Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Michel Houellebecq’ category

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.

 

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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…

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It’s time for me to get back to some Houellebecq discussions… I took a little breather from him for a few days; he is, if anything, an intense reading experience. The last piece I wrote about was his essay on Lovecraft, so moving forward from that, let me write today about a collection he published in 1991 entitled Rester Vivant. It doesn’t appear to have been translated into English yet, but perhaps now that he’s won the Goncourt, all of his work will slowly find a home in the Anglophone world.

This collection includes eight pieces – I am only going to talk about the first piece here, which is where the collection takes its title. It is an essay, with a little subtitle: Méthode. So let’s say the title could be translated as Stay alive: a method or How to Stay Alive. One little note on this title: he could have written survivre (survive) but he uses the word vivant (alive) instead. For Houellebecq, I think we can read that as an optimistic choice.

The essay is very serious, in an “it-wholeheartedly-sucks-to-be-a-writer-with-a-vision” way, and this does make it a teeny bit melodramatic. But there is a thin and underhanded vein of satire running through the whole thing, and this, of course, is what saves it. Rester Vivant is serious, wholeheartedly serious—I don’t want to deny or argue against that, but the bleakness of his message becomes a kind of exasperated comedy at one point. And this makes it palatable. I wasn’t expecting humor in Houellebecq, but I see now how it fits him. His is a macabre humor, though, a dark and helpless irony.

A small aside: when I discussed La Carte et Le Territoire with my book group a few months ago, I was the only one who suspected that Houellebecq had a sense of humor. There is a scene in that book, where Houellebecq the character, who has been brutally murdered, is finally interred. When the coffin comes out of the hearse and gets carried to the plot, the onlookers can see that it’s a child-size coffin. Because of the way Houellebecq was murdered, there wasn’t much left of him to put in the ground, and the funeral home appears to have selected an economical, if not ecological way of burying him.

Now, I laughed out loud when I read this scene. It has a certain pathos, yes, but I found it more tongue-in-cheek. Also, planting this sly joke in the midst of an otherwise serious book knocked Houellebecq up a few notches for me.

Now back to Rester Vivant.

The essay addresses the reader directly, and that reader is meant to be a fledgling writer, someone who has figured out that this writing business is going to be pretty tough, but also that this life business may in fact be worse. Houellebecq begins with an assertion that life involves inescapable suffering. Then he tells his reader to revel in that suffering. There is no way around it, so embrace it. Love your suffering; cultivate and explore it, and eventually:

Lorsque vous susciterez chez les autres un mélange de pitié effrayée et de mépris, vous saurez que vous êtes sur la bonne voie. Vous pourrez commencer à écrire. [As soon as you provoke a mixture of frightened pity and contempt from other people, you are on the right path. You may now start to write.]

Then you must learn to express your suffering. If you cannot do this, you will die. He urges his reader to write at all costs, finding solace in already existing forms and not losing heart when your suffering takes over, preventing you from writing.

Au paroxysme de la souffrance, vous ne pourrez plus écrire. Si vous vous en sentez la force, essayez tout de même. Le résultat sera probablement mauvais ; probablement, mais pas certainement. [At the height of your suffering, you will not be able to write. If you feel strong enough, try anyway. The result will most likely be bad; most likely, but not certainly.]

Both excerpts have a little tremor of humor, feeble and self-deprecating, but humor none the less.

One of the key phrases of the essay is: Un poète mort n’écrit plus. D’où l’importance de rester vivant. [A dead poet no longer writes. This is why it is important to stay alive.]

Followed soon after by this:

Vous ne connaîtrez jamais exactement cette part de vous-même qui vous pousse à écrire. Vous ne la connaîtrez que sous des formes approchées, et contradictoires. Égoïsme ou dévouement ? Cruauté ou compassion ? Tout pourrait se soutenir. Preuve que, finalement, vous ne savez rien ; alors ne vous comportez pas comme si vous saviez. Devant votre ignorance, devant cette part mystérieuse de vous-même, restez honnête et humble. [You will never know exactly what part of you pushes you to write. You will only know it through approximations and contradictions. Egotism or devotion? Cruelty or compassion? All are possibilities. This is proof that, ultimately, you know nothing; so do not behave as if you knew. Before your ignorance, before this mysterious part of yourself, remain honest and humble.]

