Houellebecq Strikes a Pose

In the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, Adrian Nathan West captures my  sentiment in the immediate aftermath of reading Michel Houellebecq’s Submission:

The worst fate a writer can suffer is to become a “writer”: for ease to eclipse inspiration, for fluency to allay the long struggle with words, for the dreadful void of the inchoate work to become schematic and ho-hum, like an instruction manual. Yet the writer-as-cultural-figure is an inevitable facet of the present, when the commodification of literature and the compression of news, entertainment, and what was once known as high culture into a vague but ubiquitous entity called “media” has led to writers vying for “exposure” alongside politicians and athletes.

There are very few contemporary writers as lucid as Houellebecq on how neoliberal capitalism has woven itself into the affective, cultural and physical sites of everyday life. But in Submission, Houellebecq’s typical dejection is turned to shaky satire reminiscent of the naïve socio-cultural projections of Philip Roth.

Even minor Houellebecq is always worth reading, but it feels rather like his prominence as a ‘bad boy of letters’ has gone to his head and Submission is striking a pose, rather than the usual meandering but luminous exposition on this world we inhabit.

6 thoughts on “Houellebecq Strikes a Pose

  1. I think I disagree with you, Anthony – but I’m not entirely sure because your post is so brief. Could you explain further? What is the pose that you think Houellebecq is striking? I’ll admit that I thought the novel was too breezy and that it lacked balance – first half well-paced and finely detailed, second half a little too frictionless – but, satirically speaking, I enjoyed its sly subtleties. Have you read much by Huysmans, I wonder? I think his “presence” in the novel is crucial to its success.

    That said, I have only read one book by MH before and that was non-fiction so my qualifications for commenting are pretty limited. Submission certainly wasn’t the caustic experience I might have expected (except that I was forearmed by reading several intelligent reviews). For me, knowing relatively little about Houellebecq, I had to remind myself now and then that this was satire and that MH no doubt thought all that was happening in his book was a Very Bad Thing. Anyway, I thought it was certainly a timely novel. One of the ongoing conversations in my household at the moment is “Will Liberalism eat itself?” This novel at least had the courage to address that question – most Anglophone fiction seems pretty complacent by comparison.

    • Apologies, Mark, for the brevity of my post. I linked to Adrian’s ‘proper’ review of Submission, because I thought he got to the heart of the problem with Submission pretty effectively.

      I’ve read all Houellebecq’s novels at least twice and think that Atomised and Possibility of an Island are the closest that any contemporary writer has come to describing with ironic precision the end of humanity, i.e. the end of the human world into which neoliberal capitalism has (or will) delivered us. (You know Jameson’s famous, “It has now become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”) So my reaction to Submission is one of disappointment when juxtaposed against a body of work I consider, for the most part, brilliant.

      The sentence I agree with most strongly in Adrian’s review is: “Yet the writer-as-cultural-figure is an inevitable facet of the present, when the commodification of literature and the compression of news, entertainment, and what was once known as high culture into a vague but ubiquitous entity called “media” has led to writers vying for “exposure” alongside politicians and athletes.” Submission feels like a novel that has been written to capitalise on Houellebecq’s previous controversy, a hastily written affair that gathers together a collection of clichés about Islam and serves them up in a knowing attempt to be sufficiently offensive to generate newspaper headlines (this is what I mean by a pose). Unfortunately, as you point out Submission isn’t particularly mordant, nor even that offensive. It is a weaker iteration of ideas he has presented in his other work with greater irony and insight.

      It isn’t a terrible novel. There are some moments when Houellebecq’s cold and unique vision surface, but mostly I was bored. It seems that Houellebecq has turned away from warning readers of the dangers of acquiescence to the neoliberal capitalist world of reduction to pure exchange and competition, to a bitter, twisted, grumpy and rather awful journey to the right.

      I don’t know Huysman’s work very well, and I may have therefore missed how Houellebecq used Huysmans in Submission.

  2. Houellebecq is like Jackson Pollock to me: everybody says he’s a genius but I really don’t understand why.

    I’ve read Les particules élémentaires and Extension du domaine de la lutte. I can’t see what’s so extraordinary about them.

    You want to read something punchy about French society ? Try Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes.

    • I feel much the same way of Ferrante and Knausgard. They can both write in the sense of committing enough words to paper to make books, but genius? I’ll check out your recommendation for Virginie Despentes, though Houellebcq, at his best, is diagnosing the modern condition across Western Europe, not just commenting on French society.

      • Funny that you mention these two writers: despite all the glowing reviews I’ve seen in my corner of the literary blogosphere, I’m still not tempted to read them.

        I found that Houellebecq’s vision of our modern condition a bit too narrow and too “baby-boomery”. When I read him, although he has very valid points, I felt like I was reading the rant of an old man. He’s very much a man of his generation.
        It didn’t help that I didn’t like his “literary” style.

        • The literary blogosphere tends to generate a lot of froth about certain writers from time to time. I expect publisher’s marketing teams are doing their job and occasionally get very lucky when the frenzies kick in. They never seem to last too long.

          Thanks, Emma, for pointing me towards Despentes. I’ll definitely read Apocalypse Baby.

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