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.]