From: Max Dunbar
Date: 04 January 2006
Michel Houellebecq: For the World, for Life
Reviews of his latest novel characterised Houellebecq as a hater of humanity. Max Dunbar disagrees.
I have to admit that, when I first heard a summary of Possibility of an Island, I thought that Michel Houellebecq might have finally lost it. The central idea- a Huxlian utopia populated by cloned humans- sounded too much like the ramblings of a mental patient (as Houellebecq once was). Too much like the ramblings of Bruno, the character in Atomised who ends up in an institution, writing nonsense about idylls populated by beautiful young women and friendly dogs.
The reaction to Island was quite hostile and dismissive- as it tends to be when a writer is judged to have become too successful in too short a time. Tim Adams in the Observer summed up the general mood, characterizing Houellebecq as a misanthrope who, like Schopanhauer, loved nothing and no one but his pet dog.
It is an understandable characterisation- in any Houellebecq novel we can find authorial comment that is angry, nasty and frightening- but I feel that it is also a lazy criticism, lazy and defensive. With Atomised Houellebecq angered the entire board of Le Monde. Platform led to a clash with the self-appointed representatives of a monotheistic religion. There is a feeling that, after all the sales and recognition, Houllebecq has got too big for his boots and needs to be taken down a little.
Island is good but not necessarily original. It is a further exploration of the ideas developed in Atomised- the thesis that humanity is slowly destroying itself and will eventually be superseded and replaced. People compete for wealth in freemarket capitalism, and people compete for gratification in the free market of sex and relationships. What happens then, as the scientist Michel points out is that, ‘Lust and greed still exist, not as pleasure principles, but as forms of egotism…. For society to survive, for competition to continue, people have to want more and more until it fills their lives and finally devours them.’
That’s the point. The thrill of the chase eclipses the satisfaction of the conquest. Houellebecq rams this point home by tracing the story of two brothers, born in the tumult of the 1960s: the elder, Bruno, is constantly striving for sexual fulfillment, but his life is a round of frustration and humiliation. The younger, Michel, becomes an emotionless recluse, devoting his existence to biological research. The final devastation comes when the two brothers enter into relationships that seem promising but end in tragedy. They are unable to accept love even when it is offered to them on a plate. The brothers- and., by extension, the rest of humanity- have forgotten how to experience joy and love.
Although his solutions to social problems are ridiculous- ending the human race because some people are lonely and unfulfilled, or conscripting Thai prostitutes into servicing sex-tourism package holidays- Hoeullebecq’s portrait of modern society feels bang on. You only have to spend time in a club on Saturday night to intuit that most of the men there aren’t on the pull for the pleasure of sex itself, but rather to look superior to their less successful friends. These places aren’t called ‘meat markets’ for nothing. It’s not sensation we’re looking for but image. Not joy but a succession of hollow victories.
And surely this is a clear refutation of the misanthropy charge. Houellebecq seems to know- and care- so much about human desire, and he knows how much history and politics have risen out of human desire. When we think about it, isn’t it clear that one of the main driving forces of the human species- and every other- has been sexual desire and sexual selection?
But pointing out uncomfortable truths- your happiness is not guaranteed, individuals can be fallible, the world is not always a good place- can get you burned. In 2002 Will Self described Houellebecq as ‘just a little guy who can’t get enough sex. That’s it, isn’t it?’ People who should have known better described him as racist; others dwelt on aspects of his personal life. A lecturer confided to me, ‘I love his books, but I wouldn’t ever want to meet him. My ambition is not to meet him.’ As with Roth, you admire the guy’s talent but you don’t want to shake his hand…
Michel Houellebecq is probably quite a messed up human being, a Bruno figure. In truth, it’s not hard to imagine a man creating a whole theory of society just to rationalize his lack of success in it. There is a story about the writer bursting into tears upon hearing a song on the radio, a song that reminded him of the discos of his youth when no girl would slow-dance with him.
But in his books, the narrative voice remains optimistic. Some political writers like to paint the modern world as a good place that is heading to hell in a handcart. Orwell and Huxley wrote dystopias which incorporated warnings that the seeds of these hells were being planted in our time. Houellebecq, I think, is the master of the utopian novel. We’re in hell, and we’re so used to it that we can’t imagine anything better. But don’t worry; things are getting better. It will all work out.
This optimism is born out in the work. Montaigne once said that happiness writes white- it doesn’t show up on the page. He meant that the horrors of life are easy to describe, but when something good happens, we are lost for words. But Michel Houellebecq can write about happiness, can write about joy and love and peace. The bulk of Platform isn’t concerned with terrorism or gloom but with describing to us the intricacies of a happy relationship. Of course, it doesn’t last- but in this world, what does? And Atomised, for all its turmoil, ends with an old-fashioned message of peace that could have come from the lips of the sixties beatniks that Houellebecq affects to despise:
May all the creatures in the north
May all the creatures in the west
May all the creatures in the south
Be together, and live together,
And may they live in friendship.