Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

"Whatever" by Michel Houellebecq (Serpent's tail, 1998)

"A smash hit in France", it says on the back cover, "L'Etranger for the info generation". I'm not so sure.

A 30 year-old divorcé who's working away from home suffers from a pericardical. He's friendless and he gets depressed. He's a programmer - "The Maple program is written in Pascal, with certain routines in C++" (p.18) (I wonder if it's the same Maple program I use - the character, toned down a little, could have come from one of my stories). From the start we get to see his state of mind. "And yet you haven't always wanted to die ... More surprisingly still, you have had a childhood" (p.11). In social situations he calculates. He has theories

  • "human beings are often bent on making themselves conspicuous by subtle and disagreeable variations, defects, character traits and the like" (p.19)
  • His priest friend says "We need adventure and eroticism because we need to hear ourselves repeat that life is marvellous and exciting: and it's abundantly clear that we rather doubt this" (p.30)
  • "in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money ... Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization ... In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate" (p.99)
  • "Early on certain individuals experience the frightening impossibility of living by themselves; basically they cannot bear to see their own life before them ... It is sometimes enough to place another individual before them ... two parallel mirrors elaborate and edify a clear and dense system which draws the human eye into an infinite, unbounded trajectory, infinite in its geometrical purity, beyond all suffering and beyond the world" (p.146)

He writes philosophical stories where (gratuitously) animals are narrators. He tempts a colleague to commit murder. The same night that colleague dies in a car accident. Later his priest friend, hearing that one of his flock was a victim of euthanasia, sleeps with the nurse who injected the lethal dose, and begins to lose faith.

Finally he seeks help. He asks to sleep with the therapist who diagnoses lack of sex as one of his problems. Later he studies the fellow inmates, coming to the conclusion that "that all these people - men or women - were not in the least deranged; they were simply lacking in love" (p.149). At the end he says "I feel my skin again as a frontier, and the external world as crushing weight. The impression of separation is total" (p.155)

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