The essay ends with the claim that a writer’s calling is to fight back at the society whose single goal is to destroy him*/her. Hit where it hurts, do not spare anyone, not even yourself. This final section has a number of interesting points, which I think I’ll have to get to in a second post.

But I want to spend a second on his tortured artist perspective. At first read, I love this kind of emotional appeal. I’m a sucker for an impassioned soul. And I also can’t help but agree with the thought that if you open yourself up completely to the injustices and horrors of the world we live in, you will eventually get trapped beneath the great mountain of them and probably suffocate. Most people build barriers or pick their battles or find a way to cope; writers and artists tend to get locked in a continual struggle to negotiate how much barrier is needed for self-protection and how little is needed to work in an atmosphere of emotional honesty.

On the other hand, the tortured artist perspective has always irked me just a little bit. I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of the mad genius, that insanely talented or intelligent individual that is completely beyond the rest of society. Many highly intelligent and creative individuals are healthy, functioning people as well.

This is where Houellebecq’s minuscule touch of irony saves the essay for me. Without it, I think I would get stuck at suspicious and annoyed. Instead, I can see that although he is deathly serious about a writer’s position vis-à-vis society, he is also quite conscious of the melodrama it perpetuates. So the only solution for the writer is to camp up that tragic gravity, as subtly or as provocatively as need be. That’s a solution I can get along with just fine.

*The fledgling writer addressed in the essay is a man, no doubt about it, and most likely a man named Michel Houellebecq. He is always somehow writing about himself.

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So I finished up my post earlier this week on Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Contre la Vie, Contre le Monde with Houellebecq asserting that the key to Lovecraft’s genius is that he managed to transform his feelings of disgust (about life and social changes he had no control over) into a form of creative hostility. I think it would be quite easy to use this same sentence and exchange the word Lovecraft for Houellebecq. Simple as that. Not hard to see why one writer admired the other.

But Houellebecq’s disgust is of a different variety than what I understand of Lovecraft’s. Lovecraft couldn’t stand the world he lived in, so he created alien worlds to escape into, taking his anger and frustration and working them out or increasing them, both symbolically and overtly, in those new worlds. (This is more or less Houellebecq’s reading.) Now, for Houellebecq, I get the feeling that he is profoundly, overwhelmingly, devastatingly disappointed in human nature. Like Lovecraft, he is revolted by society, but unlike Lovecraft, he is not quite willing to reject it and escape away. Houellebecq is still interested.

His disgust is palpable, but there is more sorrow than hostility in much of what he writes. Every once in a while something horrible does surge up and out of a text, taking the reader more or less by surprise, but then the tone resettles around Houellebecq’s grief. Yes, grief. I think this might be the best word for it – Houellebecq is in a state of perpetual mourning for what he understands of society.

And grief is something that often turns a person inward, so it isn’t a surprise that Houellebecq cannot get himself out of his stories. As I wrote earlier, I think this inability to remove himself from the literary equations he poses and tries to solve is a tricky issue of his writing but it also contributes to the unique nature of his work.

In all honesty, I can see now that one of the reasons I’ve become so interested in Houellebecq is that I usually prefer my writers to stay out of their stories. I tend to balk at, or, at the very least, disregard biographical details when I’m considering a text. I want to be able to consider the literary landscape and the characters without worrying whether the author is speaking from experience or made it all up. I’ve always felt that it shouldn’t matter.

However, because of his unsettling merge of author and character, Houellebecq forces me to consider him biographically at almost every step of the way. My knee-jerk reaction would usually be, “Grow up, get over yourself, get a therapist, and do something truly creative.” But his honesty is actually engaging. His perspective is even seductive—I think humans can be pretty rotten, too—as well as off-putting and that combination is hard to put down.

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Now that I am several books into my Houellebecq Project, I feel that I have, by accident, gone about this in exactly the right way. The first Houellebecq I tried was La Carte et le Territoire, his most recent novel, which won him last year’s Prix Goncourt in France, and a novel which is, by Houellebecquian standards, rather tame. I don’t mean that it doesn’t have any shock to it, or any social criticism, but compared to the other works of his that I’ve now read, those elements come in a softer, less wince-inducing package.

There are two issues that seem to bother most Houllebecq readers: his portrayal of sex, and the fact that it is difficult to decipher whether the racist, sexist and other harsh comments in his work come from Houellebecq himself or from his characters—as Litlove points out in a recent comment, this is because his main characters almost always appear to be, at least in part, some incarnation of Houellebecq himself. That lack of separation is problematic.

