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Why just read for pleasure: the case of Michel Houellebecq

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Thursday, 12 January 2017


Some people refuse to read Michel Houellebecq novels because he is supposedly a misogynistic, Islamophobic, reactionary, misanthropic jerk. Some of these labels may be true. This French intellectual writer describes himself as simply a "redneck". If you read a series of interviews with Houellebecq and profile pieces before approaching his novels you might well think, "why bother, this man sounds awful". But why judge a book by its author? On that basis who would read Martin Amis, who once brushed aside one of his more intemperate remarks by quoting the great stylist Vladimir Nabokov: "I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished man of letters, I talk like an idiot."

One of the unfortunate expectations of contemporary publishing is that all novelists are expected to be charming or at least engaging with journalists and festival audiences. Worst still, they are expected to have interesting things to say about current events. Though some of them, like Zadie Smith, do have insightful things to say, many do not and why should they, as writers of fiction? So, if the artist is not a criminal, let's focus on their art. One of the most annoying aspects of modern celebrity culture is the notion that a person that has a particular talent for singing popular songs, kicking a football, or writing engaging novels is going to be a role model for other human beings. Success and fame makes this remarkably difficult to achieve and therefore something we should not at all expect. On the flip side, the fact that Barack Obama seems like a role model parent does not make him a great president. Before I start sounding like a cynic and a misanthrope, let's return to Michel Houellebecq.

First I want to admit that reading Houellebecq's novels is not an uplifting experience; the general unlikeability of his characters and their endless anomie can become exhausting to the point of giving up reading. The bit parts women play in his novels are likely to annoy many readers. However, his writing despite its undoubted misanthropy does contain real insight and even moments of beauty.

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Houellebecq's latest novel, Submission, is set in the year 2022, when France has just elected a Muslim Brotherhood president – elected partly because the French Muslims have reproduced at such a high rate. It was published the day of the Charlie Hebdo office shootings. That week the front cover of the satirical Charlie Hebdo featured a caricature of Houellebecq predicting that in 2022 he would observe Ramadan. One of those killed in the Charlie Hebdo shootings was the left-wing economist Bernard Maris, who had just written a book arguing that Houellebecq's novels offered one of the most effective takedowns of modern capitalism. This critique is best outlined in Houellebecq's second novel Atomised, where he shows how modern capitalism has drawn heavily upon the radicalism and sexual revolution of the 1960s counter-culture to make consumerism hip, fun, exciting, and risqué.

Houellebecq writes very effectively about what is a complex and generally academic notion: cultural production. He writes about it in a straightforward and often rather flat manner, using sex and occasionally acts of extreme violence to energise his slow-paced novels. This is not to say they are boring to read, for Houellebecq's flashes of insight about the contemporary world hold your interest. If you do get beyond the author and other provocations, including some of the novels' covers, the real challenge of getting through Houellebecq's books is the relentless desperation and pessimism of the narrators (which admittedly for some readers will have appeal). The narrators are generally unhappy, friendless, and lonely men who are struggling with the sense that modern Western culture is utterly clichéd and banal as the most exciting forms of human expression – sex, dress, nudity, cooking, singing, sport, travel – have been captured by the market and the media and turned into money making pursuits and forms of overly packaged popular entertainment. As a result of being mass produced commodities these pleasures of life became standardised and predictable, and these lonely men are exhausted from trying to extract joy from what has now become joyless. Houellebecq takes this argument to extremes, taking his characters to brothels, nightclub orgies, nudist camps, gallery openings, and the modern academy. Creativity and individuality are largely dead in these places where stereotypes and self-congratulations abound.

These novels cover in a much more digestible manner the ground that Adorno, Habermas, Jameson or numerous other social theorists have been going over for decades about the deadening impact of mass commodification. This is the novels' strength. A weakness is that animals, flowers, or nature in general are conspicuously missing from his novels. Children are also largely absent from Houellebecq's brave new world of uniformity. Yet novels are often fascinating because they are narrowly focused; particularism is the great strength of this form of writing. These absences should remind us that not everything is utterly predictable and repetitious.

In the end, I read Houellebecq's novels not because I agree with them, but because I largely disagree with the ideas presented in them. All the evidence we have suggests that people increasingly read things that comfort their pre-existing beliefs. This seems likely to create intellectual smugness and atrophy. The only way to work out what you really think is to read people like Houellebecq who you may well find offensive and wrongheaded.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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