• Email
  • Print

Work, Not Sex, At Last

blair_1-030812.jpg
Alessandro Albert/Getty Images
Michel Houellebecq, Turin, Italy, November 2010

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.”

Houellebecq will sometimes make fun of women’s magazines in his novels, pointing to their corrosive conventional wisdom on matters of love, sex, and beauty. He has evidently studied them closely; reading some parts of The Elementary Particles is terrifying in precisely the way that leafing through an issue of Vogue is terrifying. Steeped in the anxiety of romantic rejection, we are vulnerable to the thing that most deeply haunts Houellebecq: that people might look away indifferently—contemptuously—from our need. Now we are ready for his interpretations of our cultural malaise. Here is his assessment of how things worked out for the 1968 generation:

Women who turned twenty in the late sixties found themselves in a difficult position when they hit forty. Most of them were divorced and could no longer count on the conjugal bond—whether warm or abject—whose decline they had served to hasten. As members of a generation who—more than any before—had proclaimed the superiority of youth over age, they could hardly claim to be surprised when they, in turn, were despised by succeeding generations. As their flesh began to age, the cult of the body, which they had done so much to promote, simply filled them with an intensifying disgust for their own bodies—a disgust they could see mirrored in the gaze of others.
The men of their generation found themselves in much the same position, yet this common destiny fostered no solidarity. At forty, they continued to pursue young women—with a measure of success, at least for those who…had attained a certain position, whether intellectual, financial or social. For women, their mature years brought only failure, masturbation and shame.

We might take, or at least debate, some of his points on the social instability caused by divorce, the excruciations of dating, the unequal prospects for single men and women in middle age. But to see aging from twenty to forty, even in our youth-obsessed culture, as an unremitting cascade of losses is to have a pretty narrow idea of what there is to lose in the first place. Houellebecq seems to have read the women’s magazines more credulously than we ever did. And so we slip the trap that he has tried to set for us: it is Houellebecq who seems to us to be obsessed with aging, Houellebecq who is preoccupied with sexual competition and physical appearance, with no sense of what else we might be, or should be, living for.

Which brings us back to Jed Martin, who is as much alone as any previous Houellebecq character: few friends, only two girlfriends in his life, separated by long years of complete solitude. But he doesn’t complain, and he certainly doesn’t have theories about it. Jed is quiet where other of Houellebecq’s characters have been voluble. He sometimes goes to parties with famous art collectors and media personalities, but we get no caustic asides about the people he meets. In the novel’s important conversations, it is the supporting cast—Jed’s girlfriend, Olga; his father, Jean-Pierre; his gallerist, Franz; and his friend, the novelist Michel Houellebecq—that does most of the talking. Jed remains, in these conversations, a somewhat mysterious consciousness that we know primarily by his quiet, subtle responses—changes of expression, changes in the quality of his attention—to what the others say.

In a Houellebecq novel, neutral detachment is typically a rhetorical guise, a position from which to hurl barbed observations at the rest of the human race. But Jed seems to possess true detachment, a puzzling sort of egolessness. Jed and Olga’s affair lasts a few months. He loves her more than he has loved anyone else, but when she is offered a great job in her native Russia, he doesn’t try to stop her from leaving or consider going with her. He “did not react” when she kisses him goodbye at the airport. Only when he gets home do we get a reaction shot: he realizes that “everything that, a few days previously, had constituted his world suddenly seemed completely empty to him.” But what would seem to be a problem of love becomes a problem of work. Instead of learning more about his feelings for Olga, we watch him systematically destroy all the photographs he’d been working on and carry them to a dumpster. “Paper’s heavy, he thought.”

The Map and the Territory, like Jed’s life, is organized around his work rather than his love affairs. Jed might go out with an interesting woman when she crosses his path, he might hire a prostitute here and there, but sex is not a big deal, and love, though it still matters, is not the most important part of his life. “The last remaining myth of Western civilization was that sex was something to do; something expedient, a diversion,” writes Houellebecq in The Elementary Particles. His earlier books were taken up with that myth and its ruinous effect on the characters’ lives. The new book actually gives sex the diminished place that it deserves, according to Houellebecq’s logic. In this way there is something idealistic in the structure of the book: it offers an example of the right way to apportion work and sex in one’s life. There is an ideal expressed in the narrative tone as well: in distinction from the earlier novels, it is calm. And Jed himself is also a kind of idealized figure. His life offers an answer to the question that the other books have been pregnant with: If you are a Houellebecqian character, how, and why, should you live?

