Sunday, November 06, 2011

[Books] Book Look: Whatever

Book Look: Whatever, by Michel Houellebecq: This is a tricky one to evaluate. It is defeatist, pessimistic and even contemptuous, but it is not without a sort of refreshing point of view.

The overarching theme is the degradation of human relationships in general and romantic relationships in particular. We follow a mid-level technical instructor as he travels to government sites to train users on a new software system which, as it turns out, nobody wants and will not really be used. He is paired up with an ugly and socially awkward partner who, even at age 28, makes a desperate fool of himself in pursuit of women he can never get. The lead character has seen and accepted the sorry state personal interaction in the world; the ugly partner fights to the very end. Death and madness ensue.

Houellebecq's hobby horse is that in the wake of feminism and liberalism (small "l"), sex, and by extension other social interaction, has become a winner take all contest. There is a strict hierarchy where those at the top get all the spoils and the rest are left with nothing. And, correspondingly, love is no longer possible because it simply doesn't matter when there is only feast or famine.

This novel triggered some strong reactions when released, mostly because it goes directly counter to the prevalent progressive (small "p") mode of thought that dominates all public communication. That in itself makes it rather refreshing. What we commonly refer to as controversies are really just perfectly positioned opinions that allow people to tell themselves they are being forward thinkers or open minded, when in fact, they are being as dogmatic as possible. Holuellebecq is definitely not maneuvering for a properly position opinion. For that reason alone I will likely read more of his work. I don't much buy into his view of things. It seems to me, as with most critiques of modern society, there is an implicit romanticizing of the past, and, as with any social novel, there is a tendency to elevate a personal frustration to the level of societal illness. But like I said, it's refreshing to find an unusual angle, even if it is depressing. Plus, Holuellebecq is an exceptional stylist -- laser sharp sentences; so strong it comes through in translation. There is no filler here, it reads quickly and powerfully.

Should you read Whatever? Probably not. I suspect most people would find the underlying philosophy somewhat off-putting, if not offensive. If you are feeling disaffected or bleak, it might fit the bill, or if you yearn for ideas far out of the mainstream. But be honest with yourself about that, you probably don't.