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Wonders of the web

A reader mentioned Michel Houellebecq in connection with my link to a consumer’s guide to women in a recent post. I haven’t read Houellebecq’s novels (I don’t read French) and decided to look up his Wikipedia entry, which led me to a review by John Updike of his most recent book.

The review’s quite interesting from its contrast of two very different viewpoints on life and society that to my mind seem strongly conditioned by time and place. Updike is a small-town middle-class old-stock pre-boomer Protestant American who apparently (I haven’t read his novels either) wants to see sufficiency in the ordinary and finds that his background and setting allow him to do so, with the help perhaps of a vague religious nimbus lurking in the background to fill in the blanks. Houellebecq in contrast is a French forerunner of Generation X, born in 1958 as the son of do-gooding world-travelling proto-hippies who dumped him on his communist grandmother and who spent years working as a computer systems administrator.

Updike doesn’t much like Houellebecq. He entitles his review “90% Hateful” and complains that

“his thoroughgoing contempt for, and strident impatience with, humanity in its traditional occupations and sentiments prevents him from creating characters whose conflicts and aspirations the reader can care about … how honest, really, is a world picture that excludes the pleasures of parenting, the comforts of communal belonging, the exercise of daily curiosity, and the widely met moral responsibility to make the best of each stage of life, including the last? … The sensations that Houellebecq gives us are not nutritive.”

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say how well Houellebecq carries things off. From Updike’s account and the extracts he gives it seems that Houellebecq shares the French taste for making abstract analysis dramatic and has a sort of neoclassical talent for finding concrete (in this case mostly sci fi) situations that present general trends. The trends are nihilistic and revolting so you get concrete situations to match, but there you are. He also has the French talent for complaining and is often quite funny, in a disgusting and shameful sort of way.

Whether that’s enough for a novel in this case I don’t know. I doubt though that it would be possible for someone in Houellebecq’s position to adopt anything like Updike’s outlook regarding the immanent goodness and sufficiency of life as actually lived around him and hold it with enough integrity to write a good novel based on it. Maybe that’s a problem for novels now. They do better when there’s a social setting that’s well-articulated and engaging enough to support stories we care about. Houellebecq apparently says as much in his first novel:

“The progressive effacement of human relationships is not without certain problems for the novel… . The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented.”

Here’s a more sympathetic review of Houellebecq’s earlier books by (not surprisingly) traddish Catholic Kevin Michael Grace. If you’re a traddish Catholic you’re likely to think there are Big Problems with the way things are that require something really extraordinary, and Houellebecq’s books certainly support that view. [Next time I write something about books I’ll be sure to make them books I’ve read, but in this case the conflict of viewpoint seemed too fascinating to miss.]

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I read your blog entries on Houellebecq, with interest in part because I’ve read several of his books, including his most recent, “The Possibility of an Island.” You could call me a fan. Updike’s criticism is invalid.

Updike writes early in his essay, “90% Hateful”:

“It is to Houellebecq’s discredit, or at least to his novel’s disadvantage, that his thoroughgoing contempt for, and strident impatience with, humanity in its traditional occupations and sentiments prevents him from creating characters whose conflicts and aspirations the reader can care about. The usual Houellebecq hero, whose monopoly on self-expression sucks up most of the narrative’s oxygen, presents himself in one of two guises: a desolate loner consumed by boredom and apathy, or a galvanized male porn star. In neither role does he ask for, nor does he receive, much sympathy.”

For the record, Houellebecq, as I read his novels, and specifically “The Possibility of an Island,” and in complete contradiction of Updike’s conclusions above:

1. Does not display a contempt for, or impatience with, humanity in its traditional occupation and sentiments. The characters are all dying inside, spiritually, not infrequently considering suicide because, as they themselves seem to realize, or at least argue, traditional occupations and sentiments have been washed away in a flood. What kind of flood? Well, that’s the question, but “Sexual Revolution” is a start. I wonder if Updike even finished “Possibility.” Or wondered about the title. It ends making it’s point in as blunt a way as possible. It ends like an episode of the Twilight Zone. And let me tell you, the ending doesn’t display a contempt for, or impatience with, humanity in its traditional occupation and sentiments but, frankly, just the opposite.
2. Has not been prevented from creating characters whose conflicts and aspirations the reader can care about. 300,000+ regular readers; numerous articles, Updike’s included = someone cares to think about these stories. QED, Houellebecq has created characters whose conflicts and aspirations the reader can care about. Of course it could still be crap –40 million Frenchmen can be wrong—but why they care about it if it is crap is another question. What does Updike require as the minimum indicia of people finding something useful or entertaining in his books, that people name their firstborns after Houellebecq’s characters?
3. Has not created a hero –he’s not a hero, except in the classical sense of being a bit of a fool for a cause or ideology or lifestyle or something not truly in his interest, whose monopoly of the narrative chokes and deadens the reader because that monopoly is one of Houellebecq’s main points: people are lonely; loneliness tempts to self-absorption in a vicious cycle. The genius if you will, the wit, the usefulness, the cause of the sympathy several hundred thousand and possibly millions of readers have had with his novels, now translated into several languages, is the exploration of Why? Why is the protagonist like that? What is he thinking and feeling leading him along this life? Funny and sad, and apparently inconceivable to Update, but what the protagonist goes through seems to resonate with a not insignificant portion of the population of the West. Maybe it’s a generational thing: Boomers just don’t get it.
4. Has not created hero/protagonists in one of two guises: they’re all desperate loners fighting boredom and apathy; none were porn stars. (I’m not sure what sense of galvanize Updike means: stimulated to action, i.e. excited or in a state of excitement, or protected by a layer of something. I suspect the latter, but either would be incorrect. They are excited no longer, but tired. They are protected no longer, and, more to the point, usually somewhat aware that they never were. ‘Sides, although maybe some of them had a lot of sex, none were professional, paid, sex-workers, prostitutes, porn-film performers or whatever you want to call it. I suspect he uses the term porn-star metaphorically, as in; these guys had so many instances of intercourse that we might as well think of them as porn-stars. Perhaps a minor quibble. Perhaps it’s the whole point: What Updike considers way outside the bounds of decency is just par for the course these days. (And so what if they were all of a type. Austen’s women were almost all in their late teens to early 20’s, upper-middle to upper class English.)

