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Michel HouellebecqHumanity and its Aftermath$

Douglas Morrey

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781846318610

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781846318610.001.0001

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Sex and Politics

Sex and Politics

(p.13) Chapter One Sex and Politics
Michel Houellebecq

Douglas Morrey

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter covers the omnipresent and much-discussed subject of sex in Houellebecq's writing through an analysis of his two first novels, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994) and Les Particules élémentaires (1998). It argues that while, on the one hand, Houellebecq's work is full of explicit sex, on the other hand, he repeatedly creates sensitive and sympathetic portrayals of single people (especially men) excluded from sexual activity. This apparently contradictory mix is shown to be a result of Houellebecq's intriguing and unstable literary style which is characterised by mixed register and wandering focalisation. Finally it is suggested that the depiction of sex in Houellebecq's novels cannot be separated from a critical portrayal of contemporary capitalism that develops a damning critique of the culture of individualism.

Keywords:   Extension du domaine de la lutte/Whatever, Les Particules élémentaires/Atomised, Sex, Pornography, Masculinity, Literary style, Depression, Capitalism, Individualism

This chapter, concerned principally with Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994) and Les Particules élémentaires 1998, looks in detail at the focus on sex that arguably first drew attention to Houellebecq's work and made the author so notorious. The chapter surveys the evidence for Houellebecq's alleged sexism or misogyny but argues that, in fact, the focus in his work is largely on individuals deprived of sex or excluded from the sexual sphere and that, from this perspective, the world of sexuality appears singularly oppressive. Houellebecq's world is populated principally by single people, but they are not so much ‘young, free and single’ as ageing, trapped and alone. His novels constitute so many portraits of sexual frustration, depression and desperation, sometimes giving rise to violence, self-harm or criminal behaviour. The chapter goes on to show how the apparent ambiguities of Houellebecq's discourse on sex are largely due to his style which is marked by a mix of genres, shifts in tone, complex narrative voices and a persistent ‘flattening’ effect that make it difficult to situate authorial intention. Above all, Houellebecq's narration is marked by a distance that we might identify as posthumanist in the sense that it takes a broad-scale, evolutionary view of human behaviour, but also, in Les Particules élémentaires, as properly posthuman, since it observes the peregrinations of humanity from a point situated beyond the demise of our species. In a final section, this chapter notes that way that Houellebecq's sexual description is always closely bound up with discussions of political economy. His novels provide a particularly astute portrayal of contemporary white-collar working life and his depiction of the stresses of this lifestyle, their link to clinical depression and their ruinous effect on social and sexual relationships is supported by recent research in sociology. Houellebecq's early novels, and related works, build a theory of what we might call the ‘economisation’ of sexuality (which appears as the corollary to a certain sexualisation of (p.14) the consumer economy). In places, this early work appears to hint at a politics of radical refusal of the leading ideology of liberal individualism that makes this culture possible, and the chapter ends by considering why such a refusal is never entirely clear or conclusive in Houellebecq's work.

Sex and sexism

Sex, according to a rapidly established critical dogma, is what Michel Houellebecq's novels are all about. As Sabine van Wesemael has asserted, it is ‘le thème presque unique de ses récits’.1 In the novel that made him globally famous, Les Particules élémentaires, sex appears as the constant obsession of one of the protagonists, Bruno, whose unfortunate peregrinations create the occasion for numerous scenes of a sexual nature. Some of these scenes are cast from a troublingly paedophilic angle. It is revealed that Bruno, as an adolescent, used to masturbate behind his school folder as he sat opposite girls on the train. As a grown man, his behaviour changes little, observing a group of naked teenage girls showering at the Lieu du Changement campsite and later masturbating to the sight of some fourteen-year-olds sunbathing. This strain of the novel reaches its climax, so to speak, when Bruno, now a high-school teacher, exposes himself to one of his students. Elsewhere, the sexual activity in the novel partakes quite self-consciously of a pornographic register:2 Bruno receiving a blow job in a jacuzzi from Christiane immediately after she has satisfied another man; the foursome that they subsequently enjoy with a German couple; and the multiple penetrations that ensue when they begin to visit swingers'clubs together. As commentators have suggested, these sexual encounters are pornographic in the sense that the sex is easy and immediate, without any need for seduction, or even in some cases conversation to prepare the act.3 They are pornographic, too, in that the principal goal of these descriptions seems to be the arousal of the reader, presumed male by most critics.4 Victoria Best and Martin Crowley have also pointed out Houellebecq's insistent use of the key pornographic trope of visible male ejaculation, often on to the face or breasts of the female partner.5 As I have suggested elsewhere,6 by Plateforme (2001) this pornographic mode in Houellebecq's writing has become almost self-parodic with an ever more daring succession of encounters with exotic partners (a foursome with a black couple, another with two Thai girls; a threesome with a Cuban maid) in clichéd locations (sex on a train, in a steam room, etc.).

