Jed Martin, the hero of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, is the first of his major characters to make it to the end of a book without checking into a psychiatric ward or committing suicide. Jed is an artist who becomes successful and then very rich from selling his paintings, but such happy professional circumstances would not normally be enough to insulate one of Houellebecq’s characters from a wretched fate. Life in a Houellebecq novel is violent, with an unaccountably high death rate for bureaucrats, artists, scientists, marketing executives—the sort of affluent Western law-abiders whom we might expect, from an actuarial point of view, to die quietly and sanely of natural causes. In Houellebecq’s novels they burn with a steady fever of anxiety, anger, and sadness that eventually consumes them. They are incredulous that anyone can remain quiet and sane in what they see as a state of cultural emergency.
What’s the problem? The characters would say it has to do with sex, specifically with the cruelties of late-twentieth-century Western mating habits. The lonely, depressed computer programmer who narrates Houellebecq’s first novel, Whatever (1994), has a theory about it:
Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never…. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate…. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.
The narrator of course belongs to the latter category, and it is the plight of these men, the ones who can’t get a date, that preoccupies Houellebecq. The worst part of their condition is that they persist in trying. Bruno, a lonely, depressed bureaucrat in The Elementary Particles (1998), has no gift for seduction, yet “his only goal in life had been sexual.” In this, Houellebecq adds, he “was characteristic of his generation”—the post-1968 generation who grew up in the liberal sexual system shaped by their parents and who are unhappily enslaved to the notion that sex is the most gratifying element of human existence. When Bruno has a good year, sexually speaking, it’s because “the influx of girls from Eastern Europe had meant prices had dropped.”
Houellebecq’s characters think and talk volubly about their condition. They attribute their solitude to physical unattractiveness; they complain about the world’s preoccupation with outward appearance. But this is the least convincing reason for their loneliness. Consider their problem this way: they have few family ties, few friends, and no gift for any kind of intimacy. Having left behind the somewhat richer social possibilities of university life and exhausted their small network of acquaintances and colleagues, they must go out and meet strangers every time they want to have sex. Not just meet them but talk to them and charm them. Some men might be up to this task, most would say it’s not easy, and for the awkward, hostile, socially inhibited depressives in Houellebecq’s books, having to play the role of the seducer every time they want any kind of female company is a cruel joke.
“I had nothing to say, I felt completely incapable of starting a conversation with anyone at all,” recalls the narrator of Platform (1999), another lonely, depressed bureaucrat, of his youthful attempts to meet women at clubs and bars. He managed to get a date four or five times in ten or twelve years. In between, his main source of conversation is office banter; evenings are spent alone in his apartment.
The extreme social isolation of these characters is the underlying, deliberately undertheorized subject of the novels. The characters themselves point to external, structural causes of human misery. They understate their loneliness until it becomes an overwhelming tide—and even then they have an indirect, impersonal way of talking about it:
Prolonged boredom is not tenable as a position: sooner or later it is transformed into feelings that are acutely more painful, of true pain; this is precisely what’s happening to me.
But occasionally a woman is interested in a Houellebecq hero. If he is also attracted to her, and—another miracle—he finds her company tolerable, this is love. The great thing about Houellebecq on love is that he sketches it broadly. When a male character waxes admiringly about his girlfriend, it is usually about her skill at giving hand jobs.
The reduction of female characters to their sexual function is normally considered the paramount example of literary misogyny. I wouldn’t try to clear Houellebecq on all counts of this charge, but I think that his insistence solely on animal satisfactions when representing love is one of his brilliant impieties. He has found, with admirable precision, a node of prudish sentimentality: in spite of the importance we place on the pursuit of sex in life and its graphic depiction in entertainment and art, we continue to suspect that sex acts reduce us to anonymity, annihilate whatever it is that makes us “individual,” and therefore can’t stand in for what we love about a person. The novelist can write about hand jobs, sure, but if he’s going to write about love, he’d better talk about the elegant slope of her shoulders or her quick wit.
Houellebecq likes to scorn the idea of individual personality, which to him is all a matter of minor differences. (“Certain higher management types are crazy about filleted herrings; others detest them. So many varied destinies, so many potential ways of doing things.”) In writing about love, it would be precious and boring, from Houellebecq’s point of view, to go on about her unique qualities and his unique qualities and the subtle ways in which all of their qualities draw them together and pull them apart. There is an element of expediency in this position, for Houellebecq has no apparent ability to conceive of different personalities with unique qualities. He is a novelist with only one character in him.
