• darthbarracuda
    3k
    Is anyone here familiar with Michel Houellebecq's novels? What are your opinions on his work?

    I have read Whatever, The Elementary Particles, The Map and the Territory, and part of The Possibility of an Island, Serotonin and his nonfiction book on H. P. Lovecraft. They are all pessimistic and sad, but also rambunctious and amusing. Two sides of the same coin that he tries to depict: the malaise of a modern person, alienated and in quiet despair.

    One of the controversial aspects of his work is his portrayal of sex. Many critics have condemned him for his explicit and "titillating" descriptions of sexuality. However I never thought any of the depictions of sex were meant to be pornographic. They instilled inside me a sense of disgust and nausea. At other times, the imagery was just so over-the-top that it seemed obviously satire, kind of like "here is the obligatory sex scene, enjoy".

    Others have accused him of misogyny. Or of defending paedophilia. But Houellebecq seems to strive for a realistic depiction of human characters, and many/most of them are unabashedly shitty people. It is refreshing to have protagonists that are not admirable.

    Houellebecq seems to have a lot of ideas that he presents under a thin layer of fiction. Here is a monologue from The Elementary Particles:

    "I haven't really had a happy life,' Annabelle said. 'I think I was too obsessed with love. I fell for guys too easily; once they got what they wanted, they dumped me and I got hurt. It took me years to come to terms with the cliche that men don't make love because they're in love, but because they're turned on. Everyone around me knew that and lived like that - I grew up in a liberated environment - but I never enjoyed the game for its own sake. In the end, even the sex started to disgust me; I couldn't stand their triumphant little smiles when I took off my dress, or their idiot leers when they came and especially their boorishness once it was all over and done with. They were spineless, pathetic and pretentious. In the end, it was too painful to know they thought of me as just another piece of meat. I was prime cut, I suppose, because I was physically perfect, and they were proud to take me and show me off in a restaurant. [...] I'd slept with dozens of men and there wasn't one of them worth remembering. I decided to give up, to stop playing the game. I live a quiet, joyless life. In the evening I read, I make herbal tea and hot drinks. I go to see my parents every weekend and spend a lot of time looking after my nephew and nieces. Sometimes I get scared at night; I have trouble sleeping; it's true I need a man around. I take tranquilizers and sleeping pills, but they're never really enough. I just want life to go by as quickly as possible." — Annabelle, The Elementary Particles,

    Although his critics accuse him of being a sexual pervert, the quote above makes me think that really, he is just sick of the weird culture surrounding it.

    Overall I enjoy his books. They are funny, sometimes hilarious, and also thought-provoking. He reminds me a lot of Céline - raw and unpolished. The Elementary Particles was the best book I have read in a while and I plan on re-reading it soon.
  • TheMadFool
    5.8k
    It is refreshing to have protagonists that are not admirable.darthbarracuda

    I haven't read his works but this is probably what ruffles the feathers of his critics. Readers expect stories worth the pages on which they're written on to be about unambiguous characters because then it's possible, on the last page, to find closure. When characters can't be categorized well and are neither fish nor fowl it becomes impossible to make sense of what the ending of a story means. Was it good? Was it bad? Was justice served? Was justice denied? Etcetera...
  • csalisbury
    2.3k
    I've only read Submission (looks like maybe the only one you haven't read) but I liked it a great deal. It was a very well-written book, not a word wasted. Like you, I also find him refreshingly realistic, direct and very funny. He has a neat trick of being able to hit genuine literary highs while also hitting the no-bullshit conversational directness you'd have smoking outside with your neighbor. And he fits those two together seamlessly. I'd like to read more of him.

    At the same time, the part of Submisison I found least compelling - or appealing - were the scenes detailing the narrator's relationship with women. I wouldn't say they're not realistic - they are. But I got the sense these very heartless and despondent interactions were meant to be representative of relationships in general. That's what didn't quite work for me. I've been in empty relationships & bad almost-relationships, and I've been boorish and pretentious and shitty (as, sometimes, the other person was.) but I've also been, at least for a while, in full ones. It's simply not true (at least, as a rule) that men don't make love because they're in love. I don't mean that in a 'but there are good men out there!' way -falling in love, and making love as someone in love, is something that can happen to a whole spectrum of people that doesn't necessarily correlate with empathy/compassion etc. I mean, empty/full doesn't correlate to bad/good (though I do think there are 'good' relationships, if not ideal ones.)

    That said, I think the quote about Annabelle is wonderful. I think there any many women who feel that way, I mean I know there are, I've met them, and I think the frank description of how things played out is, again, refreshingly direct. But I suspect it may be less a sketch of a person or type than a sketch of middle-aged women in general - that, I'm not sure about.
  • Wayfarer
    9.6k
    'By the age of forty, every man has the face he deserves'.

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  • 180 Proof
    1.1k
    I've read all of Houellebecq's novels (and some essays) in English except The Map and the Territory which is on one of my shelves or stacked piles. Here's a facile quick & dirty:

    Like Lovecraft, Houellebecq's subject is 'the inhuman', particularly how it's manifest in the "liberated", or pointlessly(?) permissive, consumer-driven sexual, cultural & political life of (Parisian? French? Western European? ...) society. Lovecraft's inhuman comes from without: alien forces, the Other (i.e. "utterly incomprehensible extraterrestrial horrors" as not-so-subtle (racist-xenophobic) proxies for non-whites & immigrants); Houellebecq's, however, comes (mostly) from within: self-alienating consumerism-über-alles.

    As a counterpart to, or analogue of, Lovecraft's literary cosmicism, I think of Houellebecq's literary digust as 'miserabilism', that is, with even desire (& fear) reduced to consumer transactions, he observes (so it seems to me) that social relations have not only been "liberated" from religious or customary prohibitions since the 1960s but also "liberated" from intimacy and joy and love and friendship (i.e. mutual pleasure, advantage or care) and freedom (i.e. active non-conformity). Very cynical, even despairing, implications: sort of a reactionary(?) marinade of (e.g.) Sade Nietzsche Celine & Cioran for the hollow, post-1968, festival-cum-shopfest of contemporary cosmopolity.

    I quite enjoy Houellebecq's weird fiction as (occasionally pornographic, often sadly funny) meditations on the vacuous horror of 'taken-for-granted consumption-for-consumption-sake'. I wonder what Žizek (re: 'ideology') makes of Houellebecq ... does anyone here know?
  • csalisbury
    2.3k
    Yes, but he's leaning into it. That picture is as orchestrated a self-projection as anything from Taylor Swift to Mooji. That you think he has the face he deserves, based on that picture, is ultimately good brand management on his part. That's the reaction he'd want you to have!
  • darthbarracuda
    3k
    I wonder what Žizek (re: 'ideology') makes of Houellebecq ... does anyone here know?180 Proof

    Off the top of my head, Žizek believes that Houellebecq is an "intelligent conservative" who, unlike reactionaries, does not offer a solution but is simply honest about the problems at hand.

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