(p.15) Perhaps unsurprisingly these sexual scenes have generated a fair amount of critical discussion and controversy. Little critical consensus has developed, however, over Houellebecq's sex, since the suspicion always persists that, behind the author's eager exploitation of questionable forms, serious points are being made about sexuality. As Best and Crowley put it, the ambivalence over Houellebecq's sex scenes arises from the fact that ‘he confronts his culture's widespread sexual dilemmas and anxieties via reference to the forms this culture habitually uses to represent those areas to itself’.7 Thus these scenes can have a very different resonance for different readers. Murielle Lucie Clément, for instance, suggests that many of them may be perceived as erotic by male readers, but pornographic by women.8 For Franc Schuerewegen, Houellebecq's sexual vignettes are pornographic because they appear ‘interchangeable’.9 For Julian Barnes, the scenes in Plateforme, in particular, belong to the domain of fantasy since nothing ever appears to go wrong, no one ever says ‘no’, and the generous oriental prostitutes all present without blemishes or blockages, with no sign of pimps or addictions10 (this representation of the Thai sex industry will be discussed in detail in Chapter 2). On the contrary, Houellebecq himself has maintained that it is precisely the lack of preparation for these sexual acts that makes them jarring for the reader, together with the fact that many of them evoke ‘du sexe raté’: failed sex.11 If this is not so often true in Plateforme, it is certainly the case in Extension du domaine de la lutte and Les Particules élémentaires that sex, more often than not, is disappointing, inaccessible or non-existent, as we will go on to demonstrate in this chapter. But even where sex is inscribed apparently as a form of wish fulfilment, it remains a little too simplistic to characterise Houellebecq as a crude fantasist. Charles Taylor has argued that the dismissal of Plateforme's sexually voracious Valérie as a figment of male fantasy betrays a persistent, and rather Victorian, discomfort with ‘the idea that a woman's sexual appetite can equal a man's’.12 Meanwhile, Mads Anders Baggesgaard, who has studied Houellebecq's sex scenes with more care than most critics, suggests that the author is in fact developing, across these scenes, a critique of sexual visuality, implying that sexual experience ruled by the visual sense must lead to a call for ever-increasing explicitness. Meanwhile, the characters' most satisfying sexual experiences are often marked by a suspension of visuality, as in the jacuzzi with Christiane where the water and the darkness conceal most of their bodies from view and the description becomes much more tactile.13

(p.16) However sophisticated and thoughtful Houellebecq's dissection of sexual relations may be in places, there are, nonetheless, numerous examples of a casual, apparently unthinking, sexism in Houellebecq's writing. In the opening paragraphs of Extension du domaine de la lutte, we find a passing remark about ‘deux filles pas belles du tout, les deux boudins du service en fait’ (‘Nothing beautiful about this pair, the frumps of the department in fact’ (EDL, 5; 3)). In Les Particules, a woman is rapidly summarised as sporting a ‘bouche à pipes’ (‘blow-job lips’ (PE, 109; 127–8)). Similarly, one of Michel's first observations about Valérie in Plateforme is that she must have ‘une bouche bien chaude, prompte à avaler le sperme d'un ami véritable’ (‘her mouth was obviously pretty hot, just ready to swallow the spunk of a true friend’ (P, 49; 44)). In the tradition of true misogynists, Houellebecq's narrators define women immediately and exclusively by their sexuality and at the same time appear angered or offended by that sexuality: ‘Elles n'avaient rien en dessous de leur tee-shirt, les salopes. Bruno les suivit des yeux; il avait mal à la bite’ (PE, 98; 114).14 Best and Crowley suggest that there is a degree of knowingness about Houellebecq's sexism, an awareness of ‘a cultural moment of backlash’ against feminism in which such material can be presented as comical where once it might just have been offensive.15 Certainly the novels will sometimes give an ironic framing to these offhand remarks, as when the omniscient narrator of Les Particules remarks that Bruno ‘vivait dans un monde mélodramatique composé de canons et de boudins, de mecs tops et de blaireaux’ (PE, 122; 143).16 Elsewhere, however, something appears to be going on that cannot be reduced to irony. Many of Houellebecq's cruellest descriptions are reserved for older women, their continued claims to a sexual existence remorselessly mocked as an offence against reason. In a nightclub with Tisserand in Extension du domaine de la lutte:

la fille n' était pas d'une beauté exceptionnelle, et serait sans doute peu courtisée; ses seins, certes de bonne taille, étaient déjà un peu tombants, et ses fesses paraissaient molles; dans quelques années, on le sentait, tout cela s'affaisserait complètement. D'autre part son habillement, d'une grande audace, soulignait sans ambiguÏson intention de trouver un partenaire sexuel […] voilà une fille qui devait certainement avoir des préservatifs dans son sac.17 (EDL, 112; 110–11)

Even Christiane is described in these terms: ‘elle avait dǔ être très jolie; mais les traits de son visage fin étaient flétris, légèrement couperosés […] Son mont de Vénus avait une jolie courbure; malheureusement, les (p.17) grandes lèvres étaient un peu pendantes’ (PE, 139–40; 165).18 It comes as no surprise to learn the circumstances under which Bruno's marriage ended: ‘Ce qui était bien, quand même, c'est qu'elle avait de gros seins […] Plus tard ses seins sont tombés, et notre mariage s'est cassé la gueule lui aussi’ (PE, 170; 203).19 There is an almost Célinean horror of loose, saggy flesh in Houellebecq that betrays, beyond the superficial misogyny, a deep anxiety about organic matter, including the author/narrator's own body. In La Poursuite du bonheur (1992), Houellebecq writes: ‘Mon corps est comme un sac traversé de fils rouges’ and ‘au fond de moi je sens / Quelque chose de mou, de méchant, et qui bouge’. The same poem continues:

  • Cela fait des années que je hais cette viande
  • Qui recouvre mes os. La couche est adipeuse,
  • Sensible à la douleur, légèrement spongieuse …20 (Po, 117).