But La Carte et le Territoire had very little in terms of provocation, in either of those areas. It was definitely a provocative text, but easy to read. I say all of this because it was pure dumb luck that I read that novel first and thus became curious to figure out what all the fuss was about.

Now, my second bit of luck came from my own strange obsession with reading an author in chronological order. I like nothing better than beginning with a writer’s earliest work and moving forward. For Houellebecq, this meant taking up with his long essay, H.P. Lovecraft: Contre le Monde, Contre la vie (H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Eng. trans. Dorna Khazeni). And it was really fascinating. An essay that endeared Houellebecq to me, mostly because of the care he takes in writing about Lovecraft.

Who knows if Lovecraft was the single most important writerly reference point for Houellebecq, but he is clearly a huge influence. The essay is pure homage, but a serious study as well, filled with critical and autobiographical interpretation. However, the essay does more than just tell me about Lovecraft, it tells me about Houellebecq. As I am slowly coming to understand through Houellebecq’s other work, he is not able to remove himself from anything he writes. (I find this both a source of his brilliance and a possible weakness, but I will get to that in another review.) So in nearly every assessment of Lovecraft, Houellebecq is inside the message, leaving little clues to his own writing and his own vision:

Quand on aime la vie, on ne lit pas. On ne va guère au cinéma non plus, d’ailleurs. Quoi qu’on en dise, l’accès à l’univers artistique est plus ou moins réservé à ceux qui en ont un peu marre. [ A person who loves life doesn’t read. And rarely goes to the movies, as well. No matter what people say on the matter, access to the artistic universe is more or less reserved for those who are just a little sick of it all.]

OR

Le style de compte rendu d’observations scientifiques utilisé par HPL dans ses dernières nouvelles répond au principe suivant: plus les événements et les entités décrites seront monstrueuses et inconcevables, plus la description sera précise et clinique. Il faut un scalpel pour décortiquer l’innommable.

Tout impressionnisme est donc à bannir. Il s’agit de construire une littérature vertigineuse : et il n’y a pas de vertige sans une certaine disproportion d’échelle, sans une certaine juxtaposition du minutieux et de l’illimité, du ponctuel et de l’infini.

[The style HPL uses in his later short stories, like a summary of scientific jottings, responds to the following idea: the more monstrous and inconceivable the events and beings described, the more precise and clinical the description. One needs a scalpel to dissect the unnamable.

Thus, impressionism is to be banned. This means creating a vertiginous literature: and there is no vertigo without a certain difference of scale, without a certain juxtaposition of the meticulous with the limitless, of the specific with infinity.]

OR

Si le style de Lovecraft est déplorable, on peut gaiement conclure que le style n’a, en littérature, pas la moindre importance ; et passer à autre chose.

Ce point de vue stupide peut cependant se comprendre. Il faut bien dire que HPL ne participe guère de cette conception élégante, subtile, minimaliste et retenue qui rallie en général tous les suffrages.

[If Lovecraft’s style is deplorable, we can happily conclude that style has not the least importance in literature; and then move on to something else.

This stupid point of view is, however, understandable. One must admit that HPL hardly ever contributes to the elegant, subtle, minimalist and restrained craft which tends to win the most votes.]

The last two quotes I’ve given here end up informing a short discussion suggesting that if your job as a writer is to discuss the horrors of the world, writing them beautifully is a form of hypocrisy. Houellebecq criticizes certain Lovecraft passages, for their obviously bad writing, but at the same time he applauds the fact that Lovecraft’s form mimics his content.

And this is easy to see in Houellebecq’s own writing. He isn’t interested in wasting time writing about something horrific in a carefully-worked style. An ass in an ass. An ugly person is an ugly person. In La Carte et le Territoire, when he describes a vicious murder, he uses a clinical and distant style. Indeed, that book has something of the crime novel to it.

But he can write beautifully, and this is something I’ve discovered as I’ve moved forward in his work. This has gone on long enough for today, so I won’t parade out the examples.

