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 …