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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.