In the world of Houellebecq, a woman's destiny is clearly determined in advance on the basis of her appearance because, as he puts it in Le Sens du combat (1996), the ‘advantage’ of having internal sexual organs is that

  •       tu attends toujours
  • Une espèce d'hommage
  • Qui pourra t'être donné ou refusé,
  • Et ta seule possibilité en dernière analyse est d'attendre.21 (Po, 102)

In this sense, then, women considered ugly will literally be waiting forever. Some of the summits of Houellebecq's grim comic vision in the novels are also some of his cruellest, most misogynistic passages. Of Catherine Lechardoy in Extension du domaine de la lutte he writes: ‘Elle n'est vraiment pas très jolie. En plus des dents gâtées elle a des cheveux ternes, des petits yeux qui brillent de rage. Pas de seins ni de fesses perceptibles. Dieu n'a vraiment pas été très gentil avec elle […] j'ai l'impression qu'elle est hors d'état d'essayer quoi que ce soit avec un mec’ (EDL, 28; 25–6).22 This initial description sets up the already infamous passage a few chapters later: ‘Ce trou qu'elle avait au bas du ventre devait lui apparaître tellement inutile. Une bite, on peut toujours la sectionner; mais comment oublier la vacuité d'un vagin?’ (EDL, 47; 44).23 Another character condemned to misery by her appearance is the unfortunately named Brigitte Bardot, and in the evocation of this poor girl's adolescence Houellebecq gives free rein to his meanest instincts and his most profound disgust:

(p.18) Au moment où je l'ai connue, dans l'épanouissement de ses dix-sept ans, Brigitte Bardot était vraiment immonde. D'abord elle était très grosse, un boudin et même un surboudin, avec divers bourrelets disgracieusement disposés aux intersections de son corps obèse. Mais eû-elle même suivi pendant vingt-cinq ans un régime amaigrissant de la plus terrifiante sévérité que son sort n'en eût pas été notablement adouci. Car sa peau était rougeâtre, grumeleuse et boutonneuse. Et sa face était large, plate et ronde, avec de petits yeux enfoncés, des cheveux rares et ternes. Vraiment la comparaison avec une truie s'imposait à tous, de manière inévitable et naturelle.

Elle n'avait pas d'amies, ni évidemment d'amis; elle était donc parfaitement seule […] Ses mécanismes hormonaux devaient fonctionner normalement, il n'y a aucune raison de soupçnner le contraire. Et alors? […] Imaginait-elle des mains masculines s'attardant entre les replis de son ventre obèse?24 (EDL, 88–9; 87–8)

Perhaps the most damning indication of Houellebecq's misogyny, however, is that, in his novelistic universe, beautiful women fare little better than this unfortunate pair. Annabelle in Les Particules élémentaires is naturally very beautiful, and her sex life proves miserable for precisely that reason:

Tel est l'un des principaux inconvénients de l'extrême beauté chez les jeunes filles: seuls les dragueurs expérimentés, cyniques et sans scrupule se sentent à la hauteur; ce sont donc en général les êtres les plus vils qui obtiennent le trésor de leur virginité, et ceci constitue pour elles le premier stade d'une irrémédiable déchéance.25 (PE, 58; 67–8)

Indeed, after an initial period of sexual activity, Annabelle withdraws entirely from sexual relations, so disappointed is she by her experiences at the hands of men.

Indeed, after an initial period of sexual activity, Annabelle withdraws entirely from sexual relations, so disappointed is she by her experiences at the hands of men.

In Houellebecq's novels, in short, women are blamed and women are punished. It is frequently women who are seen to be to blame for misfortune and unhappiness, whether their own or that of the male characters. An apparently trivial, but in fact emblematic example, may be found in the young Bruno's first ever attempt at sexual contact. When Bruno places his hand on the leg of a girl in his class, Caroline Yessayan, she wordlessly removes it. In the mind of Bruno, this incident comes to bear the full responsibility of the subsequent calamity of his sex life: ‘après ce premier échec […] tout devenait beaucoup plus difficile’ (‘After this first failure […] everything became much more difficult’ (PE, 53; 61)). But it is not only within the character's mind, but also within the logic of the narration that the event is raised in importance, with the (p.19) metonymic slippage from the text-‘Tout était de la faute de la minijupe de Caroline Yessayan’ (‘Caroline Yessayan's mini-skirt was to blame for everything’ (PE, 53; 62))-to the chapter title-‘Tout est la faute de Caroline Yessayan’ (‘Caroline Yessayan is to blame for everything’ (PE, 51; 59))-underlining the fault of the person rather than the historically contingent item of apparel. In Les Particules élémentaires especially, women characters will be punished by their narrative fate for causing the sexual misery of men. When Christiane is struck with paralysis during a nightclub orgy, the plot development comes across as an almost parodic version of divine retribution for sinful behaviour. Her fate is definitively sealed when she subsequently commits suicide by throwing herself down the stairs. In a similar way in Plateforme, Valérie-sexual experimenter and co-instigator of a mainstream sex tourism network-is summarily dispatched at the end of the novel in an Islamic terrorist attack. But, more-modest, self-effacing women fare no better. Annabelle, having belatedly achieved her dream of conceiving a child with Michel-himself uninterested in sex-is diagnosed with cancer of the uterus and forced to have an abortion and hysterectomy before she too commits suicide rather than face the agony of terminal illness.26

