why and how Houellebecq's combination of cultural critique, science fiction, moral metaphysics and narrative was so potent, to the point of detonating a major Affaire. Beyond that, I suggest that this novel articulates, if awkwardly, a discontinuity in contemporary French fiction. Taken in the context of authors cited above, a new pattern of fiction writing is emerging, and Houellebecq is, if not its best writer, certainly its clearest thinker and therefore its most polemical advocate.
The Houellebecqian inferno of the present is the allegorical story of Michel and Bruno, exemplars of late twentieth-century nihilism and despair played in a minor key—that of the lives of French state functionaries. But, unlike his peers (Darrieuessecq, Gran, Maséra), Houellebecq does not restrict himself to a description, as devastating as it might be, of the inferno of desire. He goes much further in that he puts into motion a Kierkegaardian dialectic whose only outcome could result in the ontological erasure of Homo sapiens and the birth of post-human clones. Structured as a hagiography (the birth, struggle, temptation and finally conversion of a Savior) recounted by a clone-narrator living in 2079 CE, the novel acquires a quasi-religious aura. Simply put, this is a novel about the erasure of humanity as we know it and the creation of a new race of immortal and asexual clones, Homo cybernicus. In Houellebecq, the seventeenth-century French Moraliste meets the nano-cyber-molecular engineer—and the human disappears. But these hagiographic-futuristic-science-fictional elements constitute only the frame within which a concrete phenomenology of the world of French suburban functionaries weaves itself. Though formally a science fictional novel, science fiction plays a very minor role in the narrative itself. Yet the juxtaposition of the banal and the sublime (and really eminent) science fiction can be jarring and therefore effective. Indeed, this combination of phenomenology of the daily, eschatological metaphysics and science fiction is the secret to the success of the narrative.
From the first page, the sinister air of an apocalyptic crisis colors the narrative. Michel, the hero of the novel, leads a life of quiet despair. “Il vécut en des temps malheureux et troublés. … Les sentiments d'amour, de tendresse et de fraternité humaine avaient dans une large mesure disparu; dans leurs rapports mutuels ses contemporains faisaient le plus souvent preuve d'indifférence, voire de cruauté” (PE [Les Particules élémentaires], 9). An impending radical mutation awaits, as if living in the late 1990s the reader belongs to the end of an era, hoping for an insight into a future in which he will have no part. Indeed, from the narrator's point of view, the end of the twentieth century is already the distant past. For the novel tells quite literally the story of the erasure of those miserable and sinful Homo sapiens—us—and our replacement by post-human sentient beings, free of all misery, free of original sin.
To hook his readers, Houellebecq paints disturbing portraits of Michel and Bruno. They are half-brothers, both abandoned by their egotistic and hedonistic mother (a sixties “hippie” of sorts), neglected by their fathers (too absorbed in pleasure and greed); one is brought up by a kind grandmother (Michel), the other in a brutal boarding school (Bruno). For obvious psychological reasons, Michel and Bruno, abandoned sons, are destined for psychological misery. In a partially autobiographical synthesis, Houellebecq repeatedly links the affective misery of their childhood to their respective sense of permanent inadequacy (this psychological determinism is perhaps the weakest part of the novel). Moreover, the perceived duty to exercise the newly-won right of being productive in the libidinal economy could only exacerbate the brothers underlying misery. The gift of sexual liberation bequeathed to Michel and Bruno by their (absent but liberated) parents is for them particularly poisonous.
The space of Les Particules élémentaires is most immediately palpable as the space of the consumer object. This shared familiarity among author-reader-critic resides in the mutual recognition of a universe of objects familiar to all. This explains in part the instant appeal of the novel. The reader takes an almost sadistic pleasure in the minute, yet detached, description of suburban daily routines. Strangely, these neuter descriptions, which avoid the common pitfall of facile lampooning, remind me of the popular Internet phenomena known as the Jennicam, where a permanent hidden camera records all the actions of a perfectly ordinary young woman.9 What are these Internet surfers watching and why are they watching? The answer might be the same for some aspects of Les Particules élémentaires as for the Jennicam. In these banal objects and gestures, the reader of the novel as well as the Internet surfer contemplates his own universe in its objectal nudity. There, in the space between the eye and the spectacle of the absolute banal, we can locate the impulse of the initial identification and transference between the reader and the text, spectator and image. But, again, why is this so fascinating? Perhaps because the contemplation of repetition qua repetition is our latest spectacle! The object per se is the linchpin here—the one secured point of contact between the author, the reader and the text, their sole indubitably shared experience. In the case of Les Particules élémentaires, this fascination resides in the absolute symmetry between the reader and the fictional character. No longer a space of the heroic or the exploratory, the difference between the reader and the fictional character has been reduced to a contemplation of the same by the same. After all, this aesthetic seems to obey a mimetic necessity. If, in fact, we live in a space of the pure consumer object, then let objects—in their shuddering banality—be our privileged objects of identification and transference, mirrors of our refractive egos.
Put differently, Houellebecq's objet banal represents constricted mimetic desire. Instead of a multiplicity of sites where different mimetic possibilities may exist, resulting in many varied experiences of subjectivity, here we come to the ultimate constriction of a mimetic field embodied in global name-brand consumerism. Nike shoes are desired for the same reasons everywhere. Through marketing, global celebrities (e.g. Michael Jordan) become icons for and of collective transference and fantasy, and the objects these celebrities promote become vehicles of collective desire. Without any regard to geographical location or historical experience, all desiring consumers are operating within the same logic, within the same constricted and carefully engineered global mimetic field. It is within this universe that the most easily accessible dimension of the half-brothers' story unfolds.
Michel and Bruno spend their lives in a world where personal space organizes itself around objects bought in various discount outlets: frozen ravioli dinners, cheap wine in six-pack promotions, vacation equipment, gadgets, etc. Each object is precisely described with its price and place of purchase: “[M]ichel sortit de sa poche un appareil photo Canon Prima Mini (zoom rétractable 38-105mm, 1 290 à la FNAC)” (PE, 318); “Juste avant de partir [Bruno] avait acheté une tente igloo à la Samaritaine (fabriquée en Chine populaire, 2 à 3 places, 449 F)” (PE, 123). Then comes the sorting out of junk mail where cruise ships are described as floating utopia (PE, 282-83), followed by the saccharine text of the catalogue 3 Suisses. It reads: “Optimisme, générosité, complicité, harmonie font avancer le monde. DEMAIN SERA FEMININ” (PE, 153).
Though impressive, these detailed descriptions of the quotidian could not in themselves explain the force of the novel. For at least the past thirty-five years descriptions of various Systèmes des objets (Barthes, Baudrillard, Pop Art) abound.10 Yet Houellebecq's consumer objects figure as background components of a violent critique of what he believes to constitute our ultimate myths of liberation and individuation: the myth of love, desire, seduction, writ large, available to all. Or more precisely, the false belief that these erotic experiences can become common, a thread in the fabric of the daily, another conquered territory in the march toward freedom. To the democratic man, so goes the myth, the great orgasm can be as commonly consumed and experienced as a can of Campbell's Soup. Here the narrative moves from the derisive to the disturbing; here the reader's facile identification and transference cease and the anxiety mounts; here the complicit smile turns into a blank stare. This is in fact also where the bonfire of our last hopes—the everlasting increase in the consumption of objects in order to augment our individuality, our desire and ultimately our orgasms—burns down to their elemental particles.
What makes Houellebecq's universe more disturbing than Warhol's or Baudrillard's is above all the lack of any alibi for consumption. Once the motive of an ever-increasing individuation through desire is absent or becomes debunked, all alibis for frenetic individuation disappear. Desire no longer justifies. That is precisely the origin of Houellebecq's disturbing effect on his readers and critics. Having this very alibi pulled from under our feet, we become unhinged. Take Michel, for instance. Floating in his life capsule, consumer objects do not justify themselves in any regime of sense. No longer a means to attain an end (as instruments in the maximization of freedom, individuation, and pleasure) these objects obey their own nihilistic logic, namely, being what they are for no other purpose except that of their consumption and disposal. These floating objects are not inscribed in Michel's life in any narrative which transcends their pure banality. Michel lives alone, experiences no erotic desire, exists purely as a thinking and consuming monad. His only social interactions are with his brother, occasionally, and with the local Monoprix checkout clerks. When he is alone, he drinks himself into oblivion. An internationally recognized molecular biologist, this forty-year-old lives only in his work, forsaking all forms of community, save for strictly cordial relations with his laboratory colleagues, his caged white canary who greets him every night and for daily forays into scientific Internet sites. Michel embodies in fact the archetypal hero described in Houellebecq's first published essay: “Les héros [of a certain fantastic genre] se dépouillent de toute vie, renoncent à toute joie humaine, deviennent purs intellects, purs esprits tendus vers un seul but: la recherche de la connaissance.”11
The clone who narrates this hagiography is categorical about Michel's sexuality: in the libidinal economy, he is unemployed—worse, he is homeless and so chronically depressed that, save for a passing fantasy, he has lost all desire. In Houellebecqian terms Michel forms part of the permanent sexual underclass: “sa bite lui servait à pisser, et c'est tout” (PE, 28). With Michel we know that we are definitively at the end of an era. Don Quixote and to a lesser extent Madame Bovary lived in a fictional world where every sign and object was highly invested with individuating potential. Functioning as the dynamos of the narrative, asymmetries abound between perception, imagination and desire. But in Les Particules élémentaires, we have the story of the Last Man who desires nothing except his own ontological erasure. Michel's life before his conversion experience is perhaps a representation of that zero through which being must pass to mutate itself; Michel's life embodies that almost completely neutral zero value through which one must pass from the negative to the positive.12 With Michel as an allegory, a regime of sense and desire ends, and there emerges the possibility of a new post-human regime.
If Michel gives up on individuation through desire and satisfaction, his brother Bruno seems to have invested himself completely in individuation through sex. Thus, Houellebecq plays Michel off Bruno, opposing the monk to the satyr, which allows him a great deal of tonal staccato in the narrative. But this latter-day satyr is anything but an alpha male, a Don Juan, a satisfied lover. Though a satyr in his behavior and fantasies, Bruno is driven by this quest for satisfaction to clinical insanity. Abandoned by his mother, frozen in his relations to his father, sexually abused in the most vicious manner by roommates in his high school dormitories, obsessed by the modest size of his penis, Bruno is also a loser in the libidinal economy. His destiny is masturbation; his fantasies are masochistic; his hopes for true satisfaction nil. Houellebecq describes this high school teacher masturbating throughout his life, in all places, always with the secret hope of being discovered and humiliated. The fantasy of shame and abasement plays itself out endlessly. In one of the more comic and disturbing chapters in the novel, Bruno takes a two-week vacation at a New Age camping site. There he spends his time at various workshops such as “sensitive gestalmassage, libération de la voix et rebirth en eau chaude, etc.” (PE, 141, italics in original), but he is really most interested in peeping at showering thirteen-year-old girls.
De retour à sa tente il se servit un whisky et se branla doucement en feuilletant Swing Magazine, “le droit au plaisir”; … Il n'envisageait pas réellement de répondre à ces différentes annonces; il ne se sentait pas à la hauteur d'un gang bang ou une douche de sperme. … Pour réellement parvenir à s'infiltrer dans le réseau porno, il avait une trop petite queue.
Unlike his liberated mother and father, Bruno experiences the rituals of sexual liberation not as a participant, but as a voyeur hoping to be humiliated and punished. To the chagrin of some of his readers and critics, Houellebecq paints a graphic and repetitive picture of Bruno's obsessive masturbation at every stage in his life and in a variety of public places. The biographical and psychological etiology of Bruno's psychopathology are of little importance in the context of this analysis. What is important, however, is the opportunity that this theme offers Houellebecq to undermine the modern dream of integrating sexuality into the regime of liberty. For Houellebecq, sexuality remains resistant to the logic of marketing redistribution (i.e. democratization), operating within the logic of a liberalized libidinal economy. In sum, economic and political freedom cannot be extended to sexuality.
Such was indeed the principle theme of L'Extension du domaine de la lutte, Houellebecq's earlier novel which was turned into a movie in 1999.13 A parody of 1980s French corporate culture recounting the utter social and sexual misery of a software engineer, this modest work has already attained in France the rank of a cult novel—“L'Etranger for the information generation” hails the cover of the English translation of the novel. Houellebecq's main thesis in this novel is the disturbing analogy between classical liberal economics and contemporary sexuality:
Tout comme le libéralisme économique … le libéralisme sexuel produit des effets de paupérisation absolue. Certains font l'amour tous les jours; d'autre cinq ou six fois dans leur vie, ou jamais. Certains font l'amour avec des dizaines de femmes; d'autres avec aucune. C'est ce qu'on appelle la “loi du marché.” Dans un système économique où le licenciement est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver sa place. Dans un système sexuel où l'adultère est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver son compagnon de lit. En système économique parfaitement libéral, certains accumulent des fortunes considérables; d'autres croupissent dans le chômage et la misère. En système sexuel parfaitement libéral, certains ont une vie érotique variée et excitante; d'autres sont réduits à la masturbation et la solitude.14
In short, the extension of liberty to sexuality is poisonous, for the more you extend liberty, the more you risk and eventually lose. At a certain point you must limit its extension. Within the idiosyncratic brew of Colbertiste, Gallic and Marxist understanding of (Anglo-Saxon) economic and social liberalism, liberty must necessarily lead to fundamentally agonistic modes of interaction; it creates few winners and many losers. This first novel then contains the Houellebecqian sociohistorical argument in its embryonic state: (1) liberty equals increased competition, (2) when extended to sexuality, competition equals increasing violence, (3) violence equals accelerated differentiation among winners and losers—to the detriment of the great majority. In economics as in sex, free competition (“libéralisme”) must thus necessarily bring about the pauperization and alienation of the majority. Consequently, “libéralisme sexuel” returns the late twentieth century to the baboon state: it is the winner-take-all world of the alpha male, which in Houellebecq's world is the Dionysian male rock and roll star. Furthermore, the underlying question implicitly reiterated in virtually every page of L'Extension du domaine de la lutte is this: is there any limit to the diminished returns (to the sexual majority) in the extension of liberty? In the apparent absence of such a limitation, all we can look forward to is the acceleration of agon, accomplished by the fleshing out of areas at present free of market competition (family, religion, leisure, etc.). According to Houellebecq, this infinite extension of economic logic to the private domain, heretofore immune from it, has already brought about the erasure of all zones of private activities free from the violence of economic and consumer logic. There can no longer be two parallel arenas of individuation, the one economic and public, the other, affective and private. “Libéralisme,” therefore, brings back to human life the all-pervasive agonistic modality of the natural state, of ambient violence; it is in harmony with nature qua aggression (that is, individuation through aggression), whence, perhaps, its power and appeal. Violent and evolutionarily rational, the end of history would resemble, then, its violent beginning. Beginnings and endings telescope into each other in the figure of the hierarchical baboon (cave man to Mick Jagger—and back). The circle is fully drawn; an impasse dawns. To advance, only a radical rupture will suffice.
This argument can seem all too familiar, having currency within the discourses of both progressive and conservative points of view in that both certain conservatives and liberals suggest that libidinal global capitalism (from Benetton to hard-core pornography) represents moral threats of various kinds. Yet Houellebecq's narrative explores these ideas in a more metaphysical and provocative mode, thereby going well beyond standard historical and sociological arguments. As we shall now see, the narrative collapses the distinction between private and public selves; it establishes a necessary link between sexual liberation and violence; it locates the root of the problem in human nature.
THE SINGLE DOMAIN
Repeatedly Houellebecq makes the claim that the distinction between public and private selves no longer holds, and that in this new érotico-publicitaire economy, where the desire of every agent is engineered by Eros-driven marketing, private and public selves could hardly constitute distinct universes with distinguishable logics. On the one hand, market economics, ruled by supply/demand equations, “attractiveness, novelty and price/quality ratios” form the dominant logic underlying virtually all public and economic transactions.15 On the other, an affective system, independent of the public and economic market, as it were, operating according to private and intimate individual taste, idiosyncratic and hence apparently free of determinism, constitutes the private and erotic self. These two fields of action, however, are not insulated compartments. If purely objective criteria, operating within a competitive environment, form the economic sphere, then these same criteria and this same environment also sooner or later percolates down to the personal. This is the case since every detail of the private and personal occupies a place within an erotico-consumer sphere: shape of the body, smell of the body; each detail is labeled and thus the whole fabric of the personal becomes integrated into the generalized economy driven by erotic marketing. Collapsing in this manner the productive self and the romantic self into a single category, Houellebecq telescopes all activities into a single field of action, all obeying more or less the same rules.
Actuellement, nous nous déplaçons dans un système à deux dimensions: l'attractivité érotique et l'argent. Le reste, le bonheur et le malheur des gens, en découle. … nous vivons dans une société simple, dont ces quelques phrases suffisent à donner une description complète.16
The individual self, which in modernity has always been distinct from the collective, becomes here generic and serial, oscillating exclusively between eroticism and money. No longer in opposition to the world, it is continuous with it since the dialectic between the interior and the exterior, between the individual and the collective, slowly disappears. As if dialed into the ruthless digital economy, to the érotico-publicitaire machine which devours him, the self has once and for all lost the tension between being and appearance. The fate of the subject in the érotico-publicitaire society is to identify with the ideal that devours him. Once capitalism and globalization have done away with religion, family and nation, there no longer remains a space where counter-practices could successfully survive. The only grounding for Being and being, to use the Heideggerian distinction here, is the market—the capital market as well as the flesh market.
This telescoping of the private and public places Les Particules élémentaires outside the logic of the romanesque comedy of the authentic and the inauthentic, still the dynamo of most romanesque production up to the romantic and existential novels. To understand this environment, which Houellebecq aptly names the post-1968 érotico-publicitaire, is to recognize underneath its sleek appearance the thinly disguised baboon-like hierarchies and symbolic violence. Beneath the cool and democratic surface there awaits for all desiring subjects a cruel battlefield where, by definition, the vast majority is reduced either to the role of spectators (celebrity cult) and/or to the role of permanent paupers. It is a winner-take-all world, inhabited by a few alpha winners and a multitude of omega losers. Indeed, Michel and Bruno, the two paupers in the libidinal economy, two omega losers in the world of desire and satisfaction, clearly recognize their omega status. But their recognition takes different forms. While Michel completely withdraws from the libidinal, Bruno glues himself to the libidinal, only to reconfirm repeatedly its refractive and ultimately resistant nature.
If the libidinal has proven to be so resistant to conquest and long-lasting possession, it is because in it—in the erotic and the sexual—the Western will has found its most unnerving opponent. Put simply, the classical metaphysics of the scientific and democratic project revolve around a set of assumptions about the relationship between knowledge and action. To know is to take hold of something, and once a known thing is held, it yields to the will of the thinking subject.17 Thomas Mann's rationalist, Settembrini, formulated this perfectly: “Human reason needs only to will more strongly than fate, and it is fate” (italics in the original).18 Knowing, handling, controlling, explaining, predicting: all these concepts have been extremely productive in the conquest of nature, except for sexuality. The idea that once the scientist lifts the veil of ignorance from the face of Eros, its secrets will reveal themselves, and, therefore, erotic experience could become common currency—this was indeed the modern delusion concerning sexuality.19 Armed with method and knowledge (i.e, psychoanalysis, the Masters and Johnson report), the individual would free himself from prior constraint, would no longer be “superstitious,” “neurotic.” Beyond the horizon of knowledge lay the promised land of orgasmic bliss. Here, we come to the heart of Houellebecq's critique of the “mechanical” understanding of liberty, especially where liberty's dominion extends to sexuality, where desire becomes another step in the (almost finalized) march toward complete autonomy.
La croyance, fondement naturel de la démocratie, d'une détermination libre et raisonnée des actions humaines, et en particulier d'une détermination libre et raisonnée des choix politiques individuels, était probablement le résultat d'une confusion entre liberté et imprévisibilité. Les turbulences d'un flot liquide au voisinage d'une pile de pont sont structurellement imprévisibles; nul n'aurait songé pour autant à les qualifier de libres.
(PE, 280, my emphasis)
Considering the problem of sexuality, the democratic-scientific fallacy consisted in making a categorical mistake, based on false analogy: “Dernier mythe de l'occident, le sexe était une chose à faire; une chose possible, une chose à faire” (PE, 164), which would have been analogous to “la géometrie était une chose à faire,” or “le système monétaire sera une chose à faire.” Whereas a democratic conception of liberty in almost all other domains would be compatible with the “knowing-seizing-controlling” model of knowledge, with sexuality, Houellebecq argues that the idea of complete freedom based on knowledge and dominion is illusory. The implicit analogies between the knowledge of natural phenomena and the knowledge of sexuality were a categorical delusion to which, curiously enough, our contemporaries still cling with great, and perhaps comic, tenacity.20 Even if one knows everything about sexuality, this knowledge does not translate into mastery. Sexuality can never be mastered. Its boundaries may be mapped, its possibilities enumerated, its field, as it were, outlined, but never shall it escape the gravitational pull of human constraints—hierarchies, domination, submission, violent differentiation, symbolic negotiations.
Houellebecq's example of the movement of water molecules at a given time-space instance is indeed illuminating, for it points toward a different conception of liberty. Within a well-defined set of possibilities, certain movements may occur; they are neither strictly predictable, nor are they free from constraint. They are neither self-determining, nor self-enacting, nor autonomous. But also, and most importantly, they are also not strictly determined. The molecules are “free” to move about randomly within a certain time-space configuration, but they cannot take off to the moon. Similarly, sexuality and eroticism inhabit a field whose boundaries are marked by hierarchies, domination, submission, violent differentiation, symbolic negotiations. And within this field there is much room for variety. Yet its boundaries form a constraint that the thinking will cannot overcome. It is not simply the ideational overcoming of the Fear of Flying which will liberate you from the gravity of the sexual (inhibitions and taboos motivated by evolution), in the way that science defeats gravity. There is something intransitive in the relation between mechanical and quantum logics, and the resulting confusion is a categorical mistake of dire consequences. In other words, sex is and is not at the same time a function of the will (an aspect of nurturing); it is knowable and mysterious, simultaneously. This is how and why sexuality became entangled with the “mechanical” metaphysics of the democratic will.
The crisis of desire points us toward the limit of the will. The democratic right cannot be extended to the realm of desire. Economic and political drives are amenable to legal and social mechanisms that can keep them in check. Yet this liberal logic is not transferable to sexuality. Once sex becomes “'accessible and right,” pursued for its own ends without any legal or medical danger, the violent dialectic that it unleashes is not easily amenable to constraints. Whereas liberalism was and is successful in creating wealth exponentially over a long period of time, the sexual revolution did not create an exponential increase in orgasms. In fact, it only exacerbated the underlying misery which sexuality represents for most people. This is why Houellebecq contends that the tragic onset of AIDS can be viewed as a relief, at least to the heterosexual and homosexual paupers, since the fear of AIDS gave one the perfect rational alibi to exit the unbearable regime of desire. Circa 1985, not being a libidinal success all of a sudden loses its stigma and becomes a tacit, but real, norm.21
THE GROSS MISCALCULATION OF THE BRAVE NEW WORLD
If indeed the late nineties represents a period of a grand ideological malaise, it is because the successive sexual liberations of the post WWII period have exacted a frightful price. Certainly, there is today much more formal liberty in virtually all domains, but Houellebecq insists that these liberties just bring into relief our generalized anxiety and feeling of inadequacy, at least for the omega majority. After all, liberal freedom means the freedom to fail, including failing at sex—an altogether unacceptable proposition for Houellebecq. This prognosis lies at the heart of Houellebecq's systematic derision of the sexual liberation of the last three decades. We surely possess at present more sexual freedom than ever before, but, paradoxically, we also endure proportionally more sexual misery than ever. Misery is a function of freedom (to fail), a function of the very thought that happiness is at hand, yet never quite realized. Michel and Bruno, as well as most characters in the novel, are formally free to participate in the great orgy, except that they are all too neurotic, too small, too poor or too old to ever be invited. Their liberation exists mostly in the domain of the formally possible and permissible, not in the domain of practice. In fact, the alpha's apparent liberation only serves to highlight the omega's hopelessness. Confronted by the possibility of fulfillment, the “inadequate” suffer from the absence of sustained libidinal fulfillment (the érotico-publicitaire ideal). For most, then, sexual liberation does not lead to satisfaction, but rather to a more acute consciousness of inadequacy. “Notre malheur n'atteint son plus haut point que lorsque a été envisagé, suffisamment proche, la possibilité pratique du bonheur” (PE, 306). This is a feature of most liberations: scientific atheism led to an acute awareness of the obscurity and the absence of god (Pascal, Sade) rather than to a metaphysical reconciliation with the world. In other words, “liberations” rarely create a positive space. Instead, rather than having been exorcised once and for all, the archaic demons lurk in the background, repressed and latent, only to resurface sporadically as symptoms. The resurfacing of repressed material is a form of hysteria which germinates at the revolution's heart.
And this repressed material is the potential violence that is latent in sexuality, and especially in a sexual liberation. This is precisely what a sexual liberation prophet like Aldous Huxley did not recognize in the dialectic of emancipation. Naïve and optimistic, Huxley grossly miscalculated the dialectic between sex, individuation and narcissism. In an intense conversation with Bruno about Huxley, Michel asserts the following:
L'erreur d'Huxley est d'avoir mal évalué le rapport de forces entre ces deux conséquences. Spécifiquement, son erreur est d'avoir sous-estimé l'augmentation de l'individualisme produite par une conscience accrue de la mort. De l'individualisme naissent la liberté, la sensation du moi, le besoin de se distinguer et d'être supérieur aux autres. … Huxley oublie de tenir compte de l'individualisme. Il n'a pas su comprendre que le sexe, une fois dissocié de la procréation, subsiste moins comme principe de plaisir que comme principe de différenciation narcissique; il en est de même du désir de richesse.
Huxley's naiveté consists in believing that liberation depends on clearing out, by some smart social engineering, obstacles such as family neurosis and religious taboos. Once identified, these purely constructed and contingent obstacles become known, and therefore subject to modification or erasure, clearing the way to emancipation and happiness. For Houellebecq, on the other hand, the world of sexuality, taboos and transgression belongs to a given and almost immutable human nature which resists the “knowing-seizing-controlling” model of knowledge and action. You cannot know and modify sexuality in the way that you know and modify other natural phenomena.
