February 7, 2010


by Michel Houellebecq
155 pages, Serpent's Tail (publisher)

Review by Marc Nash

Of all contemporary fiction writers, I love Houellebecq more than any other (apart from maybe Don Delilo). Books like “Atomised”, “Platform” and “The Possibility Of An Island” never shirk tackling big, contemporary themes. I’d never read “Whatever,” his slighter (though no less immodest) opening salvo. The broadside that launched him on to the world.

The book offers a fledgling style and voice pumping their wing muscles in a dry run. The disdain for humanity is evident. An ennui with attitude. Unlike the sneer of say Will Self, Houellebecq’s tone makes me envision him dog end in the corner of his mouth, oscillating with each barb that pours from his mouth to the page as he assigns it to his protagonist – also portrayed as a chain-smoker. Self you would imagine would deliver his acerbic comment on whoever is unfortunate enough to stray into the protagonist’s view, straight between your eyes, ramrod straight back. Houellebecq all shrugged and hunched shoulders probably delivers it into your navel. He is not above a weary permission for someone to do something asinine or to feel forlorn ("I found nothing to object to in it" in reference to a priest's homily. All grist to his silted-up mill).

The protagonist is a man who trains minor French civil servants in new computer technology. He goes on a mini three-town tour within France on assignment. His colleague is a 30-year-old gargoyle virgin, desperate to get laid. Where Sartre and Camus have “Nausea” and “Plague” respectively, an existential sickness of the human soul, Houellebecq’s ‘outsider’ suffers a pericardial, a non-threatening sickness surrounding the heart. It is less philosophical and more social. Kafka’s protagonists are victims of missing files and data getting mixed up. Houellebecq’s has all the data at his tidy, efficient hand, but that there is simply too much data in modern life, none of which means a jot. And this in 1994 before the blogosphere really took off.

Only a Frenchman might openly employ the word ‘treatise’ within his novel, as a character issues a polemic. Here it is artfully delivered by means of an anthropomorphic tale. A treatise on sexual hierarchies, as narrated by a poodle to a dachshund, the protagonist being in the habit of penning such fictions in order to order his thoughts on modern human life consisting of nothing but ordure.

You gotta love a French guy who takes pops at his own nation. Their small-minded provinciality within the global village. Their antiquated apparatchik system of job creation. Their sexual mores (a wonderful little vignette on buying the right size of bed to give the lie to you being perceived as petty bourgeoisie). It all clearly brings up the taste of bile to Monsieur Houellebecq which makes for an entertaining read. Not quite the breadth of vision as with his more realised novels listed above, but a good starting point for a reader new to the author to see if they might appreciate his misanthropy. And you gotta doubly love a French guy who takes pops at his own nation from living in exile, so repulsed is he by the thought of even residing in his country. That he is either demonised or lionised by the French public according to taste, says a lot about that nation; both that literature and all art still hold a central place in public discourse and that they don’t have any minor celebrities hogging the media. I might just move to France…

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