Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq is our contemporary Zola. He’s a determinist for whom the notion of human freedom is an oxymoron. The Elementary Particles is perhaps his most well-known work to American audiences though his most recent novel The Map and the Territory won the Prix Goncourt in 2010. The Elementary Particles uses the ideological windmill chasing of the sixties, with its cults of sexual liberation, as its petrie dish. The two half brothers, who are the protagonists of the novel, are the progeny of a hipster mother, who has abandoned her role as a parent in her quest for enlightenment. It appears that there’s an autobiographical element in The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq’s mother abandoned him in reality and one of the brothers in the novel is named Michel and has moved to Ireland (as Houellebecq did). In his review/essay, "Off the Map,” (The New Yorker, 1/23/12), James Wood remarks “Houellebecq’s men are unattractive, unsociable, frigid, sexually unconfident, physically underequipped, erotically bored (or some combination of these negatives); they are panhandlers in the sexual souk, and spend much of their time trying to grab what wares they can, by way of porn, prostitutes, or swingers’ clubs.” Houellebecq is a vivisectionist like Zola. Remember Zola himself described the Rougon-Macquart novels as “the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire.” Sex is the lingua franca of the Houellebecq novel, but the perversity is only a symptom of a more profound pathology. As Wood says about Houellebecq, “Essentially, he argues that contemporary sexuality, though it sails under the colors of liberation and left-ish utopia, is just a continuation of the capitalist, neoliberal market, in which there are always winners and losers.”

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