But there is much more here. When sexuality is at stake, the combination of knowledge and its individuating potential, otherwise known as liberty, often degenerates into pure violence. Houellebecq here is obviously a keen reader of Sade. He understands that individualism, fueled by the consciousness of death, gives birth to erotic liberty, the space of narcissistic monstrosity. That is, erotic liberty leads to an exponential increase in the opportunity to individuate along narcissistic lines with violence always lurking at the end of the road. “[Huxley] n'a pas su comprendre que le sexe, une fois dissocié de la procréation, subsiste moins comme principe de plaisir que comme principe de différentiation narcissique; il en est de même du désir de richesse” (PE, 200). The insurmountable obstacle of any Utopia is the Ego, the Will to Power, fallen appetites. At the heart of desire, the Augustinian would say, is always the will to dominate and eventually harm, the libido dominandi; even for the young infant, let alone for the mature adult.22 Since what is ultimately sought in pure desire is not pleasure but narcissistic domination, naked aggression emerges as taboos fall away and transgression becomes the norm.
Un basculement subtil et définitif s'était produit dans la société occidentale en 1974-1975, se dit Bruno. … Ces années … les sociétés occidentales basculaient vers quelque chose de sombre. En cet été 1976, il était déjà évident que tout cela allait très mal finir. La violence physique, manifestation la plus parfaite de l'individuation, allait réapparaître en Occident à la suite du désir.
(PE, 192, my emphasis)
The culture of desire becomes violent as the Summer of Love degenerates into a Sadean orgy; the wisp of love vanishing in the crack of the whip. As the threshold for pleasure elevates and the thirst for power though pleasure, and pleasure through power, deepens, Eros cedes to Thanatos—such is the ruthless logic of hyper-individuation. It was true for Sade; it is true for Houellebecq. Such is also the reiterated lesson we are to take away from one of the major subplots of the novel concerning the allegorical biography of the di Meola family.
Francisco di Meola is a leader of the flower children in California; late in life he decides to die in France. A beautiful physical specimen, this son of an Italian immigrant becomes a guru to the Beat generation, the Hippies and then the so-called New Age. His singular claim to fame is a short meeting with the dying Aldous Huxley. Di Meola seduces Catherine (a plastic surgeon), who also happens to be Michel and Bruno's mother. She promptly divorces, abandons her sons and moves into De Meola's Big Sur compound. To be sure, Di Meola comes off as charming enough. He is a handsome charlatan, mostly limiting himself to endless drug use, the seduction of East Coast teenage puritans in search of “IT.” His son, David di Meola, is also physically perfect, rich and virile. Like his father, David seduces women in droves, including Anabelle, who is Michel's high school sweetheart, a virgin up to that point and Michel's first, last and only amorous interest. David's desires soon expand beyond conventional sexual gratification. He moves to Southern California and becomes involved in heavy sadomasochism, thinly veiled as “satanic” ritual. Things degenerate quickly. Soon sadomasochism transgresses fantasy play, and David di Meola finally realizes his celluloid dream; only it is not as a Hollywood actor-rock-star, but as the sadistic protagonist of snuff movies. By the time the state of California indicts him for multiple murders and torture, he has produced and acted in a number of these films in which multiple victims bleed to death on camera. David has made sure his face figures prominently at the worst moments of the video. At last, he too is a star, of sorts.
As the Di Meolas's story illustrates, liberation of the libido devours its own protagonists, even in the case of the most dominant and violent of the alpha males. Accelerated differentiation within the parameters of desire's truth brings about a pagan holocaust of being. Again, this was all in Sade, but Houellebecq succeeds in an historical reiteration of the Sadean algorithm. The Sadean “truth of desire” weaves itself now within the sinuous discourse of the liberal and democratic érotico-publicitaire, rather than within the deconstruction of the discourse of Enlightenment.23 The net results, however, remain the same.
If the di Meola subplot brings into relief the “hard” version of post-1945 libido, its “softer” version, experienced by the average reader and critic, might perhaps be more disturbing. “Le désir sexuel se porte essentiellement sur les corps jeunes, et l'investissement progressif du champ de la séduction par les très jeunes filles ne fut au fond qu'un retour à la normale, un retour à la vérité du désir analogue à ce retour à la vérité des prix qui suit une surchauffe boursière anormale” (PE, 133). If you create a cult of the body, of its strength, beauty, suppleness; if the body constitutes your ultimate measure, time condemns you to self-loathing. “Dans un monde qui ne respecte que la jeunesse, les êtres sont peu à peu dévorés” (PE, 139). Devoured are the beings who worship the body, for the flesh ages, regardless of the efforts of plastic surgeons (Michel's parents). To accentuate the scorn visited upon older women, Houellebecq draws minute physiological descriptions of the subdermal tissue degradation of the vagina and the breasts. The pedophilic Bruno genuinely wants to love Christianne; but at the view of her aging vagina, his contempt and loathing are unmistakable. Satiated after a number of encounters in the same evening, Christianne tells Bruno: “J'ai bien vu tout à l'heure que tu n'étais pas vraiment attiré par ma chatte; c'est déjà un peu la chatte d'une vieille femme” (PE, 199). Christianne, this forty-five-year-old teacher, can never measure up to the adolescents Bruno has been ogling in the public showers. Taken to its ultimate aesthetic and logical consequence, desire reverts naturally to pedophilia, witness the Calvin Klein advertising campaigns. To the middle-aged single woman only a destiny of masturbation and loneliness and self-loathing remains. Christianne says, “A partir d'un certain age, une femme a toujours la possibilité de se frotter contre des bites; mais elle n'a plus jamais la possibilité d'être aimée. Les hommes sont ainsi, voilà tout” (PE, 176). Time necessarily marches on, and all that ages becomes its victim. Such is the fate of the cult of youth. Moreover, even winners in the youth culture, like Michel's first love Anabelle, are shortly condemned to the same miserable fate, not of death which is inscribed in our nature, but of increasing despair over sexual invisibility. And for us, late twentieth-century consumers, sexual and ontological invisibility are one, for to be is to be seen and desired. The cult of youth is a pitiless cul de sac: you lose, you lose; you win, you eventually lose. Such is the truth of the body through time, if its sole value resides in youth and beauty. In the final analysis, the will cannot defeat time.
What is common to both the hard and soft versions of Desire is their affinity to natural categories. Aggression in the hard version finds its home in the pure instinct of the animal, in the logic of primate survival through domination or submission. Youth and beauty, in the softer version, are natural traits, markers for reproductive fitness. Houellebecq exhibits a double, ambivalent attitude toward the natural: he describes it perfectly well in the manner of hard-core materialist anthropology and, at the same time, he openly disdains nature in the manner of classical Christian anthropology.
But let us return to the fate of desire. What a perplexing and disturbing turn of phrase—“La vérité du désir”! Houellebecq's analogy with the stock market overheating and then returning to a “truer” valuation may prove effective. The “overheating” is the rhetorical promise of a Huxley or a Mead, that once liberated, the knowledge and exercise of pure desire would cure generalized neurosis! (Notice that Freud never shared such optimism.24) At this point in the cycle, investors heavily discount the promised returns on “happiness and health”; it is the cycle's “bloom on the flower” moment. But once the rhetorical bubble deflates and the promised happiness and health do not materialize, desire's true value reveals itself. Left freely to its own dynamic, pure desire concentrates on adolescents and is exercised by the powerful in an increasingly savage manner. Such is the slide from Saul to David; from Augustus to Tiberius to Caligula; such is the slide from Rousseau's “sentiment” and soft masochism to Sade's derision and inversion of it.25 Should some doubts linger about this “truth of desire,” a quick study of current exotic sexual tourism, for example, would cure all illusions and willful delusions. The only difference from ancient times (i.e. Tiberius in Capri) is that, like most other activities, sexual tourism has become democratic, accessible to all Western tourists in poor countries.
Faced with this truth of desire, we cannot but confront, once and for all, the most disturbing of Houellebecq's deconstructions. That we live in a world of object—that we can somehow accept and neutralize in our minds; that all mimetic desire is constrained within the parameters of “le système des objets”—idem; but that the entire regime of desire be emptied of its salvatory teleology—the last hope for individual secular salvation!—that is simply unacceptable sacrilege. Considering our massive investment in the Romance, not merely the Romance as a literary construct, but as a serious theology of the daily, as the supposed fabric of life, it is easy to understand the resistance to Les Particules élémentaires.26 All our modern narratives bespeak of this desire of desire. Houellebecq does to post-industrial urban desire what Flaubert did to the desire of the wide-eyed bored country housewife. And its deflation is precisely the scandal. If desire no longer justifies being, then the last transcendental grounding of the modern individual has been pulled out from under his feet. Within the logic of the regime of desire, the alibi for action is univocal: I undertake such and such action because I want to be happy, that is, to be desired and desiring. The deflationary power of the novel consists precisely in undermining this often unquestioned grounding for action.
This undermining of the ideology of desire in Houellebecq takes a decisive metaphysical turn. His arguments reach well beyond the standard parameters of cultural criticism. I suppose that this also explains the appeal of Houellebecq for the French reading public and the reason why his particular form of criticism became such a subject of public debate. In reading Houellebecq, you know that you are, at heart, in the presence of a Moraliste of the French Augustinian variety (Arnault, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld). His is the infernal lucidity of a thinker who has thought through his subject, and who cannot shake off his insights, for better or worse. A close reading of Houellebecq's first book on H. P. Lovecraft, the early twentieth century American mystery/horror writer, [H. P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie] places the polemics and the tone of Les Particules élémentaires in their proper universe of metaphysical affinities. This critical essay reveals Houellebecq's modality of radical negation, if not outright contempt and hatred for the world. These “phobies Lovecraftiennes,” phobias of everything but his most intimate family space, constitute indeed the background radiation, as it were, to the Houellebecqian world view:
Aujourd'hui plus que jamais, nous pouvons faire notre cette déclaration de principe qui ouvre Arthur Jermyn: “La vie est une chose hideuse; et à l'arrière-plan, derrière ce que nous en savons, apparaissent les lueurs d'une vérité démoniaque qui nous la rendent mille fois plus hideuse.
(Lovecraft [H. P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie], 16)
Thus aggressively and openly Houellebecq appropriates Lovecraft's principle: life is hateful, and at the edge of what we perceive there lies the dark and hollow vortex of evil, the progressive consciousness of which renders life exponentially more hideous. Uncovering and representing this “vérité démoniaque” which lies on the surface of the banal, quotidian, here and now—such is also the ambition of Les Particules élémentaires. Beneath the appearance of normalcy lies a horror story; not the bone-chilling tale of the fantastic genre in Lovecraft, but, instead, the horror and absolute anguish of the here and now.
In fact, all the leitmotifs which are evident in Houellebecq's subsequent novels, interviews and poetry (the misery and comedy of sex, the evilness of existence per se, a generalized eschatology, the apocalyptic desire to destroy in order to purify), already exist in his first published critical essay on Lovecraft (1991). Houellebecq's essay is clear about the extent to which this tragic negation authorizes the narrative, grounds virtually all the arguments, generates the very mood of his subsequent novels, poetry and essays. “Une âme lasse de la vie”—this is the subjective, temperamental point of departure; perhaps independent of any particular historical circumstance.27
In his more recent collection of essays and interviews, Houellebecq echoes his tragic view of life:
Avant tout, je crois, l'intuition que l'univers est basé sur la séparation, la souffrance et le mal; la décision de décrire cet état de choses, et peut-être de le dépasser. … L'acte initial c'est le refus radical du monde tel quel; c'est aussi l'adhésion aux notions du bien et du mal.28
Notice that no historical argument makes sense of this statement. Nor is it explicable in psychological terms. “La séparation, la souffrance et le mal” here do not correspond in tone to the infantile drama of being separated from the mother, forced to individuate by an authoritarian father (Proust). It is, rather—to use the standard existentialist vocabulary—a statement about the relationship between being and existence; the experience of being thrown into the world and despising it. A negation across the board of all aspects of the human mess—such is the primary postulate generating the whole logic and narrative of the novel. To negate experience per se is to become “phobic” about it, precisely the vocabulary Houellebecq employs when describing Lovecraft's misanthropic phobias. The phobic vomits the world. Not a world, but the world.
Furthermore, Houellebecq's affinities with Lovecraft go even deeper than the generic penchant toward the negation of phenomena by pure thought. They share, in fact, the same modality of negation, the identical thematic transposition, as it were. Without ever naming itself, their contemptus mundi coupled with apocalyptic teleologies flow from a common Christian source. In a flash of introspective insight, Houellebecq comments on one of Lovecraft's apocalyptic passages: “Ce texte n'est rien d'autre qu'une effrayante paraphrase de saint Paul” (Lovecraft, 122). Why not assert the same transposition about Houellebecq?
I would contend that, with their latent Pauline themes, the writings of Houellebecq constitute an extended commentary on Pascal's assertion “Que le Moi est haïssable.” What we have here, then, is a very sophisticated grafting of the Pauline and Pascalian anthropology onto the social and cultural fabric of late twentieth-century France. This must surely be one reason why Houellebecq resonates so strongly with many readers, even if they cannot consciously articulate the connection between his latent metaphysics, Christian thematics and the reader's partial affinity to this type of Augustinian contemptus mundi. The Moralistes constitute, after all, one of the most important pillars of the French intellectual and literary tradition.
Put simply, there are but two alternatives. Either you bear your sinfulness and live in full consciousness of it by assuming the full consequences of “la séparation, la souffrance et le mal” (Pascalian option) or you negate it by pure volition (Sadian option). Abstain or destroy (and be destroyed, enslave and be enslaved). Houellebecq's logic, in the final analysis, resembles the broken dialectic of the Either/Or variety.29
If this Either/Or is true, then we are condemned to choose between two bleak options: repression (the Pauline regime) or self-destruction (the Sadean regime) and nothing in between. To the extent that Michel abstains from sex and triumphs as a scientist while Bruno destroys and self-destructs in the vortex of late twentieth-century desire, the two main protagonists in Les Particules élémentaires embody and then play out these options. I suppose that at some level Houellebecq recognizes that this Kierkegaardian dialectic is simply unsustainable, if for no other reason than that without faith (which Houellebecq lacks) this dialectic becomes truly broken, infernal. In other words, we face here a hard impasse, rendered all the more difficult by Houellebecq's denial both of a possibility of recovering an “unbroken” past and his denial of the possibility of constructing an ameliorated future. Regressive nostalgia or progressive utopias no longer exist as viable options. These discourses and metaphysics have entirely exhausted themselves. If there is to be a breakthrough, it will be apocalyptic or not at all. Incorrigible Homo sapiens will have to cede to a race of man-made clones, the Homines cybernici.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
True to the universal archetype of the savior narrative, Michel will go to the desert (a remote scientific laboratory in Ireland), purify himself, recognize and know the truth, and return to save the world. Literally the Angel (of science), Michael will bring about “l'élément le plus nécessaire à la reconstruction d'une humanité réconciliée” (PE, 390). Product of a totally artificial, and therefore stable, cyber-genetic engineering, the Homo cybernicus represents a radical discontinuity in history. The clones, which we can already envisage today (e.g. nano technology), will replace their makers—us. Homo sapiens will become dispensable and then extinct (The Matrix). Like Christians breaking away from pagans, and like Renaissance Materialists breaking away from Christians, this science-fictional new breed will supercede all previous forms of humanity. This new life will be free from the infantile obsession with ontology (“Le besoin d'ontologie était-il une maladie infantile de l'esprit humain?” [PE, 373]) and free from the moi haïssable of the aggressively narcissistic Homo sapiens. The following poem, near the end of the novel, describes the state of mind of the embedded narrator, a Homo cybernicus, living in the true Brave New World, circa 2075 CE. Comparing himself to the early Christians and the Materialists of the modern era, he proclaims:
De même, nous pouvons aujourd'hui écouter cette Histoire de l'ère matérialiste Comme une vieille histoire humaine. C'est une histoire triste, et pourtant nous ne serons Même pas réellement tristes Car nous ne ressemblons plus à ces hommes. Nés de leur chair et de leurs désirs, nous avons Rejeté leurs catégories et leurs appartenances Nous ne connaissons pas leurs joies, nous ne Connaissons pas non plus leurs souffrances, Nous avons écarté Avec indifférence Et sans aucun effort Leur univers de mort.
Thus, the morbid broken dialectic of the Materialists results in the annihilation of misery and the creation of the reconciled Homo cybernicus—perhaps a God-like incarnation. After having mercilessly debunked desire, modernity's last foray into autonomy, Les Particules élémentaires postulates the seemingly unthinkable. Such is the perennial flavor of eschatology, for it foresees the erasure of its bearer as well as his witnesses.
To understand the impact of Les Particules élémentaires in France it would be best to analogize this novel to a number of American films. Within a single narrative, Les Particules élémentaires encapsulates the disturbing post-1968 chilling horror of A Clockwork Orange, the porno-violence of 8mm, the nihilism and despair of American Beauty and the horrifying science fiction of The Matrix. All these threads are woven into a gripping psychological novel, a social critique and a disturbing science fiction, laced throughout with the language of a classical French Moraliste. Regardless of how receptive or hostile its readers and critics were, such a lethal brew necessarily had to detonate the theatrical Gallic Affaire—L'Affaire Houellebecq.
If anything, Houellebecq clearly articulates the syntax, that is, the generalized articulation, of a consciousness already implicit in a number of contemporary French fiction authors. The novel represents a moment where what is already in the air finds its crystallization in a single narrative. The texts of his contemporaries, a Darrieussecq or a Gran, consist of minutely working through the semantics of this rupture.30 Shying away from all polemical abstraction, and limiting themselves to a fantastic phenomenology of the banal and the private, they articulate in a more poetically and fictionally convincing manner the Houellebecquian inferno of the present. But syntax is more menacing than semantics. And that is why it was Houellebecq and not Darrieussecq or Gran who unnerved a cultural scene that has become all too comfortable with its own ideology, with peripheral Ciceronian skirmishes within a little contested doxa.
Michel Houellebecq, Renaissance (Paris: Flammarion, 1999), 56.
Michel Houellebecq, Les Particules élémentaires (Paris: Flammarion, 1998), henceforth PE.
Marion Van Renterghem, “Le Procès Houellebecq,” Le Monde, Sunday, 8 Nov. 1998. A complete and up-to-date bibliography of Houellebecq criticism can be found at Le Site des Amis de Michel Houellebecq.
This same point, that happiness equals sexual satisfaction, especially within Freudian thought, is made clear in a recent extensive review essay by John Updike, about David Allyn's Make Love not War, The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (New York: Little, Brown, 2000), in The New Yorker, Feb. 21-28 2000, 280-290.
I am thinking here in particular about Robert Alter's concept of the novel in “The Mirror of Knighthood and the World of Mirrors,” reprinted in Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (New York: A Norton Critical Edition, 1981), 955-974.
Marion Van Renterghem, “Le Procès Houellebecq.”
Alan Finkielkraut, weekly radio program, Répliques, France Culture, Nov. 1998 and Sept 1999. Philippe Sollers's position on Houellebecq is discussed during the November, 1998 program.
Badré, Frédéric, “Une Nouvelle Tendance en littérature,” Le Monde, 3 Oct. 1998.
I am thinking in particular about: Roland Barthes, Système de la mode (Paris: Seuil, 1966); Jean Baudrillard, Système des objets (Paris: Denoël-Gonthier, 1968); Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (New York: Harvest, 1975).
Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie (Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1991), 119.
See Robert Kaplan, The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), in particular pp. 68-79.
Michel Houellebecq, L'Extension du domaine de la lutte (Paris: Maurice Nadeau, J'ai Lu, 1994).
Michel Houellebecq, L'Extension du domaine, 98.
Michel Houellebecq, Interventions (Paris: Flammarion, 1998), 63.
Michel Houellebecq, Interventions, 41.
For a concise discussion of this “knowing-seizing-controlling” model of knowledge and power, see Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethique comme philosophie première (Paris: Editions Payot & Rivages, 1992 ), 67-83.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (New York: Vintage, 1995 ), 374.
I am using the notion of the “idol” here for obvious purposes, but also for a concrete image that I cannot shake off—the image of La Vénus d'Ile, of Prosper Mérimée.
One of the great scientific feuds in the past twenty years concerns the work of the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who was perhaps the first serious academic champion of the democratization of sex. She based her assertion on her field work in Western Samoa. Mead's field work was later challenged by Derek Freeman whose criticism of Mead created one of the most important debates within academia in the past thirty years. For a succinct account of this debate see Hal Hellman, Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998), 177-193.
On this relationship between the onset of AIDS and the end of the sexual revolution, see John Updike, “Make Love not War.”
Augustine. Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), trans. Henry Chadwick. “So the feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant's mind. I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not yet speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother's milk. … [b]ut it can hardly be innocence, when the source of milk is flowing richly and abundantly” Book I, 9.
See in particular Marquis de Sade, La Philosophie dans le boudoir (Paris: PML, 1994 ).
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (New York: Norton, 1961 ).
See on the Sade/Rousseau “slide” Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 230-247.
I am obviously thinking here about Denis de Rougement's L'Amour en l'Occident (Paris: Union Générale d'Editions, 1939).
Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft, 17.
Michel Houellebecq, Interventions, 39.
See Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987 ), Ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.
I am thinking here in particular about Marie Darrieussecq, Truismes (Paris: P.O.L, 1996); and Iegor Gran, Ipso Facto (Paris: P.O.L., 1998).
SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “Cartoon Hell.” New Statesman 129, no. 4502 (4 September 2000): 33.
[In the following review, Romney discusses the depiction of cynical disaffection in the novel Extension du domaine de la lutte and its film adaptation.]
The first time I saw Extension du domaine de la lutte (aka Whatever), a French film marketing officer tried to persuade me that it wasn't worth seeing. “He's such a horrible man,” she said, and visibly shuddered. I asked her who she meant. Was it the director Philippe Harel, who also plays the lead role, or the character himself (referred to in the voice-over as “Our Hero”)? Or did she mean Michel Houellebecq, the author of the novel on which the film is based, and whom Harel is manifestly impersonating—greasy, combed-over hair, gingerly held cigarette and all? She shrugged, as if to say that they were all pretty much of a muchness. Indeed, in Harel's film, they effectively are—at least, in the sense that Harel's, Houellebecq's and Our Hero's personae unsettlingly blur together in the story of a man with a world-class identity crisis.
Houellebecq, who collaborated with Harel on the screenplay, is a cult figure in France, especially among younger readers. Thanks, in particular, to his bestselling second novel, Les Particules élémentaires (published in Britain as Atomised), he has been variously applauded as the legitimate heir to Albert Camus and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and attacked as a misanthropic, right-wing nihilist. Oddly, Harel's film was not commercially successful in France, possibly because it was so faithful to the book that it offered fans too few surprises. In fact, Harel offers his own twists and, if anything, his version (despite an ambiguous happy ending) offers a darker, more sour vision than the book.
Houellebecq's overwhelming preoccupation is with the drabness and futility of modern life: yes, only in France could such a writer top the bestseller lists. Our Hero is a middle-aged, middle-management man in a computer firm, who spends much of his time addressing shiny, bureaucratic seminars. He abhors his job, but has nothing else in his life—weekends are spent sitting dolefully in his kitchen. The first of many cracks in his life's grey surface appears when he forgets where he has parked his car, and never bothers to look for it.
Our Hero is not merely bored, but affects to have a complex philosophical take on the universe (“a furtive gathering of elementary particles, a fleeting shape on the way to chaos”). He is even bored and nauseated by sex—and, in Houellebecq's universe, sex is indeed boring and nauseating. The very first scene—which gives a taste of the Mike Leigh-ish cruelty of the film's social comedy, and of Houellebecq's sour misogyny—takes place at a dull office party where a woman gets halfway through a derisory striptease, then throws in the towel.
The first part of the film provides a flat, matter-of-fact delineation of Our Hero's doleful grind, with commentary both from his own snooty, weary voice-over, and from an omniscient narrator who suggests that Our Hero, negative though he is, doesn't know the half of it. The film evokes a world suggestive of Reginald Perrin as rewritten by Guy Debord, the situationist prophet of social malaise. The script is spot-on about the humourlessness of French corporate culture, and is steeped in its soul-destroying, quasi-scientific jargon (“the vendor-client matrix”). But Our Hero's analysis of this world is just as inflated, self-parodically pompous in its would-be sociological rigour—the film's title refers to Our Hero's analysis of modern sexuality in Marxist, market forces terms.
In the second half of the film, Our Hero sets off on a seminar tour with his colleague Raphael Tisserand (José Garcia), an indefatigably dapper smiler, whose eagerness to have a “sympa” time hides his sexual despair. Harel and Garcia make a fabulously cringe-making double act, an Abbott and Costello of the soul's dark night. Harel is weary, shabby, anoraked, resembling a scruffy cousin of Charles Aznavour; Garcia is punctiliously shiny, fussy, always up for more disappointment. The social comedy becomes uncomfortably cruel whenever the two men set foot in a disco, but this is only the prelude to Our Hero's macabre manipulation of his colleague, which is where the story topples into forbiddingly black nihilism.
What the film has to say about the contemporary urban condition may seem banal and one-dimensional, like the extended whinge of an over-articulate, embittered adolescent. Indeed, it is essentially this public persona that has made Houellebecq a household name in France—a sort of middle-aged, wearily whining Jeannot Rotten who has mellowed into complacent adulthood. But Houellebecq's world-view is carried across in his books with absolute conviction, and the blackness is all the more serious for being passed off as comic fatigue and dandyishness. Harel's dry, cool, neutral wit and Gilles Henry's studiedly sleek photography serve Houellebecq well; and, even in French cinema's currently crowded market of films about existential gloom (Seul Contre Tous,L'Ennui and so on), this modest adaptation stands out with appropriately charmless conviction. Unlikely though it may seem, Harel makes Houellebecq's cartoon hell a compelling place to visit.
SOURCE: Cloonan, William. “Literary Scandal, Fin du Siècle, and the Novel in 1999.” French Review 74, no. 1 (October 2000): 14-30.
[In the following essay, Cloonan examines the public controversy surrounding Les Particules élémentaires, Houellebecq's literary celebrity and artistic merit, and how “L'Affaire Houellebecq” sheds light on the state of French letters, culture, and intellectual debate at the end of the twentieth century.]
