Houellebecq omelette by Theodore Dalrymple | Articles
by michel houellebecq
Flammarion, 736 pages, $29
AAs Chekhov translated boredom without being boring, Michel Houellebecq transmits nonsense without being nonsense. Indeed, its particular subject is the spiritual, intellectual and political vacuity of life in a modern consumer society – France in this case, but it could be any western country. We get the point at the beginning of its work, but his observations are so fine and pointed that his variations on the theme are still worth reading. Houellebecq reveals the absurdity that often hides behind the commonplace.
He is such a keen observer of social trends that he sometimes appears almost prophetic: he foresaw the terrorist attack in Bali and the advent of the yellow vests in France. He has long argued that the threat of Islamism to the West comes not so much from Islamism itself, with its insignificant intellectual resources, but from the weakness, doubts, cowardice and venality of response of Western society, itself the result of the spiritual emptiness from which the West suffers and which he describes so well, without – of course – proposing a solution (it is not for novelists to be constructive, except in the sense that criticism is the first step in thinking about the next day).
His latest book, Annihilate— not published in English until the second half of 2022 — is by far its longest: too long, indeed, its 734 pages longer than the content warrants. The first print run was 300,000 copies, which is remarkable for a serious work of fiction and suggests that the author is now such a great literary phenomenon that he is quite beyond publishing. All the same, he remains readable nonetheless, and in this book he has somewhat, but not quite, controlled his tendency to pornographic portrayals of what are clearly his own sexual fantasies. Maybe his testosterone levels are down.
It is not for his intrigues that one reads Houellebecq, nor for his characterizations. Its protagonists are always the same or similar: men approaching or of middle age who are intelligent and well-educated and who, from a materialistic point of view, have no problems; they don’t suffer from the sordid anxiety that comes with having to make ends meet. Their only problem is that they don’t know how to live or why to live. They are not disappointed, because they have never had any illusions. They are without religion, without political belief, even without culture, at least in the sense that it is a vital force in their lives rather than an ornament or a pastime. Their human, family and sexual relationships are superficial, based on the feelings of the moment, without any adhesion or control by traditional values. In a sense they are free, but only in the same way that a particle in Brownian motion is free. Loneliness is their destiny, and it is, one can deduce, the natural consequence of the type of freedom promoted by the revolutionaries of May 1968. The revolutionaries sowed the wind and reaped nihilism; and so there is a strong element of nostalgia running through Houellebecq’s work, with no consoling suggestion that the omelette can be returned to its eggs. Never in history, suggests Houellebecq, have we been so prosperous, and never so incompetent when it comes to good manners.
Aannihilate (Annihilation) is a polyphonic work, with several interwoven themes. It is set five years after its publication date, in the election year 2027. The protagonist, Paul, is a civil servant and the confidant of a successful technocratic economy minister, Bruno, who puts the French economy back on the growth path. Bruno, a very capable man, is a possible candidate for the presidency, which gives Houellebecq the opportunity to describe the self-satirical nature of modern politics, in which communication is everything and substance practically nothing. Those who coach the communication arts candidates are all young women, as the world has become both feminized and masculinized: feminized in the sense that more leading roles are taken by women, masculinized in the sense that these women assumed a typically male role set of ambitions and attitudes towards work.
IIntertwined with this political theme is a mysterious story. A series of strange messages, including a digitized film of Bruno executed by the guillotine, appear on the Internet around the world; container ships explode; the largest sperm bank in the world, in Denmark, is set on fire. The Secret Service tries but fails to find out who is behind this activity, and at the end of the book, we still don’t know. It’s unsatisfactory: it’s like reading a thriller without ever discovering the thriller. It gives the author the freedom to roam freely in their imagination without the disciplinary need for plausibility.