Jed is interested not just in pursuing his own work, but in the idea of human labor. He paints two series of portraits, “The Series of Simple Professions” and “The Series of Business Compositions,” of people working or posing in their official capacity: a bar tabac manager, an upmarket prostitute, a journalist, an engineer. It is his ambition to paint an artist as well, but when we first meet Jed, he’s frustrated because he can’t get one of the faces right on his painting Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. Koons “seemed to have a duality, an insurmountable contradiction between the basic cunning of the technical sales rep and the exaltation of the ascetic.” By the end of the evening Jed tears up the canvas in a fit of frustration.

But that same evening the stage is set for a reversal. It’s Christmas Eve, and Jed is having his annual holiday dinner with his father (his mother committed suicide when he was seven). Searching for conversation topics, Jed mentions to his father that he’s thinking of asking the novelist Michel Houellebecq to write an essay for his upcoming exhibition catalog.

Jed is not close to his father. He has been dreading this dinner and wondering if he should have hired an escort to pretend to be his girlfriend and bring some feminine conversation to their evening. But Jean-Pierre’s opinion means something to Jed. When Jean-Pierre says that he likes Houellebecq’s novels (“he’s pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society”), Jed decides to go for it: he sends Houellebecq an e-mail. So begins Jed’s relationship with Houellebecq, who becomes the closest thing Jed has ever had to a friend. Most important, Houellebecq is an artist (in the broad sense) whose facial expression, unlike that of Koons, is sufficiently unified to be paintable. Jed’s portrait of Houellebecq will be his greatest work.

The idea of Houellebecq—last seen in the international press getting drunk at interviews and making passes at journalists—as a paternal sage is comical, and the comedy of the conceit seems to infuse the whole novel, which has a more elastic sense of humor than his previous books. One wouldn’t have imagined him writing a little sketch in which a man who loved his father but didn’t feel close to him was dreading the prospect of their Christmas dinner together. Most of Houellebecq’s characters have father troubles, but they usually describe them with more bile than wit: as Bruno put it in The Elementary Particles, dad is “a gorilla [with] a mobile phone.”

Writing himself into the novel, Houellebecq winks at his own public persona, the constitutive elements of which are reclusiveness, drunkenness, depression, and indifferent personal hygiene. But there is a deeper joke in the relationship between Jed and “Houellebecq,” one having to do with the vanity of authorship. Houellebecq not only appears as himself in the novel, but creates for himself an admiring, respectful protégé. It’s about time he had one! Jed even shares Houellebecq’s famous and conspicuously un-French fondness for the hypermarché. He is at his local megastore one day when he thinks of Houellebecq and “suddenly missed him a lot.”

He knew the writer shared his taste for big food retailers…. How nice it would have been to visit this refurbished Casino supermarket together, to nudge each other and point out the sections of completely new products, or particularly clear and exhaustive nutritional labeling!

And there is another joke still in the “Houellebecq” conceit: just as Jed finds the “real” Houellebecq not exactly what he expected based on his depressive public persona, we will find this new novel by Houellebecq not exactly what we expected—he will be writing, in part, against his earlier novels.

Jed visits Houellebecq three times over the course of about a year. The visits form a kind of comical triptych showing the stages of the author’s life after fame. We first meet him at his house in Ireland, where Jed has gone to ask him to write the essay for his exhibition catalog. Houellebecq has lived in his house for two years without unpacking boxes or buying furniture or mowing his lawn. There seems a lively element of defiance in his neglect of the house and yard. He drinks much less than his reputation led Jed to expect.

Jed returns to Houellebecq’s house some months later to find the writer in a bad way. Houellebecq comes to the door in pajamas, his hair dirty. (“The inability to wash, Jed remembered, is one of the surest signs of depression.”) He mutters darkly about having some relationship problems. He has moved his bed into his living room (“What’s the point of maintaining the fiction of a reception room?…It’s not as if I throw dinner parties.”) He gets drunk and, “before Jed’s terrified eyes,” curses his athlete’s foot and scratches his feet until they bleed.

When Jed next sees Houellebecq, months later, the gloom has lifted. The writer has moved to an old country house in the Loiret. He is vigorous, hospitable, sober. He now has a dog. There is a sofa in the living room, a fireplace with a roaring fire. In his bedroom, by his small single bed, Jed notes a collection of books by Chateaubriand, Vigny, and Balzac.

We have no idea what happens to Houellebecq in between visits; we are left only with the outward signs that, by the last visit, he seems to have accepted the limits of his life (and, not irrelevantly, embraced traditional French tastes). But we are not to mistake this for a happy ending. “My life is coming to an end, and I am disappointed,” he says, overcome by “an earthy, mineral sadness.” He’s tired of living and only wants “everything to end without excessive suffering, without debilitating illness, without infirmity.” Not long after, Houellebecq and his dog are murdered, beheaded, and dismembered. You might say his wish was granted, by an especially black-humored god.