In Paris this summer an editor at the Editions du Seuil complained that the rentrée of 1998 had been dominated, and to a degree spoiled by the attention given to one novel. She was referring, of course, to Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires, which was mentioned in last year's French Review essay. In the ensuing months a controversy emerged, provoked in large measure by Houellebecq's former collaborators at the review Perpendiculaire, that was rapidly christened l'Affaire Houellebecq. The very name given the scandal points to its central ambiguity: was the novel problematic, or was it rather the man who wrote it? Of course, probably nobody would take a literary scandal seriously if it did not have strong personal elements. The Perpendiculaire group obliged by offering a particularly faint form of praise when they somewhat begrudgingly allowed that Houellebecq “n'est pas nazi; il n'est même pas lépiniste” (Duchatelet et al. 16). Houellebecq was equally sparing in his compliments when he referred to one of his former collaborators at the review as “un imbécile hargenux … à qui je n'ai jamais caché le peu d'estime que m'inspiraient ses productions” (“Michel Houellebecq répond à Perpendiculaire” 10).1
If there is one area in which French intellectuals are absolutely superior to their American counterparts, it is in their interest in and use of the media. L'Affaire proved to be a godsend as writers of various political persuasions and artistic ability rapidly jumped into print. The birth of a new literary school was announced, the decline of morality decried, and, as tends to happen fairly frequently, humanism was once again pronounced dead. By the summer of 1999 the scandal was already on the wane, but the review Atelier du Roman nevertheless devoted a large portion of its June edition to L'Affaire.
As this essay hopes to show, L'Affaire Houellebecq is less interesting for the intellectual substance of the debates surrounding the author and his novel than for what it indicates about the malaise currently affecting French letters as the century ends. Whatever one thinks of Les Particules élémentaires, there is nothing in the novel, either thematically or descriptively, that cannot also be found in other works. To take but three examples, some people are offended by the rampant sexuality in Les Particules, but in fact the partouze has become a staple of contemporary French fiction as Alice Massat's Le Ministère de l'intérieur amply illustrates. As for the alleged misanthropy of Houellebecq and his work, Vincent de Swarte's Requiem pour un sauvage, set in the Middle Ages, tells the story of a man who spends his youth in a cave, emerges, meets people, eats several of them, participates in a Crusade, and eventually returns to his cave. In Lorette Nobécourt's La Conversation, the female protagonist's curiosity about what makes men tick prompts her to attempt to skin her lover alive. What emerges in Les Particules is an indictment of a generation, the sacrosanct generation of '68, which, the novel implies, has failed to produce a better society, a moral code superior to the earlier humanistic model, and, perhaps most tellingly, great works of art.2
Les Particules élémentaires was Houellebecq's second novel. His first, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994), attracted serious critical attention. It deals with an extremely depressed young man struggling against loneliness and the temptation of suicide. From the perspective of L'Affaire Houellebecq, it is perhaps most interesting for the way it announces one of the stylistic devices the author would adopt in Les Particules: “La forme romanesque n'est pas conçue pour peindre l'indifférence, ni le néant; il faudrait inventer une articulation plus plate, plus concise et plus morne” (Extension 42).
Houellebecq was fortunate to have caught the attention of critics from the beginning of his career as a novelist. New novelists are numerous and often quickly forgotten. In 1999 there were seventy-five first novels. Frédéric Richaud published Monsieur le jardinier, a loving and lovely account of the life of Louis XIV's gardener, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, whose reflections on his activities become a long meditation on transience. Jean-Baptiste escapes his demons by turning to the soil; the heroine of Marion Jean's Trouée is less fortunate. Her efforts to deal with the passage of time lead her into a world that resembles that of The Sun Also Rises, where broken souls move constantly about in an effort to avoid confronting the sterility of their lives. Alain Fleischer's La Femme qui avait deux bouches is the first venture into fiction of a man who has had a long and distinguished career in the visual arts. This book is actually a collection of short pieces, heavily influenced by Kafka. The title refers to the first story which does indeed focus on a beautiful and brilliant woman with two mouths. Given Fleischer's university background and interest in theory, it is not surprising that the mouths in question at times take on the attributes of literary texts, at once troubling and seductive, yet always fascinating. Jean-Philippe Chatrier's Les Deux Moitiés du ciel is an ambitious work that centers on a love triangle of a peculiar sort, a man, a woman, and a church. The man, Henri Deleuze, must choose, and it is a tribute to Chatrier's talent that his choice of Reims cathedral makes perfect sense.
This year les Editions Arléa created a special series for first novels, “ler mille.,” and Arléa has also made some excellent choices. Christine Féret-Fleury's Les Vagues sont douces comme des tigres is the story of a twelve-year-old girl living on a farm during World War I. Although this is a third-person narration, the reader never feels or sees anything beyond what the protagonist does. The story deals with the child's loneliness, need for love, and efforts to overcome both through schooling. In Neige Maxence Fermine attempts to create what might be termed a “haiku-novel.” This beautiful story is set in eighteenth-century Japan. The novel, wherein no chapter is longer than a page, tells the story of Yuko-Akita, whose twin passions are haiku and snow. A gifted poet, his struggle is to overcome a fascination with whiteness, and when he does so, he enhances his existence as an artist and a man.
Claude Pinganaud is the editor at Arléa who launched the collection, “ler mille.” Yet as he noted “publier un premier roman est … moins risqué pour un éditeur que de publier le deuxième car les journalistes sont plus attentifs, plus enthousiastes et plus indulgents” (Grangeray 4). The second novel is always harder because critics await the fulfillment of the putative promise noted in the first. Michèle Desbordes certainly meets this challenge in La Demande which describes the last days of “un maître italien” invited to France by the king. The “maître” is certainly Leonardo Da Vinci whose final months on earth are eased by the care and love of a simple servant woman. This novel proved an unexpected popular success which, in a work containing few incidents, can perhaps be attributed to the continuous intermingling of a fading present and an uncertain future. The reader shares the artist's recognition that his genius will permit him to overcome everything but the inevitable, and nowhere is this awareness more intense than in the act of creating: “quand l'émotion est arrivée, il ne pouvait savoir si c'était ce qu'il voyait ou la mort qui maintenant sans rien dire, chaque soir à la même heure, il sentait venir” (38).
Danielle Robert-Guédon's second novel, Le Grand Abbatoir, draws the sad analogy between “un abbatoir” and “une maison de retraite.” The decent people who run “Val Fleuri” insist that it is not “une maison de retraite, c'est un lieu de vie à taille humaine, avec un accompagnement personnalisé. Satisfaire les résidents est notre priorité” (104-05). The residents, however, are not so pleased to be there, as are not, one assumes, the cattle entering the slaughterhouse. Marianne Dubertret published her first novel in 1984 when she was a teenager. Her second, Un Faux Frère, is the dark love story of a boy and girl who were brought up together because Marc's parents took Ava in as an orphan. Eventually they become lovers only later to discover that among the things they share are the same father.
Last year readers discovered Iegor Gran's talent for the burlesque and the bizarre with Ipso facto. This year Gran offers Acné festival, which alludes to the first novel (172) in the process of telling the story of a man almost sixty who suffers from acne, “un symptôme de mon manque d'affection” (64). His efforts to turn this affliction into a seduction device and ultimately into a work of art is the subject of this novel.
In 1998 Iegor Gran found himself unwittingly implicated in L'Affaire Houellebecq. Up until October of that year L'Affaire had been a nasty, but localized quarrel between the editors of Perpendiculaire and a former collaborator, Michel Houellebecq. Perpendiculaire was founded in 1995, and rapidly established itself as a leftist review concerned with the relationship between literature, politics, and society. Houellebecq was an early contributor and probably its best-known writer. Excerpts from Les Particules élémentaires had initially appeared in the review's pages. Political differences precipitated the break between Houellebecq and the editorial staff of the journal with the editors claiming that the misanthropic, antiabortionist, reactionary views expressed in Les Particules are in fact those of the author. Houellebecq, who is certainly a talented provocateur, provided his detractors with ample ammunition. In a series of essays and interviews that appeared in various places and were collected under the title Interventions (1998), he opposes the Maastricht Treaty (118), maintains that May 1968 was a failure (78), and takes a position squarely against “la débauche de techniques mise en œuvre par tel ou tel ‘formaliste-Minuit,’” (53). His tone is often belligerent as the title of one essay, “Jacques Prévert est un con,” demonstrates. During an interview with the magazine Les Inrockuptibles that does not appear in Interventions, he reportedly expressed his admiration for Stalin “parce qu'il a tué plein d'anarchistes” (Van Reuterghen 17), and in a meeting with students at the FNAC, he so annoyed his young listeners that some of the audience responded with “Vous êtes un nazi qui ne s'avoue pas” (Van Reuterghen 17). Houellebecq's gift for the outrageous interview is such that Van Reuterghen, whose Le Monde article I have been citing, quite properly remarks that “plutôt que d'interroger l'écrivain sur son œuvre, on l'interroge sur l'interview précédente” (17).
It was Frédéric Badré who dragged Iegor Gran into the fray and by doing so gave L'Affaire a broader, potentially more interesting dimension. Badré works for a rival review, Ligne de Risque, which takes its inspiration from Lautréamont, and therefore wishes “Que la situation explose.” Nevertheless this journal refuses to participate “dans la guerre sociale” (Kéchichian 8). In an article that appeared in Le Monde Badré rehearsed the usual complaints about the contemporary French novel, “trop narcissique, trop autarcique, trop introverti, sans nécessité, tourné vers le passé, etc.” (14). He then announced the discovery of a new “school”: “avec Michel Houellebecq, Marie Darrieussecq, Iegon Gran.” There is “une nouvelle tendance … leurs livres ont un grand succès public … leur radicalité ne repose pas sur la face obscure et cachée des choses, mais sur la réalité commune, sur ce que tout le monde voit autour de lui” (14). Badré argued that these writers, whose “school” he baptized “postnaturaliste,” nevertheless do not follow an established path, and then made the rather fabulous claim that “ils ont compris que la beauté ne peut plus être représentée parce qu'elle n'existe plus” (14). In a calmer moment Badré added that “le roman est pour eux un simple outil pour dévoiler les contradictions de la société contemporaine et montrer l'homme en situation devant l'intolérable vide” (14).
Despite the somewhat hyperbolic tone of the essay, Badré did raise some worthwhile issues. He was arguing that certain younger novelists were moving away from the sorts of literary experimentation simplistically associated with Les Editions de Minuit, and were attempting to engage in a straightforward description of the moral and social ethos of the contemporary world. Whether or not these writers were indeed trying to “renouer la littérature … avec un discours universel” (14) is probably less important than that they were certainly doing something different. On a social level they were more interested in describing what was wrong with the world than in changing it, and, more arguably, in terms of literary technique they were more involved in what they said than in how they said it. Finally, even though Badré links Darrieussecq and Gran with Houellebecq, it was Houellebecq who received the bulk of the attention in the essay. By virtue of Badré's article, the author of Les Particules élémentaires was anointed the leader of a “school” that someone else had founded.
The issue of “postnaturalism” and Houellebecq's putative involvement with it provoked a variety of predictable reactions, but L'Affaire took yet another bizarre turn when Les Particules was unceremoniously dropped from the short list of the 1998 Goncourt selection. No clear explanation was ever provided for this decision, but if nothing else it points to the nastiness and backbiting that increasingly characterizes the awarding of the major literary prizes.
Unfortunately, this year that unpleasant tendency continued. Jean Echenoz was awarded the Goncourt for Je m'en vais. Echenoz is undoubtedly one of France's most interesting novelists, even if some readers may be disappointed with his latest effort. Je m'en vais, much like his preceding Un An, takes place over the course of one year. Félix Ferrer, an owner of an art gallery, leaves his wife in the first sentence: “Je m'en vais” (7), gets involved in a series of improbable adventures that lead him to Alaska in search of Indian artifacts, then returns to France with his treasures, only to have them stolen. Eventually he recovers most of the loot, gets rich, and on the last page he is once again at his now ex-wife's house, where he meets an attractive young woman. He agrees to spend some time with her, but, like all his relations with women, this will prove of short duration. He makes this clear to her: “Je prends juste un verre et je m'en vais” (253). This novel reprises many of the themes of Echenoz's earlier work (travel to out-of-the way places, the influence of American movies on contemporary life, and the unlikely made to appear normal), but, to this reader at least, Je m'en vais seems a bit tired, almost as if the writer is parodying himself. However, the unpleasantness surrounding the Goncourt had nothing to do with Echenoz's novel or any individual's opinion of it.
The Goncourt committee shocked the literary prize establishment by announcing the winner almost a week in advance. This unexpected timing threw the other prize committees into disarray, especially the Femina, which had Echenoz on its short list as well. The Goncourt committee apparently opted to upset the usual calendar since other committees had been doing that for years, and as a result, the Goncourt, considered to be the most prestigious, has in recent years become the last major prize awarded.
Whatever the chagrin the Femina people might have experienced at the Goncourt's conduct, it did not prevent their awarding their prize to a fine writer. Maryline Desbiolles's Anchise is the sad story of a man whose life ended practically before it began. Anchise lost his wife to sickness while he was away at war, and this “cinglé, ce fou, ce pauvre con d'Anchise n'avait jamais pu oublier sa femme” (42). The story begins with his death, and recounts the story of a life that would appear uneventful to most, but which was marked forever by one event.
The Médicis went to another deserving novelist. For years Christian Oster has been entertaining readers with stories that usually feature a Gallic version of J. Alfred Prufrock. Gavarine is no exception, and he recounts in Oster's latest novel the sad/funny unraveling of his life because, as he explains, he has lost the keys to Mon Grand Appartement.
Daniel Picouly won the Renaudot for L'Enfant léopard which tells of Marie-Antoinette's final twelve hours. Her one remaining wish is to see again the illegitimate child she produced with “le nègre Zamor.” The child suffers from a skin disease which gives him the appearance of an “enfant léopard.” Jean-Christophe Ruffin's Les Causes perdues, which describes a humanitarian mission in Ethiopia, received the Interallié.
However much civility may be suffering in the awarding of the major prizes, one prize tradition remains unscathed. The major prizes are pretty much the exclusive property of major publishing houses. Gallimard got the Interallié. Seuil received the Femina, and Grasset won the Renaudot. The venerable editor in chief, Jérome Lindon, probably would not wish to agree, but when his Minuit walks off with the Goncourt and the Médicis, avant-garde publishing may be moving into the mainstream.
Mathieu Lindon, the editor's son, published a novel this year with one of France's most adventurous houses, Les Editions P.O.L. Le Procès de Jean-Marie Le Pen has many fine qualities, notably the indictment, less of Le Pen since that would be obvious, but rather of the Left's ineptness in confronting him. The story deals with a young lépeniste who committed a racist crime, an act which engenders the predictable anti-Le Pen out-bursts from minority groups and leftist intellectuals. The murderer, Ronald Blistier, is not particularly intelligent or eloquent, but before his absolute conviction of white supremacy and of his own role as the real victim, his opponents are at a loss to respond. The boy eventually commits suicide, but neither his life nor death seems very important in this novel. What matters for the novelist is how such hateful views could become dogma for a growing number of people. The trial of Jean-Marie Le Pen never takes place in this novel, but in a sentence Lindon captures the essence of Le Pen's strategy: “dire en public le minimum de mots pour provoquer le maximum de mal” (26).
Robert Bober's Berg et Beck deals with another historical issue that remains important in contemporary France. Berg and Beck are two Jewish boys forced to wear the yellow star of David in 1942. Berg survives and his friend disappears. In 1952 Berg takes a job in an orphanage for the children of déportés. He does his best to help these kids, to ease their transition into normal lives, but he remains himself a victim, guilty of his own survival.
Marc Lambron's 1941 treats World War II from a very different perspective. It centers on the Vichy government as viewed by a minor official who secretly works for the Resistance. The issue is the much discussed question of how decent patriotic French people ought to have reacted. Lambron provides a brilliant characterization of the mood at Vichy: the mixture of optimism, fear, occasional self-hatred, constant insecurity and self-justification: “L'esprit partisan mal placé, les activités défaitistes, l'hostilité au Maréchal, l'entrave à l'œuvre de la restauration nationale, non merci!” (103). Lebrun's descriptions of members of Pétain's entourage are particularly striking. Take, for example, the Maréchal's personal physician, Bernard Ménétral who projects: “un air de vieil enfant qui a trop applaudi au Guignol” (119). Equally memorable are his evocations of the arrogance of the Vichy intellectual elite: “l'Ecole Normale ne donne pas une éducation, elle se contente de conférer l'infaillibilité” (325). Despite the enormous differences in style, this novel reads at times like an ominous prelude to Céline's depictions of the same world in defeat that one finds in his war trilogy. Lebrun draws many conclusions about Vichy in 1941, but none are intended as final, as his last sentences indicate: “La mèche brûle … Elle n'a pas fini de brûler” (412).
Alexandre Najjar's L'Ecole de la guerre deals with a more recent conflict, the on and off war in Lebanon. It is a series of vignettes that details the survival strategies, “en temps de guerre, la bougie est sans prix” (59), employed by people who are never really sure where the battlefield begins and ends. In his eloquent introduction Najjar claims that all “guerres se ressemblent” (11), but then in his novel he demonstrates that every war is unique for its victims.
This year's final novel centering on warfare is in some ways the strangest. Over the years Jean Vautrin has perfected the mingling of comic book characters with serious issues. His Le Cri du peuple is no exception. As the title suggests, it deals with the Commune of 1870-1871. The novel's cover has a comic book version of a battle around a barricade, and the author provides in the text drawings that caricature the main characters. His hero, Horace Grondin, is appropriately larger-than-life: “Cet homme aux mains d'échorcheur, à l'ossature puissante, au regard halluciné, cet homme qui faisait sa route seul au monde, paraissait tellement hors du commun” (52). Yet this novel is not easy reading. The descriptions of the brutality, the battles throughout Paris, and the ultimate defeat of the Commune are not for the fainthearted. If Vautrin's novels often seem odd to American readers, it is doubtless because we have nothing in our literary tradition that permits our taking the comic book as a serious artistic form capable of making compelling comments on the present and the past.
A similar difference in the evaluation of literary forms affects the American and French appreciation of the mystery novel. Americans have always admired certain mystery novelists as writers, Raymond Chandler and Chester Himes are obvious examples, but have tended to view the genre as a secondary one. In contrast, at least since World War II the French have given increasing importance to the polar. While it is true that some nouveaux romanciers, such as Michel Butor and Alain Robbe-Grillet, may have freighted the form with more intellectual baggage than it can bear, the mystery novel remains in France a vehicle for serious social commentary.
Last year Michel Rio interrupted his La Mort to decry the perceived abuses of literary theory and historical revisionism. This year Marek Halter addresses the ethnic and cultural tensions in the Middle East with Les Mystères de Jérusalem. This novel mingles greed for lucre and for knowledge, sex, violence, and murder in a story whose ostensible theme, the search for lost treasure, provides the basis for a bitterly ironic commentary on the absurdity of the mutual hatred between Arab and Jew.
Of course, if the French are willing to take the mystery novel seriously, they do not do so all the time. Lovers of the genre who simply appreciate its diverting qualities would be well-advised to consider Fred Vargas's L'Homme à l'envers. Fred Vargas is not sufficiently known in the States. A scientist by profession, she consistently supplies compelling stories of great tension and minimum violence. Her latest effort tells of a series of murders in Southern France that appear to be the work of a werewolf. The story is gripping, the ending surprising, and those who think the French undervalue the intelligence, indeed the cunning, of Canadians will have to revisit the question.
Although Michel Rio has often displayed great talent for the parodic mystery novel, he does not limit himself to his genre. His Morgane is the story of Morgane la Fée. More beautiful than any other woman, more intelligent than all men except perhaps Merlin, early in life she declares war on humanity, on the violence of men and the cruelty of their God. Her credo speaks for itself: “Et moi, Morgane, … haïssant ce Dieu-Monstre et cet homme stupide ou menteur … je veux être cruelle à mon tour et répondre par le mal personnel au mal universel, parce que je suis condamnée au savoir; à la peur, à la souffrance et à la mort” (33). In the fin du siècle climate of 1999, it is hard not to find in this retelling of the collapse of the Round Table as well as in Morgane's own solitary demise, a commentary on a civilization that has lost its bearings.
Rio explains in his introduction that Morgane is to a degree a spin-off from his earlier Merlin (1989). He is not the only prominent novelist who cannot quite escape his prior successes, but no author so illustrates that dilemma as does Daniel Pennac. Whether he likes it or not, Pennac remains a prisoner of la famille Malaussène. Critics might suggest new departures, but the public cannot seem to get enough of the comic universe he has created in Belleville. Aux fruits de la passion will certainly please the lovers of “Further Adventures.” This time Ben's sister, Thèrese the fortune-teller, embarks on an ill-advised marriage with Marie-Colbert de Robertval. The Belleville community had enough trouble trying to understand why she wanted to marry a comptable, but when the guy turns out to be a comte, not to mention the other “c” word, the dire results are all too foreseeable. After the wedding, where the Belleville guests provide for their social superiors the appropriately politically correct element, “humbles et multiculturels” (91), mayhem ensues; some characters are murdered, one explodes, and the surprise beginning is matched by a surprise ending. As with each installment of the Belleville saga, Pennac manages his unique form of social commentary. This time the deep thinking is supplied by a dog: “Julius le Chien pratiquait la politique à la française: il s'attaquait aux images pour mieux pactiser avec les personnes” (42). Pennac will decide for himself when and if he wishes to leave the nineteenth arrondissement. For the moment one can only say that Aux fruits de la passion is one of his better efforts.
The pressure on a writer to address certain issues and avoid others, to change locales or philosophies is simply ridiculous. What matters is what an author does with his/her materials, and such an obvious conclusion is as true for Houellebecq as it is for Pennac. The most glaring absurdity in L'Affaire Houellebecq is the concentration, not simply on the man, but on his most outrageous and at times Orphic utterances. In fact, in Interventions Houellebecq has made some clear statements about his goals as a writer and positioned his concerns in the context of contemporary French literature. He argues, for instance, that “Je ne me situe ni pour ni contre aucune avant-garde, mais je me rends compte que je me singularise par le simple fait que je m'intéresse moins au langage qu'au monde” (110-11). While one might seriously doubt that avant-garde experimentation is necessarily apolitical, what matters more is that Houellebecq believes strongly, perhaps even naively, in literature's capacity to change the world: “on souhaite dépasser le cynisme. Si quelqu'un aujourd'hui parvient à développer un discours à la fois honnête et positif, il modifiera le monde” (111). A negative view of society's current direction need not be a cynical one, and to image such an attitude in a novel like Les Particules élémentaires can certainly contribute to an ongoing social discourse. The pity in L'Affaire Houellebecq is that the author's critics too often saddle him with the very cynicism he claims he wishes to combat.
Of all the commentators on L'Affaire, the novelist Dominique Noguez has been the most consistently sensible. In an essay that appeared in the review Atelier du Roman, Noguez dismisses the rather bizarre charge that Houellebecq has no style by pointing to the self-evident: “tout écrivain, même le plus exécrable, a un style—un style exécrable, justement” (17). He then goes on to discuss various stylistic strategies that appear in Houellebecq's writing, and compares them to those of other authors. In an essay written for Le Monde, “La Rage de ne pas lire,” Noguez takes his distance from arguments about Houellebecq's alleged place in a new literary “school,” and laments the low level of the critical discussions surrounding L'Affaire. He seems especially saddened by the vitriol emanating from Perpendiculaire, since he believes that the founders of this review
étaient partis d'un bon pas: créant avec leurs propres forces une revue originale, animant la vie littéraire parisienne avec leurs mercredis du café Les Marronniers, se donnant à l'occasion avec humour, publiant quelques bons livres, découvrant de nouveaux talents, assurant enfin à Michel Houellebecq qu'ils ont salué parmi les premiers, une reconnaissance méritée.
Noguez's reference to the accomplishments of Perpendiculaire raises an interesting side issue. Traditionally literary reviews have been places where new writers could find outlets for their work, and where editors might discover their authors of the future. This is no longer the case in France. The importance of literary reviews has been consistently declining. The most striking illustration of this phenomenon is that the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Française has radically altered its publication schedule by switching from a monthly to a quarterly format (Savigneau 8). In a similar vein editors say that they rarely visit the literary reviews in search of new talent. Given this situation, one of the possibly unintended offshoots of L'Affaire, which pitted a relatively new review, Perpendiculaire, first against a former collaborator, and then against another new review, Ligne de Risque, was to revive interest, for however brief a time, in literary journals.
Given the declining importance of the literary review, two publishing houses have developed new strategies for showcasing young talent. Grasset subsidizes the popular magazine, Inrockuptibles, and once every few years, it publishes in book form excerpts from relatively unknown writers, not all of whom publish chez Grasset. This year Inrockuptibles Onze contains selections from eleven authors (thus the title). Except for Martin Winckler, the author of last year's La Maladie de Sachs, the writers in the current collection are largely unknown, but Grasset's initiative harbingers well for the future; in the previous volume appeared then little-known novelists such as Marie Darrieussecq and Michel Houellebecq.
Les Editions Robert Laffont is probably the most commercially savvy publishing house in France. It therefore comes as no surprise that its collection of short pieces would stay closer to home. Every year Laffont brings out a volume of stories by members of its Ecole de Brive. Each collection is centered on a theme, and this year's focus was on fleeting childhood memories which nevertheless constitute L'Or du temps.
This year les Editions Balland launched a collection of a different sort. Initially called “Le Rayon Gay,” the purpose was to provide a forum for fiction concentrating on homosexuality. However, it soon became apparent to the series's editor, Guillaume Dustan, that such a perspective was too narrow, and so he broadened the focus to include the writings of and about all marginalized people. In so doing, he renamed the collection, “Rayon.” Under this rubric Balland published Dustan's own, Nicholas Pages, the story of his relationship with a fellow gay writer. This novel provides valuable insights into the business side of literature, the literary forums, the jockeying for prestige and even understanding that are the daily fare of any professional writer. Nicholas Pages's Je mange un œuf also appears in “Le Rayon,” and it is an account of the novelist's daily activities where practically every morning starts with a slight variation on “je me réveille, je reste au lit, je bois un café sur le balcon” (9). A less successful novel in this collection is Frédéric Huet's Papa a tort, which is a fauxnaïf version of a young boy's slow awakening to his own homosexuality.
While Balland's venture is certainly idealistic, it may prove of dubious value. There already exist, and have existed for some time, numerous venues for works dealing with homosexuality. Every year appear novels by homosexuals addressing questions of sexual identity; it is doubtful today that a text of literary value would be refused simply because of its subject matter. Jean-François Kervéan's Vingt Fois toi et moi is typical of many recent explorations of the theme. In this novel the characters' gayness is a given; the social impact of AIDS is explored: “Vous croyez que le triangle rose et le sida ça vaut l'étoile jaune?” (136), and the real issue is the difficulty of forging lasting relationships. Balland is trying to move marginalized groups out of the ghetto, but the publishing house might have inadvertently only created a gilded one.