This same pattern of blame attributed and punishment meted out to women can be found in Houellebecq's now-famous critique of the so-called sexual revolution and of the New Age and hippy cultures that surround and nurture it in Les Particules élémentaires. Houellebecq is clear that despite the post-'68 rhetoric of self-government and direct democracy the initiatives of the counterculture-such as the Lieu du Changement campsite-were mainly designed around getting laid. Similarly, for a guru of the movement like Francesco di Meola, the principal motivation was to ‘fumer des cigarettes de marijuana avec de très jeunes filles attirées par l'aura spirituelle du mouvement; puis de les baiser, au milieu des mandalas et des odeurs d'encens’ (PE, 81; 94).27 In the hysterical conclusion to this hippy trajectory, Francesco's son David will later become a Satanist and serial murderer: ‘Après avoir épuisé les jouissances sexuelles, il était normal que les individus libérés des contraintes morales ordinaires se tournent vers les jouissances plus larges de la cruauté’ (PE, 211; 252).28 In some ways, then, this rather snide critique of the sexual revolution as a disingenuous invention of randy men rejoins a feminist argument. Sheila Jeffreys, for instance, maintains that the sexual revolution came about as a way of containing the threat posed by women's greater economic power and independence.29 But, on the other hand, within the discursive order of Les Particules (p.20) élémentaires, women are frequently seen to have no one but themselves to blame for the unfortunate fallout of sexual liberation:

les femmes qui avaient eu vingt ans aux alentours des ‘années 1968’ se trouvèrent, la quarantaine venue, dans une fâcheuse situation. Généralement divorcées, elles ne pouvaient guère compter sur cette conjugalité-chaleureuse ou abjecte-dont elles avaient tout fait pour accélérer la disparition. Faisant partie d'une génération qui-la première à un tel degré-avait proclamé la supériorité de la jeunesse sur l'âge mû, elles ne pouvaient guère s'étonner d'être à leur tour méprisées par la génération appelée à les remplacer. Enfin, le culte du corps qu'elles avaient puissamment contribué à constituer ne pouvait, à mesure de l'affaissement de leurs chairs, que les amener à éprouver pour elles-mêmes un déoû de plus en plus vif-déoût d'ailleurs analogue à celui qu'elles pouvaient lire dans le regard d'autrui.30 (PE, 106–7; 125

As Christiane remarks, these women do not really believe in chakras, crystals and the rest of the New Age paraphernalia, but are merely trying to distract themselves from the fact that they are ‘seules, vieillissantes et moches’ (‘still ugly, still ageing, still alone’ (PE, 146; 175)). If such scorn is poured on these women, if their decline is related with such undisguised glee, it is largely because of the pivotal role in the narrative of Janine Ceccaldi, the mother of Bruno and Michel (and famously based on Houellebecq's own mother, to the point of sharing her real last name). Ceccaldi is identified early in the novel as being the ‘accélérateur d'une décomposition historique’ (‘catalyst of social breakdown’ (PE, 26; 26, modified)). Having given birth to Bruno and Michel by different fathers, she abandons both to be raised by their grandparents while she enjoys to the full the sexually liberated existence of an affluent young woman in the western counter-culture. The implication is that Ceccaldi's neglect is to blame for both Michel's irreversible emotional detachment and for Bruno's increasingly serious sexual pathology, which eventually leads to his institutionalisation. As the latter tells his mother in no uncertain terms on her deathbed: ‘Tu n'es qu'une vieille pute […] Tu mérites de crever’ (‘You're just an old whore […] You deserve to die’ (PE, 256; 307)).

In this way, then, Houellebecq's critique of the sexual revolution-a critique that has itself been forcefully made by feminists-becomes confused in Les Particules élémentaires, and much of Houellebecq's other work, with an angry critique of feminism and feminists themselves. Through the mouthpiece of Christiane, Houellebecq's description indulges in a mixture of bitterness and Schadenfreude as he outlines the trajectory of the typical feminist:

(p.21) Je n'ai jamais pu encadrer les féministes […] elles étaient littéralement obsédées par la vaisselle […] En quelques années, elles réussissaient à transformer les mecs de leur entourage en névrosés impuissants et grincheux. À partir de ce moment-c'était absolument systématique-elles commençient à éprouver la nostalgie de la virilité. Au bout du compte elles plaquaient leurs mecs pour se faire sauter par des machos latins à la con […] puis elles se faisaient faire un gosse et se mettaient à préparer des confitures maison avec les fiches cuisine Marie-Claire.31 (PE, 145–6; 173–4)

