In 1994, Houellebecq published his first novel, Extension du Domain de la Lutte. (Trans. as Whatever by Paul Hammond). The book begins as a subtly comic office novel—and of course by comic, I mean that it’s tragic— and then becomes an earnest meditation on the narrator’s experience of depression.
Several things about this book piqued my attention right away. The first thing, which I’ll talk about today, is the narrator himself, who begins his story at a party. He isn’t enjoying the party. He drank too many vodkas and is lying down on some cushions behind a sofa and eavesdropping on two women from his office who are sitting on the sofa. Very quickly, Houellebecq sketches out this amazingly miserable specimen of a man, completely disconnected from anyone else at the party. Someone who is watching and judging and wholeheartedly disappointed with what he sees.
The 30 year-old narrator works as a computer programmer but in his spare time he writes strange little existential pieces on the life and soul of animals. So yes, the guy is weird. I’m pretty sure the reader is meant to feel sorry for him immediately, while at the same time remaining aware that he isn’t a terribly likable person.
That dichotomy is interesting to me. The narrator describes a number of people in the first thirty pages or so, before the actual story gets really going, and each one is depicted in highly unflattering terms. His perspective is so bleak, so harsh. To him, people are either pathetic or ridiculous or simply jerks. That this might be a reflection of how the narrator thinks of himself is, of course, an underlying question.
At the same time, there is a kind of sweetness to him. Again in the early pages of the novel, he describes an evening out with an old friend, someone who trained as an engineer as well but who then became a priest. Their conversation is quite touching. They discuss some of the problems of contemporary society, disagree a little and then find common ground. And then at one point the priest expresses concern that the narrator needs help. He is too much alone, and this isn’t normal.
So the book is curious about this word ‘normal’ and what it means. Who is normal? What is normal behavior?
All these meetings and conversations are all introduction, so to speak. The bulk of Extension du Domaine de la Lutte takes place as the narrator and a colleague named Raphael travel around to train a number of clients in a new computer program. As they travel, that idea of ‘normal’ will become even more important.
Also, the narrator will begin to lose control. Slowly, subtly, gently…he will separate even further from the people around him. He eventually has an alarming psychic break, with serious repercussions…