I was first introduced to Houellebecq through The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, a slim and tight little volume of author biographies, synopses of infamous novels and literature blurbs. Reading his entry immediately put me off a bit; he seemed like an instigator (not the entertaining kind, either) through the description, and a cursory Google search turned up all kinds of supporting evidence for an argument that he wasn’t really worth reading.
I recently picked up a copy of his first novel, Whatever (blurbed by Tibor Fischer as “L’Etranger for the info generation”) off of Amazon for a few dollars and read it in my car in between critical theory assignments.
Theory, over the course of the semester, has become a new obsession for me. I can’t get enough of it. No matter how difficult it seems, with its endlessly confusing terminology and conflicting points of view, I keep on it, chasing the material like a starving, feral dog. If you could distill this school of the Humanities down into a tangible human being I’d be lusting all over them, crawling around in their lap like some kind of demented child at an inappropriate mall Santa display. Each week my response to the material needs to be three to six pages in length, and mine generally run eight or nine typed pages plus two or three scribbled during our two and a half hour Tuesday night discussions. I’m tempted to render parts of them into PDFs for the site, just so people can get a glimpse at how absolutely crazy I am about this course.
My graduate school decisions appear to have been narrowed down for me. While I enjoy all of my courses, I haven’t felt this completely electrified by a subject in ages.
When I began reading Houellebecq, my head was full of Marxist theory, and so a lot of my margin notes revolve around proletariat/bourgeoisie base/superstructure dichotomies, ISAs, RSAs, economics (with a focus on sexuality as currency) and the like. One of the greatest things about Marxist theory, despite the fact that I don’t always agree with every single detail, is that it has finally given a name and concrete definition to that uncomfortable sensation I’ve felt below the surface at almost every job I’ve ever had: alienation. Realizing that it had been recognized and defined over a hundred years before my own birth is comforting — I’d started to worry that perhaps I was just born a bitter little shit. What a relief.
Some hasty notes:
1/30/11 – 2/2/11: First exposure to the “notorious” misogynist and racist French author. First 2/3 uneventful — last 1/3 incendiary. Powerful yet nauseating.
Marxist theory: Novel as treatise on alienation, brought forth (predominantly) by the ISAs of human social interaction and sexuality but also of commercialism and work.
Whatever’s plot can be summed up rather quickly, as the story itself is extremely straightforward: Thirty-year-old protagonist, a computer programmer, is shipped to multiple Department of Agriculture offices to help train government employees on the implementation of their new software system. That’s it. Nothing else happens, outside of the protagonist’s few interactions with his coworkers. One of them, Raphaël Tisserand, is financially secure yet hideously ugly and remains a virgin, unable to attract a single woman to sleep with him.
Not much of a plot, right? Well, the sexual rejection is a big deal in this novel. Not only can Tisserand not get laid, but the protagonist is still suffering from an incredibly painful breakup with a woman who’d dumped him two years prior. He’s already rather high-strung, from his own descriptions of himself, and for catharsis (and to pass the time) he entertains himself by writing short stories about anthropomorphized animals as stand-ins for human characters.
The first two thirds of the novel pass rather uneventfully, and at times I felt like I was reading a Coupland novel drained of its whimsy and charm. The protagonist is rather unlikable; he’s not a horrible human being, but he’s barely even alive. He goes to work, observes other people and carries on his day to day living without much vigor, almost like the walking dead, while making rather insulting observations regarding the people he meets. There’s a bitterness to him that made me a bit wary; I’ve known people like this in real life, and they tend to be emotional vampires. Nothing’s good enough, nobody’s worth talking to and, worst of all, they don’t ever want to take responsibility for their own issues. The male ones I’ve known, just like this guy, tend to externalize all of their problems, using women in general as a scapegoat for their shortcomings.
“Women are all whores,” I’ve heard more times than I can count. “They’re all worthless whores, and none of them will have sex with me.”
At around the last third of the novel, this is exactly the posture Houellebecq’s lonely programmer decides to take. Suffering from cardiovascular trouble and finding himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he revisits his short story “Dialogues Between a Dachshund and a Poodle,” wherein one of the dogs recounts to the other of finding a manuscript in a roll-top desk his owner had written and squirreled away. This manuscript is a treatise on human sexuality, loneliness and the decrepitude of modern French society, and is the only significant bit of epistolary work in the novel. It goes on for multiple pages and serves as an incredibly clunky way for Houellebecq (and his protagonist) to throw up their middle fingers at young people interacting within society. Part of the nameless narrator’s nameless dog’s nameless owner’s manuscript reads:
After having taken a long and hard look at the echelonment of the various appendices of the sexual function, the moment seems to me to have come to expound the central theorem of my apocritique. For this I will utilize the level of a condensed but adequate formulation, to wit: Sexuality is a system of social hierarchy.