Kervéan's characters live with their sexuality; they are not obsessed by it. Such cannot be said for Morgan Sportès's heterosexual extravaganza, Rue du Japon, Paris. This novel details vividly an affair between a middle-aged writer and a young Japanese woman. Nothing is left to the imagination, and no fantasy remains unexplored. There are numerous allusions to Les Liaisons dangereuses, a work that still remains more erotic than Rue du Japon, Paris for no better reason than that the former leaves something to the imagination. Nevertheless, Rue du Japon remains a fascinating novel, not so much for the descriptive sexuality, nor for the main character's alleged aesthetic dilemma which a friend cruelly yet accurately pinpoints: “Mais tu veux quoi, au bout du compte? Ton roman ou ta Jap?” (358). Lovers of Paris will be thrilled by Sportès's ability to evoke the hidden byways and charms of the eleventh, nineteenth, and twentieth arrondissements.
In Rue du Japon the Japanese woman was obviously the foreigner. Amélie Nothomb reverses this situation in Stupeur et tremblements which describes a Belgian woman's year of working for a Japanese firm in Japan. This funny novel will do little for international understanding, as it consistently sends up Nipponese social and business practices, while describing the Japanese as work-driven robots with occasional attacks of humanity. The title refers to the emotional state that is supposed to accompany a commoner when meeting the emperor. It might also, however, summarize a reader's reaction to this book.
Nothomb's Japan is a distant country, but it is hardly exotic. Readers interested in the exploration of mysterious places would be better advised to turn to either Christian Liger's La Nuit de Faraman or Louis Gardel's Grand Seigneur, which, however distant their settings are from one another, share a common tone of melancholy and renunciation. La Nuit de Faraman is a beautifully written novel set in Faraman, a fictional city in France whose prosperity and surface happiness hide the secret of a terrible crime, the murder, for no rational reason, of Italian laborers working there one hundred years ago. The narrative slowly unearths the diabolic tendencies that lurk just below civilization's surface, tendencies that can burst forth in a moment of communal madness and then disappear until a young man, who might be Satan himself, comes to town.
The exoticism of the world of Louis Gardel's Grand Seigneur is more immediately apparent than that of the placid community of Faraman. The novel concerns Soliman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. It explores the final years of the most powerful man in the East whose sense of responsibility compels him to destroy or distance himself from those he loves. This is a story of a man imprisoned by power, forced to behave in cruel and dishonest ways in the interest of statecraft. The one enemy he cannot overcome is death itself, but by the novel's end, this adversary has become his only friend: “Renoncer est le plus beau mot du monde” (142).
Soliman's problems were immediate, practical, and political. His conscience was a nagging annoyance that he had little time to examine. The modern world is often quite different, a place where the psyche and its sundry insecurities seem to rule supreme. Simon, the main character in Leslie Kaplan's Le Psychanalyste, is something of a ruler in this realm. He is a psychiatrist, seemingly a Lacanian, since “Oui” is his most frequent response to anything his patients say. This is a long (457 pages) novel that follows Simon through weeks of his practice. Among the people he meets is “Miss Nobody Knows,” who was the main character in one of Kaplan's earlier novels. The story follows the pattern of Simon's treatments: stories succeed stories, and nothing is resolved at the end.
François, the main character in Jacques-Pierre Amette's L'Homme du silence, could have been one of Simon's patients. A member of the generation of '68, and a relatively successful radio commentator at the ORTF, his girlfriend's departure precipitates a crisis. He loses interest in his job, and eventually loses his job, but this apparent catastrophe leaves him unfazed. Like Liger and Gardel, Amette displays a talent for depicting melancholy. François's story is that of a life unlived, of a generation that failed to achieve its goals, if ever it knew what they were. François just floats through existence like the water which is the central image in the novel.
Whatever one makes of Simon's efforts to help his patients in Le Psychanalyste, he was attempting to apply new methods of treatment to old problems. A brighter version of this effort can be found in three novels engaged in literary experimentation. François Bott's Les Etés de la vie is really not one novel. It is, as the subtitle indicates, “cinquante-six esquisses pour un roman d'une saison.” The “saison” in question is not entirely a literary one. It is the author's life, whose stages he recounts through memories of summers near and distant. Bott has his thoughts on aging and dying, but irony, rather than melancholy is his strength. In what appears to be a sly reference to Les Particules élémentaires, he notes: “L'homme était ‘une passion inutile,’ mais il avait bien le droit de flirter” (60).
Oliver Rolin's Méroé juxtaposes a story centering on the life and death of the British General Gordon, killed at Khartoum, with reflections on the role of literature in the modern world. Gordon is isolated and out of place in the Sudan; it is only through a combination of Bible reading and brandy drinking that he maintains a fragile stability while awaiting the inevitable. Rolin seems to find in this “sorte de Lawrence du siècle passé, Don Quichotte christique” (11), a hero at once tragic and comic, because he believed so desperately that force could impose order on existence. In a novel replete with literary allusions, the author appears to suggest that language alone can create the semblance of an enduring order (128), and that the only place where humanity is really the center of the universe is in the realm of art (71).
Bott and Rolin's experiments with literary form are modest in themselves, but they become even more so when compared to Antoine Volodine's Des Anges mineurs. Over the last few years Volodine has introduced a plethora of new literary terms, all of which he uses to give voice to “des texts post-exotiques.” The postexotic universe is the world after some catastrophic event that has placed humanity in a position where it must start over again. The form best suited to depict this situation is le narrat: “j'appelle narrats des instantanés romanesques qui fixent une situation, des émotions, un conflit vibrant entre mémoire et réalité, entre imaginaire et souvenir” (7). Told in forty-nine short chapters, each of which has the name of a person in the title, Des Anges mineurs represents Will Scheidmann's efforts to supply a narrat for his forty-nine minor angels.
By the time the June issue of Atelier du Roman which contained a series of essays on Les Particules élémentaires appeared, L'Affaire Houellebecq was pretty much spent. Summer had arrived, and besides vacations those interested in literary matters were more concerned with preparing for la rentrée littéraire. The essays in Atelier du Roman reflect this change in sensibility. They are intelligent and insightful, but also a bit incredulous at the furor created around the novelist and his text. Clearly it was time to move on to other matters.
If L'Affaire Houellebecq contains more than a passing interest, it may be due to factors not entirely related to the author and his novel. The reaction to both may well reflect a fin du siècle anxiety, a perceived absence of and desire for a major French novelist, and a nostalgia for an earlier era where France's cultural dominance remained largely unquestioned. Certainly if one grossly simplifies the thematic concerns of Les Particules élémentaires, the result would be an ideal end-of-the-century fiction: the last hundred years, especially the latter fifty, witnessed the collapse of traditional moral, social, and aesthetic norms, and the next century promises to be safe only for emotional zombies. This has the aura of a big millennial message, the literary equivalent of the Y2K nervousness, since it is at once global and despairing. As such it could well appeal to those who never bothered to read the book, but still managed to take offense at its putative content.
It is common today to hear complaints that France has no novelist of the stature of a Proust, Céline, or Gide. That may well be true, but it is something of a worldwide phenomenon as witnessed by the Nobel Prize Committee's need in recent years to mine retirement communities to find an author on whom they can bestow a “lifetime achievement” award. The fact is that France has many fine writers, such as Jean Echenoz, Camille Laurens, Christian Oster, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, whose reputations are steadily growing, and others, such as Colette, Michel Tournier, J. M. G. Le Clézio, Marguerite Duras, and Patrick Modiano who have had a significant impact on twentieth-century literature. The idea that one has to manufacture a great new talent apparently just to round off the century, or that Houellebecq, the author of two novels, is the one, simply makes no sense.
The notion of somehow creating a “school” around Houellebecq and several other young writers is similarly overwrought. Schools tend to be invented by academics or publishers; in the former instance to provide neat classifications for literary history and clearer focuses for articles, and in the latter for marketing purposes. Schools do, however, confer a certain prestige. The “école de Minuit” (which was not Minuit's invention) excited great interest in the universities and the press, and briefly made the French novel the most prominent in Europe. In this respect Frédéric Badré's decision to call Houellebecq a “post-naturaliste” might also reflect a hankering after an intellectual dominance that France no longer possesses, but arguably did have in the latter portion of the nineteenth century. Nevetheless, linking Houellebecq with Zola as a novelist is as limiting and misleading as suggesting, as has been done, that Céline and Houellebecq share significantly similar social views. Such comparisons tell little about Houellebecq's fiction, or the paths of development it may take, and nothing about his politics.
And finally, what about the novel called Les Particules élémentaires? Anyone interested in contemporary fiction will want to read it; not because of the controversy surrounding and enriching the best-selling author, but because it is a subtle, many-layered text that confronts many of the social issues affecting France in the last fifty years. The characters, by their thoughts and acts, take positions concerning the Generation of '68, the New Age Sensibility, the potential and dangers of contemporary scientific discoveries, and the changing moral standards in the contemporary world. Ultimately the novel poses the question of how or if literature will be able to reflect and evaluate all this. Les Particules élémentaires marks a major advance over Houellebecq's first one; whatever his personal views on a variety of issues, as a novelist he displays a talent that continues to grow from one book to another. He is an author who at this juncture does not need to be decried or proclaimed. Rather, Michel Houellebecq is a writer to be watched.
For those unfamiliar with the storyline of Les Particules élémentaires, Michel and Boris are two half-brothers whose mother's interest in every new trend in life-styles has exposed them to many of the twentieth century's fads. As adults they move in very different directions. Boris seizes upon the sexual liberation of May '68, and passes from one woman and one New Age movement to another. He eventually becomes physically and emotionally exhausted and winds up in an institution. Michel is the opposite. A scientist and intellectual he has almost no affect. At the novel's end he has left France for Ireland where he clones human beings deprived of emotion.
I would like to thank Professors Véronique Anover, Ilse Krumschmidt, and Manuela Malakooti for their help in preparing this essay.
Amette, Jacques-Pierre. L'Homme du silence. Paris: Seuil, 1999.
Badré, Frédéric. “La Nouvelle Tendance en littérature.” Le Monde 3 octobre 1998: 14.
Bober, Robert. Berg et Beck. Paris: P.O.L., 1999.
Bott, François. Les Etés de la vie. Paris: L'Arpenteur, 1999.
Chatrier, Jean-Philippe. Les Deux Moitiés du ciel. Paris: Laffont, 1999.
Desbiolles, Maryline. Anchise. Paris: Seuil, 1999.
Desbordes, Michèle. La Demande. Paris: Verdier, 1999.
de Swarte, Vincent. Requiem pour un sauvage. Paris: Pauvert, 1999.
Dubertret, Marianne. Un Faux Frére. Paris: Balland, 1999.
Duchâtel, Eric et Philippe Postel. Pandore ou l'ouvre-boîte. Paris: Denoël, 1999.
Duchatelet, Christophe et d'autres éditeurs (Perpendiculaire). “Houellebecq et l'ère du flou.” Le Monde 10 octobre 1998: 16.
Dustan, Guillaume. Nicholas Pages. Paris: Balland, 1999.
Echenoz, Jean. Je m'en vais. Paris: Minuit, 1999.
Féret-Fleury, Christine. Les Vagues sont douces comme des tigres. Paris: Arléa, 1999.
Fermine, Maxence. Neige. Paris: Arléa, 1999.
Fleischer, Alain. La Femme qui avait deux bouches. Paris: Seuil, 1999.
Gardel, Louis. Grand Seigneur. Paris: Seuil, 1999.
Gran, Iegor. Acné festival. Paris: P.O.L., 1999.
———. Ipso Facto. Paris: P.O.L., 1998.
Halter, Mark. Les Mystères de Jérusalem. Paris: Laffont, 1999.
Houellebecq, Michel. Extension du domaine de la lutte. Paris: J'ai lu, 1994.
———. Interventions. Paris: Flammarion, 1998.
———. “Michel Houellebecq répond à Perpendiculaire.” Le Monde 18 septembre 1998: 10.
———. Les Particules élémentaires. Paris: Flammarion, 1998.
Huet, Frédéric. Papa a tort. Paris: Balland, 1999.
Jean, Marion. Trouée. Paris: Balland, 1999.
Jeannet, Frédéric-Yves et al., éds. Les Inrockuptibles Onze. Paris: Grasset, 1999.
Kaplan, Leslie. Le Psychanalyste. Paris: P.O.L., 1999.
Kéchichian, Patrick. “Des Revues pour l'été.” Le Monde 10 juillet 1998: 8.
Kervéan, Jean-François. Vingt Fois toi et moi. Paris: Pauvert, 1999.
Lambron, Marc. 1941. Paris: Grasset, 1999.
Ligier, Christian. La Nuit de Faraman. Paris: Laffont, 1999.
Lindon, Mathieu. Le Procès de Jean-Marie Le Pen. Paris: P.O.L. 1999.
Massat, Alice. Le Ministère de l'intérieur. Paris: Denoël, 1999.
Najjar, Alexandre. L'Ecole de la guerre. Paris: Balland, 1999.
Noguez, Dominique. “La Rage de ne pas lire.” Le Monde 29 octobre 1998: 1.
———. “Le Style de Michel Houellebecq.” Atelier du Roman juin 1999: 17-22.
Nobécourt, Lorette. La Conversation. Paris: Grasset, 1999.
Nothomb, Amélie. Stupeur et tremblements. Paris: Albin Michel, 1999.
Oster, Christian. Mon Grand Appartement. Paris: Minuit, 1999.
Pages, Nicolas. Je mange un œuf. Paris: Balland, 1999.
Pennac, Daniel. Aux fruits de la passion. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.
Peuchmaurd, Jacques, éd. L'Or du temps. Paris: Laffont, 1999.
Picouly, Daniel. L'Enfant léopard. Paris: Grasset, 1999.
Richaud, Frédéric. Monsieur le jardinier. Paris: Grasset, 1999.
Rio, Michel. Morgane. Paris: Seuil, 1999.
Robert-Guédon, Danielle. Le Grand Abattoir. Paris: Balland, 1999.
Rolin, Olivier. Méroé. Paris: Seuil, 1999.
Rufin, Jean-Christophe. Causes perdues. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.
Savigneau, Josyane. “La Nouvelle Revue Française devient trimestrielle.” Le Monde 8 janvier 1999: 8.
Sportès, Morgan. Rue du Japon, Paris. Paris: Seuil, 1999.
Tillinac, Denis, directeur. Atelier du Roman juin 1999: 17-82. (Pages devoted to Les Particules élémentaires)
Van Reuterghen, Marion. “Le Procès Houellebecq.” Le Monde 8-9 novembre 1998: 9-10.
Vargas, Fred. L'Homme à l'envers. Paris: Viviane Hamy, 1999.
Vautrin, Jean. Le Cri du peuple. Paris: Grasset, 1999.
Volodine, Antoine. Des Anges mineurs. Paris: Seuil, 1999.
SOURCE: Smith, Lee. “Otherwise Engaged.” Artforum 39, no. 2 (October 2000): 45.
[In the following essay, Smith discusses the opposing philosophical perspectives of Houellebecq and Jean-Paul Sartre and the negative reaction of leftist French intellectuals to The Elementary Particles, which was regarded as an assault on the ideals of individual freedom.]
One of the more telling recent developments in French cultural life has been the sudden nostalgia for Jean-Paul Sartre coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of his death this year. No one really misses Sartre's ideas about “Being” or the Communist International, but a reconsideration of the place he filled in French culture has signaled a genuine EU-era cultural identity crisis. He was the last in a long line of engaged and very public intellectuals, a tradition that included, in the twentieth century alone, Zola, Malraux, Camus; if France is no longer turning out Voltaire-quality men of letters, then what is France? Or, put another way, why has the most gifted French writer in several generations, forty-one-year-old Michel Houellebecq, just come out with a pop CD?
Houellebecq is the author of the 1998 novel Les Particules élémentaires, a controversial bestseller in France, Germany, and Holland—scheduled to be published this month by Knopf as The Elementary Particles—that highlighted a cultural fault line in France between the rising generation and the established left-intellectual elites, which is to say, the generation of '68. The book was praised extensively by the most influential cultural weekly in the country, Les Inrockuptibles, but was passed over for most of the major literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt. The soixante huitards understood the book as a frontal assault on their most cherished ideals. That generation took to the barricades in the belief that the freedom of the individual was worth dying for; Houellebecq's characters—in effect the offspring of the '68ers—aren't persuaded it's enough to live for. Feminism, sexual liberation, freedom from religion, and the reorganization of the bourgeois family haven't made people freer or even happier, Houellebecq's novel seems to suggest, just lonelier, more depressed, and more dissatisfied with what culture has left to offer. Here's what happens after one character confesses to another her love of Brazilian dance.
“Sophie,” announced Bruno, “I could go on vacation to Brazil tomorrow. I'd look around a favela. The windows of the minibus would be bulletproof. In the morning, I'd go sightseeing. Check out eight-year-old murderers who dream of growing up to be gangsters; thirteen-year-old prostitutes dying of AIDS. I'd spend the afternoon at the beach surrounded by filthy-rich drug barons and pimps. I'm sure that in such a passionate, not to mention liberal, society I could shake off the malaise of Western civilization. You're right, Sophie: I'll go straight to a travel agent as soon as I get home.”
How peculiarly French that the same generation which had reclaimed Céline's literary genius despite his anti-Semitism could fail to take the satirical elements in The Elementary Particles as anything more than a narrow harangue meant to undermine the political legacy of May '68. The book's intelligence is certainly critical, but it is also comprehensive and precise, which, together with its narrative force, is what makes The Elementary Particles a major achievement in contemporary fiction. It tells the story of two half brothers—Bruno, a writer, and Michel, a scientist—who muddle their way through their broken lives, alternately seeking and avoiding relationships with family and lovers, biding their time at work, and touring the French countryside and sex resorts, until they reach, quite literally, the end of man. Michel's work is responsible for a new, genetically engineered species of humans, “asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality, individuation and progress.”
Houellebecq began his writing career as a poet, and his recently released album, Présence humaine, his first, is best seen as an extension of his poetry. The instrumental work here sounds a lot like the pretechno synthesizer stuff that passed for French rock before MC Solaar, Air, and DJ Dimitri. Though Houellebecq doesn't play an instrument himself, he handles the lyrics, speaking (not singing) in a voice that registers somewhere around Leonard Cohen's bass. If the music is pretty insipid, the lyrics, drawn from the several volumes of Houellebecq's poetry, are not half bad. This is from the seventh and longest song on the album, “Plein été”: “Je suis le chien blessé, le technicien de surface / Et je suis la bouée qui soutient l'enfant mort.” (“I'm the wounded dog, the technician of surface / And I'm the life preserver propping up the dead child.”) In contemporary French poetry, this sort of raw imagery passes for direct statement. It's as rare as rhyming quatrains, which Houellebecq also uses. To find it, you have to go back to Baudelaire, the master technician of surface.
Indeed, if Sartre's politically engaged intellectual constitutes one tradition in French letters, Baudelaire's darker, more solitary poet works the other. Skeptical of petitions to man's rational side, Baudelaire is hardly anyone's idea of an engaged intellectual, and Houellebecq is at least as suspicious. “I don't believe in democracy or rational choices,” he told me recently. “I'm not interested in freedom. It's not a clear concept. Freedom is a mystery that sometimes happens to people.”
If the legacy of May '68, with its universalist claims to individual freedom, has really amounted to nothing more than dysfunctional families, psychotropic drugs, and swingers' clubs (changistes), then maybe France really does need a Sartre to lead it out of the darkness. Houellebecq, for his part, imagines France's EU nightmare—a species without individuation, without nation. Despite his clear lack of interest in the task, Houellebecq, it seems, will once again be asked to play the engaged intellectual. With the Human Genome Project now reaping Neil Armstrong-size headlines across the world, The Elementary Particles, will no doubt get caught up in the inevitable swirl of debates on the ethics of genetic engineering. What sorts of limits should we set on genetic manipulation? Shouldn't mankind press ahead with scientific progress and leave the philosophy till later? “I think all my books have ethical lessons,” says Houellebecq. “But ethical lessons are so simple, aren't they?” It's the sort of moment Sartre lived for.
SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “A Perfect Genetic Future.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 240 (2 November 2000): 21.
[In the following review, Rubin asserts that The Elementary Particles functions as a provocative “jeremiad” but finds flaws in its implausible premise and dialogue.]
A literary sensation in France, hailed as a great novel by critics in the rest of Europe, Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is an odd mixture of penetrating insight and old-fashioned ineptitude.
Although critics have compared its author to Balzac, Beckett, and Camus, it is no more a literary masterpiece than Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Like Huxley's social prophecy, this is a novel that tackles big, life-changing ideas. But unlike Huxley's masterfully conceived vision of a prosperous, blandly hedonistic world governed by genetic and social engineering, the vision of the future that Houellebecq presents is poorly conceived: so full of holes, you could drive several small planets through them.
The unknown narrator tells the story from the perspective of a transcendently different “new world order” that has come about in the 21st century: “What men considered a dream, perfect but remote, / We take for granted as the simplest of things,” declares an unidentified poet in the book's prologue. In this respect, Houellebecq's approach is rather like Peter Ackroyd's in The Plato Papers. But if both books share a vision of a harried, neurotic, materialistic world giving way to a joyous spiritual realm, Houellebecq's prose has none of the poetry of Ackroyd's.
Houellebecq gives us a pair of dissimilar half-brothers, born in 1956 and 1958, to a promiscuous, proto-hippie mother who consigned each of them to the care of a different grandmother. Bruno, the older, is a sad and typical child of his era: obsessed with sex, but not attractive or charismatic enough to rate very high in the sexual marketplace. Michel, the younger, has no sex drive, but a brilliant and original scientific mind that enables him to devise a plan for a new race of genetically engineered asexual beings who will replace humans.
The specifics of Michel's plan are not disclosed until the final pages of the book, and are rather anticlimactic. In order to accept the premise that it is possible to create a new race of beings who will be morally as well as physically improved to the point of perfection by genetic engineering, it would be necessary to believe that one's genetic makeup totally determines what kind of person one will be. It also presumes that an ability to genetically produce seemingly desirable qualities of temperament or disposition—say, calmness rather than excitability, pliability rather than stubbornness—is tantamount to creating morally superior people.
The bulk of the book—and its strength—lies in its scathing jeremiad against contemporary society. The culmination of the so-called sexual liberation of the 1960s, Houellebecq argues, is a society without moral values of any kind: “Actionists, beatniks, hippies and serial killers were all pure libertarians who advanced the rights of the individual against social norms and against what they believed to be the hypocrisy of morality, sentiment, justice, and pity. … Having exhausted the possibilities of sexual pleasure, it was reasonable that individuals … should turn their attentions to the wider pleasures of cruelty.” These, indeed, are words spoken by Bruno, the brother who is himself immersed in the pursuit of sexual satisfaction, and who can speak first-hand of the loneliness and emptiness that are its end results.
The story, filled with graphic portrayals of sexual excess, is not for the squeamish. But unlike some writers, Houellebecq succeeds in making it seem repellent, chilly, and sad rather than titillating. The dialogue, however, is almost comically awkward: When the brothers get together to talk, they sound as if they are reading aloud from polemical articles.
In many ways more manifesto than novel, The Elementary Particles is full of provocative ideas, powerfully expressed. But a great work of literature? Not likely. A book that people should read? Yes.
SOURCE: Berman, Paul. “Depressive Lucidity.” New Republic 223, no. 21 (20 November 2000): 25-9.
[In the following review, Berman explores Houellebecq's dark, unsavory cynicism and social criticism in The Elementary Particles, noting similarities with Honoré de Balzac's reactionary perspective.]
The narrator of Michel Houellebecq's first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, or Extension of the Field of Struggle, visits a shrink, who diagnoses him with a grim-sounding condition called “depressive lucidity.” In Houellebecq's second novel, The Elementary Particles—the book that has aroused all kinds of controversies in France in the last couple of years, and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and is bound to arouse its share of American controversies, too—a main character likewise visits a shrink. The same diagnosis is proposed: “depressive lucidity.” There is a pattern here. Now that I have read three volumes of Houellebecq's poetry, too, plus a collection of essays and prose poems, and have listened to his CD and his rock band, I feel confident in diagnosing “depressive lucidity” as the dominant condition afflicting whole aspects of this man's very strange writings and commentaries.
Depression does not make for an attractive or even a natural theme for a novel. The narrator of Extension du domaine de la lutte is a hopelessly isolated sad-sack computer technician in Paris who has no girlfriends, no friends except for an unhappy priest, no congenial workmates, no enthusiasm for his job, and no ability to savor anything that comes his way. The computer company sends him on a business trip to Rouen, where he sits in a cafe. A scary German dog ruins the atmosphere. A wedding procession passes through the street. The bride and groom turn out to be old and homely. The narrator orders a pizza. It tastes bad. He attends a porno movie. The hall is full of disgusting, masturbating exhibitionists. He falls ill. No one gives a damn about getting him to the hospital.
Life is narrow, dark, and acrid. And in The Elementary Particles things only get worse, unto the creepiest of sci-fi calamities. The novel's two protagonists, Michel and Bruno, half-brothers, grow from childhood into middle age with opposite personalities, neither of which proves to be even remotely adapted to the rigors of life. Michel, a timid scientific nerd, finds no pleasure in sex, is barely capable of love, and customarily lives in isolation. Bruno, an abrasive literary screwball, is a man who, when his mental state sags, masturbates in public, and, when his mental state recovers a bit, finds a fleeting pleasure by hanging out in sex clubs, in spite of how bad he feels about the modest size of his penis.
People commit suicide right and left, especially women. The gates of the mental institution are always yawning open. Only the weakest of threads ties one person to the next. You have to feel sorry for everyone involved, except for the people who are too detestable for pity. And you do have to wonder how even the most talented of writers could possibly work up ingredients as thin as these into a novel of any tastiness or texture. Novelists have lavished riches of literary skill on the topic of extreme economic impoverishment, but what can be done with extreme impoverishment in the realm of emotion? Every man is a millionaire in his emotions, Isaac Bashevis Singer said. But not in the novels of Michel Houellebecq. He himself acknowledges the difficulty in Extension du domaine de la lutte: “This progressive effacement of human relations is not without posing certain problems for the novel.”
But then, in Houellebecq's case, there is also the other half of his diagnosed depression, the “lucidity.” The lucidity in question turns out to be mostly abstract—the sort of crisp clarity in reasoning that is taught in philosophy classes. He theorizes on scientific and metaphysical themes—on the rarity and the unavoidability of mutation in chemicals and in organic life. He theorizes on history. He adopts, in The Elementary Particles, a doctrine out of Auguste Comte, and in good Comtean fashion sketches the stages of development which mankind has had to traverse, from primitive times through Christianity to the present epoch, with intimations of the catastrophic future.
