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If you accept that loneliness is the great existential terror that we all, in our different ways, try to escape, it isn’t hard to apprehend the fraught relationship that this gives us to our own bodies, because it’s our bodies that keep us so basically and dreadfully apart. It’s interesting to note how often words used to express the value of literature (or art more generally) conjure up kinds of immaterialism: ‘seeing the world through different eyes,’ ‘being transported’, forging a ‘psychic connection’ with the author, ‘losing yourself’ in a book – all of these are expressions that run against what seems to be the brute material truth: that we are locked inside our skulls.

There was a time there where I could not have a conversation about books with a stranger at a party say, without them launching into a speech about how amazing Atomised by Michel Houellebecq was. This became increasingly annoying for me because these ‘fans’ seemed unable to describe exactly what the appeal of the book was. They were astonished by the sense of shock that the writer had elicited and sometimes a conspiratorial feeling of belonging to a fellow-traveler – yes that is how the world really is – but both of these reactions seemed entirely self-directed. My conversational partners were unable to enlighten me as to why I should read the book too. I suspect fans of Portnoy’s Complaint were similarly cultish back in the day, but that was another time and polite conversation so firmly stratified, that the risk Roth-fans ran of offending was far greater. By the late nineties this was less of a concern.

Ben Jeffery tackles the meaning behind Houellebecq’s writings head on, placing the fictional exertions of the French literary enfant terrible within a far broader context¬† in order to draw out exactly what the egotism of the author is aiming at. In effect, he has done a massive service to a writer occasionally dismissed as being a reactionary whose deconstruction of modern society as being nothing more than a series of sexual power exchanges lies somewhere between Foucault and a depressing Carry On.

Instead Jeffery runs the gamut from Schopenhauer to David Foster Wallace to properly situate the likes of Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, revealing that Houellebecq is investigating the relevance of any literary action at all. Engaging in fiction is in and of itself an ephemeral act, itself an echo of how we attempt to escape our own sense of mortality. What is most worthwhile about Anti-Matter is that Jeffery does not fall victim to the typical trap of Houellebecq critics. This is an intellectual salvage operation, that avoids rampant speculation about the personal life of the headline-bating writer, not to mention the rancorous testimonies of the author’s own mother.

What I am saying is I am grateful someone finally took the time to try and explain the point of Houellebecq to me. I have not had an easy time with the writer’s work myself. I thought his essay on Lovecraft bitterly disappointing for one, but Jeffery cites it prominently in Anti-Matter. The New England fantasist’s own ‘depressive realism’* is tied into Houellebecq’s, both arguing that life is essentially pointless. The latter’s own jaunts into sf utopias demonstrates his continuing interest in using imaginary worlds to illustrate how incomplete, fleeting and immaterial the engagement humans have with reality is. Fiction/fantasy are decadent acts that in Houellebecq’s assessment squander what is vital about life itself – hence his obsession with sex – but Jeffery’s astute addendum is that whatever sense of truth, or engagement with our existence that we enjoy is equally a ‘lie’. Realism is concerned primarily with seeming real and Houellebecq’s pessimism punches through the nadir point to the ‘truth’ – we need the lies.

Ben Jeffery has produced not only an excellent critical assessment of Houellebecq’s writings, but a fantastic think-piece in and of itself, refining the intentions of his subject, as well as opening up this erudite discussion of art to the act of living in the world.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

*Excepting your occasional ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – of course.

Anti-matter: Michel Houllebecq and Depressive Realism

“The Kellis-Amberlee virus was an accident,” said Dr. Abbey, still looking at the pane of safety glass. Her hand moved slowly over her dog’s head, stroking his ears. “It was never supposed to happen. The Kellis flu and Marburg Amberlee were both good ideas. They just didn’t get the laboratory testing they needed. If there’d been more time to understand them before they go out, before they combined the way that they did…but there wasn’t time, and the genie got out of the bottle before most people even realized the bottle was there. It could have been worse. That’s what nobody wants to admit. So the dead get up and walk around – so what? We don’t get sick like our ancestors did. We don’t die of cancer, even though we keep pumping pollutants into the atmosphere as fast as we can come up with them. We live charmed lives, except for the damn zombies, and even those who don’t have to be the kind of problem we make them out to be. They could just be an inconvenience. Instead, we let them define everything.”

“They’re zombies,” said Becks. “It’s sort of hard to ignore them.”

What the hell Emmet?! Zombies? Again!? Well..Set the way-back machine for June 21 2010. That was when I began the – now happily concluded (which you’ll have noted due to the lack of blog updates lately) – experiment to read and review a book each day. The first title was Feed by Mira Grant, the pen-name of Seanan McGuire who gave my humble notice a mention.¬† I even got to write up a piece for Filmink Magazine based on Feed for their They Should Make A Movie of That feature.

I am very fond of the book. Thankfully the sequel is pretty tops too.

Shaun Mason survived the events of the previous book physically, but mentally he is the walking wounded. The death of his sister George has left him so severely disturbed he finds himself conversing with her ‘ghost’. She was always the better half of the two siblings, the voice of reason, the sensible one. Shaun has gone from the fun-loving thrill-seeking to a man with a death-wish. His blogger colleagues have begun to give him a wide berth, his mutterings and explosions of temper making him a liability in their attempts to give unbiased lived coverage of zombie-afflicted regions in America.

But then a woman believed to have died in an accident shows up on his doorstep, describing a conspiracy involving the Centre for Disease Control – one that may be responsible for the death of George. Suddenly Shaun is a man on a mission again.

Grant ratchets up the tension with the sequel and gives even more insight into the ‘managed’ zombie apocalypse of the Feed universe. The world-building continues, with this series a fascinating commentary on how social media relates to the mainstream and the compromised relationship between politics and big business. It’s a fantastic irony that the rise of the undead has catapulted the health industry into the biggest business within the world. It’s very amusing to see the CDC become targeted in so many zombie dystopias. The Walking Dead also featured the Centre in their first season finale and they themselves have taken advantage of this sudden popularity and produced a zombie comic of their own!

There’s also some wicked humour on display here. Such as George and Shaun’s childhood viewing of Bambi when they cheered at the death of the titular deer’s mother, because she did not revive. Furthermore the ‘banter’ between the siblings produces a witty running commentary on the book’s action.

This is an excellent horror series, with real brains and heart.

Deadline by Mira Grant

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