In the meantime, Jed reads his own fate in Houellebecq’s. While driving back to his apartment from Houellebecq’s country house, Jed thinks to himself, with apparent calm, that he too is about

to leave a world he’d never genuinely been a part of. His human relations, already few, would one by one dry up and disappear, and he would be in life like he was at present in the perfectly finished interior of his Audi A6 allroad: peaceful and joyless, completely neutral.

And so it happens. Jed moves into his grandparents’ old country house, builds a private road and a giant fence around his vast property, and has almost no human contact for decades. But where the Houellebecq character is merely weary of life and hopes to wait it out with dignity, Jed achieves a more productive kind of retreat: decades of total isolation devoted to his work.

On the subject of work, this otherwise funny novel is solemn. Jed finds, over the course of the novel, an intellectual patrimony based on an interest he shares with his father: each in his way has spent his life preoccupied with ideas about work and labor. Jean-Pierre tells Jed that as a young man, he and a group of sympathetic fellow architects were much influenced by the Utopian socialist Charles Fourier. Fourier’s real subject, he says, was “the organization of production.”

The big question he asks is: Why does man work? What makes him occupy a determined place in the social organization and agree to stay there and carry out his task?…. Fourier…was conscious that…people worked hard, sometimes very hard, without being pushed by the lure of profit but by something, in the eyes of a modern man, much vaguer: the love of God, in the case of the monks, or more simply the honor of the function.

“The honor of the function”: here at last is something to live for. Work is a way to make sense of human life that doesn’t revolve around so-called private life. It’s not lost on Houellebecq that work, in real life, produces its own disappointments. But his concern here is to offer work as an ideal pursuit and a richer source of personal and collective identity than shopping, traveling, or coupling.

It is an uncontroversial idea. Who would contest that absorption in one’s work is salutary? There is nothing intellectually arresting about the book’s main claim, but there is something pleasing in following Jed’s work—his changes of style and materials (he is both a photographer and painter), the development of visual ideas from one phase to another. The novel affects the reader like a glamorous advertisement for work: it might make one want to work, but obscurely, and not at the real-life tasks that one is supposed to be doing.

Jed, in any case, is lucky: work is clearly and fruitfully at the center of his life. It gives purpose and coherence to his impulses for solitude—a solitude that Jed finds “oppressive, but in his eyes indispensable and rich, a bit like the nothingness ‘rich in possibilities’ of Buddhist thought.” When Jed paints his portrait of Houellebecq, he captures the inwardness that the author and the artist share. Houellebecq’s eyes, in the painting, have a terrifying (“demonic”) intensity, an intensity directed back into himself: we are told that Jed has depicted Houellebecq “at the moment of noticing a mistake on one of the pages on the desk in front of him.”

Jed has long told interviewers that “to be an artist, in his view, was above all to be someone submissive.” Submissive, that is, to the vagaries of inspiration, or what Houellebecq calls “mysterious, unpredictable messages.”

These messages could involve destroying a work, or even an entire body of work, to set off in a radically new direction, or even occasionally no direction at all…. It was thus, and only thus, that the artist’s condition could, sometimes, be described as difficult.

There is something beautiful about this understatement, which is characteristic of Jed’s strange nobility. But it’s hard to know how to read that nobility: Is Jed’s submissiveness really hard-won? Houellebecq has so vastly understated in Jed the more worldly, grasping qualities of the artist—ambition, vanity, insecurity, envy—that the struggle of his life seems muted. The last thirty years of Jed’s life are collapsed into the last chapter of the book. The novel effectively ends when Jed retreats to his hermitage, as if a great tension has been resolved between the demands and lures of the world and Jed’s inclination for solitary work. But Jed has been so opaque and essentially alone that it doesn’t seem like a big deal for him to formalize his isolation with a large property and a fence. There are no actual clones in The Map and the Territory, but Jed slips too easily into something close to a clone’s life.

If Jed’s entire artistic career has been taken up with the subject of human labor, the last decades are about the futility of that labor. He makes films of vegetation and of industrial objects, then speeds them up to make it look like the madly proliferating plants are destroying cell phones and computer parts. Much later he gets cancer and starts a new, related project: he films photographs of people he has known—Houellebecq, his girlfriends, his father—disintegrating in sun and rain, and he also films toy “Playmobil-type” figurines—“schematic representations of human beings”—disintegrating under the effects of the sulfuric acid that he pours on them.

With his toy figurines and his withering photo scrapbook, Jed seems for a moment a stunned child mourning his losses by rehearsing them, this time playing the role of God. But Jed is not a child, and he is not just manipulating toys but using sophisticated camera equipment and double-exposure software to create what is alleged to be an aesthetically rich object, an original record of his mourning for his friends and his own life—a record that he has time to complete before he dies. This is the happy ending. Or, as Houellebecq puts it, in summary, “Come on, he hadn’t had such a bad life.”

  • Email
  • Print