Briefly noted: The Map and the Territory — Houellebecq

The number of ideas in The Map and the Territory is too high to enumerate, and the novel is structurally weird, but it’s weird in a way that’s still functional. Like all of Houellebecq it’s fascinating, though not in a way that’s easy to describe, and it touches many Houellbecqian themes: The weakness of contemporary France; the need for tourism; the fight between stability and novelty; the status of the artist; the faux accepted role of the market as the arbiter of all value; the need to express sexuality and form relationships despite the futility of both acts. At least in this one a shocking unexpected terrorist bloodbath is not the denouement, however fitting and brutal it was in one of Houellebecq’s other novels.

Consider this:

Barely amiable in the first few minutes, the stocky estate agent went into a lyrical trance when he learned that Jed was an artist. It was the first time, he exclaimed, that he’d had the opportunity to sell an artist’s studio to an artist! Jed feared for a moment that he would declare his solidarity with authentic artists against the bourgeois bohemians and other such philistines who inflated prices, thus making artist’s studios inaccessible to artists, but what can you do? I can’t go against the truth of the market: it’s not my role. But fortunately this did not happen.

the_map_and_the_territoryThe notion of the “artist” has been made into a nostgalia item that was long ago marketized. Today’s artists still need cheap space, but they won’t find it in most “major” Western cities.

It may be that the best medium for a given time shifts. It was painting in the Renaissance, novels and what we now call classical music in the 19th Century, movies and what we now call pop music in the 20th Century, and maybe something like design in the 21st. Still, real artists ship and show their work:

You can work alone for years, it’s actually the only way to work, truth be told; but there always comes a moment when you feel the need to show your work to the world, less to receive its judgment than to reassure yourself about the existence of this work, or even of your own existence, for in a social species individuality is little more than a short piece of fiction.

Are we just neurons in a massive, transhuman brain, each of us thinking we are individual but actually just part of the mess, sending encoded messages from person to person via sound, light, or other mean? One sees Houellebecq’s taste for moving from the level of the individual outwards to the level of society or species. It’s a favorite move and one I see remarked on too infrequently.

It’s hard to convey the feeling of a Houellebecq novel from blockquotes alone, as the way sections connect do not feel like the way sections connect in other novels. Sometimes long times pass; few causal relationships, if any, are established. In that sense Houellbecq is a kind of anti-thriller, where everything is cause-effect in a way the real world isn’t.

Houellebecq’s pessimism seems easier to countenance given recent political events. One wonders if he will eventually be seen as a deeply political writer who connects the personal and political in ways that most trendy or PC writers don’t, or can’t.

Submission — Michel Houellebecq

Like almost all Houellebecq, Submission and invites diagnoses of anhedonia (Page 1: “I realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me;” Houellebecq rarely if ever writes of the “best part” of any character’s life). The weird mixture of ideas, from YouPorn (it is namechecked) to Huysmans, works and doesn’t work at the same time, and it is this paradoxical quality that I think attracts readers to Houellebecq.

Submission HouellebecqThat, and Houellebecq continues to be different in a way that almost no writers are. See also Adam Gopnik on Submission. Here is The Guardian. I mention Houellebecq in “All American fiction is young adult fiction: Discuss.” Here is Mark Lilla, in the New York Review of Books. All these pieces are excellent.

Oddly, almost no one has noticed Houellebecq’s attraction to Islam. Except for Elif Batuman, in the last part of the linked essay. In Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World, Houellebecq writes:

It’s painful for me to admit, when I think of my atheist, politically committed friends, but I’ve never really understood the root of their commitment, it has always seemed to me to have more to do with a Christian tradition than they themselves suspected. I am speaking from pure intuition here, but in all the Christian groups I tried in vain to belong to, one of the things I completely understood was their commitment. It was very clear: they had accepted the idea that, being sons of God, all men are brothers, and behaved accordingly.

Which is quite close to what the idealized Muslims in Submission do, and, I suspect, quite far from what many real-life Muslims do (or real-life adherents of any high-commitment, high-demand creed). Commitment itself, to something, is appealing, and one characteristic of all Houellebecq’s characters is their seeming lack of commitment (even those seemingly committed to hedonism don’t seem to enjoy it that much, or as much as I would).

