Despite the fact that I did, on some level, really really really like his work, reading nine books by Michel Houellebecq in a relatively short amount of time was not a pleasant experience. A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend of mine what I’d done and he looked at me with something like terror on his face and said, “T’es maso ou quoi?!” (“Are you masochistic or what?”). The answer to that question would be a definite no, but I understand his concern. Anyone who has read Houellebecq will know that he isn’t someone to read for the pleasure of it. His work is tricky, frustrating, infuriating (especially for women readers) and depressing. But it is also provocative, thoughtful, at moments exceptionally beautiful, and very often daring. On the whole I’m very glad I took the time to read him carefully and to consider his work in the way that I did.
Having said that, I’m quite happy to wait a few more years before reading anything by him again. After a nice long break from his work I will be curious to see what he does next, mainly because I found myself following one particular development of his writing technique—the way he handles himself in relation to each text—throughout his novels. I’ve discussed here before how Houellebecq can’t seem to get himself out of his own novels, even when they are meant to be completely fictional. I think that his latest novel, La Carte et le Territoire (The Map and the Territory), actually resolves that problem, and in a clever and ingenious way. So I’m curious to see whether going forward, he’ll actually be free to do something completely fictional or whether he will relapse into the same problem.
But without further ado – he’s the recap:
Contrary to what I usually do, I read his latest novel first because my French book group selected it. My reaction to that initial reading of La Carte et le Territoire is here.
Something about that first read invited me to go back and consider all of his work, poetry and essays included, in the order they were written.
I was quite struck by his collection of essays, La Poésie du Mouvement Arrêté, especially the title piece and how it asks the reader to re-consider our relationship with technology. His most provocative statement in this piece is to “refuse knowing.” Backing away from the constant stream of media is about refusing to “know” what’s going on, “know” what people are talking about. It’s scary to agree to “not know” anymore, but there is a beauty and a peacefulness in that idea that I find very compelling.
And I would recommend to anyone interested in Houellebecq they they take a look at the very first work he ever published – a biography of H.P. Lovecraft, Contre le Monde, Contre la Vie. I wrote my thoughts on this book here, and here. This long essay really endeared Houellebecq to me (good thing I read it before I tackled his novels as I think it upped my consideration for his work in general). He is so thorough, so admiring, and yet also appropriately critical. And the essay actually gives the reader a lot of information about Houellebecq the writer; it provides a series of helpful clues on how to read Houellebecq’s fiction.
I went on to consider his collection of essays and short fiction, Rester Vivant. The title essay of that collection will stay with me, not only for its impassioned consideration of what it means for someone to want to write, but also because it’s subtly quite funny. That mix made this particular essay really powerful. Houellebecq is very serious about this writing thing, but he also seems to realize that his seriousness is somewhat ridiculous.
I started to write about his individual novels on the blog but I stopped because I was working on a retrospective piece on Houellebecq for The Quarterly Conversation and it became difficult to consider them separately. That overview piece was just published last week. It’s long, but I hope it gives a solid introduction to Houellebecq. Here is an excerpt, from the introduction:
Houellebecq is the author of five novels and eight other books of poetry, stories, and essays. His work is ambitious—interested in philosophical questions of existence and perception as well as controversial scientific ideas about genetic engineering and cloning. Despite having a highly recognizable style, he is not a great stylist; his novels are compelling because they involve much uncomfortable honesty about human nature and are packed with challenging ideas. He has made depression and social pessimism a subject of literary meditation. He is also an obsessive cataloguer of contemporary cultural artifacts and trends, something which gives a documentary feel to much of his work.
In direct contrast to this broad scope, his work is also intensely personal: in some way, each of his novels oblige the reader to consider Michel Houellebecq the person alongside the story or the characters. Whether this is done deliberately or is an unconscious product of his writing style, whether this improves or detracts from the experience of reading his work, it is an unavoidable element of the Houellebecquian textual landscape.
You can read the entire essay here.
The essay spends a little bit of time on each of his five novels but finishes with more detail on his latest work. It was very interesting for me to see how my consideration of La Carte et le Territoire changed after reading everything else. Tied with La Possibilité d’une Ile, it remains my favorite of his novels. It successfully does what his others novels all try to do, but the accomplishment isn’t just a raw success, it’s elegant and meaningful.