Let me finish, however, with a mention of one other point that I’d like to discuss in my next post. In Contre le Monde, Contre la Vie, Houellebecq reflects on Lovecraft’s racism as the transformative element of his writing. He writes:

Toute grande passion, qu’elle soit amour ou haine, finit par produire une œuvre authentique. On peut le déplorer, mais il faut le reconnaître : Lovecraft est plutôt du côté de la haine ; de la haine et de la peur. [All great passion, whether a question of love or hate, finishes in the production of a genuine work of art. We can lament the fact, but we must acknowledge that Lovecraft is more about hate; hate and fear.]

And then he asserts that the secret of Lovecraft’s genius is that:

…il a réussi à transformer son dégoût de la vie en une hostilité agissante. […he managed to transform his disgust for life into a powerfully efficient hostility.]

This sentence has become the phrase I keep going back to as I read forward in Houellebecq, and I want to consider how it actually describes Houellebecq just as well as Lovecraft.

***

FYI – All translations provided here are mine, and rather quick ones at that.

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I wrote last week how Wood champions literary realism at the end of How Fiction Works. But really, he does this subtly throughout the entire novel. Not by ever contending that experimental fiction doesn’t have as much to say about the relationship between fiction and life, but through a kind of censure, again related to craft, which is detectable in passages like this:

Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves? This is something like Saramago’s question; but it is worth noting that he reaches his questions by traveling in the opposite direction of those postmodern novelists who like to remind us of the metafictionality of all things. A certain kind of postmodern novelist (like John Barth, say) is always lecturing us: ‘Remember, this character is just a character. I invented him.’ By starting with an invented character, however, Saramago is able to pass through the same skepticism, but in the opposite direction, toward reality, toward the deepest questions.

Wood is talking about José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a novel I’m now really eager to read. I do really like postmodern fiction, but there are times it can get tiresome. A bit shouty. But based on Wood’s description, it sounds like I would love Saramago’s way of negotiating a postmodern existential crisis.

What I understand Wood to be saying here is that he approves of Saramago’s existential exploration because it doesn’t just stop at revealing the artifice to the reader. Instead, it uses that revelation to ask a further question. His quote is lovely:

Yet the novel suggests that perhaps there is something culpable about being content with the spectacle of the world when the world’s spectacle is horrifying.

Because I am deep into my Houellebecq project at the moment, this makes me consider the metafictional aspect of his work. I am slowly getting the sense that Houellebecq is unable to forget for a moment that he is writing, that he is creating a story for others to read, to be consumed. A certain narrative personality—either Houellebecq himself or an authorial personality he uses when writing—hovers over his work. It isn’t so much like Barth and the constant reminder of the invented character, but more like Houellebecq just can’t get out of the way.

I’m slowly starting to get a feel for Houellebecq’s overall aesthetic, and his project, and the more I read of his work, the more I think that he uses this form of metafiction because he would consider it dishonest to write the kind of fiction that pretends the writer doesn’t exist. I find that notion of dishonesty pretty interesting.

But I’m still working through all of his work and I think I’ll wait to expand on this idea until I’ve finished, or at least, nearly finished. I want to think about it a little more in case I’m misreading him…

*Thank you to careful reader, Guilherme, who kindly reminded me that it is Saramago and not Saramango! This post now corrected.

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My Internet access seems to be stable again. Besides the fact that I tend to panic when I lose access to email (something I should probably work on), as a freelancer, my entire professional life hinges on a rapid, reliable connection to the web. When my connection went down last week, I ended up having to scramble to find a way to deliver two translations to a client as well as get my most recent review up at Necessary Fiction. I can live quite happily without that kind of stress, by the way.

Luckily, it’s over…for now. This is an old farmhouse with some old school (for Switzerland anyway) phone lines. One of the lines got moved last week, and reattached in a different way to the farm’s telephone line “hub”. This was enough to knock out our Internet service for nearly a week. Now that I see how fragile the system is, I’m pretty sure a cow will sneeze in the upper pasture next week and I’ll have the same problem.

In any case, this whole incident made me consider my relationship with technology. I’m obviously very bound to my computer and the internet. Which is kind of funny since my favorite pastimes are pretty darn low-tech. Reading, hiking, reading… And yet I spend most of my day answering and sending emails, connecting with people in several countries for work or just because friends live pretty much anywhere and everywhere, or using the Internet for research. The world is small. Very small. At least it seems that way through the “window” of my laptop.

