As a Frenchman who lived in the States for a couple of years, I often had the chance to hear what American scholars have to say about contemporary French writers.
Sadly, one of the (few) French names to pop up most frequently in conversation was the one name behind which stands everything but a controversial bid for greatness. Or even any real goddamned talent.
Yep! I’m talking about Michel Houellebecq.
Perhaps you wonder if he’s really that bad. After all, would so many literary-minded Americans read him for no good reason? Of course not—Houellebecq is one of the most popular French authors in America for something. But what?
Most likely, I suppose, his popularity lies within the questions he poses about our moment in time. Deservedly well-known for emphasizing the disenchantment inherent to our contemporary world, Houellebecq realistically portrays humans as the animals they are. Bearing this in mind, to affirm the emptiness of Houellebecq’s oeuvre would make little sense. In fact, an affirmation of Houellebecq’s emptiness would be too easy, or even the wrong way to criticize him. Opponents to this criticism could easily make a point about how rich and stimulating his books actually are: the absurdity of existence (Staying alive, 1991), the possibility of creating of our own moral universe (Atomised, 1998), the dehumanization resulting from social failure (The Possibility of an Island, 2005), the impact of the free-market economy on the psychological development of winners and losers inside both relationships and daily life (Whatever, 1998), sex as a poor reflection of cold human bestiality (Platform, 2001), etc.
All these topics are, without doubt, worthy of discussion. However, art is not so much about the themes we approach as the way in which we approach them. The style we embrace is more than the presentation of ideas and concepts—no matter how powerful and perceptive those ideas and concepts might be. In a sense, Houellebecq’s penchant for endless euphemisms and his obsession with analytic, ironic description make him a predictable, repetitious, and wearisome writer.
When it comes to making art, it is important to understand that beauty and truth stem from astute choice of details, a distinctive personal vision, and imaginative work. This is exactly where Houellebecq fails as a writer: he is not creative enough. He uses fiction only to describe a pathetic reality in the coldest and simplest way possible. He goes round and round his own misery—which he claims to be our misery, too. It’s as if he can’t stop himself from belittling and burdening us with a constant sense of responsibility and guilt.
Assuming that we, the reader, enjoy being so post-modern that we like getting lost in the process of getting lost, this may sound appealing at first. But there’s one major problem: Houellebecq cries our finite state out loud, falls into it, shouts it over and over again, in every situation. Everything he wants to say, he says it; everything he wants us to understand, we understand it. And what kind of writer is that? A cheap one.
The truth is, Houellebecq belongs to his generation and, much like Bret Easton Ellis, will never manage to survive beyond his personal rubric of despair. Whether he admits to it or not, Houellebecq plays by the rules of the entertainment industry, and as long as his provocation exists solely within his own limited universe and no further, he will continue to position himself in the role of imposter.
Good books are ones that have lasting power, ones that we reconstruct as we read. All Houellebecq’s work does is make us feel cheated by nailing us to our chair; he overwhelms us to the point of forgetfulness. He brilliantly succeeds in taking us hostage by amusing and shocking us on almost every page, but we will never wake up in the morning with his work still in our mind, nor will we ruminate on it for weeks after.
Houellebecq’s cheap pop literature tends to enjoy itself too much (which may be one reason he’s so popular in America). After altering us to our depressing state, he abandons us (another reason he’s so popular in America). His work relishes in depictions of a capitalist wasteland where the cult of performance alone is rewarded, where needs and desires are produced to create a demand for goods that serve no further purpose than to slake this manufactured desire, and through these means our depressing state guarantees its own preservation. But when disillusion has become the norm, it takes more than a presentation of the human condition to become a writer that matters. I’m sure Houellebecq could further enhance his empty correlations and doomsday speeches, but that would place him outside his rubric of despair and into something much more terrifying—the nebulous space between author and reader in which good books are kept.