Roving thoughts and provocations

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

Great American Losers

David Foster Wallace; drawing by David Levine

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.

Richard Price

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 also 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, non-sexual 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.

Norman Mailer

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.

Gary Shteyngart

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 (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?

Here is how he describes the problem with Updike’s characters: “Though family men, they never really love anybody—and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.” Wallace writes that the hero of Toward the End of Time is “such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps clarify what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this author’s recent characters”: It’s not simply that they “persist in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants to is a cure for human despair.” It’s that “the author, so far as I can figure out, believes it too. Updike makes it plain that he views the narrator’s final impotence as catastrophic.” The problem, in short, is that the heroes continue, all the way to the end of their lives, to view sex, apart from love, as a solution for extra-sexual problems—as a balm for everything wrong with life, especially the looming fact of death.

John Updike

This view of sex is of course not at all “bizarre” but common. Wallace’s point is that while we might all sometimes feel this way about sex, it is naive to believe in the liberating powers of the unconstrained sexual impulse. A novelist writing in our disillusioned age has no business being sentimental about free love. And when he persists in unqualified celebration of his male characters’ sexual responses, it is somehow a slight to women, or at least women readers are liable to perceive it that way. Why? And which is it—a real or imagined slight? This part is murky. With his assemblage of female quotes, Wallace creates a kind of suggestive collage (“misogyny” “penis” “son of a bitch”) that indicts Updike while also leaving open the possibility that the female reader, though she is on to something fraudulent in Updike’s writing, might not be reading him very carefully or fairly. This is what makes her so frightening. If the male novelist writes with undue fondness about his penis, the female reader might rashly close the book.

I submit that Wallace’s thesis, and its accompanying fears and assumptions about the female reader, is also held by other male novelists, including those mentioned above. When you see the loser-figure in a novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me.

Jonathan Franzen

There’s a very funny scene in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections (2001) that is a kind of fictional analog to Wallace’s argument. In a chapter called “The Failure,” Chip Lambert, one of the novel’s five main characters, is being dumped by his girlfriend, Julia. Chip, who is thirty-seven and recently lost his academic teaching job after an affair with a student, has written a commercial potboiler-type screenplay about a persecuted academic that he’s hoping will make him a lot of money. As she’s making her awkward exit from his apartment and their relationship, Julia, who works for a film producer, breaks the news to Chip that his screenplay is very, very bad. Her critique is wide-ranging (there is, for instance, the problem that the screenplay starts with a six-page lecture on “the anxieties of the phallus” in Tudor drama), but she emphasizes the “creepy” way that Chip keeps mentioning the female lead’s breasts. “For a woman reading it,” she says, “it’s sort of like the poultry department. Breast, breast, breast, thigh, leg.”

Chip starts to defend himself, but as he’s chasing Julia out of the apartment building he mentally reviews his script and remembers that it is indeed full of lines and stage directions like “eyeing and eyeing her perfect adolescent breasts” and “absolutely adore your honeyed, heavy breasts” and “drowned headlights fading like two milk-white breasts.”

It seemed to Chip that Julia was leaving him because “The Academy Purple” had too many breast references and a draggy opening, and that if he could correct these few obvious problems, both on Julia’s copy of the script and, more important, on the copy he’d specially laser-printed on 24-pound ivory bond paper for [the film producer] Eden Procuro, there might be hope not only for his finances but also for his chances of ever again unfettering and fondling Julia’s own guileless, milk-white breasts. Which by this point in the day, as by late morning of almost every day in recent months, was one of the last activities on earth in which he could still reasonably expect to take solace for his failures.

It’s not just that Chip can’t get his life together and seeks refuge in sex. Chip’s problem is also the problem that haunts the male novelist: in his art, as in his life, Chip has completely failed to understand the female point of view. His humiliations will be many.

Into this theater of struggle, in 2000, arrived The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq’s loser characters have thoughts like “her big, sagging breasts were perfect for a tit-job; it had been three years since his last time.” And he doesn’t call them on it. Except occasionally he does. Houellebecq has a relaxed looseness about the whole matter of whose point of view (author’s or character’s) is being expressed in a given moment. He is happy to keep readers guessing about what he actually believes and what he’s satirizing. He’ll sometimes make a joke at the expense of his self-involved male characters, opening up a gap between himself and his character just long enough to show us that he knows perfectly well that the character is being an obnoxious jerk.