In his more sober moments, in interview, Houellebecq has suggested that, in fact, what came to be called ‘women's liberation’ chiefly benefited men by multiplying opportunities for sexual encounters, and that women were the main victims of a transition to a culture ruled by the traditional masculine values of competition, egotism and violence (I, 116–17). However, this remark, and others like it, reveal a very limited understanding of feminism on Houellebecq's part. In his preface to a new French translation of Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto, Houellebecq maintains that the objective of feminists was simply to achieve equality within a masculine society, even if it meant sacrificing some feminine values, an account that completely ignores the existence of more radical strains of feminist thought (of which Solanas may be considered a part) (I2, 166–7). At the beginning of Extension du domaine de la lutte, when he hears the ‘deux boudins du service’ defending a colleague's right to wear a mini-skirt, not to seduce men but simply in order to feel good about herself, the narrator remarks upon ‘les ultimes résidus, consternants, de la chute du féminisme’ (‘the last dismaying dregs of the collapse of feminism’ (EDL, 6; 4)). Houellebecq is perhaps right to lament the way in which the discourses of ‘feminism’ have been degraded and corrupted to the point at which they serve as an alibi for behaviours that perpetuate the sexual subordination of women, a point that has also been made recently by a number of feminist writers.32 Nonetheless, the implication that tends to come through the complaint-especially in the context of a narrative voice in which women are constantly objectified and belittled-is that feminism does not mean, and never did mean, much more than this. In the same movement, the real gains of the feminist struggle in terms of women's reproductive freedom are assimilated to the purely egotistical search for guiltless pleasure of the sixties ‘revolution’. In Les Particules élémentaires, Annabelle visits an abortion doctor:

C'était un type d'une trentaine d'années, enthousiaste, avec une petite moustache rousse, qui s'appelait Laurent. Il tenait à ce qu'elle l'appelle (p.22) par son prénom: Laurent […] Il tenait à établir un dialogue démocratique avec ses clientes, qu'il considérait plutôt comme des copines. Depuis le début il soutenait la lutte des femmes, et selon lui il restait encore beaucoup à faire.33 (PE, 86–7; 101–2)

The free indirect speech here gives a sardonic undertone to the passage which tends to dismiss abortion as just one more ploy dreamed up by men to facilitate a guilt-free sex life.

Sex and sexlessness

Let us summarise our observations so far. Houellebecq's novels, it seems, are filled with a lot of sex, much of it related in a pornographic mode. There are countless derogatory descriptions of women, and the female sex is frequently blamed, and often punished, for having caused both the individual unhappiness of male characters and, more generally, the cultural transition that has brought about difficult sexual conditions. This would, however, represent an extremely one-sided analysis of Houellebecq's work, and the reality is considerably more nuanced. First of all, it is clear that these are novels, more than anything else, about people not having sex. If it is significant that Houellebecq's first novel opens with a woman at a party removing all her clothes, it is more significant to note that she quickly puts them back on when she realises no one is paying attention. ‘D'ailleurs,’ remarks Houellebecq, ‘c'est une fille qui ne couche avec personne’ (‘She's a girl, what's more, who doesn't sleep with anyone’ (EDL, 5; 3)). Houellebecq's novels describe a world in which ‘les relations humaines deviennent progressivement impossibles’ (‘human relationships become progressively impossible’ (EDL, 16; 14)). Michel, Bruno and the narrator of Extension du domaine de la lutte spend most of their time not having sex and, in the case of the latter two, doubting their chances of ever having sex again. Houellebecq frequently stresses the time elapsed between sexual encounters. One of his poems contains the line ‘Cela fait plus d'un an qu'il n'a pas fait l'amour’ (Po, 14)34 while the narrator of Extension tells his psychiatrist that his last sexual relations were a little over two years ago. In the midst of the sexual revolution, not everybody is having sex. Bruno spends some time staying with his mother's hippy friends: ‘Les vulves des jeunes femmes étaient accessibles, elles se trouvaient parfois à moins d'un mètre; mais Bruno comprenait parfaitement qu'elles lui restent fermées’ (PE, 60; 69).35 Even when Bruno meets Christiane, he finds it hard to regard this (p.23) seemingly happy relationship as anything other than ‘une mauvaise farce […] une ultime et sordide plaisanterie de l'existence’ (PE, 245; 295).36 The media may have picked up on the sex in Houellebecq's novels, but the books' most resonant message is that, actually, people are less interested in sex, and less sexually active, than we are often led to believe: ‘La plupart des gens, en réalité, sont assez vite ennuyés par le sujet […] nous avons besoin de nous entendre répéter que la vie est merveilleuse et excitante; et c'est bien entendu que nous en doutons un peu’ (EDL, 31–2; 29–30).37

