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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

According to Harold Schechter in a New York Times editorial, father snorting is not such a far-fetched notion. It comes from a custom of funerary cannibalism, which “springs from a profound and very human impulse: the desire to incorporate the essence of a loved one into your own body…the belief that when someone close to us dies, the person lives on inside us – that he or she becomes an undying part of our own deepest selves.”

Maybe we should all partake of this form of inhalation. And often.

Breathe in what you love.

I was always a Rolling Stones man. It took me years to discover the Beatles‘ album Revolver, which finally convinced me that they weren’t all that bad, but give me the Stones every time. On a related note I always preferred Pearl Jam to Nirvana, Pulp to Oasis….I never go for the populist choice. At any rate the Stones were to my mind the quintessential rock band when I was growing up. They were so knitted to the grandeur and rock pomp of American music I had no idea they were English! Jagger’s mockney accent probably confused me.

Jessica Pallington West focuses on that other lead persona of the Stones, Keith Richards. Immortal junkie. Modern-day pirate. Self-appointed ambassador for the blues. With this book the author has collected a series of aphorisms from the mouth of ‘Keef’, assembled into a series of themed chapters.

The book begins with a series of Commandments, twenty-six to rival the paltry ten of Moses. West pitches Richards as being an indefatigable performer, street philosopher and practitioner of the Tao of Keith – living according to a hard-won set of moral principles. These Commandments are referred to consistently throughout the rest of the book, supported by selective Keithist quotes. This third chapter is followed up with a series of comparisons between Keith’s philosophy and classical thinkers from the Socratics all the way up to Nietzsche. In the fourth West considers the aesthetics of Keith, his sense of style and fashion. Then there is ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards‘, a series of aphorisms on a series of topics, such as the afterlife, the blues and Mick.

Is this a must-read for Stones fans? Honestly, if you’re a fan most of this is familiar fare. Did you know Keith Richards used to be a heroin addict? And a doctor once told him he only had six months to live, only for Keith to find himself attended that same medic’s funeral some time later? Oh and he and Mick do not get along. Maybe this is a decent read for beginners, kids who are wondering what the fuss is about this old bloke in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I don’t really know.

On another level there is something ridiculous about pitching Richards as an urban philosopher, who has Plato as a ‘soul-brother’, and big hair like Schopenhauer. Who would have guessed that a heroin-addled guitar player from the projects would end up as a twenty-first-century philosopher and urban street guru? He is practically the reincarnation of St. Augustine according to West, returning to us from the realms of depravity with wisdom into the mysteries of life.

A series of incongruous comparisons are unleashed, with Keith the working class rock star – none of that embarrassing disguising of accents as with Mick – having survived heroin, women and general falling down, established as a sharp-edged pragmatist.

Keith has lived quite the interesting life, but what has made it so memorable is his refusal to think twice (and surely that is the disease of the philosopher). What this book has made me appreciate is just how funny Keith can be.¬† I also liked how many of the quotes reveal just how much of a grumpy old man he has become, dismissing MTV, hip hop and the Sex Pistols. “Get off my lawn!” Plus he really doesn’t like Elton John.

However, for yet another ‘unauthorised’, book on a major celebrity, West does not introduce much criticism into the proceedings. At all points he is lauded throughout the book as a rakish man of the world, who simply won’t be tolerated by ‘the Man’. Of course this is a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars. One who can afford to walk away from debacles like the disaster of Altamont “It was just another gig where I had to leave fast.

This book is a trite overview of an entertaining personality, weakened by its comparisons to philosophers.

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