Michel Houellebecq - Whatever
The narrator of French author Michel Houellebecq's early novella, Whatever, is a man difficult to like, and who does not, in truth, like himself much anyway. At times he skirts along the rim of caricature, almost becoming an archetype of dreary European exhaustion, but by and large the narrator is a clever, self-absorbed mess of a man who is, at root, unable any more to struggle against the burden of living.
The narrator is unhappy with life. He admits to the reader that he has a well paying job, and is able, should he wish, to engage in intercourse with a woman (though he hasn't for some time). On the surface he should be fine, but the surface of a matter is never its whole. The narrator is pummelled by the rampant commercialisation of everything, the commodification of love, of work, of one's own sense of worth. Notches on the bedside have become, for the people with whom he reluctantly socialises, more important than the quality of the experience. In a numbers game, all that matters is more, and the narrator feels that everything is being boiled down to integers and arithmetic. He idles away his evenings writing bizarre stories involving animals in horrifically violent scenes, their bodies butchered as they expound on various philosophic, economic and political themes.
I've lived so little that I tend to imagine I'm not going to die; it seems improbable that human existence can be reduced to so little; one imagines, in spite of oneself, that sooner or later something is bound to happen. A big mistake. A life can just as well be both empty and short. The days slip by indifferently, leaving neither trace nor memory; and then all of a sudden they stop.
He is a relentlessly unhappy man, and the word that best describes him is - weary. Life, it seems, has shown him all that's there is, and what's left is merely a different permutation of what has come before. And, unfortunately, most often the permutations aren't even all that different anyway.
Nevertheless, some free time remains. What's to be done? How do you use your time? In dedicating yourself to helping people? But basically other people don't interest you. Listening to records? That used to be a solution, but as the years go by you have to say that music moves you less and less.
The narrator remarks that, “I know life; I've grown accustomed to it.” He watches the days of his life slip by with the regularity of a ticking clock, and whether he fills his days with hedonism or lets them drift by in inactivity, the end result is the same – another day clicked over, another step closer to nothing at all. He is bitter without being melodramatic, his inner-self a funnel into which everything swirls into and disappears.
Soon the narrator is asked to travel the French countryside to teach a government department how to use the new software they have installed. He is good at his job, technically proficient and dazzling in the intricacies of a system that seems deliriously complicated to others. But he is no people person, and his bosses know it. They pair him with Raphael Tisserand, a slightly younger man who tries to portray himself as vibrant, confident and sexually sophisticated, while remaining a virgin and possessing the distasteful greasiness of the perpetual lech. Tisserand is less a foil to the narrator that a negative compliment, which is to say they both embody different aspects of the same dissatisfaction with, and inability to properly operate the machinery of, contemporary life. If you need to accumulate the points of life to succeed – dollars, sexual partners, possessions, friends, what have you – and you cannot, then catastrophe awaits. The narrator elects to drop out of the race for more altogether, while Tisserand, more painfully, tries and fails, and fails hard.
Whatever is a deliciously quotable works of literature. Scarcely a page goes by without some sentence or another popping out at you, drawing attention to itself through its wit, its despondency, its mordant humour or its malignant take on the world. Houellebecq is an author skilled at the bon mot, though his are never present in dialogue. It is for us, the reader, and the narrator, to whom these slivers are addressed. Indeed, the dialogue between Tisserand and the narrator are studies in stupefaction, with Tisserand astonishingly ignorant about most everything, and sexually obsessed to boot, while the narrator is, charitably, a stunning bore. Together they are insipid, while internally the narrator comments, and comments, and comments. His most well-explored hobby is himself, and he has a lot to say on the matter.
Whatever, with its attention to the visceral and the physical, reminds one of the supreme uncomfortable sensation of possessing a physical body expressed so well in Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio's early collection, Fever. Both authors display a distaste for the knock, the bumps, the touches, the scrapes, the caresses, the – the interaction of the self with the other by way of the physical, which is to say by way of grossness, of ineptitude and the inevitability of making a mistake, of getting it wrong, of never being able to properly convey all that is inside for two reasons; the first, because you cannot, and the second, because you will not. Tisserand's desire for the physical encourages the narrator's withdrawal into himself, and as the novella progresses we read more of the strange, quasi-political animal stories he is so fond of writing, and increasingly the physical location of the story and the sense of time and place, become hazy and indistinct. We start to disappear into the narrator.
Near the end of the novel, the narrator embarks on a forty kilometre bicycle ride to Saint-Cirgues-en-Montagne, a small town that appealed because it is isolated and lonely, and seems to fit his mood. The difficult, however, lies in the getting there – the journey – which is mountainous and difficult, a torturous ride for a man ill-equipped for physical activity. Yet (and here, as a metaphor, is the central thesis of the novella) the journey is undertaken anyway, because the pain of the forty kilometres is, at the outset, ephemeral and abstract, and even while he is pedalling, remains always somewhere else. Needless to say, the destination matters little when your lungs burn and your limbs ache, and the end is nowhere in sight. This is life, then, Houellebecq is saying: we travel down difficult paths, to destinations that never seem worth it when we arrive, and all that comes from it is pain (both real – legs aching – and abstract – the thought of more pain ahead). Nobody would take the journey if they knew what it was truly about, and how meagre the destination seems once you have arrived. But nevertheless we are all peddling.
Whatever is not a comfortable read, but it never slips too far into the distasteful. The ennui of the narrator is explored with great sophistication and intelligence by Houellebecq, and though the novel could never be commended for its depth of plot, it remains anchored enough within the confines of the actual that its message remains consistent and clear. The animal stories, while interesting, risk taking the story down avenues its 150-odd pages don't have the luxury to explore, but by and large it all works together as a comprehensive whole. There is a strong sense that Whatever has, albeit accidentally, captured the crippling asphyxiation of contemporary life, and this in itself is a singularly impressive achievement. Whatever, in its own way, makes one immediately wish to reassess their own life, to pare away the useless and the base, the petty and the small, the crass and the commercial. Houellebecq wisely refrains from providing answers, and instead frames, with great talent, the difficult questions.
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
Boojum, L'animal Littéraire
Cairn (electronic journal archive)
Chroniques de la Luxiotte
Evene (Book section)
French Book News (English)
French Cultural Agency (English)
Gallica (Bibliotheque nationale de France digital library)
L'Express (Book section)
Lire: le magazine littéraire
La Femelle du Requin
La Vie des idées
Le Centre National du Livre
Le Magazine Littéraire
Le Matricule des anges
Le Monde (Book section
La République des Livres
Le Monde Diplomatique (Book section)
Le Nouvel Observateur (Book section)
Le Tiers Livre, littérature et Internet
English translation of François Bon's blog
Libération (Book section)
Palimpsestes (French and English)
Transfuge, literature et cinéma