In airing such statements,38 Houellebecq rejoins the observations of an increasingly frequent strain in recent work in the social sciences, which notes that the idealised image of an abundant and adventurous sex life is very far from representing the reality of many people. Jean-Claude Guillebaud cites the results of a German survey in which one in three young people between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five declared themselves able to do without sexual relations for an extended period.39 In France, 25 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men over the age of thirty-five are thought to be living without sex, and 26 per cent of this population declare themselves to be ‘indifferent’ to the prospect of not making love for several months.40 In recent years, we have also seen the growth of youth movements defining themselves by their refusal to participate in sexual permissiveness and their deliberate delaying of the loss of virginity. As Guillebaud comments, the motivation for such behaviour need not always come from the religious right; it is sometimes accompanied by an explicit claim to a feminist heritage.41 Virginie Despentes has also pointed out that it is easier now than ever before for young women, in particular, to choose a life without sex but without, either, having to be cloistered.42 Researchers in the field of behavioural economics have suggested that if it is true that sexual activity is an important factor in people's reported happiness the media's fascination with an acquisitive sexuality where success is determined by the number of partners, is misleading. In fact, married people continue to have more sex than single people and ‘the happiness-maximising number of sexual partners in the previous year is calculated to be 1’.43 (In passing, we might note, with Nathalie Dumas, that Houellebecq's own social and economic analysis of sexual relations seems, somewhat perversely, almost to exclude people living happily as a couple.44)

All of this may seem singularly unsurprising. So not everyone is having wild sex with multiple partners all the time? You don't say! But there would be no need to state the obvious were it not for the fact that the (p.24) constant stream of sexualised images with which we are daily confronted constitutes a kind of sexual injunction. Houellebecq's work is suffused throughout with this idea, as we will continue to see below. But one of his clearest statements of the point comes in the non-fiction text ‘Approches du désarroi’ (1997), where he describes advertising culture as a sort of terrifying superego constantly repeating the litany: ‘Tu dois désirer. Tu dois être désirable. Tu dois participer à la compétition, à la lutte, à la vie du monde. Si tu t'arrêtes, tu n'existes plus. Si tu restes en arrière, tu es mort’ (I, 76; also published in I2, 41 and RV, 52).45 Again, the notion of a sexual injunction has received considerable discussion in contemporary sociology. Jeffrey Weeks comments: ‘The contemporary self is shaped in a continuously sexualising culture where the erotic becomes meaningful for a sense of who and what you are’.46 Jean-Claude Guillebaud talks of the ‘tapage sexuel’ or sexual racket in which the fevered discussion of sexuality has become the constant background noise of our daily lives.47 In an imperceptible but sinister shift, the idea of a sexual happiness to which everyone has a right to aspire comes to be seen almost as a public health problem in which each individual subsequently has the duty to make the most of their sexuality.48 For Sheila Jeffreys, this was the consequence of the sexual revolution: not having or not enjoying sex came to be seen as unacceptable. A woman who did not want, or did not like sex was assumed to be ‘old-fashioned, narrow-minded and somehow psychologically damaged’.49 Sex is henceforth mandatory and a degree of efficiency and expertise is expected of all. In this context, suggests Guillebaud, pleasure threatens to become a chore.50 And, once again, it is women who bear the brunt of the transition. As Despentes comments, the female orgasm entered mainstream popular discourse in the 1970s in the form of an imperative-one more thing for women to feel inadequate about.51 Jean Claude Bologne proposes that-although it would be impossible to estimate their statistical significance-there may be a new class of single people who shun sexual contact out of a sense of inadequacy, a fear of disappointing potential partners.52 Again, such a phenomenon is likely to be more marked among women since the sexual revolution and its aftermath remains characterised by distinctly masculine values: promiscuity, emotional detachment, objectification of bodies, genital sexuality …53 Nor should we forget that the possibility of creating one's ideal sex life is made more or less easy, not only by the vagaries of physical appearance and psychological make-up, but also by historical contingencies of geographical, class and ethnic background. ‘For many,’ writes Jeffrey Weeks, ‘their identities and lifestyles are still (p.25) fates, not opportunities, while more radically different, and transgressive lifestyles remain largely confined to more liberal metropolitan areas’.54

Another consequence of this sexualised culture in which nubile young bodies are on constant display, whether on screen or on the street, is a certain stigmatisation of ageing. As Houellebecq writes, ‘Dans un monde qui ne respecte que la jeunesse, les êtres sont peu à peu dévorés’ (PE, 112; 131).55 We will discuss this point in more detail below, and again in Chapter 3 in relation to La Possibilité d'une île (2005), where it becomes a key theme and structuring element to the novel. But already in Extension du domaine de la lutte we are told of a pensioner who has undergone involuntary euthanasia at the hands of medical staff after being seriously injured in an assault. As we have already seen, both Christiane and Annabelle in Les Particules commit suicide after becoming ill or disabled. For Houellebecq, this has become the new logic of the adult life course: each individual is invited to make a cynical calculation that will identify the moment when

la somme des jouissances physiques qui lui restent à attendre de la vie deviendra inférieure à la somme des douleurs […] Cet examen rationnel des jouissances et des douleurs, que chacun, tôt ou tard, est conduit à faire, débouche inéluctablement à partir d'un certain âge sur le suicide […] plus généralement les suicides de personnes âgées, de loin les plus fréquents, nous paraissent aujourd'hui absolument logiques.56 (PE, 247–8; 297)