He theorizes on the rise of individualism and on its sorry meaning for sex, love, and truth. You might wonder if an analytic lucidity on airy topics such as those can possibly suit a novel any better than does his bleak landscape of depressed isolated consciousness. For what is the purpose in writing novels? Isn't it to discover a middle terrain between the low-grounds of lonely, individual awareness and the heights of pure abstraction? Shouldn't a novel go tramping instead through the leafy trails of social existence, where people are husbands and wives and brothers and friends and enemies? Where life is verdant with facts and relations? But then, as I will not be the first to observe, the novel can do many things, and in the area of lucid theorizing Houellebecq can call on some noble precedents.
His character Bruno in The Elementary Particles composes a couple of outrageous racist essays about the inferiority of black men, “animals with big cocks and small reptilian brains,” and sends the essays to a famous novelist in Paris—who, in a bit of mischief, Houellebecq has named “Philippe Sollers,” though the real Sollers cannot be held accountable for anything that Houellebecq has done to him. The famous novelist responds warmly by saying to Bruno, “You're a real reactionary, that's good. All the great writers were reactionaries: Balzac, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Dostoevsky.” That is a nice set of names, and listing them shows some gumption on Houellebecq's part, as a budding literary reactionary himself. Céline, too, would appear to be one of his ancestors, due to his bitterness and self-loathing (and his loathing for entire races of other people).
But in the matter of analytic lucidity, the name that leaps up from the reactionary list is surely Balzac's. I say Balzac partly because, in Houellebecq's volume of essays and prose poems, Rester vivant, or Staying Alive, he offers a compact and mildly rueful defense of The Human Comedy—of the fantastic energy in Balzac's characters, and the realism within Balzac's lack of realism. “After all,” says Houellebecq, “in life there remain real elements of melodrama. Above all, in the life of other people, elsewhere.” But mostly Balzac seems to me apposite because—as Houellebecq himself has pointed out in the oddly titled magazine Les Inrockuptibles, a hip publication—Balzac made a habit of theorizing lucidly on any number of themes, and doing it in a cool, detached style, like a scientist.
Balzac's theorizing led him to divide the whole of The Human Comedy into dry-sounding units called “Studies”—such as “Philosophical Studies”—quite as if he had written a series of research papers instead of novels. And what did Balzac say in those scientifically lucid reveries? In one of his “Philosophical Studies,” a tale called “The Search for the Absolute” (which Houellebecq doesn't mention in anything of his that I have read, but which seems to me loosely connected to The Elementary Particles), Balzac manages to speculate on a range of matters—from the diminishing variety of European culture and its reflection in architecture (a Houellebecqian theme), to the superior desirability of women with physical deformities, and onward to the deepest chemical elements of all existence and the possibility of finding our way, by means of scientific experiment, to the inmost secrets of life and the universe.
And none of that takes away from Balzac's art. On the contrary, you follow his philosophizing, and you feel that you are in contact with the manias of the writer himself, and not just those of his characters. You feel the intensity that drove him forward. In Balzac's case, that intensity was a doctrine about amorous passion. He wanted to postulate a world of untrammeled passion, especially the passion of husbands and wives for each other in good Catholic union, though he was willing to consider other combinations, too. He wanted to show that untrammeled passion is always being obstructed by some odious or irritating force.
And so he looked around, and set out to catalogue all the cheapening and obstructive aspects of the life of his time—to show us how awful are the greedy peasants, and how grotesque are the appalling Jews who have come to participate in French society, and how horrible are the workings of crass social climbing in an ambition-addled place like bourgeois Paris, not to mention in the provinces, and how dreadful are the uppity women who have lost their traditional sense of a woman's properly subservient role. He wanted to say, fie upon those many horrid modern things, fie upon the French life of his own times, fie upon modernity!
He wanted to show that, in some other era, emotions were purer and the flames of passion leaped higher. It was in earlier times, in the years before the French Revolution—in the age before that most terrible of crimes took place, the beheading of the king. For if there was any one act that tamped down the natural ardor between men and women, Balzac wanted to insist, it was the tragic decapitation of Louis XVI. Regicide undid the proper hierarchy of French society, and therefore of family life. Regicide ruined a civilization in which men were men and women were women—a civilization in which women trembled in adoration and even in fear of their haughty husbands, and men responded with manly confidence and zeal, and passion burned white. Balzac was a reactionary, in sum, because he was a Romantic.
Houellebecq's lucidity and scientific tone owe quite a bit to that sort of fantasizing, in an up-to-date version. Houellebecq knows that his characters are pathetic losers. He despises them. Bruno in The Elementary Particles becomes a high school teacher and exposes himself to one of his students, an act than which nothing could be more contemptible. But Houellebecq has a theory of how his characters have ended up in such a sorry pass. It is owing to the dreadful evolution of modern life. Things used to be better, years ago—in the age of aristocracy and romantic love.
In the aristocratic age, he says, “a man would feel a certain affection for his spouse—though not before she'd borne his children, made a home for them, cooked, cleaned and proved herself in the bedroom.” Men were faithful. They looked to their children to carry on the family name and honor. The age of romantic love was especially wonderful. Houellebecq is a brave writer, normally speaking, and shows a studied indifference to how anyone will receive him. The New York Times Magazine sent a reporter his way, and he does seem to have enjoyed making an ass of himself. But for some reason, in his novels he affirms his points about aristocracy and romantic love in a timid spirit, as if even he, the earnest reactionary, cannot help fretting about looking silly.
On the delicate topic of aristocracy, Houellebecq's narrator affirms that, despite the terrible things that you may have heard about inequality and oppression under feudal regimes, the humble social classes in those days were by no means denied access to the aristocracy's noble doctrine of family life: “Merchants, craftsmen and peasants also bought into the idea.” The narrator concedes that, in regard to romantic love, the relation between the sexes has not always achieved an ideal balance. Arranged marriages do not attract his admiration. And when did the custom of arranging marriages come to an end? It was in the 1950s. Only, a pity, the end of arranged marriages was followed all too quickly by the onslaught of sexual liberation. And so, as a result, “it would be fair to say that the late 1950s and early 1960s were the ‘golden age of romantic love’—a time we remember today through the songs of Jean Ferrat and early Françoise Hardy.”
In contrast to Balzac, who postulated as his Good Old Days the many centuries of Ancien Régime before the tragic beheading of 1793, Houellebecq's Good Old Days of aristocracy and romantic love appear to have lasted about five years, from circa 1958, which happens to be the year of his own birth, to 1963 or thereabouts. He does not mean to be funny about this. But it strikes me that hardly anyone today seems capable of laying out a properly reactionary yearning for times past without hitting a slightly ridiculous note. How else to explain the comic tone, wholly unintended, that you find in a certain kind of conservative magazine today, in America as much as in France—the Allan Bloom problem, you might call it, where the author means to be a terrible scourge, only to end up thumping an indignant pinky on the table?
Houellebecq's absurdity will have to be excused, then. He does mean to be serious. And with his several ideas about aristocracy and romantic love in place, he tears into his attack. He says that modern science may have solved the problems of material well-being, but material success has only unleashed a new problem. It has unleashed the modern individual, who is driven by the fear of death and by a sense of self to assert a final impulse: “the need to feel superior to the others.” The need comes out as personal competition for money and especially for sex—even though you might have supposed that, under conditions of material plenty, economic and sexual competition would, both of them, have been rendered pointless. But not at all. The knives are out.
Houellebecq, in short, is an anti-liberal. He makes the kind of argument that any number of philosophers and social critics have been making in France for fifty years now. He thinks the bonds of community have snapped. He thinks the sense of morality and good judgment has evaporated, and that people have been left in a wretched isolation, blind to the sources of their unhappiness. And what are those sources? Here Houellebecq sets himself apart. The French Marxists of long ago used to blame capitalism, and the post-structuralists used to blame the anonymous eternal structures of anthropology, and more recently a certain kind of pessimistic French liberal has chosen to blame the whole thrust of world history. Somebody has to be at fault. Houellebecq blames the radicals of the '60s.
He tells us that Michel and Bruno, the nerd and the sex maniac in The Elementary Particles, are the sons of Janine, an enthusiastic sex cultist of the 1950s and 1960s. Janine lived the ideas that came filtering into Europe from the wilder reaches of California and Esalen and the communalism of Aldous Huxley. She was friskily promiscuous in the name of spiritual depth, and took no concern for her little boys, who were brought up by their grandmothers. And this merry irresponsibility of hers, apart from being dreadful for her own children, played its part in the growth of a horrendous murder cult, in the style of Charles Manson, something truly demonic. So the brothers are victims. They grow up as wounded souls. They are the products of hippie madness. And they are furious at their mother. She lies on her deathbed, and Bruno not very prettily calls her an old whore.
On the other hand, when Houellebecq briefly awards to Bruno, the great masturbator, some small experience of love and happiness, the angel in Bruno's life turns out to be a tender hearted, middle-aged, hippie earth-mother, who responds to his troubles by saying things like, “I know what we should do. … We should go and have an orgy on the nudist beach at the Cap d'Agde. You get a lot of Dutch nurses and German businessmen there. … You need a holiday too, and you need to get off with a lot of different women.” So Bruno ends up with a girl just like dear old Mom, whose spirit of sexual adventure is revealed to have its nurturing side, after all.
This is the little twist that makes Houellebecq a novelist and not a pamphleteer. But then, he does have his ideas, and the hippie earth-mother suffers a medical catastrophe in the course of getting gang-banged, and suicide is, as always, the result. So the accusatory finger remains in place, not just in The Elementary Particles but in nearly everything I have read by Houellebecq. He wants to show that people like dear old Mom paved the way for the hippie masses of the 1960s and 1970s. And the hippies, together with the political radicals, wreaked the horrors of modern individualism upon mankind. They did it by breaking up the old system of moral restraints and the heritage of aristocracy and romantic love, in the name of their hopeless ideal of egalitarian love and plenty for all.
Taken as a work of social criticism, then, The Elementary Particles, together with Houellebecq's other writings, offers a variation on what in America, at least, has become a well-known accusation. It is the conservative accusation against the '60s generation, the complaint that, in the name of high-minded ideals, the radicals of some thirty years ago ripped out the guts of simple morality, and the normal functionings of society have been a shambles ever since. This aspect of The Elementary Particles (together with the sex-club scenes, of course) accounts for most of the sensation that Houellebecq has made in France. Only, in Houellebecq's variation, the accusation goes even further than what the American conservatives have proposed. This is because, in France, the '60s generation is blamed for undermining sexual morality, general morality, social hierarchy, home, church, and school. And it is blamed for advocating leftist economic ideas.
But most of all it is blamed for the non-leftist market ideas of the 1980s. That decade may have been the right-wing Age of Reagan in the United States, but it was also the left-wing Age of Mitterrand in France, under a socialist government full of veterans of the student barricades of twenty years before; and in both countries, market values and consumer merchandising began to triumph over older, venerated ideas about social life. In the United States, the '60s generation is blamed for being anti-American, but in France the same generation is blamed for being “insufficiently” anti-American—sometimes even for demonstrating an unseemly appreciation for the American popular arts and for America's spirit of innovation. In France, nobody has idolized California's Silicon Valley more than the aging heroes of 1968.
And so, when Houellebecq rails against the '60s generation in France, he is making a larger, more general complaint than America's tub-thumping neoconservatives like to make about the left-wing radicals in the United States. He is complaining about the whole trend of modern life, not just a single tendency. He is complaining about the triumph of the market. And he is complaining about America and its influence.
He resents the evil tone of America's feminists and of feminism generally. He resents the shadow cast by America's demonic hippies on their French counterparts. He attributes the sexual revolution in France to America's popular arts, not just from the evil '60s and '70s. In the course of his two novels he draws a distinction between the malign influence of Marilyn Monroe and that of Brigitte Bardot, who, for reasons that I cannot quite follow, strikes Houellebecq as rather more sympathetic. Janine, the evil mother, goes so far as to rename herself Jane, just to emphasize the American connection.
He complains about the rise of uniformity, which strikes him as an American trait (just as it struck Balzac as a French trait). He blames the Americans for his own obsession with the size of his penis, since the habit of measuring penises derives, in his imagining, from the manias of American pornography, which derive from what he takes to be the American mania for measuring and classifying all things. (America, land of Descartes.) He blames America for his own bad experiences on the internet. You have to laugh at Houellebecq's account, in Rester vivant, of how unhappy he has been, looking for sex partners on the Internet:
Finally, ANNIE doesn't respond any more; has she attained the enchanted summits of mutual desire? So much the better for her, so much the better for her. I settle for SANDRA W. and we begin to chat gently. Everything goes well. Everything goes very well. Packets of numeralized information circulate through the optic fibers with the speed of light. … All is well. I think of Albert Gore, Vice President of the United States, and the initiator of an ambitious project of a multimedia network permitting the transference of ‘voice, text, data, images,’ throughout the American continent. When his project is working, will I be able to hear my interlocutor? Will I be able to masturbate for her in front of a video camera?
But then, having wrapped an American flag around the cheapness of his experience, he goes on, undismayed, to borrow a few bracing and strident tones from the American accusation against the '60s, and to send them ringing through his own accusation. He likes to say that the radicalism of those satanic times dealt blows to the “Judeo-Christian” culture, which has about it the sound of an American politician. (“Judeo-Christian” wasn't Charles Maurras's idea of traditional culture, or Céline's.) In The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq invents a California Republican named Macmillan who has written a wild tract against hippies called, in French, Génération Meurtre, or Murder Generation, arguing that Charles Manson was the truest hippie of all, and serial murderers are the hippie legacy—all of which might bring to mind a real-life right-wing California tract of a few years ago called Destructive Generation, which made similarly bizarre and extravagant claims (mixed with a few good points) about the political radicals of the time. It's worth bearing in mind that Houellebecq's first book, published in 1991, was a study of the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. So Houellebecq, the anti-American, does have his American dimension.
And then, on top of his sillier, wild-eyed views, the novel piles on a few opinions that are positively repulsive, not just in connection to the black race and the black penis. Houellebecq seems to recoil viscerally from signs of aging in women. Nothing strikes him as more horrible than a hippie chick beginning to sag around the edges. In The Elementary Particles, all of these views point, at last, to a sci-fi nightmare of the future. You slowly realize that the story of Michel and Bruno has been written as some sort of formal history in the futuristic aftermath of a biological cataclysm. I will not describe the cataclysm, except to note the parallel between Michel's genetic studies in The Elementary Particles, in collaboration with a scientist unpronounceably named Hubczejak, and the chemical studies of Balzac's hero, Balthazar, in “The Search for the Absolute,” in collaboration with a scientist named Wierzchnownia. Except that, in Balzac, the efforts of Balthazar-Wierzchnownia to get at the heart of all existence come to naught, whereas in Houellebecq the efforts of Michel-Hubczejak lead to … but you will have to discover that for yourself.
Balzac, being a genius, knew how to keep his theorizing and his cast of characters in proper balance, and how to keep everything aloft on ebullient clouds of enthusiasm. Houellebecq, the depressive, cannot do that. The Elementary Particles is an ambitious novel, filled with wild ideas on the biggest of theological and historical themes. And it is built around a complicated frame, with two protagonists and a mysterious sci-fi narrator looking back on current times from a standpoint in the future, and a few hints of Catholic mysticism thrown in, for additional confusion. But the big ideas and the complicated structure are a lot to hang on Houellebecq's thin and saturnine characters. So the novel does end up as something of a pamphlet, too ponderous in its ideas and theories to succeed fully as a novel, too cranky to take seriously as a pamphlet. The translation by Frank Wynne is fluent and natural-sounding, though I notice that Wynne has now and then clouded the clarity of the cranky ideas. Extension du domaine de la lutte, which appeared in 1994, is a much less ambitious book—a thin novel, that only hints at larger thoughts. But the smaller ambitions are more neatly packaged.
There is something original about Houellebecq, though, even at his worst. It is obvious enough in the novels, and in the poetry and everything else he does, too. You might suppose that, with his sexual desperation, his rage at market societies, his hatred for his parents, and his several other bleak and bitter themes, Houellebecq's poetry would race down the page in a jagged, broken-metered rant, like the young Allen Ginsberg heading for a touchdown. But not at all. Houellebecq expresses himself in formal, even antique verse forms, with a slightly hortatory tone, rather like Victor Hugo. He is not exactly a master of technique. His ear trips him up every two or three lines. Still, you can't help marveling at how Houellebecq sticks to what are supposed to be smooth and creamy verse structures, even while heaping curses on his dying father or raging about the inequalities of love—as in his book La poursuite du bonheur, or The Pursuit of Happiness:
Dans un ciné porno, des retraités poussifs Contemplaient, sans y croire, Les ébats mal filmés de deux couples lascifs; Il n'y avait pas d'histoire.
Et voilà, me disais-je, le visage de l'amour, L'authentique visage. Certains séduisants; ils séduisent toujours, Et les autres surnagent.
In a porno theater, the wheezy retirees Were watching, without believing, The badly filmed frolics of lascivious couples. There was no story.
And there, I thought, is the face of love, The authentic face. Some people seductive; they always seduce, And the others float along.
Where you do see his best is in the prose-poems and essays. The essays are short, about the length of a one-page piece in a magazine. Some of them were written, in fact, for Les Inrockuptibles and other magazines. They are composed in a sullen tone, which he controls more carefully and consistently than in the novels and more gracefully than in his verse. The essays express a full-scale attitude, if not quite the whole of a personality.
He is angry. He is disenchanted. He belongs to a party, though it is not exactly a political party, not even the party of the dream-filled extreme right. He disavows any ideological affiliation of that sort, for all the satisfaction he takes in his own prejudices. “Partisanship makes for happiness, and you shouldn't be happy,” he says. He belongs, instead, to the gloomy, acrid party—the party of sulphur. “You are on the side of misfortune; you are the somber party.” And he expresses his sulphurous attitude forcefully, even movingly.
If the world is composed of suffering it is because the world is essentially free. Suffering is the necessary consequence of the free play of the parts of the system. You should know that, and say so.
It will not be possible for you to transform suffering into the goal. Suffering is, and cannot by consequence become a goal.
In the wounds that it inflicts on us, life alternates between the brutal and the insidious. Know those two forms. Practice them. Acquire a complete familiarity with them. Distinguish what separates them, and what brings them together. Many contradictions will then be resolved. Your voice will gain strength and amplitude.
Due to the characteristics of the modern epoch, love can hardly be seen anymore; but the ideal of love has not gotten smaller. Being fundamentally situated out of time, like all ideals, it cannot shrink or disappear.
Thus a particularly flagrant ideal-real discordance, source of particularly rich sufferings.
Houellebecq has not wandered into unknown territory in saying these things. But there is something new in his tone. It derives from an amazing absence in his attitude. He is not ironic. He does not hold up sixteen mirrors to admire his own attitudes from ten thousand angles. He does not laugh at himself, or snicker, or even curl his lip, except sometimes. He despises irony. He despises the notion of relative truths. “Poetry is a way of establishing definitive moral truths. You should hate liberty with all your strength. Truth is scandalous, but without it, nothing has any worth.” And so he wants you to discover what is true. “Your deepest mission is to dig toward the Truth. You are the gravedigger, and the corpse.” He says, “An honest and naïve vision of the world is already a masterpiece.”
Houellebecq seems to me honest. He is definitely naïve. Even so, he hasn't written any masterpieces. I sincerely hope that not many people will turn to him for political and sociological insights (though they will, they will). But that tone of his, his oddly lucid whine and shriek, do get under your skin. He is not pallid, he is not a shade of himself. The man is a bit demented, but he is, recognizably, a man, and of the present moment, too.
SOURCE: Shechner, Mark. “The Great Emetic Novel.” New Leader 83, no. 5 (November-December 2000): 50-1.
[In the following review, Shechner contends that The Elementary Particles effectively scorns and satirizes, rather than merely moralizes, the nauseating depravity it describes.]
Two years ago Michel Houellebecq, a seasoned provocateur, became the scourge of French literary circles with the publication of his second novel, The Elementary Particles. “In France,” Emily Eakin wrote this past September 10 in the New York Times Magazine, “Houellebecq is infamous for giving Michel, his biologist antihero, the same last name—Djerzinski—as a high-ranking Stalinist official and then defending the gesture by saying Stalin wasn't such a bad guy. After all, Houellebecq told a French magazine … Stalin ‘killed a lot of anarchists.’ His antipathy for democracy (‘Liberty is equivalent to suffering,’ he said on French television) has caused much hand-wringing among the intelligentsia.” What are the chances of a similar succès de scandale in the United States? French and American readers do not usually rise to the same bait, even when a literary Stalinist is chumming the waters.
The Elementary Particles is a tale of two brothers, Bruno and Michel, who occupy opposing ends of the erotic spectrum—the stalker and the celibate, respectively. It is peppered with portentous references to continental philosophers—Kant, Comte, Nietzsche, Descartes, Marx, Pascal, Sartre, Gilles Deleuze. The Stalinist is also a philosophe. The book comes hailed as a pornotopia, yet frequently bogs down in such windy digressions as: “Remember Pascal: ‘We must say summarily: This is made by figure and motion, for it is true. But to say what these are, and to compose the machine, is ridiculous. But it is useless, uncertain, and painful.’ Once again he's right and Descartes is wrong.” What American reader, not knowing Pascal from pasta, is going to rise up in horror at that sort of thing?
Of course, even in France, you do not make a scandal by outing Descartes; every generation has been there, done that. Rather, Houellebecq takes aim at the entire late 20th-century culture of self-fulfillment and works his way—claws and scratches his way, really—into the entrails of every cow held sacred by the cultural Left, in particular the post-Esalen, pre-Prozac, feel-good Left. Insofar as his meandering tour of therapeutic fashion touches down on both sides of the Atlantic, there will be issues indeed to rile Americans, especially those who at one time or another took the supposed healing arts of the past 40 years as comprehensive guides to the perplexed.
The half-brothers, Bruno Clément and Michel Djerzinski, are gallery exhibits of what can happen when culture gets destabilized and individuals, cut loose from tradition, sign on to cults of experience and liberation. They share a mother, Janine, whose stunning Mediterranean beauty was her passport into la rive gauche, where she danced to bebop at the Tabou with Jean-Paul Sartre. After many lovers, she married Serge Clément, a medical intern about whom Bruno would later say, “You want to know what my dad was like? Give a gorilla a mobile phone and you've got the general idea.”
A modern couple, Serge and Janine find the birth of son Bruno in 1956 incompatible with their personal freedom and ship him off to his maternal grandmother in Algeria. Janine then gets pregnant by a documentary filmmaker named Marc Djerzinski and sheds her husband as quickly as a cobra sheds a skin. Leaving that baby, Michel, with Marc, Janine then takes up with Francesco di Meola, an Italian-American who boasts of big doings in California: Ginsberg and Aldous Huxley and the Esalen Institute. Michel too will wind up with a grandmother, since Marc Djerzinski disappears on a filming trip to Tibet.
These unravelings are the opening credits of the novel, setting the stage for everything that follows. But while the book develops into a gruesome comedy of sex and fashion, we are never allowed to forget that it is at bottom about parents who love recklessly, have children thoughtlessly, and trek off in search of orgasm and satori, leaving grandma up to her derrière in diapers and dishes.
We should not, however, mistake Houellebecq's bitterness, which grinds whole movements under its heel, as anything akin to the family-values piety. Behind his diatribes against feminism, environmentalism, anarchism, Marxism, body worship, nature-worship, and New Age conversations with the Angel there smolders one raging question: Where were the mothers when their children cried?
Although Michel, who grows up to be a famed molecular biologist, gives the book its title, it is Bruno, a sexual predator, whose sufferings are seen up close. An unattractive boy, he is sent to a boarding school in Meaux where he is the “omega male” and is regularly beaten, pissed on, and sodomized. In one of the most brutal scenes in a brutal book, the prefect finds him one night “curled up on the floor of the toilet in the courtyard, naked and covered in shit.” From such experiences, Bruno will be marked with self-loathing: As a young man he becomes a virtuoso of humiliation, a lonely masturbator in search of orgo-redemption, which he finds in the bodies of prostitutes or young women as ungainly as himself—one of whom will throw herself out of a window after a meeting with him.
In the 1980s, as the culture of transcendence-lite takes hold, he camps out at Lieu de Changement, “a place where the principles of self-government, respect for individual freedom and true democracy could be practiced in the ‘here and now.’” All Bruno really wants to do is satisfy his sexual desires here and now and spare himself 13-hour flights to Bangkok. He succeeds, but not before being exposed to the fetishes of the leisure industry: walking on hot coals, transactional analysis, sex meditation, astrology, Egyptian tarot reading, chakra manipulation, crystal healing, Tantric Zen, sensitive Gestalt massage, rebirthing in warm water, and Siberian shamanism. The last “made a remarkable debut when, in 1991, during a long initiation in a sweat lodge fired by sacred coals, an initiate died of heart failure.”
Once he finally meets an undeceived woman named Christiane, he learns the truth: that his despair is normal and that everyone in the place is filled with the same self-contempt. “Men who grow old alone have it easier than older women,” Christiane tells him. “They drink cheap booze and fall asleep, their breath stinks, then they wake up and start all over again; they tend to die young. Women take tranquilizers, go to yoga classes, see a shrink; they live a lot longer and suffer a lot more.”
The passionless Michel, meanwhile, cloisters himself in research, where he will eventually make breakthroughs in DNA as foundational as those of Einstein, Heisenberg and Bohr in particle physics. Beloved in his youth by the beautiful Annabelle (shades of Poe here? Of Nabokov?), he cannot respond to her, and she seeks consolation in marriages, orgies and “liaisons dangereux.” They meet again in their 40s for a wistful reunion, during which she becomes pregnant and aborts immediately when she is discovered to have uterine cancer.
Houellebecq has a temperamental proclivity for bleakness. Annabelle will take her own life rather than die of cancer. Christiane, Bruno's initiatrix into tenderness and partner in orgies, develops a spinal disorder and, paralyzed below the waist, throws herself down a stairwell. Francesco di Meola, who had spirited Bruno and Michel's mother off to California, turns into a maker of snuff movies whose characters are tortured and killed. This is what became of the generation of '68; this is what comes of dancing with Sartre at the Tabou.
Moral tracts can make insufferable novels. But what saves The Elementary Particles from being mere diatribe is its schadenfreude, the delight it takes in the monstrosity it scorns. It is a novelized cousin of tabloid pornography in that regard, a cavalcade of genitals and square-ups.
Bruno, the broken child of the sexual revolution, refuses to give up the rebellious imperatives of the self that, in his mother, had brought such misery to his life. He himself is an indifferent father to a son who is being raised by his ex-wife while he is out being a pilgrim of pleasure. The high points of his existence are the nights spent with Christiane, cruising the echangiste clubs of Paris, where anything goes with anyone who will go with you. It is in one of these, however, that his beloved Christiane collapses in pain while being taken from behind by a stranger.