There are many of the weird juxtapositions one sees in classic Houellebecq: “Cro-Magnon man hunted mammoth and reindeer; the man of today can choose between an Auchan and a Leclerc, both supermarkets located in Souillac.” Or: “Even the word humanism made me want to vomit, but that might have been the canapés.” Is this no context or overwhelming context? François seems to oscillate between the two. He cares deeply about observing what’s going on and does nothing with those observations; the word “bored” appears repeatedly, almost a stand-in for “whatever.”

Plus, modern grocery stores are amazing: their convenience is incredible and price competition means that consumers win. Grocery stores means that the man of today can choose to worry about something other than where to get food from. Or, maybe, he can worry about nothing at all. Even access to pornography had to be fought for, over decades. Submission implies that maybe we’d be better off without it, but the term “revealed preferences” comes to mind (and there is a small but noisy movement for “no fap,” which is what it sounds like).

No one feels a sense of a job well done. The presence of absence is felt everywhere. François never emerges from a class feeling that he’s reached someone. Has he tried? Does he want to? The answers seem to be no. Even the attractive women he improbably sleeps with seem to move him little. We find this about Steve, his colleague: “He’d almost always invite me for a drink—usually mint tea in the Paris Mosque a few blocks from school. I didn’t like mint tea, or the Paris Mosque, and I didn’t much like Steve, but I still went.” Usually I don’t go out with people I don’t like, and I don’t think I’m exceptional in this regard, but I am capable of liking people, which François it would seem is not.

Houellebecq respects ideas as almost no contemporary novelists do, but he doesn’t do so in an academically trendy way (as, say, Alena Graedon does in The Word Exchange). If anything he does so in an academically un-trendy way.

Houellebecq does not seem to believe in Enlightenment ideas of progress. For François, private tutoring only “soon convinced me that the transmission of knowledge was generally impossible, the variance of intelligence extreme, and that nothing could undo or even mitigate this basic inequality.” The last couple centuries of relentless progress would seem to invalidate this claim, however true it may feel in the moment, at the micro level. François thinks that his “boring, predictable life continued to resemble Huysmans’s a century and a half before.” Odd. I don’t feel like my life resembles the lives of people 150 years ago. Perhaps François has this problem because education as a sector has changed very little. This contrasts with numerous other sectors.

Maybe the problem with Houellebecq narrators is that few if any discover anything or make anything—even dinner. The true hero of Submission may be the microwaved dinner. No one I’ve read more frequently mentions microwaved food. But if microwaved food signifies tedium, what signifies the opposite? Did making food from scratch, as virtually all people 60 years ago had to do for economic reasons, somehow better?

Houellebecq imagines a France in which large, politically active blocs call for Sharia Law. Yet people fleeing from many Muslim and Arab countries in the Middle East are getting fleeing from people who’d like to impose Sharia. To be sure the West imposes major culture shocks. But when you want to see whose ideas are winning, look at where people are fleeing from and where they are fleeing to. During the Cold War the number of French, English, or Americans who wanted to move to Russia was dwarfed by the number of Russians who wanted to get the fuck out.

In “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World,” Kamel Daoud writes of how

Today sex is a great paradox in many countries of the Arab world: One acts as though it doesn’t exist, and yet it determines everything that’s unspoken. Denied, it weighs on the mind by its very concealment. Although women are veiled, they are at the center of our connections, exchanges and concerns.

Daoud ends his essay by saying, “People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.” I’m not convinced the sickness is spreading: Ideas in the West about the right of individual to control his or her own body are winning. Terror in many Middle Eastern countries is a sign of weakness, not strength. Ideas cannot win on their merits; they can only be imposed via the gun. There are no real votes for Sharia, even in countries that practice it, or a modified form of it.

Other events have overtaken Submission’s world. It imagines Saudi princes lavishly funding French universities. As of this writing, in February 2016, cheap oil prices are roiling petro economies like Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Chevy Bolt will arrive in the U.S. later this year. Tesla’s Model 3 is going to be unveiled shortly. These cars may permanently cap oil prices by allowing most people to switch to electric cars as oil prices rise. France shouldn’t worry about radical Muslim takeover. Petro states should worry about what will happen when every Western economy is not wildly, wholly dependent on oil.