This is all just to say that not only does technology make it possible for me to work from home as a translator and a writer while living in a very small village in Switzerland, it also gives me access to indulge my biggest passion – reading. I’d be one miserable reader if my book buying were limited to the few physical bookstores in the nearest cities. So really, the Internet makes possible much of my happiness and all of my professional life. And yet, I worry sometimes whether I might actually be more productive without the distractions that come as part and parcel of spending so much time online. I’m pretty out of the loop where social media are concerned but I am on Facebook and I write this blog and I spend time reading other blogs and online journals. It is very hard to say “no” to the endless stream of information available on the web.

There is an essay in Michel Houellebecq’s collection Rester Vivant (Stay Alive/Survive) which speaks about the human relationship to technology. He begins with architecture, moves to economics and markets, explores computer science and then ends, briefly, with literature. It is mostly a lament, at least the tone is more overtly sorrowful than critical. It is hard not to agree with his notion of La poésie du mouvement arrêté, which is the title of the final subsection of the essay. The Poetry of Stopped Time or The Poetry of Suspended Movement. Houellebecq argues for a pause – turn off the TV, buy nothing, renounce your desire to buy something, refuse to participate, refuse “knowing” (I find this last idea subtly provocative), simply switch off all thought. Just for a moment, he asks you to stand still.

This obvious solution to the information overload of contemporary society is harder to accomplish than one might think. I suppose I get the closest on dog walks or while reading. Dog walks now involve a chatty, gregarious toddler, an excited dog and a nervous kitten who refuses to be left at the farm, so while my twice-a-day walks are still lovely in their own right, they are not always exactly relaxing. Especially because they are now crammed between work and getting Mlle. Petitvore to daycare on the days she goes and more work and running errands and cleaning house and all the rest. But there are moments of true pause—stopping in the forest to listen to birds, for example, and suddenly, unexpectedly, my little circus all stills at the same time. It’s wonderful what a few seconds of stillness can do for the rest of your day.

And reading isn’t really a pause either, no matter how much I enjoy it. It will always involve thinking, learning, judging. My hours with books are active and intense. I wouldn’t really want it any other way.

It is still nice to be reminded, however, that it’s good sometimes to enter a full stop. Houellebecq is arguing for something both political and social, a rebellion of sorts against the vast whirring machines. I don’t criticize him for that at all; I think he’s right. But I’m also taking his comments in a deeply personal way. I’m a part of those vast whirring machines. I contribute (so does he, so does everyone). So my full stop can never be a real rebellion against the “machine,” it is first a rebellion against myself. I think this is what he’s really getting at in his essay and I like how that turns the critique on its head.

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I have more to say about Michel Houellebecq’s La Carte et le Territoire, but I’m switching gears today because I finished Franzen’s Freedom last night. It isn’t really my style to trash a novel completely, and Freedom doesn’t actually deserve that, for various reasons that would be a little boring to go into in detail, but I do feel like spending too much time writing about Freedom might actually be a little more than it deserves.

I’ll try to be succinct.

And fair.

Essentially, my frustration with Freedom is two-fold. First, I am strongly averse to novels which attempt – however clever the writing, however clear and thorough the character analysis – to base an entire fictional universe on what is essentially facile psychology. Not a single person in Freedom did anything unexpected, or behaved in any way which wasn’t already signaled by Franzen in the first few paragraphs of their fictional existence and which was then explained away by Franzen through pop psychology drivel, or, excuse me, ideas.

And second, well, frankly, the book made me feel like I was watching a witty reality TV show. Here are the Berglunds airing their difficult marriage for the entire world to see and comment on. And don’t we all feel so much more superior for not behaving like them? Aren’t they all such sad little creatures? And we can feel sympathetic; we can, but not too much, because really it is all their fault, and the fault of that superficial beast of American culture. I mean, come on, can’t we write incisively, meaningfully, about America without mimicking such a problematic form?

I suppose if I had to, I could come up with something nice to say about this book. But those two reactions trump any praise I might have. Franzen is a good writer, and Freedom is nearly an enjoyable read. But I didn’t find anything really clever in Franzen’s project.

In fairness, I think reading Freedom after finishing Houellebecq might have contributed to the violence of my reaction. The two writers are doing something very similar in their novels. Both are a little manic in their attempt to document contemporary culture, both are cynical toward that society (although their cynicism takes vastly different forms), and both are interested in explaining contemporary neuroses. But where Houellebecq’s metafictional experiment plays with form and content, and therefore implicating the reader which brings his social critique full circle in an ingenuous way, Franzen just seemed to recycle pop culture and superficial psychology.