That character’s life is transformed by love: it is his only relief from a default setting of depression. He enjoys the company of his beloved, and allows himself to imagine a future with her:
They might grow old together. From time to time she would offer him a little physical pleasure, and together they could live out their declining libidos. They would go on like that for some years and then it would be over; they would be old, and the comedy of sexual manners finished for good.
This, for Houellebecq, is as much as anyone can hope for. But before it comes to pass, the beloved suffers an injury that leaves her paraplegic, and then commits suicide. Or she dies of cancer. Or she is shot by terrorists.
Yes, at the moment when we might expect Houellebecq to turn to the subject of devastating breakups, or desultory codependent unions, he has a tendency to kill off the beloved instead. He thus not only spares himself from having to depict an enduring relationship, but presses death into service to help him make the point that there’s just no winning in love. We might marvel at the brazenness of this move, but we are not reading Houellebecq novels for their formal daring; we want to know how to live, and on this matter the ship has run aground, our captain has limped off into the forest to tend to his own wounds. We have come to the end of what Houellebecq knows about romantic and sexual relations. There is still a sizable chunk of novel left to go. It is at this dispiriting juncture that even sympathetic critics line up unflattering adjectives: “callow,” “sophomoric,” “infantile.”
When a girlfriend dies (or when she merely breaks up with him, a situation Houellebecq finally attempts to depict in his fourth novel, The Possibility of an Island, 2005), the hero falls into a more acute depression, followed by certified madness and possibly suicide. This does not come as a surprise. We could hardly have imagined him risking another decade of bad dates and evenings alone.
The drama of being a loser in the sex selection sweepstakes reveals a confounding irony that is at the center of Houellebecq’s work. You might have been abandoned by your mother (as most of his characters are), indifferently raised, humiliated by your peers; you might be temperamentally aggressive and hostile and feel very little kinship with or interest in most people you meet; you might find true contentment only when you’re alone. In short, you might be thoroughly unsuited for human society. But this will in no way relieve you of the need for other people. You will suffer unbearably from your loneliness, and you will not have any way to fix it.
In two of Houellebecq’s novels, the human race is eclipsed by clones. Having no need for sexual reproduction and therefore coupling, the clones live calm, solitary, agreeable lives of muted emotion. This is, in Houellebecq’s view, the inevitable culmination of all the tendencies of our medicated and narcissistic society. It is also the only way out of the miseries of human relations.
Houellebecq once said in an interview that when he wrote Whatever, he expected that the novel “would provoke social change.” He thought, apparently, that it would force us to confront our cultural preoccupation with physical appearance and alter our social rituals. He was quickly disillusioned. “When you go into a club today, you see the same behavior as six years ago. A novel won’t ever change the world.”
Reading his first and second novels—Whatever and The Elementary Particles—you can feel that something happened in between the two to make Houellebecq exasperated with his readers. We are more obtuse than he thought; it will take stronger measures to shake us out of our complacency. Whatever’s narrator wonders why he is miserable while all the people around him “seem satisfied with themselves and the world.” But in subsequent novels, Houellebecq would never again admit that his characters suffered from poor mental hygiene. No matter how extreme their isolation and misanthropy, Houellebecq would always insist that they are exemplary—typical of their generation, typical specimens of contemporary Western society. Their misery is our misery. And to help us understand our misery, he offers a skeptical review of the last half-century of cultural developments, chief among them the sexual revolution.
We are not all shut-ins, but we are all afraid of being unloved. The quickest way to evoke this terror in the reasonably well-adjusted mainstream of literary readers is to talk about the aging body, which Houellebecq has done prolifically. When he writes about women, he veers violently between identifying with them—as the most pitiable victims of the great universal beauty contest—and critically appraising them according to the merciless standards of the contest. He leaves it to us to sort out which disagreeable pronouncements he means sincerely, and which are meant as evidence of our cultural derangement. Liking Houellebecq depends on finding a vein of satirical humor, rather than idle boorishness, in statements such as “He thought he might grow to love her sagging but soft labia.”