Growing older, in the world of Houellebecq, means entering a life of sexlessness and shame, especially for women: ‘pour les femmes, dans la quasi-totalité des cas, les années de la maturité furent celles de l'échec, de la masturbation et de la honte’ (PE, 107; 126).57 But if some older men are still capable of having relations with younger women, they are always in danger of being branded as paedophiles, the latest moral panic and the most in keeping with the culture's worship of youth: ‘Tout ça par haine des vieux, par haine et par dégoût de la vieillesse, c'était en train de devenir une cause nationale’ (PE, 198; 237–8).58 For Jean-Claude Guillebaud, the paedophile is the perfect scapegoat for our society, as a character who seems to have taken literally all of the sexual licence that is so insistently broadcast as fantasy and, as such, the paedophile bears the weight of a society's collectively felt, but no longer publicly confessed, guilt.59

As should be obvious from the foregoing, Houellebecq's novels are principally populated by single people. In most literature, from folk tales (p.26) onwards, being single is usually regarded as only a temporary status, with the narrative moving ineluctably towards the hero or heroine's necessary enclosure within a couple. In contemporary fiction, the most prominent images of single people are perhaps provided by the so-called ‘chick-lit’ novels written by and for women. These books have arguably gone some way to undoing the teleological narratives of the traditional romance genre. But, in this case, if being single does not always mean yearning for Mr Right, it is likely to mean enjoying a free, active and varied sex life. Rochelle Mabry quotes the promotional blurb for a series of contemporary romances published by Harlequin: ‘these books say I'm single, I'm female and I'm having a really good time (despite what my mother may have told you)’.60 Yet, even here, many of the most popular examples of chick-lit, such as the cross-media cycles of Bridget Jones or Sex and the City, conclude with long-sought and idealised couplings, implying that ‘the real point of the [narrative] has been to place these sexually powerful, economically independent women in traditional heterosexual relationships’.61 And, as Jean Claude Bologne points out, these Anglo-Saxon examples frequently carry the message that simply by being themselves these women will escape from their single status62 (the implication clearly being that for a woman to have a large and non-exclusive sexual appetite is somehow not natural).

For some people, however, the fact of being single persists until it becomes a permanent condition and, in such cases, there is usually considerable stigma attached. As Bologne has shown in his history of single people, such individuals have, over the course of the centuries, been subject to numerous prejudices and discriminations. This is often because their single status is assumed to be freely chosen and therefore revealing the individual to be egotistical, antisocial or impotent.63 Long-standing literary clichés of single people include the dried-up old maid and the older single man, now mocked for his continued pursuit of young women and condemned to live with his regrets.64 But, although such factors are absent from statistics,65 there is no doubt that some long-term single people live alone, not out of choice, but because they lack the physical charm or psychological make-up: they have never developed the social status or interpersonal skills necessary to establish and maintain a relationship.

These are the type of people that populate Houellebecq's novels. As Liam McNamara has suggested, these novels can be seen as ‘a response to ideologies of “consumer coupledom” and “chick-lit”’.66 What is on display here is not the independent, sexually confident lifestyles (p.27) of the voluntarily single, but the unfashionable , uncomfortable lives of the terminally lonely. These are not people who have chosen to be single, rather they have had that status imposed upon them for reasons they cannot fully understand or control. As the narrator of one of Houellebecq's poems puts it: ‘Pourquoi […] mon regard fait-il fuir les femmes? Le jugent-elles implorant, fanatique, coléreux ou pervers? Je ne le sais pas, je ne le saurai probablement jamais; mais ceci fait le malheur de ma vie’ (Po, 17).67 Bruno or the narrator of Extension du domaine de la lutte could say the same thing (indeed, in Philippe Harel's 1999 film adaptation of the novel, these lines are added to the narrator's voiceover). So too could Raphaël Tisserand, object of one of Houellebecq's most tragic portrayals of single men. The narrator is brutally frank about Tisserand's case: ‘Le problème de Raphaël Tisserand-le fondement de sa personnalité, en fait-c'est qu'il est très laid’ (EDL, 54; 53).68 He creates a kind of ‘répulsion involontaire’ (‘involuntary repulsion’ (EDL, 59; 59)) among women. So much so that he is effectively condemned to be cut off from meaningful social interaction, as though he were ‘protégé du monde par une pellicule transparente, inviolable, parfaite’, or, as Tisserand puts it, like ‘une cuisse de poulet sous cellophane dans un rayon de supermarché’ (EDL, 99; 98).69 If nothing else, what Houellebecq has achieved in his writing is the documentation of a different kind of masculinity, one that is rarely visible within forms of cultural production. As I have suggested elsewhere,70 Houellebecq's anti-heroes are almost diametrically opposed to what R. W. Connell has called ‘hegemonic masculinity’ , and which he defines as ‘the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy’ .71 Connell recognises that the figure of hegemonic masculinity is an ideal, and in many ways a phantasmatic figure, around which gravitate numerous other variants of masculinity. But he cautions against mistaking these forms of masculinity for ‘alternative lifestyles, a matter of consumer choice’ and ignoring ‘the hard compulsions under which gender configurations are formed, the bitterness as well as the pleasure in gendered experience’.72

