The outsider

June 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Whatever. Michel Houellebecq, Paul Hammond, trans.; Serpent’s Tail, $14.99 paper, 156 pp., 978-1-85242-584-5.

9781852425845It’s easy to argue that Michel Houellebecq is the poet laureate of alienation in the late-20th and early-21st centuries, but this is at once too facile and too reductive. Houellebecq’s brand of disaffected nihilism owes a debt to literary forebears such as Céline and Nietzsche, but it also incorporates a vicious antipathy toward Western capitalism and its spoils that was largely absent from the work of those earlier writers. Houellebecq shares with Céline a passionate outrage against the dehumanization of modern life, but his vision is distinct (at least in part) from that of, say, Camus. In contrast to Meursault’s recognition of the universe’s “benign indifference” (in L’Etranger), the worlds Houellebecq creates are fiercely inimical toward his characters’ attempts to forge any sort of connection or meaning. Tibor Fischer’s assessment of Whatever, Houellebecq’s acerbic 1994 debut, as “L’Etranger for the info generation” is a glib sound-bite, but one that does the novel, and its author, a disservice.

Which is not to say that Houellebecq doesn’t invite such comparisons. The unnamed computer programmer who serves as Whatever‘s narrator speaks of his “total isolation, the sense of an all-consuming emptiness,” which he feels will be relieved by goading his colleague, the hideously ugly 28-year-old virgin Tisserand, into committing murder. The scene of the intended crime is the same as that in which Meursault murders the Arab – a beach – and the aura of racial tension is replicated, even ratcheted up a notch: the narrator suggests that Tisserand kill a woman he’s been eyeing, but the latter replies that he’d rather kill her “half-caste” lover. “Well then, I exclaimed, what’s stopping you? Why yes! Get the hang of it on a young nigger!” That the narrator wants Tisserand to kill the woman (or her lover) with a knife is not terribly subtle in its symbolic resonance: the notion of Tisserand, the virgin, penetrating one or the other of his would-be victims is the culmination of the narrator’s own debased sexual odyssey throughout the novel.

In the book’s early pages, the narrator, who has just turned 30, tells us that he has “had many women, but for limited periods,” and has been celibate in the two years since he broke up with his most recent girlfriend, Véronique. The “feeble and inconsistent attempts” he has made at sexual liaisons in the interim “only resulted in predictable failure.” To assuage his sexual frustration, he writes bizarre animal stories, such as “Dialogues Between a Cow and a Filly,” in which a breeder artificially inseminates a Breton cow, allowing the cow “to get stuffed”:

And stuff her they do, more or less directly; the artificial insemination syringe can in effect, whatever the cost in certain emotional complications, take the place of the bull’s penis in performing this function. In both cases the cow calms down and returns to her original state of earnest meditation, except that a few months later she will give birth to an adorable little calf. Which, let it be said in passing, means profit for the breeder.

Actually, let it not be said in passing, but rather let it be dwelt upon, since for Houellebecq, sex and commerce are inextricably linked. This connection will reach its apogee in the sex tourism business that Michel and his girlfriend, Valérie, establish in Houellebecq’s third novel, Platform, but it is here, too, in the narrator’s belief that economic liberalism and sexual liberalism are “strictly equivalent”:

Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as “the law of the market”. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

Thus does the laissez faire attitude promulgated by the sexual revolution reduce some members of society to the level of erotic paupers. Sexual liberalism, like economic liberalism, is “an extension of the domain of the struggle,” reaching “all ages and all classes of society.” Or, in the formula the narrator posits: “Sexuality is a system of social hierarchy.” This is bracingly satirical, and exemplifies what Houellebecq is best at: the snidely pithy diagnosis of modern urban anomie.

The phrase “an extension of the domain of the struggle” is the literal translation of Whatever‘s original French title: Extension du domaine de la lutte, a phrase that is at once more appropriate to Houellebecq’s core concerns in the novel and more teasingly elliptical. The debased English title highlights the narrator’s ambivalence toward pretty much everything – his life, his job, other people – but elides the righteous anger that seethes underneath it: anger at a society that has consigned itself “primarily to consumerism,” the sole remaining “consolidation of [its] being.” This consolidation is made manifest in the “leprous façades” of Paris, “behind which one invariably imagines retired folk agonizing alongside their cat Poucette which is eating up half their pensions with its Friskies,” and in “the inevitable advertising hoardings flashing by, gaudy and repellent.”

Here we find one of the most evident cleavages between Whatever and L’Etranger: whereas Camus wrote about an existence devoid of God, in which Meursault is forced to reckon his free will in the face of what Warren Zevon termed “the vast indifference of Heaven,” there is a God in Houellebecq’s novel: money. The narrator (like Houellebecq himself at the time) is a middle manager at a computer software company, where employees are counted as “assets,” and he moves in a society in which losing a car “is tantamount to being struck off the social register.” (It’s no accident that one of the few characters described as “happy” in the novel is a socialist.) The God of commerce hovers remorselessly over the novel, and this God, like the breeder in the narrator’s short story, is “not … a merciful God.”

Early on, the narrator spots a piece of graffiti that reads “God wanted there to be inequality, not injustice,” and “muse[s] on who the person so well informed about God’s designs might be.” The note of sarcasm is readily apparent, but it’s undercut later on by the acknowledgement that “a totally liberal economic system” fosters and exacerbates the very inequality that a capitalist God must want. It is only at the novel’s close, when the narrator finds himself in a meadow, with none of the appurtenances of modern consumerism at hand, that he feels, “with impressive violence, the possibility of joy.” He goes on: “The landscape is more and more gentle, amiable, joyous; my skin hurts. I am at the heart of the abyss.” This is perhaps the final, ironic twist in Houellebecq’s aversive little narrative: under the rubric of modern consumerism, divesting oneself of material desires only serves to lead one to the heart of the abyss.

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