Did I just go ahead and trash the novel? Okay, yeah, pretty much. Well, maybe in a few days I’ll come back with something more balanced…

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Well, reading my first Michel Houellebecq novel was not exactly what I expected. I imagined I would have to put up with some gritty and depressing sex scenes (there were none) and I thought I would be impressed nevertheless with his writing (yes, and no). As I mentioned before, I came to his latest novel, which won the 2010 Prix Goncourt, with the preconceived notion that he was a good writer, but probably not to my taste.

This is all just to say that hype is ridiculous, and try as I may to avoid it, there is always some amount of hype that filters its way into my reading brain, thus coloring my reading experience. So okay. Despite all that, what did I think?

La Carte et le Territoire (Eng: The Map and the Territory, which will probably come out later this year) is a strange novel – on one hand it’s extremely clever, on the other I couldn’t help finding it a little dull.

I want to say quickly why I found some of the book dull. First, I think I was simply expecting Houellebecq’s writing to be more intense or more daring. The book is well-written. But the prose is straightforward. Not very lyrical or descriptive. Most of the descriptive work is spent on labeling things. Objects are given their brand names, for example, and people are presented as static images, much like a photograph. The animation of each person comes through the 3rd person omniscient narrator who dips into the thoughts of the characters—fluidly, but again, almost always through exposition.

There is definitely a cynicism in Houellebecq’s writing, a cynicism toward human beings. I was expecting this aspect of his work, and I even agree with some of his vision, and yet there were moments that startled me. Moments in which Houellebecq expounds on some thought or notion of one of the characters and I just found myself thinking—how sad, how untrue.

Despite all that, I think what I’m really resisting about this book is its purposeful unwillingness to engage me in a seamless story. Time and time again, the novel does something to remind me of its fictional status. Where I got frustrated with this is that La Carte et le Territoire doesn’t necessarily do anything unusual with that pointed revelation. It just becomes a clever twist layered on top of a conventionally-told conventional story.

Briefly – the story:

Jed Martin is an artist. The novel recounts his entire life, with particular emphasis on his 30s and 40s, his relationship with a Russian woman named Olga, his friendship with the writer Michel Houellebecq and his feelings about his father.

Martin and Houellebecq meet because Houellebecq gets asked to write the catalog for Martin’s biggest exhibit. The men develop a strange friendship, which is cut short when Houellebecq is savagely murdered.

There are several layers of admirable cleverness to the metafictional trick of Houellebecq putting a writer named Michel Houellebecq into the novel:

First, Michel Houellebecq appears as a character for the first time when Jed and his father are having their annual Christmas dinner together. Jed mentions the fact that a write named Houellebecq was asked to write the catalog. The father says, “Michel Houellebecq?” and Jed says, “Do you know him?” The father answers:

“He’s a good writer, I think. An enjoyable read, and he has a pretty accurate vision of society.”

This is funny, obviously – Houellebecq having a character tell the reader that Houellebecq knows what he’s talking about when he portrays the world.  

Second, the catalog. In the novel, Houellebecq writes the catalog of Jed Martin’s art exhibit and this catalog takes the form of an overview of Martin’s artistic development and vision. But of course, the novel is exactly the same thing. Houellebecq writing about the life and art of Jed Martin.

Third, on page 151-153 of my edition, Jed Martin falls asleep at a café in the Shannon airport (after meeting Houellebecq to discuss the catalog project) and dreams that he is in a book, a book that recounts his life. He walks around a moment in this book, looking at the black letters against a white surface, at the names that appear and then disappear. And then he wakes up. As soon as he arrives in Paris, he calls Houellebecq to say that instead of giving him any old painting as a thank you for the catalog, Martin will paint Houellebecq’s portrait. Thus the two men are creating each other.

I haven’t even gotten to the murder part yet, or what I think Houellebecq might be doing with his Jed Martin character…but I’ll save that for another day.

It’s probably fairly clear that I’m a bit undecided about this work. I could discuss it for hours, for that reason alone it’s a fascinating piece of literature. I wish I’d read Houellebecq’s other novels first, so I’d know where to place this latest work. I have the sense this is a departure in many ways for Houellebecq, but I need to start reading if I want to see how…

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