Michel Houellebecq

Bruno, one of the heroes of The Elementary Particles, is essentially a Chip-like character: an unconfident, irritable beta male (Houellebecq actually deems him an omega male) fruitlessly and comically preoccupied with chasing women. He too is both ridiculous and sympathetic, though he is illuminated by a harsher light than Chip. Here is a scene at a New Age retreat, where Bruno has gone to meet women. A female guest called Sophie has just told him that she really likes Brazilian dance. Bruno “was starting to get pissed off about the world’s stupid obsession with Brazil.”

“Sophie,” announced Bruno, “I could go on vacation to Brazil tomorrow. I’d look around a favela. The windows of the minibus would be bulletproof. In the morning, I’d go sightseeing. Check out eight-year-old murderers who dream of growing up to be gangsters; thirteen-year-old prostitutes dying of AIDS. I’d spend the afternoon at the beach surrounded by filthy-rich drug barons and pimps. I’m sure that in such a passionate, not to mention liberal, society I could shake off the malaise of Western civilization. You’re right, Sophie: I’ll go straight to a travel agent as soon as I get home.

Sophie considered him for a moment, her expression thoughtful, her brow lined with concern. Eventually she said sadly, “You must have really suffered….”

“You know what Nietzsche said about Shakespeare, Sophie?” said Bruno. “‘The man must have suffered greatly to have such passion for playing the fool!’ Personally, I’ve always thought that Shakespeare was overrated, but now that I think about it, he is a fool.” He stopped and realized to his surprise that he was beginning to suffer. Sometimes women were so compassionate; they met aggression with empathy, cynicism with tenderness. No man would do any such thing. “Sophie,” he said with heartfelt emotion, “I’d like to lick your pussy….”

Sophie is a version of Julia—she offers the corrective female perspective—but her time onstage is brief, and Bruno remains unchastened. A page later Bruno will be muttering that some woman in a see-through blouse must be a slut, and his author will not rebuke him. This offhand sexism is doubly infuriating to an American female reader (even one who also admires the book): not only are the characters casually misogynistic, but their author is casual about the whole question of misogyny. We are used to more solicitous novelists.

Houellebecq would never put a fine point, in the painstaking way of Franzen, on the fact that his hero is benighted when it comes to women. Of course not. Houellebecq’s mode is to shock and provoke, and offending female sensibilities is fair game, but it’s also the least of his ambitions. He is willing—indeed, eager—to be unlikable in order to get under our skin, and therefore make his social criticisms more forcefully than a likable narrator can.

The younger American novelists, they want to be liked. And their novels are, in fact, irresistible, among the best novels around, in my opinion—ingeniously funny, buoyant, true. The authors have exquisite control over point of view and tone. Their narrative voices are sexy. Which makes you realize that an entire realm of erotic experience goes unrepresented in most of these novels: the authors so scrupulously deflate any sexual confidence or self-regard on the part of their characters that they avoid dramatizing the fact that men, in the real world, can actually channel their libidinal energies into seductive power.

Philip Roth

This is, in part, a legacy of the GMNs. Mailer, Roth, and Updike write about successful seductions quite a lot—and tend toward a condescending view of the women being seduced, in the sense that the male characters rarely seem to meet their match (in wit, brains, fineness of perception, or vitality) in their female counterparts. Because of the GMNs, these two tendencies—heroic virility and sexist condescension—have lingered in our minds as somehow yoked together, and the succeeding generations of American male novelists have to some degree accepted the dyad as truth. Behind their skittishness is a fearful suspicion that if a man gets what he wants, sexually speaking, he is probably exploiting someone.

If there is something disingenuous about the American loser, it’s that in telling his story the writers substitute a kind of burlesque of total humiliation for a more measured sense of the character’s humility. Which is to say that the new generation of characters is, in its own way, also self-absorbed. How else to describe their loving scrutiny of all their faults? While their self-absorption is sharply criticized by author and fellow characters, it is reinforced by the very structure of the novels (with the exception of Franzen’s). Female characters get to remind the hero that he’s a navel-gazing jerk, but most of the good lines, and certainly the brilliant social and psychological observations, still go to the hero. The problem is not that he doesn’t share the spotlight, per se, but the subtle sense that a transaction is taking place: the hero is entitled to the spotlight because he has been appropriately self-critical—it’s his novel, bought and paid for with all those jokes at his own expense. The male novelists performing elaborate genuflections toward female readers are perhaps not exactly bargaining so much as trying to draw us into a new contract: I, the author, promise always to acknowledge my characters’ narcissism, and you, in return, will continue to take an interest in it. Okay? Agreed? Sign on the dotted line please, Ms., and I will countersign my book for you.

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

Please note that all comments are read by a moderator prior to approval. Comments posted using real names, rather than pseudonyms, will have a better chance of being approved. Abusive, repetitive, or incoherent comments will be deleted.