That Michel is largely offstage in The Elementary Particles is a blessing. As a character he is flatter than last week's soufflé, and we gather that he exists for his contribution to the novel's weird narrative device: It is being told retrospectively from about the year 2075 by one or more of the engineered creatures who have supplanted mankind as we know it and are, it seems, the products of Michel's research. Well, no orgies for those dudes. And no readers either.
The hero of the book is Bruno, whose personal journey to the end of night causes him to end his days sedated in a clinic. It is as if Houellebecq were giving us an updated version of a degeneracy myth: poor Bruno had masturbated once too often and blown his mind. Or perhaps it was the death of his beloved Christiane (what's in a name?), who died for his sins (he had refused to care for her after she was paralyzed), that thrust him over the edge. I would have found the book truer to its pornographic premises if Bruno had emerged strengthened from his afternoons of group sex on the beaches of Languedoc and his nights at the Paris clubs, but the author, in a choice between desire and nausea, finally opted for the latter.
The Elementary Particles is nasty stuff indeed. Stalinism is only the tip of the Houellebecq iceberg. In one scene, a teenage Bruno enters his mother's bedroom one morning and kneels before her vagina; then he goes out and crushes a cat's head with a rock.
In a landmark decision that affected the fate of literature back in 1933, John M. Woolsey, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, declared that while “the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” I have often pondered the good judge's use of the word “emetic” in that decision, since I have never found Ulysses a book to induce vomiting. Michel Houellebecq, however, has pulled out all the stops and come away, I believe, with a modest triumph in his effort to write the great emetic novel.
SOURCE: Lilla, Mark. “Houellebecq's Elementary Particles.” NPQ: New Perspectives Quarterly 18, no. 1 (winter 2001): 53-60.
[In the following essay, Lilla discusses the French critical reaction to The Elementary Particles and how it relates to the era of the fin de siecle.]
Bruno and Michel—the main characters of The Elementary Particles—are half-brothers but did not meet until their teens. Their mother, Janine, abandoned them when they were infants, dropping them into the laps of aging grandparents. A beautiful French girl, she was too busy living her own life to be bothered with husband or children. In the late Fifties she could be seen on the Riviera running with the crowd made famous by the films of Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot. In the early Sixties she was still in the avant-garde, having abandoned St. Tropez to follow a guru to California, where she changed her name to Jane. Between their abandonment and her death the sons hardly saw her.
When we meet them in their 40s Bruno and Michel are still suffering from this trauma. Bruno, the elder one, was packed off at an early age to a French boarding school where he suffered all the humiliations of Young Torless—beatings, torture, rape—at the hands of older students; this being the Sixties, order and discipline had completely evaporated. Bruno became a sexual obsessive, overwhelmed by feelings of physical inadequacy that were only intensified in the promiscuous atmosphere of the Seventies: masturbation, prostitutes, pornography, marriage, divorce, nudist colonies, swingers' clubs. He lives in a state of sexual frenzy that fails to mask an insatiable need for love. He finally finds it one night while being fellated in a jacuzzi under the stars by a woman whose face he cannot see. They become a couple but their happiness is short-lived. The woman suffers from a degenerative bone condition and during an orgy her back breaks, leaving her a paraplegic. Within months she commits suicide and Bruno checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, never to emerge.
Michel, the younger brother, copes by checking out of the new sexual order and withdrawing into himself. He becomes a biologist working in the then young field of genetic engineering, and although he reaches the pinnacle of professional success in Paris he derives no real pleasure from his work and eventually abandons it. He lives alone and has no one to love; the days pass, then the seasons, but nothing happens. Then, quite by chance, he runs into a woman with whom he has had a furtive adolescent relationship. At the time she loved him but he found it impossible to respond, so she eventually left. In the Seventies she got pregnant by the son of Jane's California guru, had an abortion and spent the next two decades in fruitless search for a man who would stay with her. She wants to seduce Michel and succeeds, after a fashion, but it is soon clear that both of them are shell shocked and no longer able to love. Still, she wants a child and Michel agrees to try. She does get pregnant but doctors discover she is rotten with cancer and must abort it. Unable to face the prospect of grueling radiation therapy with little hope of success, she kills herself. Michel oversees the cremation, then leaves France permanently for Ireland, where he devotes himself to quasi-mystical, quasi-scientific speculations about biology, technology and human nature. He then disappears without a trace.
As one reads a summary of Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles, one's heart sinks under the weight of deja vu. The Sixties, sex and drugs, pop culture, divorce, ephemeral love—thanks to Philip Roth, Jay McInerney, Forrest Gump and countless other writers and movies, we have had our noses rubbed in all of this many times before. Can any of it have escaped our attention? One would think not.
Yet to just about everyone's surprise, The Elementary Particles provoked an enormous storm when it was published in Paris in 1998. Michel Houellebecq had already acquired a small but devoted following among the young after the publication of his short novel Extension du domaine de la lutte (Extension of the Domain of the Struggle, 1994), which has recently been translated under the unfortunate title Whatever. I first heard about The Elementary Particles from several French friends who had the book pressed upon them by their children, and these parents were puzzled that it struck such a deep chord with adolescents. The book quickly sold hundreds of thousands of copies and the author found himself under attack as nihilistic and worse from every possible political and literary quarter, including that of former friends with whom he had started a review, Perpendiculaire, from whose board he was purged. I cannot think of another French novel over the past two decades that has generated this much interest, debate and animosity. Yet whenever the French talk about Houellebecq, I always feel certain that they mean something else.
The French fin de siecle began promptly on July 14, 1989. That day marked the bicentenary of the French Revolution, which eerily foreshadowed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The mood was upbeat across Europe, which watched by satellite the multimedia extravaganza put on by the French government that night on the Champs-Elysees. And it was fitting that François Mitterrand should serve as host. While as president he had responded slowly and ineptly to the breakdown of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, he had done more than anyone else to move France into modern Europe; he had effectively buried the French Communist Party and had made peace between the French left and liberal democracy. An important book published at the time by historians Francois Furet, Jacques Julliard and Pierre Rosanvallon made a convincing case that Mitterrand had bridged the cultural divide over the legacy of the French Revolution, making France into a stable centrist republic and ending the centuries-long “French exception.” A new age for France, in a united Europe, seemed in the offing.
But from that day forward, nothing has gone right—or so the French seem to believe. The liberal consensus in politics and economics rubbed contrary spirits the wrong way and they began to complain of the suffocating effects of la pensee unique. The racist radical right, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, refused to disappear, indeed seemed to gain strength whenever the economy took a dive. In 1992 Mitterrand submitted the Maastricht Treaty providing for European union to the French voters, fully confident of victory by a wide margin, only to find himself in a dogfight with opponents of further European integration on the right, left and republican center. The treaty was ratified by the narrowest of margins. By 1993 unemployment reached 12 percent and the Socialists lost control of the National Assembly, forcing Mitterrand to spend the last two years of his term in “cohabitation” with the Gaullists. The stale perfume of la morosite was everywhere.
Jacques Chirac assumed the presidency in 1995, bringing into the government a moderate right-wing majority, which tried to reform the schools and trim social benefits. The response was a series of strikes throughout the public sector, including the schools, where teachers and students marched against the government arm in arm. Out of those strikes a new movement, called “the left of the left,” was born. Its intellectual wing was led by the famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who publishes a review and founded a small publishing house, both named Liber, to militate against “neoliberalism” (the European term for unfettered capitalism), the “media” elite and cultural Americanization.
After Mitterrand died in 1996, it became clear that whatever one thought of his shady manner of governing and his personal duplicity, the French political scene had lost its last masterful homme politique, and it was uncertain what would become of the centrist republic. Jacques Chirac has also been forced to govern in “cohabitation” with a left-wing majority in the Assembly, which helps to maintain the center but also paralyzes it. Bold government action on all the pressing issues of the day—education, social services, crime, economic integration, the Balkans—is usually impossible. The only political gesture capable of rallying the French today appears to be the bulldozing of a McDonald's by a sheep farmer.
The truth be told, the idea of a “centrist republic” was something of a myth and not a terribly popular one. Furet and his collaborators were, in my view, absolutely right to see that the myth of the eternal French Revolution had exhausted itself and was no longer adapted to the practical demands of modern liberal democracy. They were also right to proclaim the death of the Communist myth, which since 1917 had been subtly woven into the French revolutionary one. Working-class “consciousness” disappeared in the 30 years of prosperity following World War II, and France was becoming, like its European neighbors, a society of independent citizens with bourgeois aspirations. I even think Furet was right to assert that, objectively speaking, the French have adjusted to this new social and political order rather well.
But myths are not mirrors of social reality; they are projections of aspirations, which they also reshape over time. Furet hoped that a new “republican” myth would take hold in France, one in which the modest ambitions and capacities of liberal democracy would be accepted, while the centripetal forces of individualism and capitalism would be contained through a commitment to citizenship cultivated, as in the Third Republic, by the public schools.
While this aspiration is shared by many across the political spectrum, a more powerful countermyth grew up in the Nineties. It presents the French with a horrifying dystopian vision of their future in an atomized world of disconnected individuals, spinning in space without attachments to history, the nation, family or friends. It is a world dominated by relentless technological advances that threaten all that is familiar to us, from the bioengineered food we eat to the aging of our bodies. It is, above all, a world in which love and soul have been abolished. Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is the first literary monument to this myth.
A sketch of this monument can be found in Houellebecq's Extension du domaine de la lutte, which is a tighter work of fiction and more successfully realized. It concerns a computer programmer who works in a Dilbert-style office, as it might have been painted by Edvard Munch. Alienated workers stick to their cubicles except for lunch and office parties, where the conviviality is forced and everyone leaves depressed. The unnamed protagonist spends his weekends and evenings alone in his spartan apartment, a brutal modernist bunker surrounded by threatening public spaces. The firm is self-consciously “dynamic”: its directors speak the cheerful langue du bois of management schools while cutting one another's throats on the way to the top. The protagonist is not the competitive type and is therefore hopelessly out of sync with his times. So he is shipped off with another employee, a fat, ugly poseur who is also failing badly in the corporate jungle, and together they make client calls in dreary provincial towns.
The protagonist is obsessed with a former girlfriend, an adept of recreational psychotherapy, who has abandoned him. He sees her as part of the “sacrificed generation” of the sexual revolution, a woman who has had so many “sexual partners” that she is incapable of love and secretly fears becoming old, ugly and alone. He has come to hate her, but even more the sexual revolution that spawned her. So while visiting a disco in Rouen on Christmas Eve with his porcine coworker he decides to take his revenge. He persuades the frustrated young man, who gets nowhere with women, to kill a black man who just left the disco with a hot young (white) thing who has given them both the brushoff. The fool follows them to the beach, where we expect him to perform un acte gratuit modeled on Camus' The Stranger, but nothing happens. He watches the girl perform fellatio, masturbate, and then leaves. That night he dies in a car crash.
Houellebecq has a discerning eye for detail. In his best passages he reminds one of Georges Perec, especially the Perec of the masterful short novel Les choses (1965), which describes in exhaustive thoroughness the consumption habits of a young couple in the Sixties. Houellebecq is just as meticulous, evoking the deserted pedestrian zones in small towns at night, the stench of the fast-food stands, the repulsive tan of the well-coiffed manager on the rise, the banality of corporate slogans, the comical French obsession with vacations. But he also appears to feel that the sum of such details falls short of capturing the vertigo many of the French feel in the empty vortex of their modern lives. “This progressive effacement of human relationships is not without certain problems for the novel,” he remarks in an aside. “We're a long way from Wuthering Heights, to say the least. The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreamy discourse would need to be invented.”
Perec was mocking the hollowness of the new consumer society before the sexual revolution. For Houellebecq, it is sex—or, more precisely, the new relationship between economic and sexual competition—that reveals what we are today, not our consumption patterns. The irony of the title, Extension du domaine de la lutte, may be lost on American readers. In French it sounds like a propaganda slogan put out by radical students in 1968: Take it to the streets! But the struggle Houellebecq has in mind is not the class struggle, it is the new war of all against all that has broken out of the economic sphere and invaded every other. A long passage from the novel sums up his Big Idea:
It's a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. 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 an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find his place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. … Certain people win on both levels; others lose on both. Businesses fight over certain young professionals; women fight over certain young men; men fight over certain young women; the trouble and strife are considerable.
The Elementary Particles is a reworking of this idea, especially through the character of Bruno. What got it more attention than the early novel was Houellebecq's wicked sendup of the soixante-huitards, the student rebels of 1968 who raged against the machine of capitalism and dug up “the beach below the pavement,” but who turned out to be more radical individualists than their parents and bosses. Houellebecq shares a common French interpretation of the Sixties, quite different from our own and quite refreshing. While many Americans see the Sixties as a step in the steady march of democracy—the extension of the domain of struggle, so to speak—many Frenchmen have come to see the events of 1968 as marking the triumph of a new social ideal of individualism, and the snapping of the last attachments of solidarity binding French society together. The family, the Church, the republican schools, even the Communist Party suffered a crisis of legitimacy, from which they have not recovered, in the name of the individual's right to self-determination, a right that has become the sole measure of social legitimacy. Such individualism lies at the heart of Americans' self-understanding as a people but it is a new idea in Europe and it makes the French particularly uneasy.
Houellebecq knows exactly how to play off this discomfort by insinuating the existence of a world-historical process that is smashing the complex molecules of human existence into smaller and smaller particles spinning in space. That process, he seems to believe, reached its final stage in the Sixties. In one of his unguarded essays in the collection Rester vivant, he recounts what it was like being a 10-year-old in 1968 and thinking something important might be happening. But he now sees that “afterward, the social machine began to turn even more rapidly, pitilessly, and May '68 only served to break the few moral rules that still served to brake its voracious operation.” In this machine, everything is coordinated. The forces of neoliberal economics have succeeded in breaking down the last barriers to unfettered global competition—unions, labor laws, tariffs, subsidies, national preferences, even national currencies. (Houellebecq publicly opposed the Maastricht Treaty.)
The sexual revolution has done its part by opening the couple to permanent, relentless sexual competition, aided by feminism, which has encouraged young women to enter this and every other market, while offering solace to resentful older women made redundant. Men have reveled in their new freedom but also felt the sting of competition in the new sexual marketplace, becoming obsessed with their bodies and regressing to the oral stage of sexual development. Children now grow up with parents too selfish and harried to care for them and are abandoned in the sexual jungle to look for love at an early age. Those who succeed as adolescents become slaves as adults to a regime of dieting, exercise, antidepressants, breast augmentation, penile enhancement and liposuction, in a vain effort to maintain their competitive edge. Those who fail are given boxes of condoms in school and told to keep their chins up. You can see them in any classroom: their hair dyed, their bodies pierced to enhance their ugliness. They are lonely, depressed, self-loathing.
Had Houellebecq merely wanted to exploit all France's unconscious fears in the Nineties, he could hardly have done better than writing these two novels. But when one looks to his journalism, interviews and even poetry, it becomes apparent that he sees the world much as his characters do. This has led to some confusion in France because it makes him difficult to place politically. The literary group he helped form, and which excommunicated him, Perpendiculaire, had left-wing proclivities, and Houellebecq was a frequent contributor to Les Inrockuptibles, a slick, generation-X magazine whose political line follows that of Pierre Bourdieu. Extension du domaine de la lutte could be admired in those circles but The Elementary Particles could not. The veterans of 1968 found his mocking caricatures of them unforgivable and there are passages on race in the book that made people wince. As Bruno slides into madness he begins writing Celine-like rants about how “we envy and admire the Negro because we long to regress, like him, to our animal selves; to be animals with big cocks and small reptilian brains …” Houellebecq then, in a brilliant touch, has Bruno submit these pamphlets to Philippe Sollers, a slick former Maoist turned literary mandarin who makes and breaks careers in France. Sollers reads them and announces warmly, “Vous avez du talent.”
Houellebecq can appear obsessed with miscegenation. Both novels feature black sexual athletes who provoke envious rage in white men, and many of his characters have foreign-sounding names: Janine's maiden name is Ceccaldi, Michel's father is Djerzinsky, the guru is di Meola. Is France becoming a mongrel nation? Many Frenchmen fear so, but it is this fear, not race itself, that is Houellebecq's real subject. In 1991, before he turned to writing novels, he published a short study of the American master of the gothic story, H. P. Lovecraft. Like many of Lovecraft's admirers Houellebecq considers him to be a literary genius but, unlike them, he makes no attempt to hide the fact that Lovecraft was a self-avowed racist who, for a time, supported Hitler. Houellebecq surmises that it was Lovecraft's move from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City that transformed his genteel WASP racism into “the brutal hate of a trapped animal forced to share his cage with animals of a different, threatening species.” Lovecraft, like Bruno in The Elementary Particles, is a racist out of misanthropic fear, a fear generated by the “machine” of modern life that knows no rules but competition and the survival of the fittest. It is thanks to the triumph of neoliberalism—economic, political, cultural, sexual—that we are all racists now.
For Houellebecq, Lovecraft is a “case.” But he is also something of a visionary. His creepy stories typically revolve around a decadent, deracinated Anglo-Saxon family and its encounter with inhuman forces from another dimension that can only be entered with inhuman forces from another dimension accessed through the magic arts. Science, rather than revealing the danger, blinds us to it. His famous story “The Call of Cthulhu” begins like this:
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
To which Houellebecq remarks:
Humans of the 20th century now ending, this hopeless cosmos is absolutely ours. This abject universe, where fear ripples in concentric circles out to the unnamable revelation, this universe where our only imaginable destiny is to be crushed and devoured—we recognize this absolutely as our mental universe.
There is a great deal of bogus science in The Elementary Particles, most of it connected to Michel's work in genetics. What Houellebecq seems to be suggesting here is that there is a subtle connection between the rise of individualism and the rise of biotechnology, the first fueling the second as we seek to reshape our natures in order better to control them. The result, though, could be a Lovecraftian horror story in which we actually succeed and are forced to encounter some horrible truth about ourselves. That seems to be the point of the prologue to the novel, which speaks of a “great metaphysical mutation” taking place, and the epilogue, a dystopian fantasy about how Michel's research finally makes possible in the 21st century the decoupling of sexuality and reproduction, preparing the way for the breeding of a perfectly satisfied, posthuman species without egos or souls.
Or is it dystopian? One of the most curious scenes in Houellebecq's curious book is a conversation between Bruno and Michel about Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. After a few drinks Bruno insists that it actually describes a utopia and is an accurate representation of our collective unconscious wishes:
Everyone says that Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that's hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world we have tried—and so far failed—to create.
In the end, Houellebecq leaves us hanging about our future—not about its shape but about its goodness. Here, too, he is playing with an important French myth, this time that of the “end of history” and the “last man,” recently revived by Francis Fukuyama. In the 1930s the Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojeve taught a famous seminar on Hegel in Paris, in which he explained how Hegel's discovery of the motor of history—the struggle for equal recognition among individuals—led to the discovery that history was about to end in what Kojeve called the “homogeneous universal state.” At the political level, this state would be a set of global administrative and economic institutions run by technically competent bureaucrats free from the traditional conflicts of politics. But at the social level it would mean the disappearance of most of the human characteristics that drove history hitherto, and the cultivation of perfectly satisfied individuals living for little more than consumption, erotic satisfaction and sports.
This haunting image harks back to Nietzsche, who in Thus Spoke Zarathustra heaped contempt on the modern, enlightened European, calling him “the last man”: a hollow-chested, thoroughly domesticated being “who makes everything small.” Kojeve's syncretic vision of our post-human fate was highly influential—his students included Andre Breton, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, Raymond Queneau, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and even Raymond Aron—and it continues to make up part of the mental furniture of French intellectual life. But, as a French wag remarked to me about The Elementary Particles, it's not only about the “last man,” it seems to have been written by one. Houellebecq has made the mistake of granting numerous interviews about his latest book and the more he tries to explain his ideas the less coherent they become. He has also taken to the road with a band that backs him while he reads his flat-sounding poetry, and recordings of these performances can be purchased on CD. There is now the obligatory Houellebecq website (www.multimania.com/houellebecq/) and a film based on The Elementary Particles is said to be underway. (The film of Extension du domaine de la lutte has already appeared in France.)
All this conventional self-promotion seems unfortunate. Clotted with confused theoretical speculations, The Elementary Particles is not a distinguished literary work; but it is a very knowing evocation of the night thoughts disturbing the slumber of the French centrist republic today. It will be interesting to see what sort of echo it has in the United States. Individualism, the collapse of authority, the breakdown of the family, pop-culture decadence, globalization, the flexible workplace, genetic engineering—we have different ways of conceiving and worrying about these problems. The American left objects to some of them, the right anguishes about others, but no one sees them all connected in the way Houellebecq does, certainly no American novelist. That may reflect our equanimity and common sense. Or it may mean that Houellebecq is on to something.
SOURCE: Gardels, Nathan. “Cloning: Central Planning of the 21st Century?” NPQ: New Perspectives Quarterly 18, no. 1 (winter 2001): 56.
[In the following review, Gardels examines Houellebecq's depiction of global capitalism and social anomie as a precursor to genetic engineering in The Elementary Particles.]
French novelist Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is a book of brutal truths about the cultural upheaval that spread across Europe and America from the 1960s through the 1970s. Unlike memoirs of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China that focus on the horrors of the time, this novel is about the personal and social consequences decades later of what we might call the Great Western Cultural Revolution.
Through the lenses of his characters Bruno and Michel, half-brothers whose mother left them to live unencumbered in California, Houellebecq ponders how liberation, sexual and otherwise, smashed not only authority and a sense of responsibility, but love itself. In the name of throwing off oppressive tradition, the protracted revolt of the 60s generation as it marched through society's institutions acted as a battering ram for the unrestrained freedom of market-mediated self-interest.
As Houellebecq sees it, by dismantling any meaningful commitment to community and others the liberatory movements of the later decades of the 20th century opened the floodgates to consumerism, allowing it to invade every aspect of life and turning all those liberated individuals into aimless atoms competing with each other for recognition. Thus the title The Elementary Particles.
If there are any heroes in this disturbing novel, it is Bruno's wrinkled old grandmother who unglamorously raises him with unconditional love, expecting nothing in return. She is not in the market. She just cares without calculation. Suddenly she dies and there is a terrifying emptiness.
In this critique Houellebecq shares the perspective of other French critics of totalistic capitalism from Régis Debray to Jacques Delors, who condemn American-led globalization as pushing not a market economy, but a “market society,” on the rest of the world. Houellebecq's notion of free individuals as elementary particles is also similar to Pope John Paul II's view that, absent divine love and a moral order, men and women today live too often in “solitude without hope.” “Bowling alone” is how the American sociologist Robert Putnam has put it.
But Houellebecq's brilliance comes in asking “what next?” He answers by imagining how our liberated civilization will mesh with the genetic revolution. It is this dark vision of posthuman history that may make Houellebecq the George Orwell of our time.
Being a French intellectual, Houellebecq sees the world in dialectical motion as phenomena turn into their opposite. The radical injustice of early capitalism gave birth to the overcompensation of totalitarian communism. Closer to his theme, the Frankfurt School critical theorists famously postulated that German fascism arose not as conventionally thought because of the authoritarian character of the paternalistic German family, but the opposite: The absence of the father from the home as he went to work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution led to the yearning for a Führer to fill the gap.
Similarly, for Houellebecq, a civilization anxious and exhausted from the incessant competition of radical freedom will too easily be drawn toward the happy womb of biological conformism. This is what is suggested by Houellebecq's character, Michel, a genetic scientist whose last name is the same as the founder of the Soviet KGB, Djerzinsky.
Accustomed to the hollowness of living without love, yet still consumers obsessed with youthful mortality, won't such a civilization, asks Houellebecq, turn to the predesigned survival of the fittest through cloning, the central planning of the 21st century?
SOURCE: Moore, Steven. “Getting Physical.” Washington Post Book World 31, no. 3 (21-27 January 2001): 7.
[In the following review, Moore judges The Elementary Particles to be a “fascinating and repugnant” novel.]
A little over a hundred years ago, Tolstoy shocked the reading public with his novella The Kreutzer Sonata, a brutally frank denunciation of the mating habits of the upper classes. Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles, which at one point features a character reading The Kreutzer Sonata, sent similar shock waves through Europe after its publication two years ago. Though undoubtedly provocative and intriguing, it is unlikely to have the same effect here. In Europe public literary controversies still exist, whereas here a novel will make the news only if there are some political ramifications (as with Rushdie's Satanic Verses) or a tantalizing question of authorship (as with Primary Colors). The Elementary Particles has the added disadvantage of being so extreme in its views that it will be repugnant to most readers.
The novel is an account of two half-brothers coming of age in the '70s and finding a world that has lost its sense of community, morality and purpose. Instead of regarding the '60s as a time of liberation, of the rejection of hypocrisy, repression and conformity, Houellebecq—like many reactionaries here as well as in France—considers the '60s a disaster, when community was rejected in favor of rampant individualism and morality thrown out the window along with constricting ties and bras. The legacy of the French student revolt of 1968 and hippies dancing in the mud at Woodstock is the soulless, immoral, consumer society we now live in—a thesis so ludicrous that Houellebecq needs to go to extremes to defend it.
His two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno Djerzinski, were born to a beatnik mother who was too flaky to stick with one father, and who shipped the kids off to different grandmothers so that she could fly to California and join the burgeoning hippie movement in the early '60s. Bruno was sexually molested by his fellow students in primary school and grows up to be a sexual maniac who eventually winds up in an institution. Michel, a quiet, emotionless nerd, becomes a molecular biologist who makes revolutionary discoveries in cloning and paves the way for the brave new world of eugenics portrayed in the closing pages of the novel (which are set 80 years from now). Most of the people surrounding the brothers are so unhappy with the world bequeathed to them by those irresponsible hippies that they resort to suicide.
Instead of calling for a return to pre-'60s morality, as many conservatives do, Houellebecq (pronounced well-beck) looks to the future for a paradigm shift that would do away with the inefficient mechanics of sexual reproduction and alter the genetic code to create a race of perfect beings who have overcome “the forces of egotism, cruelty and anger” that drive our current civilization. Sexuality, which plays a major part in this novel—Bruno's escapades in nudist colonies and swingers' clubs are especially graphic—would be transformed into an activity divorced from reproduction. Tolstoy's solution to the sex drive was abstinence: Just say nyet. Houellebecq's equally naive solution is to extend the sensitivity of the genitals via genetic engineering “to cover the entirety of the epidermis, offering new and undreamed-of erotic possibilities.” Sounds like something a sex-crazed hippie would come up with.