The personal lives of the characters take up most of the book. They are, as you would expect in Houellebecq, unsatisfactory, to say the least. For example, Paul’s weak and ineffectual younger brother, Aurélien, whose sole interest in life is restoring medieval tapestries, is married to a vicious underage journalist who has a child by artificial insemination, although Aurélien does not is not itself sterile. She chooses a black sperm donor to maximize her husband’s humiliation, publicly demonstrating that the son is not hers, and at the same time claiming liberal virtue for herself, her son being living proof that she has no racial prejudices. Houellebecq suggests here that what in the modern world is seen as a political virtue is often compatible with, or even the product of, extremely unpleasant personal character.
Another theme of the book is our society’s treatment of the old. Paul’s father, who was a senior officer in the French secret service, has a devastating stroke and is admitted to a special unit for people in a vegetative state, but for vindictive administrative reasons this humanely run unit is closed shortly. time later and Paul’s father is transferred to a home that is, in effect, a negligent euthanasia facility.
Under French law, in the case of a patient unable to communicate, the attending physician has the right and the duty to determine what is in the best interests of the patient. So Paul and the rest of his family contact a group, supposedly linked to the extreme right, which saves the elderly from the clutches of institutions that go, de facto, kill them. Is this the next social movement to emerge? The intrigue and its consequences, the bureaucratic indifference, the cruelty and the incompetence of the modern state are represented in a very plausible way. Houellebecq, moreover, was a constant and ferocious opponent of the campaign to legalize euthanasia in France, which places him once again at the antipodes of the well-meaning the intelligentsia of his country. “When a country – a society, a civilization – manages to legalize euthanasia,” he wrote last year in Le Figaro“it loses in my eyes all right to respect. It now becomes not only legitimate, but desirable, to destroy it; so that something else – another country, another society, another civilization – has a chance to be born.
Aannihilate implies that individuals, no less than civilizations, destroy each other. Modern people, in Houellebecq’s stories, have a will to self-destruction: they seek misery when there is no external or “objective” cause for it. Near the end of the book, fifty-year-old Paul suffers from mouth cancer that will soon kill him, hence the title of the book. Meanwhile, he and his wife have rekindled their romance after years apart. They continued to live together, but without real contact between them. Their estrangement seems to have been the result of self-destruction, since neither fundamentally changes when they rediscover their love for each other.
Love redeems life and gives it meaning, we can deduce from this book. But sadly, love is especially hard to come by in the contemporary world, where money, power, success, and Brownian-type freedom are much more valued. We appreciate unlimited possibilities, whereas love requires commitment and self-limitation.
For me, however, the pleasure of reading Houellebecq lies in his laser observations. Here, for example, is his description of a huge modern office complex for the Secret Service, through the eyes of one of the characters:
He had never found any particular aesthetic value in this unstructured juxtaposition of gigantic parallelepipeds of glass and steel. . . . In any case, the goal pursued by the designers was not beauty, nor even pleasure, but rather the enhancement of a certain technical skill – as if it were above all a question of demonstrating it to future aliens.
Has there ever been a better summary of the efforts of architects such as Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Jean Nouvel or Zaha Hadid? They build in genuflection to the Martians.
Time and again, Houellebecq makes observations as pointed as the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. Again, he describes how any conversation in France can either be revived if it stalls, or diverted from its previous course:
. . . It’s true that Zemmour is still working, just mention his name and the conversation begins to hum along marked and nicely predictable paths, much like that of Georges Marchais. [the former leader of the Communist Party] in his time, everyone finds his social bearings, his natural position, from which he draws a quiet satisfaction.
These brilliant passages are found throughout the book.
Literary flaws notwithstanding (from which, after all, no author is entirely free), there is no contemporary writer that I know of who is a finer dissector than Houellebecq of the cultural, psychological and spiritual situation of the West today. His palette may be restrained, but his canvas is large.
Theodore Dalrymple is the author, more recently, of Around the World in the Cinemas of Paris.
Image by ActuaLitte via Creative Commons. Cropped image.