No shit, buddy. You don’t say.
The protagonist (and his fictional characters) often feel like the lonely child with his face pressed up against a window, Scrooge peering through frosted glass at the Cratchets. Unlike Dickens’ character, there is no redemption here, no rejoining of society. Society is diseased; it is the disease itself, and there’s no going back for this guy.
The protagonist slowly begins to come undone, and he ruminates on his hypothesis of sexual economics, deciding that some people have lots of money, some people have lots of sex, a few have both and some are completely shut out. He himself has money but no companionship, not even someone to have utterly meaningless and completely forgettable sex with. It would be easy to sympathize with someone like this, were he not so incredibly bitter and unwilling to address his internal issues. Instead he goes on to recount his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Véronique, who entered the relationship normal and, once she began psychotherapy, turned into a destructive and entirely malignant bitch.
Véronique was ‘in analysis,’ as they say; today I regret ever having met her. Generally speaking, there’s nothing to be had from women in analysis. A woman fallen into the hands of the psychoanalysts becomes absolutely unfit for use, as I’ve discovered time and again. This phenomenon should not be taken as a secondary effect of psychoanalysis, but rather as its principal goal. Under the pretext of reconstructing the ego psychoanalysts proceed, in reality, to a scandalous destruction of the human being. Innocence, generosity, purity… all such things are rapidly crushed by their uncouth hands. Handsomely remunerated, pretentious and stupid, psychoanalysts reduce to absolute zero any aptitude in their so-called patients for love, be it mental or physical; in fact they behave as true enemies of mankind. A ruthless school of egoism, psychoanalysis cynically lays into decent, slightly fucked-up young women and transforms them into vile scumbags of such delirious egocentrism as to warrant nothing but well-earned contempt. On no account must any confidence be placed in a woman who’s passed through the hands of the psychoanalysts. Pettiness, egoism, arrogant stupidity, complete lack of moral sense, a chronic inability to love: there you have an exhaustive portrait of the ‘analysed’ woman.
He goes on to state just how much he loved Véronique, and just how hideous she became after therapy. He, depressed, swallowed pills and needed to be hospitalized; after his release, she threw him out of their apartment, going so far as to involve the police in his removal.
Like all depressives she doubtless always had a tendency towards egoism and a lack of feeling; but her psychoanalysis transformed her once and for all into a total shit, lacking both guts and conscience — a detritus wrapped in silver paper. I remember she had a white plastic board on which she ordinarily wrote things like ‘petits pois’ or ‘dry cleaners.’ One evening, coming back from her session, she’d noted down this phrase of Lacan’s; ‘the viler you are, the better it will be.’
He ends his description of his breakup with Véronique with one of the most vitriolic and, for some odd reason, hysterically [I wonder if you realized subconsciously your amusing choice of adjectives here. -- DC] funny things I’ve ever seen on paper:
I regret not taking a knife to her ovaries.
Protagonist and pitiable buddy Tisserand go clubbing for the Christmas holidays, and here is where Houellebecq’s detractors find their strongest ammunition. While at the club, the two men attempt to interact with a group of younger people, and the tension is palpable. Nameless Hero (if only to himself) is on the precipice of his impending breakdown; Tisserand is nearly insane with longing and sadness, his ineffectuality compounding to an all-encompassing impotence. A young girl at the club resembles a youthful Véronique, and the tirade begins anew.
From the amorous point of view Véronique belonged, as we all do, to a sacrificed generation. She had certainly been capable of love; she would have wished to still be capable of it. I’ll say that for her; but it was no longer possible. A scarce, artificial and belated phenomenon, love can only blossom under certain mental conditions, rarely conjoined, and totally opposed to the freedom of morals which characterizes the modern era. Véronique had known too many discothéques, too many lovers; such a way of life impoverishes a human being, inflicting sometimes serious and always irreversible damage. Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immorality, and never two. In reality the successive sexual experiences accumulated during adolescence undermine and rapidly destroy all possibility of projection of an emotional and romantic sort; progressively, and in fact extremely quickly, one becomes as capable of love as an old hag. And so one leads, obviously, a slag’s life; in ageing one becomes less seductive, and on that account bitter. One is jealous of the young, and so one hates them. Condemned to remain unavowable, this hatred festers and becomes increasingly fervent; then it dies down and fades away, just as everything fades away. All that remains is resentment and disgust, sickness and the anticipation of death.
Here he is, thirty years old, ogling a group of teenaged girls (who may be as young, he hypothesizes, as fifteen), desperate for human contact, egging his twenty-eight-year-old associate on as he tries to lure one of these half-grown girls into having sex with him, ranting internally about the decay of morality and the death of true love. Again, his face pressed against the window, he rants and raves at what he isn’t himself a part of, brushing his insecurity and personal failings aside to instead focus on an easier and less painful target — people having more sex, namely people who more than likely wouldn’t have sex with him.
He (or his translator, Paul Hammond) uses the word “one” to denote the example individual undergoing said moral decay, and he goes so far as claiming “we all” belong to the sacrificed generation; however, his use of the words “slag” and “seductive” leave little speculation as to which members of society are most susceptible to this erosion of morality.
For all his hatred of psychoanalysis he himself is guilty of the same crime, which incidentally is the reason why I myself take an extremely wary (and in the case of Freud, outright hostile) stance on the profession. Female sexuality is not given the same variance and depth as male sexuality. It is reduced to a binary, a yes/no, where one side is hideous and the other exalted. See these young girls growing into adults and easing into their roles as complete human beings? Aren’t they just so disgusting?
Later on in the evening, “pseudo-Véronique” hooks up with a young biracial man, whom the protagonist refers to several times as being “half-caste” [Seriously? We're supposed to give our empathy to this little shit of an antihero?], and they drift out to the dance floor. Watching them during a slow number, Tisserand becomes increasingly despondent. The protagonist tells him to go have a wank and considers just how lonely his friend will be for the rest of his life. He comes up with a great idea. Instead of wanking, why not become a serial killer? He asks Raphaël what is most precious about these young women. “Their beauty?”
It’s not their beauty, I can tell you that much; is isn’t their vagina either, nor even their love. Because all these disappear with life itself. And from now on you can possess their life. Launch yourself on a career of murder this very evening; believe me, my friend, it’s the only way still open to you. When you feel these women trembling at the end of your knife, and begging for their young lives, then will you truly be the master; then will you possess them body and soul. Perhaps you will even manage, prior to their sacrifice, to obtain various succulent favours from them; a knife, Raphaël, is a powerful ally.
Are you fucking kidding me? Nope. Raphaël, perhaps not fully understanding the seriousness of his friend, responds with “I’d rather kill the guy.”
Well then, I exclaimed, what’s stopping you? Why yes! Get the hang of it on a young nigger! In any case they’re going to leave together, the thing looks cut and dried. You’ll have, of course, to kill the guy before getting a piece of the woman. As it happens I’ve a knife in the front of the car.
Let me preface my irritation here by stating that I’m no stranger to artistic use of violence, sexual or otherwise. The bulk of my most beloved films and novels are rather vile; I appreciate the darker side of human nature, find it endlessly fascinating, and am rather comfortable with it. However, this attitude, these recollections, the scene as it unfolds (Tisserand backs out of the killing after finding the couple copulating on a nearby beach; instead he decides to watch them and jerk off, and on his way home is killed in a car accident) are all so unbelievably crass, so misdirected, so manipulated by a completely unlikeable and unredeemable jackass without any of the psychological nuances that make aberrant sexuality interesting that it just comes off as the same kind of fat neckbeard tirade I’ve heard a hundred times before on the internet and found easy to nullify every time it appeared.
Can’t stick my dick in anything; women are all whores; why won’t anyone pay attention to me; the whole world is so fucked up. Yawn.
The protagonist goes back to work, flips out, takes a mental sickness leave, is assigned a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Népote (uh-huh), willingly institutionalizes himself for a while and winds up with a female doctor during his extended stay.
I’ve always hated female psychology students: vile creatures, that’s how I perceive them.
He ends the story with a bicycle ride in the country, near the River Ardéche.
The impression of separation is total; from now on I am imprisoned within myself. It will not take place, the sublime fusion; the goal of life is missed. It is two in the afternoon.
Alienation. No option now but to suppress the urges of the Self and become a living ghost, a suicide sans physical death.
I do not regret having read this; on the contrary, I found it rather eye-opening, despite featuring a protagonist I wanted to gag and toss in my trunk by the time he really got rolling with his misanthropy. The undercurrent is bleak, inescapable, profound in places, but the whole thing is written so ham-fistedly that I find myself unable to really care. Perhaps if this were more of a treatise on humanity as a whole, rather than a thinly-veiled statement on mens’ victimhood under unrestrained female sexuality, I’d find myself caring a whole lot more. Alienation is, after all, a huge interest of mine, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t take as much from this tale as I could have.
L’Etranger it is most certainly not. Camus did it better.