Despite its daft ideas, The Elementary Particles is a fascinating read, aided by an exceptionally smooth translation by Frank Wynne. Like our own Richard Powers and Rebecca Goldstein, Houellebecq makes extensive use of scientific knowledge in his fiction, often with unsettling results. The death of a character will be followed by a detailed scientific account of the putrefaction of corpses, and another character's act of aggression will inspire an aside on hierarchical structures in animal societies. In Houellebecq's view, we are not a little lower than the angels, as the Bible flatters us, but merely a little higher than the animals, and he gives enough evidence to substantiate this hard truth. In the sections dealing with Michel, there are extensive discussions of quantum physics, molecular biology and the typology of meiosis, along with casual references to such things as the EPR paradox and Griffiths's Consistent Histories. Prepare to be challenged.
Houellebecq brings impressive erudition and a gutsy willingness to offend to his attempt to re-think and re-imagine the bases for civilization, an ambitious task most novelists would shrink from and which earns our respect, no matter how sharply we might disagree with him. Like Huxley's Brave New World, which is cited in The Elementary Particles and obviously influenced it, Houellebecq's novel is equally fascinating and repugnant, the kind of mutant gene that keeps the evolution of the novel interesting.
SOURCE: Feehily, Gerry. “A World on the Brink of Collapse.” New Statesman 130, no. 4542 (18 June 2001): 56-8.
[In the following essay, Feehily discusses Houellebecq's literary celebrity, personal life, and controversy surrounding Atomised.]
In the tunnels of the Parisian metro, the poster seems innocuous at first: “Stop talking about it. Read it.” However, the talking point in question, a well-known novel entitled Les Particules élémentaires, is already three years old, and has been read by almost a million people. This is a remarkable figure for a literary novel that is not without difficulty; but its French publishers are clearly expecting an even greater yield, and have chosen a front cover depicting its author, Michel Houellebecq, in relaxed mode, a plastic shopping bag about his wrist. It is difficult to imagine anything quite like this happening to a British author. But Houellebecq's book—translated into English as Atomised—is a cultural artefact all of a piece with its chain-smoking, dishevelled author, who somewhat mockingly surmises the swell of evening commuters.
Atomised is a tortured, often demented book, concerned with the fate of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel—victims, or case histories, of the sexual revolution. Abandoned by their mother, Janine, as the Sixties start to swing, the boys are raised separately, unaware of each other's existence until adolescence. In both cases, the early damage is irreparable. While Janine, even in old age, remains on a quest for personal fulfilment, the boys, now men, are social misfits. A bioengineer, Michel is a loner afflicted by perpetual numbness, while the intellectual Bruno prowls around Parisian sex clubs, brothels and New Age nudist colonies in search of sexual gratification. In their forties, both men find soulmates, but these women are soon wrenched away from them by cancer, degenerative disease and finally suicide. Sent mad, Bruno dissolves into a never-never land in a psychiatric ward, while Michel pursues research that leads, in 2029, to the creation of the first human clone, an immortal being engineered for pleasure, incapable of violence, cruelty and despair. It is this being, we finally realise, who is our narrator. Homo sapiens, as the song goes, have outgrown their use.
For all its sci-fi fantasy, Atomised is rooted in fact. Born in 1958, in La Réunion, to a mountain-guide father and a hippy mother, Houellebecq was himself abandoned, and was brought up by his maternal grandmother in Crécy-en-Brie, an unprepossessing suburb to the east of Paris. Educated in the post-1968 period, Houellebecq was profoundly affected by the loosening of disciplinary restrictions in his school in nearby Meaux, leading as it did to a new regime where the boys were left to their own devices. This resulted in predictable and catastrophic results (a suicide every month was not uncommon). From early knocks such as these, Atomised derives its desperate sense of loss. It differs, however, from the standard accusatory novel, in that the usual villains—abusive parents or relatives—are in thrall to world historical processes, particularly extreme 1960s individualism.
Central to Atomised is the idea that sexual liberation destroyed the family—“the last unit separating the individual from the market”. Thus isolated, a mere particle pitted against millions of others, the modern individual experiences life as a hopeless grind of solitude and frustration. Atomised takes graphic issue with everything the post-1968 left holds dear, from ecology to feminism. A former communist in a country where left and right are still distinct, Houellebecq has been accused of selling out to conservatism, especially after his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte—published in English with the slackerish title Whatever—was a politically on-side attack on globalisation and the consumer society.
But in Atomised, Houellebecq broke, to some extent, political ranks. An extraordinary campaign of vilification ensued, particularly in the left-wing press, with feminists, ecologists and New Age groups lining up to brand him as anything from a reactionary to a pornographer. He responded gleefully, defending and developing some of the more cranky opinions of his character Bruno. In the end, Houellebecq was arraigned before the editorial board of Perpendiculaire, a radical literary review to which he was a contributor. Called on to account for Bruno's racist opinions—towards the end of the novel, he writes increasingly barmy diatribes against “negro regression”—Houellebecq countered that racism was a non-issue, preferring instead to develop his own fantastical ideas about the future of cloning. He lauded the Pope for his perspicacious analysis of the west's decline, and declared tritely that ultra-Catholics were “nice”. It remained only for his somewhat po-faced and less successful peers to banish him from the review on the grounds of “political irresponsibility”, not before launching a hysterical press campaign, during which Houellebecq was mentioned in the same breath as the Vichy collaborator Robert Brasillach and, most extraordinarily, Hitler.
Reactions in the UK have been considerably more measured. Commentators from both sides of the political spectrum have been lavish in their praise. This may say something about the Francophile leanings of British intellectuals—when it comes to obscenity and universal theories, after all, the French rush in where Anglos fear to tread. The UK edition has been reprinted in hardback five times—which is remarkable for a foreign-language author—and the paperback is selling briskly. In Spain, Italy and, most strikingly, Germany, the novel is a bestseller. This is puzzling, because Atomised, as Mark Lilla wrote in the New York Review of Books, mythologises the night thoughts of the French republic—the queasy sense that, up against the forces of “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism, French identity is faced with extinction.
So what explains the novel's appeal? Astried Biershenk, a German journalist who has made a short film on Houellebecq, believes that Atomised, in its description of sexual loneliness, appeals “to a generation which is looking for love but can't face the responsibilities”. Several booksellers in Paris take a darker view. “Houellebecq is a mix of shock tactics and media overkill,” said one based on the Left Bank.
Narrated in a blunt, colloquial language, Atomised is fiction as diagnosis, using the results of scientific experiments on rats, dogs and chickens to account for Bruno and Michel's behavioural problems. Positing each character in terms of genetic inheritance and socio-economic background, Houellebecq creates a rigorously deterministic universe where free will is illusory. Not strictly fiction, it resembles the early novel in its deep conviction that it is speaking the truth.
That still does not explain why Houellebecq has been hailed as a prophet, and why he has risen so enthusiastically to the challenge of being such. An affable, though hesitant, interviewee, drinking whisky to steady his nerves and smoking so much that his fingers are tea-coloured, he impresses by his ability to quote chunks of philosophy by heart. In truth, he is less a prophet than an archetypal Parisian figure, imbued with l'esprit de contradiction and a set of contrary opinions designed to confound and provoke. He cultivates the status of neurotic outsider, and it is this that appeals so much to the young, for whom he is a generational figure, a rock star with a punk sensibility.
And yet Houellebecq, in his personal habits and lifestyle, embodies much of what he seeks to castigate. He may have condemned youth culture—“a world in which the young have no respect eventually devours everyone”—but he still fronts an electronic rock combo with the French artist Plastic Bertrand. Even more curious is the virulence with which Atomised satirises L'Espace du Possible (a New Age campsite renamed Lieu de Changement after an out-of-court settlement), where Houellebecq was a regular visitor for 15 years.
A less resilient writer than, say, Céline, to whom he is compared, Houellebecq expresses a similar despair, not just in the human condition, but in the failure of European humanism to alleviate it. Immersing himself in pornography, dirt and violence, he shows us a world on the brink of collapse, futile beyond repeal. Houellebecq brings out our secret wish to have done with, to self-destruct. No matter how flawed and intellectually questionable Atomised may be, its success perhaps reveals an unconscious desire to accommodate its shocks, to share its death wish—“The meekness, the resignation, perhaps even the relief of humans at their own passing away,” Houellebecq writes.
Having recently remarried, Houellebecq has bought a house on an island off the Beara peninsula in fashionable County Cork, where he lives in reclusive isolation, refusing to speak English—to him, the language of globalisation. He is presently in Thailand, working on his third novel, and later this year he will tour with his band.
Conscious of his iconic status, he protests that “Sartre had an answer for everything—I don't”. Whether his celebrated nihilism can survive his remarkable success remains to be seen. For the moment, he is very famous: more talked about, as the poster in the metro suggests, than read. In his Irish seclusion, however, he will undoubtedly have time to let his art breathe. Not just France, but increasingly the rest of Europe, is waiting.
SOURCE: Feehily, Gerry. “Sex Tourism.” New Statesman 130, no. 4554 (10 September 2001): 54.
[In the following review, Feehily argues that Plateforme is a disturbing, if somewhat flawed, novel whose satire and absurdity is lost on Houellebecq's detractors.]
Michel Houellebecq is back, and his new novel, Plateforme, has already come under vehement attack. Since the publication of Atomised in 1998, Houellebecq has been not only the most prominent of French authors, but also the most controversial, not least for his unconventional opinions on the sexual revolution. Often overlooked, however, is how he grants his fictional characters the freedom to contradict his own pet theories, finding fulfilment as they do in the type of sexual liberalism he seems to denounce. Full of such novelistic contradictions, Plateforme (not available in English until September next year) is a baffling study of sex tourism and a moral examination of the consequences of globalisation.
A 40-year-old administrator at the Ministry of Culture, Michel, our narrator, is a loser in the sex wars, “more or less resigned to a boring life”. He spends sozzled evenings at peep-shows, or alone at home mesmerised by cable TV, but his luck begins to turn after the death of his philandering father, whom he buries with the words “you old bastard”. With a sizeable inheritance, he leaves for Thailand on a package holiday, where, in between encounters with Thai prostitutes—“the best lovers in the world”—he meets Valerie, an executive working in the tourist industry.
On returning to Paris, Michel discovers that the bisexual Valerie has a capacity for self-abandonment he believed possible only in the Orient. Generous and maternal, she provides him with a kind of happiness, the nature of which, as is often the case in Houellebecq's fiction, lies in sex free of moral constraint.
The main impediment to the happiness of Michel and Valerie, as it unfolds for well over a third of the novel, is the latter's exhausting work schedule. Hired to transform the El Doreador, a loss-making subsidiary of the tour company Aurore, Valerie struggles to come up with the holiday package that will give her an edge over the global competition. Meanwhile, in the suburbs surrounding the company's air-conditioned tower, social anarchy, analogous to the individualistic anarchy of the market, prevails. As fearful of the streets as they are for their jobs, Aurore's stifled employees are left to wonder “as to the utility of this world being built”.
After a trip to a ruined Cuba, Michel believes he has found the solution to Valerie's problems: a package holiday where lonely westerners pay for favours spent in the arms of third-world inhabitants with “nothing to sell but their bodies, and their intact sexuality. It's an ideal exchange.” Although the creation of “Aphrodite Clubs” in Thailand is an instant success, no one had reckoned with the puritan fervour of Islamic fundamentalists from neighbouring Malaysia. As often in Houellebecq, the end, like the beginning, is despair.
Such a premise may be uncomfortable, but it possesses its own curious logic. Something of an industrial adventure, a skewed airport novel full of boardroom scenes and exotic locations, Plateforme seeks to demythologise the glamour of globalisation, suggesting that if a non-productive west exploits a third-world industrial base, a global division of sexual labour cannot be far behind. To label it “misogynist filth”, as has the French editor of a popular travel guide on Thailand, is to misunderstand the novel. Although Plateforme is narrated in a deadpan, almost sociological style, which confuses the distinction between fiction and prescription, Houellebecq's intention here is patently satirical, moral even; the novel pushes its themes to the limits of the absurd.
This said, the book has its shortcomings, not least because, as Houellebecq's fame grows, an entire cult of personality, indeed an industry, forms around him, at the expense of a coherent artistic vision. Full of perfunctory, deliberately flat descriptions of Thailand, and often slapdash disquisitions on Islam, prostitution and sexuality, Plateforme, with a reproving editor, a rewrite, plus a little more time, might have been a brisker, leaner work. Despite this, it remains an unsettling novel, at odds and yet tuned into the modern world. Few authors can convey the way it feels to be alive today with quite the same demented energy.
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Sexual Tourism a Go-Go.” Spectator 287, no. 9034 (29 September 2001): 40-1.
[In the following review, Brookner finds shortcomings in the ambivalence and underlying complicity of Houellebecq's indictment of global tourism and capitalism in Plateforme.]
Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Les Particules élémentaires (translated as Atomised) raised such delighted shock waves in 1998, is no stranger to controversy. Plateforme has already provoked protests in mainstream French newspapers, not for its obscenity but for certain slighting remarks directed against Islam. Thus Houellebecq ploughs a lonely furrow of political incorrectness which will enrage the incorruptibles and delight his publishers, who have rewarded him with an initial print run of 200,000 copies. Whether they will reap the rewards of their largesse is open to question, since Plateforme is an altogether more ambivalent book which may raise expectations that are not entirely fulfilled.
In Les Particules élémentaires it was Houellebecq's contention, perfectly valid in itself, that we live in an age of sexual tourism, and that fidelity is a norm left over from prelapsarian times before Philip Larkin's watershed of 1963. Houellebecq, a fairly glum, and by all accounts, indeed his own, an unalluring man, seemed to be at one with his protagonist in undertaking an investigation of this phenomenon on our behalf. In the earlier novel he confined his attention to conditions which were the ostensible setting for innocent group activities, package tours, ecological conventions, health farms, and less overtly straight-forward gatherings; in Plateforme he goes further afield, travelling initially to Thailand to examine its reputed sexual amenities, but as observer rather than participant. He crosses the line, in fact, from exploited to exploiter.
It should be said that he is entirely humourless, as he would have to be, but that he writes perfectly correct French and indeed displays a kind of heroism which is not to be deplored. He is, after all, in the grip of a major idea, with which he appears to have come to terms, namely that there are no penalties for indulging in the most extreme forms of sexual licence, that monogamous partnerships have passed into history, and that it is entirely natural to pursue sexual pleasure until such time as age and infirmity take their inevitable toll.
Such paganism would seem to commend itself, and is in any case a well-worn argument. Houellebecq, for all his partisanship, sees it as an almost unavoidable aspect of universal consumerism, and singles out the leisure industry, and notably tourism, as the main agency behind the commodification of what might, in other times, have been seen as simple adventure. Since he has joined the enemy his polemic is considerably muted. ‘Michel’, the hero or anti-hero of Plateforme, has, rather disappointingly, become a bourgeois: he has money, a girlfriend to whom he is devoted, and access to a world of business from which he was initially excluded. He is able to observe the machinations of tour companies, their rivalry, their occasional complicity, and their unceasing efforts to exploit the sexual opportunities offered by the Third World in promoting those so familiar holidays with a difference which will enact the same scenario in selected sites in Asia, in Africa, in South America, and, it is envisaged, China, to the infinite enrichment of the perpetrators, whose boardroom cerebrations involve the sort of number-crunching which will appeal to readers of a financial bent and serve as an awful warning to such innocents who were, and can no longer be, unaware that such matters are so carefully calibrated.
Thus the earlier idea has become confused. Houellebecq originally had an important point to make. At a time when all authority can be experienced as coercive and a potential threat to one's human rights he took it upon himself to examine the alternative, a life without sanctions, and found it hostile. In Plateforme, which is only nominally a fiction, he blames capitalism, in which we are all involved, even—and this is the point—those indigenous peoples who are happy to earn money in exchange for certain intimate services perhaps unavailable in other circumstances. This regime, therefore, is as coercive as any other. Rather more so, in fact, since the threat would seem to come from another direction, from the dispossessed, targeting the tour company executives in their once secure suburban offices, or, more specifically, from religious fundamentalists whose core beliefs are radically opposed to any kind of psychic, let alone physical expansion.
Houellebecq is on more familiar ground when he animadverts against monotheistic religions, which he sees as essentially tyrannical. A cultivated Egyptian, whom ‘Michel’ encounters in the Sinai desert, congratulates him on being a representative of the Catholic Church which has done so well to diversify into saints and angels, thus avoiding the narrow focus recommended to initiates of religions less eclectic in their forms of worship. Houellebecq does not go so far as to advocate an expansion of the tourist industry into Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, but that would appear to be the underlying message. It is when a bomb, detonated by turbaned figures, kills 117 happy hedonists in Thailand that the well-aired diatribe against Islam takes place. A Jordanian acquaintance reassures the injured protagonist that young Muslims are only too eager to exchange their constraints for what they see as the liberty that pertains to capitalism. Thus the tour industry receives an ironic validation.
In its way Plateforme is a novel of ideas, even if these ideas are dubious. It would be tempting to draw a wholly redundant moral from all this; surprisingly, none seems to be available. Readers hoping for a sexual odyssey along the lines of Les Particules élémentaires will be slightly disappointed. This simply proves that like tourists everywhere they will have read the brochure, i.e. the advance publicity, and have signed up for the tour. Booksellers report a brisk turnover.
SOURCE: Tahourdin, Adrian. Review of Plateforme, by Michel Houellebecq. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5141 (12 October 2001): 11.
[In the following review, Tahourdin commends Houellebecq's bleak prose and penchant for provoking critics but concludes that Plateforme does not match the success of Les Particules élémentaires.]
L'affaire Houellebecq strikes again. Michel Houellebecq is in danger of making a name for himself in the history of publicity. The appearance of his third novel, Plateforme, at the end of August was surrounded by as much controversy as its predecessor, Les Particules élémentaires, had been. The earlier book was notable for the force with which its author challenged the liberal orthodoxies of the generation of soixante-huitards who now make up the Parisian literary and cultural establishment. Houellebecq was denounced as, among other things, a fascist, a crypto-Stalinist and an eugenicist, yet his novel struck a chord with the reading public, and rapidly became a bestseller. His new book, unsurprisingly, sold over 250,000 in its first three weeks.
Houellebecq's publishers Flammarion must have been prepared for difficulties this time; within days of publication, they apologized to the Rector of the Paris Mosque for some offensive remarks in the novel about Islam (the author was unrepentant, and used his now customary ploy of pointing out that his narrator's views are not necessarily his own). The publisher of France's culturally aware Guide du Routard threatened to sue over some insulting comments about their guide to Thailand. John Grisham, Frederick Forsyth (“cet imbécile”) and Jacques Chirac would also be entitled to take exception to their cameo appearances.
Plateforme describes a year in the life of Michel, a forty-year-old bachelor, who is politically disaffected and a mediocre civil servant in the Culture Ministry in Paris (he doesn't vote). He takes an organized holiday to Thailand, in order to indulge his appetite for young prostitutes, armed with the Routard guide to the country. Enraged by its editorial stance against sexual tourism, and its “vulgar elitism”, he flings the book out of the window of his coach. Sexual tourism, according to him, is an economic and sociological inevitability, a practical system of exchange between the overworked and loveless inhabitants of the West (in Paris he visits peep shows and SM clubs), and those in the East who are without money but who are in a position to sell sexual favours. Michel's fellow sexual tourists run from strapping young Americans and Antipodeans to single women in their forties, beer-swilling Northern Europeans and whisky-drinking Arabs. Houellebecq is as sharp as ever in his dissection of social groups: the tour party includes retired petit-bourgeois couples who have saved up for the holiday of a lifetime but who have trouble adapting to the local food, a fifty-year-old divorcee and sexual tourist who stopped taking his holidays in Spain after Franco's death, and two twentysomething “nanas” who work as “event organizers”. While in Thailand, Michel meets Valérie, a high-powered twenty-eight-year-old executive with the travel company. On their return to France, Michel and Valérie become lovers. Valérie is intrigued rather than disturbed by Michel's sexual adventures and allows herself to be persuaded by his contention that, in order to survive in a very competitive market, her company will have to diversify into concepts such as “Eldorador Aphrodite”. Their “researches” take them to Cuba and back to Thailand, where Valérie is killed in a graphically described attack on the resort by Islamic fundamentalists.
In common with Houellebecq's two earlier novels (the first, Extension du domaine de la lutte, was recently made into a film), Plateforme contains a good deal of sex. Asked for the reason why, the author replied “because I write well about it”. But the redeeming potential of love is also hinted at, in the finely drawn affair between Michel and Valérie. There is dark humour in the book and, as ever, Houellebecq writes with photographic precision and a clarity of purpose, although when he is developing a theory, the book can read like a sociological tract (there is even a footnoted reference to a journal, Annals of Tourism Research).
Plateforme doesn't have the impact of Les Particules élémentaires, whose originality and emotional force make it a landmark in French fiction. Houellebecq's view of society, French society in particular, remains bleak (there is an alarming description of one of Paris's satellite towns). His talent to provoke and scandalize is considerable, and is clearly one he takes some pleasure in (it may also partly explain why, at the age of forty-three, he now lives on a remote island off the coast of Ireland). But his (very French) blend of insolence and intellectualizing does not seem to travel well: when Les Particules appeared in an English translation last year, as Atomised, it failed to create much interest in Britain. The New York Times critic called it a “deeply repugnant read”. That critic won't be charmed by the new book either, but might have to acknowledge that Houellebecq has a pretty good idea in which direction the world is headed.
SOURCE: Winter, Joshua. “France: Into the Void.” New Statesman 131, no. 4586 (6 May 2002): 25-7.
[In the following excerpt, Winter examines Houellebecq's notoriety, political perspective, and contemptuous depiction of liberal amorality in Atomised and Plateforme.]
The great chronicler of the moral and cultural emptiness of modern France is Michel Houellebecq, perhaps the most talented and contrary writer in Europe today. Many contemporary French writers play with the idea of nihilism; Houellebecq means it, both in his life and work. In person, Houellebecq, who is in his mid-forties, is a dissolute presence, sickened by a life dedicated to cigarettes, alcohol and trips to bizarre, anarchic sex camps in the Paris suburbs, which he satirises ruthlessly in his marvellous novel Les Particules élémentaires (published in Britain two years ago as Atomised).
Gerry Feehily, an Irish literary critic based in Paris, met Houellebecq at a party last year. “He was surrounded by all these glamorous publishing women and journalists, but he looked utterly wasted and dishevelled,” he told me. “When I spoke to him, he seemed to be shaking; there was this distant, faraway look in his eyes as if he wasn't quite there. But at the same time you could see that he was utterly contemptuous of everything and everyone around him. Sometimes you have the feeling that he really hates France and everything about it.”
Atomised tells the story of two brothers, Michel and Bruno, who are born to the same progressive mother, a 1968er in outlook and lifestyle. The brothers are later separated by the fragmentation of their family life; bullied and humiliated at school, they endure a miserable adolescence. They both enter early adulthood as disturbed, isolated figures. “I'd like to believe that the self is an illusion,” Bruno tells Michel, “but if it is, it's a pretty painful one.” So begins the brothers' journey to find meaning in a world of disappointed aspiration, a journey that takes Bruno into compulsive promiscuity and the sexual demi-monde of Paris, and Michel into molecular biology and experiments into the very foundation of what it is to be human.
Houellebecq has thought hard about what it means to live in a post-Christian universe. He believes we are living at the end of an age of reason. What lies a head is a fall into chaos and ennui, as represented by the rise of Islamo-fascism in the east and decadent consumerism in the west. Christian doctrine, he writes, accorded unconditional importance to every human life from conception to death. But today the “agnosticism at the heart of the French republic” has facilitated the “slightly sinister triumph of the determinist world-view”, of a world without the possibility of transcendence. But still the value of human life continues to preoccupy the liberal conscience. Which in the “last years of western civilisation contributed to a general mood of depression bordering on masochism”.
Houellebecq is a former communist and was once a leading contributor to the progressive literary journal Perpendiculaire, from the board of which he was eventually banished after he refused to be held accountable for the racism of his character Bruno. In recent years—even before Atomised, which as the Economist wrote, was “not so much published as detonated”—he began, like Céline before him, to occupy a position of perpetual opposition, to both left and right, similar to the editorial line of the now defunct LM magazine in this country.
More specifically, he has emerged as a combative critic of the revolutionary excesses of the late 1960s, a period which, he believes, laid the foundation for modern lassitude and despair. In Atomised, Bruno and Michel are forced to evaluate the codes by which their parents' generation lived—the licentiousness, the irresponsibility, the refusal to conform. Houellebecq—like many younger French novelists, for whom he is the commanding presence, an influence and inspiration—works out of a sense of profound crisis: did we as a nation take a wrong turn? What if our pursuit of sexual satisfaction and freedom was really a kind of imprisonment? Have the costs of living through the revolutionary period of the 1960s been too great to wider society?
With the publication last year of his most recent novel, Plateforme (out here in the autumn), Houellebecq has become a figure of even greater controversy and discord in France. Plateforme is a study of sex tourism in Thailand and is full of witty, unhinged attacks on liberal-left orthodoxies and on religious fundamentalism (it was published in France before 11 September). From his new home on the south-west coast of Ireland, he continues to detonate missiles of contempt against France, Islam and what he calls the “evils of globalisation”. He is an emblematically modern French figure, because he appears to believe in nothing and is opposed to everything. The only respite in his work is a kind of intense erotic abandonment, a wilful surrender to preposterous desires. His novels, though among the most accomplished to have been written in the past 20 years anywhere in the world, share a vision of France that also finds expression in the anti-humanist themes of Baise-moi and much of the new French cinema.
“The generation that has grown up since the Second World War, the generation of our parents, was the most optimistic in history,” Houellebecq told the writer Andrew Hussey, author of a fine biography of Guy Debord. “They believed in progress, the consumer society, sexual happiness and they were naive and wrong to believe in such things. This generation is different because it knows that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness, that pleasure is the opposite of happiness. That, to me, is an unassailable moral position.”
So that, then, is the challenge confronting the political class in France: how to reach a generation that no longer believes in the possibility of progress or indeed of happiness? Small wonder that Le Pen's bootboys are on the march.
SOURCE: Daniell, Steven. Review of Plateforme, by Michel Houellebecq. World Literature Today 76, nos. 3-4 (summer-autumn 2002): 110.
[In the following review, Daniell offers a positive assessment of Plateforme, which he finds “entertaining and insightful” despite its offensiveness.]
Michel Houellebecq's third novel, Plateforme, looks at a society that is becoming devoid of meaning. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that this emptiness threatens not only materialistic Westerners but also the anticapitalist forces desperately trying to forestall globalization, especially in the name of religious or political ideology.
The novel centers around Michel, a forty-year-old exhibits agent for the French Ministry of Culture. In the opening chapter, he must deal with his father's murder by the brother of Aïcha, the father's young Muslim girlfriend. The facts surrounding the murder seem a curiosity at the time; however, the two primary motifs for the text sex and violence, emerge from the crime.
