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 at the chronological age of thirty-nine already racked with too much LDL cholesterol, too much ACTH hormone, too much of everything that dooms the heart, sunders the liver, explodes all hope.
But loserdom is not limited to the physically unattractive—it can be even funnier when the schmuck in question is vain about his good looks. Richard Price’s 1978 novel Ladies’ Man (one of the earliest iterations of the hapless American bachelor) describes a week in the life of thirty-year-old Kenny. The novel’s ironic title gives a hint of its hero’s travails. At the beginning of the novel we learn that his girlfriend, La Donna, has lost interest in sex with him. Then he walks in on her masturbating with her vibrator, which sends him into a tailspin of sexual jealousy—of the battery-operated appliance. He runs to the local bar, and is now giving himself a semi-drunk pep talk:
I was worried about some guy screwing La Donna and my real competition was Everready. Fuck it. She wanted to play around? Then me too. I was wasting my time with her. I was at the peak of my manhood. And I was good. And I wasn’t just saying that the way every guy says it. I was goddamn good. And I was big. I was good, big and the best. And I was wasting it with her. Everyone said it. Every woman I was ever with told me I was the best. I knew how to move, how to groove and I was a handsome bastard too. I had a nice frame, about six feet even. Hundred and sixty-five. Straight hair, dark skin, dark eyes, sensuous mouth, so I heard.
Lipsyte, Shteyngart, and Price are, of course, writing about some of the same social conditions that Houellebecq identifies (and rails against): the decade or two of post-college bachelorhood that has become standard among the educated middle class during which men (and women) continually risk romantic rejection and size themselves up in relation to their peers. And with the possibility of easy divorce, bachelorhood can be revisited at any age.
In 1997, Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay on sex advice books for The New Yorker. By coincidence, apparently, Franzen puts forward the same thesis that drives Houellebecq’s first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994), using the same economic metaphor. If Americans seem to have an especially acute case of sexual anxiety, Franzen writes, it’s because
we’re simply experiencing the anxiety of a free market. Contraception and the ease of divorce have removed the fetters from the economy of sex, and, like the citizens of present-day Dresden and Leipzig, we all want to believe we’re better off under a regime in which even the poorest man can dream of wealth. But as the old walls of repression tumble down, many Americans—discarded first wives, who are like the workers displaced from a Trabant factory; or sexually inept men, who are the equivalent of command-economy bureaucrats—have grown nostalgic for the old state monopolies.
The sexual free market is hardly all bad, as Franzen notes. And no one is wishing, in these novels, for fewer choices and irreversible marriage contracts. Yet the authors keep returning us to a certain kind of scene—the scene of romantic rejection—and a certain kind of feeling: the embarrassment of having been examined and found wanting. This is the heroes’ signal experience of sexually liberated adult life.
But there’s a reason that the characters must be losers on other, nonsexual fronts as well—professional, financial, social. The authors are saturating the novel in the hero’s sense of humiliation—a humiliation that, we learn, precedes any actual romantic experience. The hero finds himself wanting, and getting turned down by a girl is confirmation of what he’s always suspected. He is, in fact, pretty deft at anticipating any possible criticism of himself; he usually tries to get there first, with a piercingly funny joke at his own expense. Where he fails to understand his own folly, the author is quick to signal to us over the hero’s head; the poor fellow’s monologue gets a shade more florid, a shade more defensive, and we know we are witnessing a moment of self-deceptive bluster. Between the rueful self-knowledge of the hero and the ironizing impulse of the author, no vanity goes unpunctured.
This is about more than contemporary sexual manners, and about more, even, than urban middle-class status anxieties. Our American male novelists, I suspect, are worried about being unloved as writers—specifically by the female reader. This is the larger humiliation looming behind the many smaller fictional humiliations of their heroes, and we can see it in the way the characters’ rituals of self-loathing are tacitly performed for the benefit of an imagined female audience.
In a 1998 review of John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time, David Foster Wallace identified Updike, along with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, as the “Great Male Narcissists” of mid-twentieth-century letters, characterized by their “radical self-absorption” and “their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.” Wallace observes that the GMNs, especially Updike, have been significantly less appreciated by younger generations of readers than they were by their own, and he puts forward a hypothesis:
I’m guessing that for the young educated adults of the sixties and seventies, for whom the ultimate horror was the hypocritical conformity and repression of their own parents’ generation, Updike’s evection of the libidinous self appeared refreshing and even heroic. But young adults of the nineties—many of whom are, of course, the children of all the impassioned infidelities and divorces Updike wrote about so beautifully, and who got to watch all this brave new individualism and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation—today’s subforties have very different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.
Whether you accept this view (or indeed, his characterization of Updike and the GMNs) or not, the important thing about Wallace’s essay, for our purposes, is the way in which he goes about building his case:
Most of the literary readers I know personally are under forty, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar GMNs. But it’s John Updike in particular that a lot of them seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason—mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:
“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”
“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”
“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Rush [Limbaugh] makes fascism seem funny.”
And trust me: these are actual quotations, and I’ve heard even worse ones, and they’re all usually accompanied by the sort of facial expressions where you can tell there’s not going to be any profit in appealing to the intentional fallacy or talking about the sheer aesthetic pleasure of Updike’s prose.
Put aside for a moment the blatant condescension of that last bit, and you can see an amazingly frank expression of anxiety about female readers. No one wants to be called a penis with a thesaurus. For an English-language novelist, raised and educated and self-consciously steeped in the tradition of the Anglo-American novel, in which female characters, female writers, and female readers have had a huge part, the prospect of not being able to write for female readers is a crisis. What kind of novelist are you if women aren’t reading your books? This is a crisis that the GMNs themselves did not face (many of their own female contemporaries read their books avidly). Wallace is identifying a sea change in the next generation of female readers. These women are not only children of divorce, but children of a feminist movement that had an especially profound influence on cultural criticism.
Wallace’s only reference to feminism (if you could call it that) is an aside about a “PC backlash” against Updike, but his depiction of the composite female reader suggests a real fear of her articulate scorn. He devotes the rest of the essay to explaining and justifying her point of view. In reality, of course, women have a variety of opinions, but for Wallace there exists a single under-forty female judgment on Updike—and, potentially, on other novelists as well. What is it, exactly, that Wallace thinks has the women so worked up?