And no matter what strategies I devise to pretend otherwise (and to distract the world from its pitiless collapse), plainly: my face is me. From its angular meatiness I can no longer expunge the traces of grief, failure, fleeting joy, and the wounds of love and solitude.
In the bible of contemporary literature, Michel Houellebecq is Ecclesiastes.
He reminds us that all is vanity, that life is fleeting and inconsequential, that pleasure is rare and never surrenders what it promises. In response to art's diligent attention to human striving, Houellebecq writes, for example: "They don't really amount to much, anyway, human relationships."
Absurd claims like this one possess: 1) the legitimacy of grammar, and 2) a perspective from which they're true. Set against the backdrop of the universe—13 billion years and 300 billion galaxies—it's not unreasonable to conclude that life is brief and meaningless, that we're scattered dust; our love affairs, betrayals, and suicides are sighs lost in the wind of time.
But frankly, that perspective doesn't amount to much, itself. It's an inhuman (by which I mean irrelevant) perspective. From the perspective of a human being—Houellebecq knows this—human relationships in fact amount to everything.
By proclaiming life's banality, Houellebecq's art—like Ecclesiastes—has the peculiar capacity to remind us that what we mean to each other is a protean invention, subject to accident, folly, and the evanescence of ideas. Life's inventedness is what makes it unconquerable. We feel the distance between his cynicism and our optimism, his indifference and our devotedness, and that distance is poignant. Really no word better summarizes the effect of Houellebecq's writing: poignancy.
The fruit tree outside my window has nearly lost its blossoms. Fallen petals rot on the concrete.
For about two weeks that tree kept me alive, after a fashion. I wouldn't have died—but it required that I lived. In its presence I had no alternative.
Its late-spring greenness has now rendered it more or less invisible.
Twice in my life I've seen a dog get hit by a car. The first time, I was six; I was walking to a friend's house in Knoxville, Tennessee, and being followed by our family beagle, Joshua. I kept shouting at Joshua to go home, and he'd lower his head and pretend to go, only to resume following me when I continued walking. After a while I started throwing rocks at him to get him to go home. To escape my rocks he ran into the street, where he was hit—clipped—by an on-rushing car. I took him home—his back leg had been broken—and my dad took him to the vet. I never told my parents that I had caused his injury.
The second time, I was in my late-20s. I was on a bike ride with my brother and his wife's family, and their family dog—I've forgotten its name—was running along with us. We weren't yet far from their home when he dashed in front of a truck. The truck's driver saw him and slammed on his brakes; the dog—a small dog—got caught against one of the truck's front tires, and the tire briefly pushed the dog along the asphalt before mercifully running over it. The dog wasn't immediately killed; but its fur was ripped from its back, exposing most of its ribcage. The dog dragged itself under a car and snarled at anyone that approached. It seemed to be embarrassed by its dying. It declined to look at us. Slowly a pool of blood formed around its paws. After a while it put its head down, and its eyes dimmed and turned off.
Embarrassment is the sign of a soul. Anyone incapable of embarrassment is incapable of love.
Michel Houellebecq produces embarrassed art. His novels are embarrassed by their attentiveness, by their stories—by the fact of their existence. Their existence refutes their ostensible nihilism. Houellebecq loves the world, people—the whole mess. If he didn't, he would shut up.
Unlike Roberto Bolaño, Houellebecq is romantic about his post-romantic pose. His use of the semi-colon—it's the linchpin of his prose—gives him away. His semi-colon is stylish, and style is always romantic.
Houellebecq's male characters, by the end of his novels, always arrive at a cavalier indifference to sex. They're like men for whom peeing has become optional.
In Bolaño and Houellebecq, 21st century literature begins where 20th century literature began: with naturalism. Their prose is more clinical, less melodramatic than Norris or Dreiser, but like those writers they are advancing an aesthetic of brutalism; they see anti-heroism as heroism; they see triumph in failure.
We are both the map and the territory.