The previous paragraph may be bizarre in the context of a discussion about a novel, but part of Houellebecq’s world in Submission depends on the financial condition of radically Islamic countries. Those countries’ positions and stability depend on selling oil. Take away the oil and we’ll see how stable and popular many of them really are. Their leaders are able to lead lives of incredible decadence and sexual pleasure because they can afford to. That may not be true three years from now, let alone in the elections of 2022.

In another moment, François asks, rhetorically, “How could anyone argue that Europe wasn’t in decline?” Easily: First, look at where people want to go, as mentioned previously. Second, consider an article like, “Plasma physicist discusses the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator.” That stellerator, built in Germany, is an important step towards fusion power plants. It’s an incredible achievement that is primarily being accomplished by Europeans. If that’s decline then sign me up. And when was Europe in ascent? Robert Rediger notes that Huysmans “was living at at a time when the European nations were at their apogee.” Which led them straight into two insane wars, the lead-up to which can only be compared to mental illness. European temperament may be oddly negative and declinist, but the temperament and being can be further apart than Europe and Mars.

Many of you will dislike Submission. I see people on the subway and in coffeeshops reading Ferrante and Knausgaard, today’s perversely trendy writers, but none reading Houellebecq.

Houellebecq is the sort of writer who makes reading his entire oeuvre rewarding. Not all writers are like this.

It is sometimes hard to write coherently on a work that itself seems to lack coherence.

The Possibility of an Island — Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is not a “good” writer in the way someone like Nabokov, Ann Patchett, Elmore Leonard, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, or countless others whose sentences sing, metaphors work, and who make one stop to save the rightness of their description. But Houellebecq is a different, unusual, or unique writer: he sounds like no one else I’ve read. He’s prone to writing like a nonfiction writer (“Undoubtedly there used to be a form of demotic happiness, connected to the functioning whole, which we are no longer able to understand”), a nonfiction writer who shifts suddenly into overly pornographic registers (“Women give an impression of eternity, as though their pussy were connected to mysteries—as though it were a tunnel opening onto the essence of the world, when in fact it is just a hole for dwarves, fallen into disrepair”), or a more conventional writer (“Fortunately Harry intervened, and the conversation was raised to more transcendent subjects (the stars, infinity, etc.), which allowed me to tuck into my plate of sausages without trembling”). To “tuck into my plate of sausages” is so normal in a book—The Possibility of an Island—so weird.

If you’ve read one or two thrillers you’ve probably read most thrillers; if you’ve read one competently but boringly written commercial novel you’ve read most of them; if you’ve read 50 Shades of Grey you should be ashamed because there’s much better verbal pornography available. But Houellebecq sounds like himself, and his concerns are almost random-seeming (sexuality, contemporary consumerism, philosophy, history) yet they drive me, and I suspect others, to try to figure out what braids them. Story is one possible answer, though it is a bad one and there are others.

Being unique without exactly being good still counts. Too many “good” writers do MFA-approved stuff taken from the Francine Prose and James Wood handbooks. I don’t want to knock that style—arguably I’m doing it at times—but it is a distinctive style (almost like the New Yorker’s) and school and if you read enough lit fic or better commercial fic you’ll recognize it and start to categorize it and start to use annoying abbreviations like “fic.”

I suspect that readers who don’t reject Houellebecq outright for reasons or psychological or moral outrage may worry: what if he does describe the world? That’s why he’s morally outrageous. What if his low-affect, high-description, no-content view of the universe is right? It’s unsettling, and for that reason he may be a bad signal: say you like Houellebecq and you’re saying there may be something amiss in you. I don’t fully buy the Houellebecq worldview—too much sunny American in me, I guess, and too tight an affinity with a Zero to One worldview—but I could probably ape or paraphrase it if need be: everything comes down to material conditions; the spiritual is dead; we’re either monsters of desire or we’re standing novelistically outside it, smoking a cigarette, and commenting on it.

I wish more MFA types would read Houellebecq, and read him with care. But he’s not a writer likely to be politically palatable to university types or to contemporary mores (which is also why I suspect he has a higher chance of enduring when today’s New York Times-approved hot author is forgotten).

In an odd way parts of Houellebecq feel like Elena Ferrante, another European export who in terms of content is the opposite of Houellebecq, and yet one senses that they’re both writing about the same currents and social conditions through fiction that doesn’t feel like fiction. He fascinates instead of bores.

