Ten years ago, few readers had heard of a young French writer named Michel Houellebecq. He was the author of some poems and a pungently callow first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994), or Extension of the Domain of the Struggle (translated as Whatever). A decade later, Houellebecq is the most significant provocateur in contemporary literature, whose three subsequent novels have established un monde houellebecquien, in which no target is spared (except, perhaps, an idealized form of love), in which sex is written up in the most basely lucid manner, women insulted (though merely more explicitly than men), religion mocked, existence itself powerfully degraded, in which all imaginable sacred cows are quickly slaughtered in the novelistic abattoir -- or, rather, awarded the fate that Houellebecq wittily refers to in his new novel: analogizing the pointless savagery of French existence, he reminds us that during the British mad-cow crisis, French beef producers stamped their products "Born and raised in France. Slaughtered in France."
In Hitler's Germany, Nazis were supposed to be always "working toward the Führer." You could say that in Houellebecq's regime -- and it is indeed represented as a prison -- his lonely, isolated men are always working toward sex. Typically, these dank creatures are between thirty and fifty, and of modest means. The narrator of Whatever is a middle manager in the computer software industry. Bruno, in Les Particules élémentaires (1999, translated as The Elementary Particles), has worked as a lycée teacher, and now writes scabrous articles for little magazines. His half-brother, Michel, is a biologist who has decided to quit his job. The protagonist of Platform (2001), also called Michel -- Houellebecq likes giving his characters his own name -- is a minor civil servant who oversees the arts. Daniel, in Houellebecq's new novel, is unlike his fictional co-evals in his financial prosperity: he is a very successful comedian and film-maker, who has decided to take some time off in his new house in Andalusia. But all these men are sexual paupers -- or at least the novels begin with their poverty. They may have had more or less successful relations with women, but always years ago. Now, as they age, they face the logic of the sexual marketplace -- "youth, beauty, strength: the criteria for physical love are exactly the same as those of Nazism." They have been priced out of the market; and without sex, they have little faith in the power of love. So they masturbate constantly, consume porn, go on Club Med-style vacations to find willing women, and think resentfully of their childhoods, or of the girls and women who had it in their power to rescue them from their lonely torpor but rejected them instead. Bruno can never forget the moment when, as a teenager, he put his hand on Caroline Yessayan's leg in a cinema, was briefly allowed to keep his hand there, and was then brushed off: "Years later, when some bitch or other was sucking him off, Bruno would remember those few seconds of terrifying joy; he would also remember the moment when Caroline Yessayan moved his hand away."
Houellebecq is a moralist: he wants to rub our faces in the vileness he so avidly represents. But why does he so avidly represent it? Because he wants to rub our faces in it. Does this explain away the contradiction? It does not, exactly. But the contradiction may be unavoidable, and in turn explains the self-immolating rage that makes his fiction so interesting. On the one hand, the liberal sexual system is savagely vilified; on the other hand, the solution to the misery engendered by that system can only come out of that system. These men find their female saviors, their modern Dulcineas, within the system they despise -- in nightclubs and nudist colonies and tourist resorts -- and in turn their Dulcineas have a sexual prowess burnished by time served inside it. And in a further paradox, this one nearly unspeakable, the solution that these women offer to male sexual misery and isolation may not have that much to do with sex at all, but instead with what Philip Larkin, who knew about these things, called "that much-mentioned brilliance, love." So these women not only offer to defeat, in their loving-kindness, the hated system; they threaten to defeat also the validity of Houellebecq's critique of the system. For if sex is not finally as important as love, then sexual pauperization is not the most important misery. These women embarrass Houellebecq's vision as maniacally over-sexualized. And if these wonderful women, these wish-fulfillments in thongs, exist somewhere in the world, then the system is not the cruel sexual machine it is alleged to be. No wonder that Houellebecq must kill these kind women off with absurd rapidity, lest they turn his cold, savage, moralistic novels into warm, soppy, moralistic ones.
Whatever one thinks about this body of work, it is scandalously alive. And his new novel suggests a deepening moral vision. Still, there is a difference between fruitful ambiguity and helpless confusion. Houellebecq's fiction seems at present incoherent, seesawing between a savage critique and a barely expressible solution, and likewise seesawing between the author's distaste for modern sexual excess and the pornographic zeal with which he documents it. Houellebecq may not be the racist misogynist of popular allegation, but his fiction partakes a little too easily of the vileness it supposedly dislikes. There is an obvious quality of moral resistance on the part of the author, expressed in his furious exegeses, but the fiction itself -- the dramatic representation -- offers no mimetic resistance. It is the fiction that is itself comparatively weak, and comparatively uninteresting. Which magazine ran an extract from Houellebecq's new novel? Playboy, of course.
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