Though Michel was not close to his father, he still needs the break afforded by a tour package to Thailand. During the tour, he meets Valérie, a travel agent with whom he eventually forms intimate social and business relations.
The couple, along with a colleague in the travel industry, develops the idea of replacing some of the company's Eldorador Aventure resorts, which feature nightclubs and nature holidays, with Eldorador Aphrodite resorts, which cater to the sexual adventurer. They persuade a major tour operator to finance the highly profitable scheme, but with the threat of losing their financial backing should the project come under fire. At one of these resorts in Thailand, the sex and the violence, which have remained apart for much of the novel, finally collide starkly and abruptly.
Although the text's rhythm has an American feel to it (Houellebecq has also published research on H. P. Lovecraft), sex and violence play reverse roles. Sexual activity, exclusively for leisure, comes to the forefront and becomes an entertainment staple of the professional classes. These scenes typically range from clinical to erotic, but their sheer quantity rivals the amount of violence seen in much American popular entertainment.
Violence in Plateforme, on the contrary, lurks in the background as the domain of Parisian street thugs and Islamic terrorists. Following the incident in the opening chapter, it becomes anonymous and distant. As the story progresses, it grows closer and more extreme. After a street brawl one night leaves seven dead near Valérie's office, Michel asks her whether she could use a gun in self-defense. She replies, “Quand j'étais petite … même pas capable de tuer un poulet.” Michel's reaction epitomizes the degree to which the increasing violence has devalued human life: “À vrai dire, moi non plus; mais un homme, ça me paraissait nettement plus facile.”
Despite Houellebecq's straightforward, almost breezy style, the problems he tackles are hardly simple or trivial. Less controversial issues may appear in the narrative, as when he discusses the state of the art world or the dangers of unfettered materialism. He proves to be especially adept at using dialogue to approach touchier issues such as corporate misconduct, sexual tourism, or Islamic fundamentalism. What appears in these pages will offend or disturb some readers, but the narrative format and writing style both manage to keep the text at once entertaining and insightful.
SOURCE: Houellebecq, Michel, and Gerry Feehily. “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” New Statesman 131, no. 4599 (5 August 2002): 36-7.
[In the following interview, Houellebecq discusses his literary celebrity, his controversial statements about Islam, and the inspirations behind Plateforme.]
I first met Michel Houellebecq at a party held in Paris, in early September last year, to celebrate the French launch of his third novel, Plateforme. A wan, stooped figure wearing a large yellow anorak, baggy jeans and a pair of fluorescent Nike trainers, he wandered in the midst of the black-clad literati of Paris like a stranger to his own fame. Cigarette in hand, he retired to a corner of the room, attended to by a duo of skimpily dressed press agents, with helmet-like haircuts, who collected his empty glasses as he drained them of champagne and who hung on his every word. “I'm not in the right place,” he confessed to me, in his soft, faintly lisping voice. “I really should be working. In fact, I'm going right now.”
And so he fled the room.
But he was already in trouble. An interview with Lire, the literary monthly, had recently appeared, in which, among other things, he described a negative revelation he had experienced on Mount Sinai. “There, where Moses received the Ten Commandments … I said to myself that the act of believing in a single God was the act of a cretin, I could find no other word. And the most stupid religion has to be Islam. When you read the Koran, it's appalling, appalling.” This was not the first time that Houellebecq had expressed his contempt for Islam; indeed, his novel, which Heinemann publishes in English as Platform in early September, offers a portrait of a group of Muslim militants who are unhinged by hatred of the west.
A Moroccan daily picked up the interview and published an incendiary story about Houellebecq. “This man hates you”, said the front-page headline, above a photograph of the author. A few days later, the events of 11 September took place. Shortly afterwards, French Islamic organisations pressed charges of incitement to racial hatred and religious violence against Houellebecq. Concerned by the opprobrium that had descended on his best author, Houellebecq's French editor, Raphaël Sorin, felt it necessary to mollify the Grand Imam of Paris in person. The author himself, jostled and spat at in the streets, cancelled all public engagements and fled to an undisclosed location. To this day, most of his European editors can contact him only by land mail. His lawyers will tackle the charges this autumn.
But it's high summer now, and Houellebecq has resurfaced, briefly, in the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Head in hands, a glass of red wine in front of him, he talks to me a little about his second novel, Les Particules élémentaires (Atomised), which recently won the Impac prize for a work of fiction, worth 100,000 euros. Narrated by the first human clone, it tells the tale of two sexually dysfunctional half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, whose family life is destroyed by the excesses of the late 1960s. He wrote most of the novel in Connemara. “It's a very sensitive place,” Houellebecq says, “a mixture of sunsets and fields stretching off as far as the eye can see. It was the big reason, I think, why I settled here in Ireland. But maybe Brittany is like that, too …” His voice trails off into awkward silence.
Since 1999, Houellebecq has been living in a small island community off the coast of County Cork. It is odd that a writer whose novels and stories are often wilfully obscene, crammed with scenes set in sex clubs, brothels and nudist colonies, should have settled in a country that less than two decades ago continued to hide its single mothers in convents. “But I really feel Ireland is a romantic place,” he says. “In terms of light and landscape, for example, it's hardly different from its cinematic image. In the end, I think you make comparisons according to your point of departure. Mine is France. I could have settled in the French countryside, but it's quite crushing there, like all countryside. Visually, to live by the sea, as I do, is a very different sensation. That I don't speak much English is not an impediment.”
His relations with his home country are complex. Since Atomised, which plausibly argues that late Sixties individualism killed off all hope of love in western society, Houellebecq has set himself on a collision course with left-liberal orthodoxy. A former communist, he now seems to relish confrontation, particularly with liberals who preach tolerance and harmony. Having previously declared that “I love to take the piss out of journalists”, he has expressed his admiration for the Pope, his hatred of hippies, and nostalgia for Philippe Pétain, the disgraced leader of the Vichy regime. An incorrigible provocateur, he has yet to enjoy the official consecration of a Goncourt or Médicis prize. “When I finished Atomised,” he says, “I just hoped that the critics who had been good to my first book, Whatever, would react favourably. Then the interviews started, and the whole thing went a lot further. The book began to be read all over Europe; people were talking about it, they wanted to come to see me, find out my views on all sorts of things. But talking to journalists, quite frankly, is really laborious.”
He does not believe, however, that constant media scrutiny has affected his work. That said, he also thinks that writing another novel might be more trouble than it's worth. One cannot help thinking that since Atomised, Houellebecq has spread himself too thin. As well as writing Platform, he has directed soft-porn films, made a pop album with the Belgian musician Bertrand Burgalat and completed an as yet untranslated travelogue, Lanzarote, which includes his own photos of the island's rock formations.
Much of Platform was written in Phuket, Thailand, where Houellebecq was surrounded by strip clubs and hostess bars. It tells of the romance between Michel, a melancholic, indolent civil servant at the French ministry of culture, and Valérie, a child-woman executive in the tourist industry. Touring soulless sex clubs, and imprisoned in air-conditioned office blocks, they are looking for a way out. “Frustration is probably the greatest evil,” says Houellebecq, “much worse than ennui, which is maybe the same. Maybe.”
But a way out is found. Houellebecq, having observed that “Thai prostitutes are the best in the world”, proposes a chain of sex resorts in the Gulf of Siam where love-hungry Europeans can seek relief. The project succeeds. Valérie's stock options climb high. They retire to one of the resorts they have helped create, but neither has reckoned with the local Muslim fanatics, who supply the novel's devastating climax. “I really think people like Valérie and Michel exist,” says Houellebecq. “They are actually very ordinary. All they want is a certain level of comfort, a certain level of pleasure. I like writing about typical people.”
Typical or not, Michel, the narrator of Platform, has a lucky bag of opinions—on Islam, prostitution and Germans—which sound, after nearly 400 pages, much like Houellebecq's own. Listening to Houellebecq publicly defend his narrator's discovery that “Thai prostitutes are good girls … they send money back home to their parents”, you get the sense that he can't see much beyond the liberal platitudes of the journalists he despises and longs to offend. His stylised disaffection explains, to a certain extent, his great popularity, particularly among the young. In a sense, he offers the highest expression of a punk attitude of perpetual rebellion, in all its best and worst aspects. He is a captivating writer but often also a foolish one. A novelist with a greater instinct for truth would, for instance, have conceded what Platform dutifully overlooks: that a quarter of all Thai prostitutes will die from Aids in the next decade.
But my cassette player has clicked to a stop, and Houellebecq's wine glass is empty. Most of our two hours together has passed in silence. Talking to Houellebecq can be, to paraphrase Nietzsche, a bit like staring into a well: very soon the well starts staring back at you.
“I have to go and see where my wife is,” he says. Pulling on a battered leather jacket, he looks into the ashtray, where the mangled fragments of the cigarettes he chews are heaped up. “You know, I often wonder whether we are living in a hologram.” Before I ask him whether it's a hologram of his own making, he raises his hands. “Something to think about.”
On the way out to the lobby, as he leads me towards the revolving doors, I remember the words of one of his French press agents on that September night in Paris. “Michel lives on his own planet,” she said. “He couldn't exist otherwise.” As I follow him into the street, a dark-haired woman in a cocktail dress meets us. She raises her glass of wine. “Congratulations, Michel,” she says. “You wrote a great book, and you deserve the Impac prize, every penny of it.”
Houellebecq takes her hand. A head shorter than she, he looks her up and down and, in faltering English, expresses his thanks. “But you know, I sometimes ask myself, must you deserve something in order to enjoy it?”
With that, he is gone.
SOURCE: Hussey, Andrew. “The Pornographer's Manifesto.” New Statesman 131, no. 4601 (19 August 2002): 34-5.
[In the following review, Hussey explores the controversy over the pornographic and anti-Islamic elements of Platform, contending that Houellebecq's apparent viciousness and intolerance stems from a perverse compassion.]
Along with Catherine Millet and Michel Houellebecq, one of the bestselling authors in France this past year has been Ovidie, a 21-year-old porn actress. Pierced and dressed in black leather, Ovidie manages to look winsome, cute and sexy all at once (“She makes Catherine Millet look like a bad-tempered primary school teacher,” commented one rather overexcited observer). She is a veteran of more than 40 porn films, and describes herself as a feminist, an artist and a philosopher, “un intello du porno” (“an intellectual of porn”). In her book, Porno Manifesto, Ovidie proudly recalls how she discovered pornography in early adolescence and says that it came to her as a revelation at the same tender age that mere physical events could be the source of so much delight and anguish. Pornography, she believes, is about nothing more than the promise of human happiness. The physical and economic exploitation that are undeniably involved in the sex industry, she says, are wrong only because they are a betrayal of this original, quite innocent trust.
This is also the central premise of Platform, Michel Houellebecq's third and most controversial novel, which arrives now in English, in the wake of the literary firestorms that have raged through most of the European countries where it has already been published. Most notably, Houellebecq has been accused of writing pornography as well as defending the most exploitative and despicable forms of sex tourism. A fierce row was already brewing in Paris this time last year when, as the publication date approached, the author was criticised for being misogynistic and racist. Houellebecq was, as ever, indifferent to public opinion. He did not bother to defend himself but spoke out in favour of “sexual communism” and the “democracy of the sex shop”, a notion that the sexual market place should be open to all, not only those who succeed with good looks, fame or success.
The row deepened when Houellebecq was challenged on his apparent contempt for Islam (the book's main character rejoices in the massacre of Palestinians on the Gaza Strip). He publicly declared Islam the most stupid and murderous of religions, attracting the hatred of France's large Muslim population and the bafflement of its liberal intellectuals. Houellebecq's wife began to crack up and went missing in Ireland. His publishers started to panic at mention of fatwas. Houellebecq himself, scared and genuinely shaken, drank more heavily than ever and gloomily predicted that he would never write again.
But Platform is still only a novel, albeit an extraordinarily good one. It tells the story of Michel, a disillusioned and depressed Parisian, whose main pleasures, if they are pleasures at all, are drink and the occasional hand job in the peep-shows of the rue St Denis or the rue de la Gaîté (Houellebecq has written a poem worthy of Larkin about this street). On holiday in Thailand, Michel discovers that paying for sex can be a life-enhancing experience for both participants. The westerner receives real physical gratification, a sensation that has been degraded or lost in our “spectacular society” of commodity fetishism, image and illusion. (Houellebecq is, unsurprisingly, a keen reader of Guy Debord, who originally coined the phrase “society of the spectacle”.) The Oriental, in return, without guilt or shame, takes the cash.
Michel's discovery coincides with the beginning of his first real love affair, with Valérie, a beautiful and energetic travel agent who is always ready to indulge Michel in his taste for group sex with random strangers. They return to Paris and plan to set up a company devoted to sex tourism. This indeed is the manifesto, the “platform” of the book's title: that, for the first time in history, as globalised technology and affluence meet, human beings need not be sexually alone and therefore unhappy ever again; utopia is at hand.
Houellebecq does not really believe this, any more than in real life he takes part in the seamlessly choreographed orgies that are a leitmotif of the novel. He is a reader of Aldous Huxley and H P Lovecraft and takes from them the idea that utopias are impossible because pleasure, the chief goal of western society, is not really related to happiness. Accordingly, this book is written not in a spirit of irony or mischief or deliberate provocation, but demonstrates a genuine commitment to understanding why, in a post-industrial, post-Christian world where money and technology fulfil all material needs, happiness still seems so far away.
The attacks on Islam are bitter and, naturally, offensive to Muslims. Houellebecq has offered a weak defence of these sections of the book, saying that “it is only a fiction” and that mere narrative logic demands that, when Valérie is killed by extremists, Michel should delight in vengeance against Arabs. However, Houellebecq's real objection to Islam is, I think, that it offers a total challenge to western Enlightenment values. Houellebecq began his career as a kind of Marxist, and the “medieval nostalgia” of Islamic thought is bound to conflict with his way of thinking (this position finds a parallel in the remains of the French Marxist left, for which the term multiculturalism is still a mystery).
The virulence of Houellebecq's dislike comes, in a more complicated way, from his compassion. Like Louis, Ferdinand Céline, the anti-Semitic novelist of the 1930s whom he most resembles both in style and content, Houellebecq has a horror of suffering and violence (he expresses particular distaste for sadomasochistic practices). Céline's anti-Semitism was disgusting in the 1930s and is made more so by history; yet it did not make him a lesser novelist. The same applies to Houellebecq. One of the most striking and unsettling features of Platform is the touching pathos, even tenderness, with which the heterosexual orgies are described, in opposition to the murderous puritanism of Islamic terror. Houellebecq seeks out a symmetry in the most unlikely scenarios: the description of the double penetration of Valérie by a white man and a black man is worthy of the surrealist Hans Bellmer, for example. If this is pornography, it is also of the highest poetic order.
For good or ill, there are few writers in any language who understand the tensions of the present age as well as Houellebecq. Will Self has dismissed him as “a little guy who can't get enough sex”, but, as this book makes clear, it is precisely this aspect of his character that makes him so genuinely alienated, and therefore dangerous. This is still the same writer who, when I met him in his council flat in Paris six years ago, giggling, drunk and then all of a sudden very serious, declared himself at war with the world.
Houellebecq was then working on Les Particules élémentaires (Atomised), the book that catapulted him into the literary stratosphere in London and New York as well as Paris. This was a book which, like Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale, charted the decline and fall of a generation that had lost all sense of moral purity. (The comparison with Flaubert is not entirely fatuous; the similarity has been observed by several distinguished French critics, and even Julian Barnes concedes the point.) “This book will either make me famous or destroy me,” I recall Houellebecq saying at the time. In the event, Atomised went on to confirm him as the sharpest and most perceptive chronicler of our era.
Friends who have seen him recently say he talks often of suicide. But it is never clear whether this is to be taken literally or as a metaphor. Now that he really is famous, it remains to be seen whether Platform—a subtler, more daring and more politically explicit work even than Atomised—fulfils the second part of Houellebecq's slurred prophecy.
SOURCE: Dillon, Brian. Review of Platform, by Michel Houellebecq. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5194 (18 October 2002): 24.
[In the following review, Dillon finds Platform to be a tedious, schematic work that is further marred by its English translator.]
Despite his latest narrator's protest that “I had never known boredom”, boredom is the most fascinating thing about Michel Houellebecq's three novels. With Platform he has written a book even more mired in tedium—in a blank, implacable, cosseting dullness: not at all the ache of metaphysical ennui—than his earlier works, Extension du domaine de la lutte and Les Particules élémentaires (translated, suitably dully, as Whatever and Atomised). The author no longer seems willing to allow his readers to orient themselves to all this boredom of their own accord; apparently afraid that they will simply switch off, Houellebecq has written a novel at once intriguingly dull and tediously excited about its own significance.
Platform (which was published in France in 2001 and reviewed in the TLS of October 12 that year) is mostly narrated by Michel, a minor functionary in the French Ministry of Culture. While “not actively hostile” to art, he concedes that it “cannot change lives. At least not mine.” The life in question is grimly circumscribed: “In most circumstances in my life, I have had about as much freedom as a vacuum cleaner.” Where the central characters of Houellebecq's earlier books were constantly on the brink of breakdown, Michel's mood is one of utter passivity, weary submission to the rhythms of half-hearted work, alcoholism and meaningless sex. This is introduced with typical laconism: “Usually, when I left the office, I'd take in a peepshow”, a habit no more or less engaging than watching television.
The tedium of Michel's existence is interrupted by the murder of his father, then by a holiday in Thailand, where he discovers the consolations of pliant local prostitutes but also the love of a French woman, Valérie. Here Houellebecq begins to insist on the cultural distinction that governs, and ultimately undermines, the rest of the novel. Overwhelmed by the supposed sexual “naturalness” of Valérie and the Thai prostitutes, Michel is incapable of understanding his sexual encounters in anything other than the most banal terms. Far from constituting an eruption of erotic enlightenment, Michel's experience of sex is of a piece with the novel's earlier portrayal of him as by turns rancorous and passive. The sex in Platform is not merely repetitive and dull; it is the sexual experience of a very boring man with a sentimentally pornographic imagination: “I smoothly penetrated her … thrusting inside her to the rhythm of the waves.” The pure kitsch of Michel's ostensible insight—his idiotic distinction between “the natural goodness of Valérie's nature” and the alienated perversion of other Western women—is precisely the point here.
What begins as a portrait of a dulled and clotted imagination is quickly flattened by a narrative schematism that, in its hectic effort to globalize Michel's malaise, undoes the comic force of the novel's early chapters. Michel's entrepreneurial idea for a global sex tourism is swiftly shackled to an unconvincing analysis of all that is morally wrong with West and East alike. A frenzy of pointless action ensues: the new international sex industry attracts the fury of Muslim fundamentalists, and Valérie (like most of Houellebecq's women) meets a gruesome end. An improbable Egyptian pops up to berate Islam, for no reason other than to shore up the novel's shaky narrative and moral structure. As with Atomised, Houellebecq has been ill-served by his translator (or editors); the text is peppered with infelicities. As one glaring error has it, “a disappointment letdown”: a botched phrase that could equally describe Michel Houellebecq's attempt to expand individual torpor to grandly moral proportions.
SOURCE: Besser, Gretchen Rous. Review of Plateforme, by Michel Houellebecq. French Review 76, no. 3 (February 2003): 640-41.
[In the following review, Besser praises Houellebecq's provocative depiction of cynicism and amorality in Plateforme.]
Our favorite iconoclast—the one we love to hate—is back with another pageturner that we can neither admit to savoring nor put down. Not as apocalyptic as his previous Particules élémentaires (FR 73.4, 763-64), Houellebecq's “novel” [Plateforme] is nonetheless provocative to an expected degree. The premise that Western civilization is corrupt, egocentric, and doomed is complemented by an apologetic for instituting sex-for-barter with developing countries. The author's cynical world view comes across most potently in the attitude and actions of his porte-parole narrator Michel, whose outlook is summed up in a simple philosophy: “S'il n'y avait pas, de temps à autre, un peu de sexe, en quoi consisterait la vie?” (220-21). Michel voices (the author's?) jaded and subversive aphorisms: “La volonté de puissance existe, et se manifeste sous forme d'histoire; elle est en elle-même radicalement improductive” (87); “C'est dans le rapport à autrui qu'on prend conscience de soi; c'est bien ce qui rend le rapport à autrui insupportable” (94); “On peut caractériser la vie comme un processus d'immobilisation, bien visible chez le bouledogue français—si frétillant dans sa jeunesse, si apathique dans son âge mûr” (123); “l'idée d'unicité de la personne humaine n'est qu'une pompeuse absurdité. On se souvient de sa propre vie […] un peu plus que d'un roman qu'on aurait lu par le passé” (189). Michel blasts away at family and spiritual values, idealism, the idea of progress. He attacks American mores, movies, best-sellers, and their pernicious exportation abroad. Variously, he demolishes capitalism, ridicules art, undermines tradition, debunks religion (Islam in particular), and glorifies sex in all its varieties and permutations. He reduces the world's ills—racism, political extremism, economic inequalities—to an intrinsic conflict over young women's vaginas.
During the group trip to Thailand with which the novel opens, Michel meets Wonderwoman, his notion of the Eternal Feminine, in the person of Valérie, who embodies the desiderata that this twenty-first-century Everyman seeks. First, she has a glorious body and a tireless sensuality. An expert and “giving” lover, she is a thoughtful partner, a successful career woman, and an affectionate daughter. What matters most is that her insatiable sex drive—described with pornographic specificity—matches that of her man. They spend a brief moment together in Eden—an earthly paradise of sandy beaches, emerald water, and erotic couplings—before the cataclysm engulfs them.
Valérie's professional colleague Jean-Yves, the third party in this improbable trio, is the kind of ambitious, unhappily-married, sex-deprived workaholic whose wretched existence exemplifies Michel's aversion and justifies his apathy. The three concoct a scheme to capitalize on sexual desire in the West, availability and compliance in the East, by introducing “sexual tourism” to the world. Their experimental adventures constitute part of the book's peep-show appeal.
The action draws on apace with an ever-expanding ripple effect. The back-drops against which the “plot” progresses—self-styled exotic destination resorts, a violence-riddled Parisian suburb—and the many secondary characters who people the story are presented in minute and witty detail. Houellebecq knows how to pique our curiosity, titillate our senses, arouse a self-justificatory ire. Instead of propounding a thesis, he illustrates and vivifies it. His characters live, make love, and suffer on the page.
There is no morality in this author's universe—just greedy, uncaring, self-centered people. Hope is non-existent. Michel's fate reflects the futility of human effort. “Rien ne survivra de moi, et je ne mérite pas que rien me survive; j'aurai été un individu médiocre, sous tous ses aspects […] On m'oubliera. On m'oubliera vite” (369-70). Whether or not you swallow the author's acidulous pessimism, his views can excite anger, indignation, exasperation, and sorrow. Houellebecq manipulates the power of words like a master. He can charm, fascinate, disgust, and outrage. His books invite dispute and controversy. In our enforced and appreciative silence lies our complicity.
SOURCE: Liddle, Rod. “Jamais la Politesse.” Spectator 292, no. 9125 (28 June 2003): 41-2.
[In the following review, Liddle praises the “transparent beauty” of Houellebecq's prose in Lanzarote but criticizes the novella's impact as “slight.”]
‘Slight’, I think, is the adjective I'm looking for here. I started reading Lanzarote as the train pulled out of Waterloo and finished it before Woking. At £9.99 that makes it about as good value, mile for mile, as South West Trains. But, oh, believe me, much more fun.
Houellebecq is celebrated or reviled, depending upon your point of view, as one of those French controversialists who are thrown up every decade or so to discomfort and annoy us. He has been charged, in his homeland, with inciting racial hatred, having allegedly described Islam as a ‘stupid’ religion—an appraisal he amends in Lanzarote to merely ‘absurd’. These days he's a virtual recluse, holed up on an island off the coast of Ireland, every bit as puzzled, tormented, unrepentant and probably drunk as the best French novelists are supposed to be. This latest work is terrible value for money and little more than a blueprint for last year's brilliant Platform; but all that notwithstanding, you would not wish to miss it.
Because what gets forgotten, when people rail against Houellebecq for being a racist, right-wing pornographer or, for that matter, when they rally to his cause—as I've done in the past—for being uncannily prescient and an acute observer of human behaviour, is the quite astonishing quality of the writing, and the humour.
Lanzarote tells the story of a man who spends a couple of weeks on holiday on the island, in the company of two German lesbians and a lachrymose man called Rudi whom the narrator assumes to be Belgian but is, in fact, Luxembourgish. This misunderstanding of nationalities enables Houellebecq to be spiteful and very, very funny about both Belgium and Luxembourg:
He [Rudi] spoke of Luxembourg as of a lost Eden, though it's common knowledge that it's a minuscule, mediocre country with no distinguishing characteristics—it's not even a country, more an assortment of dummy companies scattered over parkland, nothing but PO boxes for companies with a taste for tax evasion.
Elsewhere, it is the poor Norwegians who are most decisively abused, but luckily there is ample space across these 87 small pages for Houellebecq to deride also the British, the French, the Greeks and the Italians. He is celebrated for his acid misanthropy, and he rarely disappoints.
It is a deep misanthropy, however, which can be dispelled every now and again by sexual intercourse, the redemptive powers of which permeate each of his previous books and most especially Platform. On Lanzarote, the narrator is briefly rescued from a sort of awful, terminal ennui by a lubricious encounter with both of those aforementioned German lesbians. Simultaneously. This despite having informed the woman in the travel agency, when she at first suggested a particular holiday destination, that ‘I don't feel up to fucking’. Au contraire. As is ever the case, he did, in the end, feel ‘up to fucking’.
Houellebecq's preoccupation with sex has given his detractors another, very Anglo-Saxon, stick with which to beat him; those who dislike the man attack him for an obsession which they deem to be less shocking than merely passé. But this is to miss the point. At the end of this novella, Rudi—the bereft Luxembourgish holidaymaker—bequeaths the narrator a touching note of goodbye.
The worst thing about depression is that it makes it virtually impossible even to contemplate the sexual act, even though it might be the only thing which would assuage the terrible feeling of anguish that comes with depression.
Houellebecq is not simply another of those French libertines, like Bataille or Genet or even de Beauvoir. The point is to only connect, although in a rather more physically direct and sometimes peremptory manner than perhaps E. M. Forster originally envisaged.
There is no other writer like him, at the moment, for wit, acuity or the transparent beauty of his prose. His themes are always big and bravely expounded. This time he has kindly attached colour photographs of Lanzarote to his little story. They're neither use nor ornament, but no matter.