In the second paragraph of his essay, Updike summarizes the future as imagined in “Possibility.” The future ain’t pretty. So Updike starts his third paragraph with, “Sound inviting? Want to go there?” Duh, no. That’s the point. It’s a story. We can use our brains to think of bad outcomes. We can write those thoughts down. It’s a traditional type of story, of using our imaginations, going back, oh, 3000 years or so. You know, the Bible and hell and all that. Currently, the particular form we have Houellebecq uses finds it antecedents in Aldous Huxley, Ira Levin, William Burroughs, Phillip Dick, and, probably, a bunch of other influences. I believe it’s called dystopian sci-fi.

In conclusion, there’s no arguing with Updike regarding his tastes. If he doesn’t want to read Houellebecq fine. I don’t want to listen to Ice-T’s latest.

But I’ll tell you why I’ve read almost all of his novels, and maybe we’ll find some common ground for literary criticism. One of his novels begins with the mid-thirties protagonist looking down on his dead father in the casket and thinking, at least you got laid you son of a bitch. To me, and a number of my mid-thirties unmarried, frustrated, decline of civilization, no rise in real wages in 30 years, competing with our sisters for office jobs throughout our lives but still expected to be chivalrous, dating women who intend to stay on the pill into their 30’s and then have one kid, haven’t seen a virgin since high school, males, that line was funny. Dad had a lot of sex compared to us, even though we are the ones supposably living in englightened, improved, sexual circumstances. And a lot of the other parts have me thinking, yeah, that’s what life is like these days, or, yes, that explanation makes sense. So it is interesting to read about a guy like us, and see whether he succeeds or fails, finds something better, finds a solution, or deals with it or not.

I think this is why a lot of young women like that TV show “Sex and the City.” Because the female characters are like them, maybe a little. Now, whenever I watch that show –rarely; can’t stand it, I think, ugh, these people are all horrible. Almost every time the narrator talks and tries to philosophize or draw a conclusion, I think, no, you’re drawing the wrong lesson! You missed the point! You’re horrible and you have to change radically! You are hurting yourself and all the people around you! Like Updike seems to think about Houellebecq, I am tempted to think about that show: as poison for it’s audience. Similarly, gansta rap.

But Houellebecq isn’t poison. Methadone isn’t poison to a heroin addict. And the truth isn’t poison. It just might be that hearing the truth about some people’s lives might be in appropriate for some other people; they just don’t get it. Houellebecq is funny. His books are a guilty, nasty, prurient, but also a scary-warning-shot-across-the-bow-of-your-moral sense pleasure. Updike says it’s not nutritive. He’s wrong. When you are living in Sex & the City la la land, of USA circa 2000, a blunt, funny, male perspective noting the crappiness of the culture is quite fortifying. Updike doesn’t get it.

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A couple comments:

  1. Updike was born about 1930 and so is post-WW II generation but pre-boomer. I think his apparent POV becomes harder to hold for someone born much later.
  2. Many of the bits Updike (and others) quote are indeed very funny, but I didn’t want to say so because they’re so disgusting and shameful. Maybe I’ll add something.
  3. An aside: the neocons often used to promote the American-life-is-OK-as-it-is view but they were writing ideology rather than imaginative liberature. (Such issues of course go right over the heads of the younger ones.)

    Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I’ve only read a couple of Houllebecq’s but I like him too—I like him better than Updike, whose fiction bores me. Houllebecq struck me as a fantasist, a satirist, a young curmudgeon, an extremist—he embodies and nails a mood really beautifully. It isn’t as new a mood as some might think—his writing isn’t all that different than Celine’s. (“Cry of disgust at modernity,” that kind of thing.) He’s mainly a moralist, as most satirists are. There’s another aspect of his writing that Anglo-Saxons don’t tend to get—this is actually an aspect of French culture that Anglo-Saxons don’t tend to get: It’s that much French art and entertainment is what we might think of as performance art. It’s like mime or kabuki—radical posturing and extremism appreciated not for its truth value in an earnest-Anglo sense but as performance. The French just love that pose of spent but still witty, Gauloises-enshrouded despair. The “I” of Descartes stranded out there admidst psychic, metaphysical desolation. Tres chic! Looks good, gives ‘em something to flirt about as they drink wine and coffee and arrange vacations.

Anyway, I’m a fan. The two I read were also pretty light and fast, which was appreciated.

“Michel Houellebecq’s mother writes tell-all novel about ‘parasite’ son,” Reuters; Agence France-Presse, Published: Thursday, May 01, 2008.

http://www.nationalpost.com/scripts/story.html?id=483710

“”My son can go and get screwed by whomever he wants, he can write another book, I don’t give a toss,” she says in one excerpt. “But if he has the misfortune of sticking my name on anything again he’ll get my walking stick in his face and that’ll knock his teeth out,” she says in what newspapers described as a typical sample.”

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