I don’t claim to understand Houellebecq and very few writers do. The best and most convincing reading of his work I’ve encountered is Adam Gopnik’s “The Next Thing: Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire,” which views Houellebecq as nostalgic for the late ’50s and early ’60s. This seems odd to me—I view the present as better than the past and the future likely to be better than the present—but I wonder if my view is the minority one. Houellebecq’s future island is not a good one. He uses the pessimistic strands of SF in Island and The Elementary Particles. I like optimists.

The new Houellebecq is out:

Submission by Houellebecq

 

And some of its themes will be familiar to fans: On the first page, François is finishing school, and he “realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.” As it is for everyone Houellebecq character. And, later:

You have to take an interest in life, I told myself. I wondered what could interest me, now that I was finished with love. I could take a course in wine tasting, maybe, or start collecting model airplanes.

My afternoon seminar was exhausting. Doctoral students tended to be exhausting. For them it was all just starting to mean something, and for me nothing mattered except which Indian dinner I’d microwave (Chicken Biryani? Chicken Tikka Masala? Chicken Rogan Josh?) while I watched the political talk shows on France 2.

Most of us take an interest in something instinctively, almost automatically; meaning is a question but not the only one, and if the Indian dinner matters we at least want a good one. The condition of a Houellebecq narrator is boredom punctuated by sex with an improbably attractive woman or an unexpected act of violence. Despite that most of his novels, except for The Possibility of an Island, rivet: He asks questions others may ask but answers in ways few others will. Different but not in a bad way is a small territory that feels expansive in his books, which are an unpassionate redescription of life in the age of pleasure, which so few columnists get. Tom Wolfe gets status; Houellebecq gets apathy.

Houellebecq's novels

Thoughts on the movie Rust and Bone

* It’s hard to watch movies about stupid, careless people making stupid, careless choices. When the obvious solution to your problem is “stop doing stupid things,” a person’s predicaments don’t generate much sympathy. It’s painful to watch unforced errors in real life and it might be even more so in fiction. The protagonist’s child is the only real victim. It’s also hard to sympathize with characters who hit children or animals.

* Rust and Bone is like watching a French version of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010. The language is different, as is the attitude towards work and employer relations (see below), but the basic social and individual pathology is similar and cross-cultural. Dysfunction has consequences.

* This is tangential to the movie, but bad romantic choices tend to have more severe repercussions for women than for men, and for children most of all; the fantasy of this movie, however, happens when transparently bad romantic and career choices work out in a fairy-tale fashion. In the real world, sometimes the Fairy Godmother Department is on the clock, but usually the Practical Joke Department runs things. Women who try to corral uninterested players—like men who try to “save” crazy, destructive women—very seldom succeed, yet this is the default template for romance novels.

* France’s notoriously rigid labor markets are practically a character; one sub-plot involves employers sneaking cameras into retail stores to “catch” employees who aren’t hewing to the letter of laws or contracts. This makes no sense: if the employee is unhappy, they should leave; if the employer is unhappy, they should fire the employee. In France the labor market apparently doesn’t function like this, so employers resort to dirty tricks that shouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

In another scene, a truck driver moves from working to a company to being independent to working for a company again, and he describes himself as “exploited,” or joining the ranks of the exploited. He may have been joking (which would mean that I missed the subtext), but if he wasn’t, he has a foreign attitude toward employment. A lot of people today would be happy to be “exploited” via a job. Villainous managers are described as wearing “three-piece suits.”

* Another character refers to employers and employees as being on two “sides,” which is the exact opposite of the mentality startups and tech companies inculcate. Such rhetoric seems outdated, a relic of Marxism or industrial unions. Is it common in France or an artifact of this movie? If you think you can run a business better than your employer does, start your own firm (assuming you’re in a market where entrance is possible; in, say, telecoms, it isn’t).

* To the protagonists, the most important parts of life appear to be winning in zero-sum street fights and looking hot in clubs. Note that I’m not necessarily opposed to either, in isolation. No one in Rust and Bone has any ideas.

* That said, the movie was compelling, though I don’t think I’d recommend it for most people. I was rarely bored but often exasperated.

* Rust and Bone itself wasn’t stupid, although its characters often were. It was reminiscent of high-brow reality TV, but it didn’t resemble most other movies. The sex scenes were done well and arguably too brief, especially in a French movie. Until the last five minutes, Rust and Bone shares some spiritual values with Michel Houellebecq’s work.

%d bloggers like this: