American Male Novelists: The New Deal

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Dominique Nabokov
John Updike, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, 1985

While spending several weeks reading and writing about Michel Houellebecq, a loose thought kept rattling around in my mind.* In American novels, we have a tacit set of conventions for writing about romantic losers. Houellebecq squarely violates them. This is one reason that The Elementary Particles (2000), his first novel published in the US, seemed (to some) so exciting and revelatory or (to others) completely repellent. We American readers immediately notice that he is covering familiar territory, but in a crucially different way from our own youngish novelists.

Houellebecq, in his first four novels, writes a lot about men who suffer because they are—or perceive themselves to be—unloved by women. Some characters are rejected by women pretty much every time they venture into a bar. Others are rejected only once or twice, but with catastrophic psychic consequences. Some hardly even bother trying to meet women, so paralyzing is their fear of the kind of intimate scrutiny that most of us take for granted as part of “dating.”

The man who feels himself unloved and unlovable—this is a character that we know well from the latest generation or two of American novels. His trials are often played for sympathetic laughs. His loserdom is total: it extends to his stunted career, his squalid living quarters, his deep unease in the world. Take Lewis Miner, of Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land (2004). Miner is a barely employed copywriter and prodigious masturbator who tells his story in the form of updates to his high school alumni newsletter:

I rent some rooms in a house near the depot. I rarely leave them, too. When you work at home, fellow alums, discipline is the supreme virtue. Suicidal self-loathing lurks behind every coffee break. Activities must be expertly scheduled, from shopping to showers to panic attacks. Meanwhile I must make time to pine for Gwendolyn, decamped three years this June, the month we were to wed.

Yes, the loser’s worst—that is to say, most important—problems are with women. His relationships are either unrequited or, at best, doomed. He is the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap. Think of the way Gary Shteyngart’s characters love to tell us how unattractive they are. Here is Lenny, of Super Sad True Love Story (2010), who will have his heart broken by a woman sixteen years younger, describing himself in his diary:

A slight man with a gray, sunken battleship of a face, curious wet eyes, a giant gleaming forehead on which a dozen cavemen could have painted something nice, a sickle of a nose perched atop a tiny puckered mouth, and from the back, a growing bald spot whose shape perfectly replicates the great state of Ohio, with its capital city, Columbus, marked by a deep-brown mole. Slight. Slightness is my curse in every sense. A so-so body in a world where only an incredible one will do. A body …

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  1. *

    See my review in these pages, March 8, 2012.