Friday, July 22, 2005

Slatherpuss hearts Michel Houellebecq

With the possible exception of Nicholson Baker (bonus tidbit: I've heard rumors that Neil Gaiman is working on a film adaptation of The Fermata!), I can't think of a modern novelist whose work I find more penetrating, engaging, and utterly relevant than Michel Houellebecq. That his novels produce such outrage is further proof that our current literary establishment favors platitudes over truth. There's a group called the Underground Literary Alliance who "strangely yet strongly believe that American fiction should be something relevant to people’s lives, instead of the lame, overly-wrought, navel-gazing crap that the congloms have displayed front & center at your local chain bookshop." I admire the stance, but unfortunately, the ULA has a fatal flaw - they are terrible writers. It's a given that any underground movement that threatens the establishment will have to defend themselves from establishment charges of professional jealousy ("you don't publish because you aren't good enough"), sloth ("you don't publish because you haven't worked hard enough, not because we're locking you out"), and irrelevancy ("you don't publish because you aren't giving the people what they want; we are"). These are charges the underground movement must surmount in order to affect the public sphere. Unfortunately, in the case of the ULA, at least the first and the last seem to be true. It's important that underground movements don't seem to be jealous of the position of the mainstream, which simply validates charges of sour grapes, and the ULA seems to turn out an astonishing number of shoddy poems about how bad and boring mainstream writers and networks are, and how poor and honorable the ULA is. They've gotten lost in manifesto-land, lobbing poorly-written salvos at writers they deem undeserving of fame, and have forgotten to put their manifesto into practice. They harangue on the need for a viable alternative to mainstream fiction instead of attempting to create such a thing. Sometimes, work doesn't get published because it's too adventurous or challenging for the mainstream. Sometimes, work doesn't get published because it's just bad. We, meaning those of us writing outside of established circuits of influence, need to be able to make the distinction or succumb to hubris and complacency.

This tangent has a point - Houellebecq's work is exactly the kind the ULA should be creating and championing, if they are serious about their stated mission to create fiction that directly engages with the real world of human beings. (Of course, the ULA addresses American fiction, and Houellebecq is French, but anyway...) Because of his treatment of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, his refusal to moralize, and his mainstream position, Houellebecq is one of the most dangerous, relevant writers at work today. Many "brave" novels that address social ills such as racism hedge their bets by embodying the racism in "bad" characters and setting up "good" foils. The reader is allowed to tacitly identify with the good character and damn the usually cartoonishly bad racist, then to go on about their business, unchallenged and actually congratulated for their moral superiority. But in Houellebecq books, there are no such clear distinctions, and no moral imperatives - we are all complicit. Neither does the author take a position of magesterial moral superiority for himself - his protagonists, almost always named "Michel", are just as morally questionable as any other character. Transgressive fiction is often hailed as brave, but the current trend for transgressive fiction is ambiguity - the characters commit "taboo" acts for no explicit reason, and the reader is left to intuit whatever crushing social agency - racism, sexism, suburban malaise - propelled them toward whatever unspeakable act. But when Houellebecq's characters transgress, there's nothing mysterious about it - the factors that lead to the transgression have been carefully, clearly laid out. No other writer is capturing a more stark, realistic (if bleak) vision of what it feels like to be alive, right now, without a gloss of romance or utopian revision.

Houellebecq doesn't apologize for his characters' bad behavior, nor does he couch it in abstractions. His novels are all mundane, sharply observed action, interleaved with lucid, plainspoken delineations of the political situations (globalization and its discontents) that the action flows around like water, and terse philosophical exegeses on the hopeless state of humanity under such adverse conditions. He writes with a brutal, deadpan wit and a healthy dose of misanthropy a la Celine, but what elevates his novels about those of, say, Bret Easton Ellis, is how this misanthropy is juxtaposed with flights of the wildest sentimentality. Houellebecq's characters are damned to long for love and genuine humanity within a system they wholeheartedly believe will not allow such things to exist. And to top it off, his books, despite their unfliching examination of themes that are both consummately real and terribly depressing, are hilarious. With an uncanny eye for the absurd, Houellebecq can blend penetrating cultural criticism and understated comedy to potent effect. I'll end this appreciation by quoting an illustrative passage from his novella Lanzarote (in translation, natch):

"And yet the pleasures of Lanzarote are few: in fact, they are twofold. The first, a little to the north of Guatiza, is the 'Cactus Garden'. Various specimens, selected for their repulsive morphology, are arranged along paths of volcanic rock. Fat and prickly, the cactus symbolises perfectly - not to put too fine a point on it - the abjectness of plant life. Be that as it may, the Cactus Garden is not very large and, as far as I was concerned, our visit could have been over and done with in somewhat less than half an hour; but I had taken a group excursion and we were obliged to wait for a little mustachioed Belgian. I had passed him as he stood, stock-still, staring at a huge purplish cactus in the shape of a prick, artistically planted next to two smaller, outlying cacti intended to represent its balls. I was struck by his rapt attention: this was certainly a curious phenomenon, but it was hardly unique. Other specimens brought to mind a snowflake, a man sleeping, a ewer. Perfectly adapted to their desert environment, cacti lead, if I may put it thus, a completely unfettered morphological existence. They grow alone for the most part and are therefore not compelled to adapt to the pressures of this or that plant formation. Animal predators, scarce in any case, are immediately deterred by their abundant spines. Such an absence of selective pressures makes it possible for them to develop unhindered into a complex variety of farcical shapes likely to amuse tourists. Their mimicry of the male sexual organ, in particular, always has a certain effect on Italian tourists; but in this moustachioed man, who appeared to be Belgian, things had gone too far; in this man I could discern all the signs of an out-and-out fascination."