If the single people in Houellebecq's world are not the adventurous, outgoing independents depicted in mainstream media, similarly the sex, when it does appear, is often far from satisfying. And, if pornography features prominently in Houellebecq's writing, as has already been established, it is not only in the form of macho sexual fantasies of multiple and energetic conquests. Most often in Houellebecq, as doubtless in real life, pornography features as a rather sad and inadequate replacement (p.28) for genuine sexual contact. The pornographic cinema is a common location in Houellebecq's writing, and it appears invariably as a place of desolation populated by ‘des retraités et des immigrés’ (‘pensioners and immigrants’ (EDL, 71; 70)).73 In Les Particules élémentaires, Bruno begins university in Paris, hoping to start a new life, but soon succumbs to a habitual diet of fast food and porn movies, terrified that he will be recognised upon exiting the cinema. Despite the mainstreaming or ‘democratisation’ of porno culture over the past few decades, it continues to document a very exclusive world. Bruno reads Swing magazine, but:

Il n'envisageait pas réellement de répondre à ces différentes annonces; il ne se sentait pas à la hauteur pour un gang bang ou une douche de sperme. Les femmes qui acceptaient de rencontrer des hommes seuls préféraient généralement les blacks, et de toute façon exigeaient des mensurations minimales qu'il était loin d'atteindre. Numéro après numéro, il devait s'y résigner: pour réellement parvenir à s'infiltrer dans le réseau porno, il avait une trop petite queue.74 (PE, 101; 118)

In interview, Houellebecq has lamented what he sees as the gradual ‘professionalisation’ of sex led by the pornography industry. The spectacular nature of porn, he suggests, inspires passivity and encourages viewers to abstain from sexual activity by making them feel inferior.75 He cites as evidence the example of a sex club in Cap d'Agde where, once a video screen was installed displaying porn movies, all the customers stopped having sex to watch the screens!76 Houellebecq has even disarmingly admitted that, although, as a man of his time, he feels a certain thirst for pornographic images, he does not like this part of himself and would prefer to eliminate it altogether.77 When real sex becomes like porn sex, Les Particules suggests, it ceases to be pleasurable.78 This is Bruno's experience of sex with women in swingers' clubs:

Démesurément élargies par les pénétrations à la chaîne et les doigtés brutaux (souvent pratiqués à plusieurs doigts, voire avec la main entière), leurs chattes étaient à peu près aussi sensibles qu'un bloc de saindoux. Obsédées par le rythme frénétique des actrices du porno industriel, elles branlaient sa bite avec brutalité, comme une tige de chair insensible, avec un ridicule mouvement de piston […] Il éjaculait vite, et sans réel plaisir.79 (PE, 245; 294)

In a world where sexual frustration is the rule, there is always a danger that violence will ensue. In Houellebecq's work, sex-specifically inaccessible or unsatisfactory sex-is never very far from the threat of violence. As he writes in Les Particules élémentaires: ‘La frustration (p.29) sexuelle crée chez l'homme une angoisse qui se manifeste par une crispation violente, localisée au niveau de l'estomac; le sperme semble remonter vers le bas-ventre, lancer des tentacules en direction de la poitrine. L'organe lui-même est douloureux, chaud en permanence, légèrement suintant’ (PE, 132; 154).80 Both Franc Schuerewegen and Sabine van Wesemael have noted the frequency with which the act of ejaculation is associated with vomiting in Houellebecq's work, as though to suggest a morbidity or pathology to sexuality itself.81 Sexual frustration is by no means the exclusive preserve of men. Poor Brigitte Bardot, irrevocably excluded from erotic experience, can only look on with growing anger:

Elle ne pouvait qu'assister, avec une haine silencieuse, à la libération des autres; voir les garçns se presser, comme des crabes, autour du corps des autres; sentir les relations qui se nouent, les expériences qui se décident, les orgasmes qui se déploient; vivre en tous points une auto-destruction silencieuse auprès du plaisir affiché des autres […] la jalousie et la frustration fermentèrent lentement, se transformant en une boursouflure de haine paroxystique.82 (EDL, 91; 90)

At the climax of Extension du domaine de la lutte, the narrator, driven to distraction by his own frustrations, encourages Tisserand to exact a violent revenge upon the sexually blessed by launching a career as a murderer of young women: ‘là tu les posséderas, corps et âme’ (‘then will you possess them body and soul’ (EDL, 118; 117)). As they observe a couple of potential victims, the narrator says of Tisserand: ‘j' avais l'impression de sentir le sperme pourri qui remontait dans son sexe’ (‘I had the feeling I could smell the putrid sperm rising in his prick’ (EDL, 119; 118)). There is just a hint, in passages such as this, that we are being encouraged to look upon the threatened consequences of sexual frustration almost as acts of political violence-an angry exposure of the contradictions of a system that imposes compulsory hedonism but does not promote equality of opportunity in the access to pleasure. As Jean-Claude Guillebaud has argued, there is an offensive hypocrisy to a society that constantly seeks to stimulate sexual desire even as it condemns sex crimes like rape and paedophilia and that moreover refuses to recognise a connection between the two phenomena.83

On the other hand, though, is there not something rather juvenile about such violent fantasies? In Les Particules élémentaires, Houellebecq (or rather Houellebecq's narrator-we shall see the significance of the distinction below) takes the cruelty of boys around the onset of (p.30) puberty as proof that sexuality is a malignant force. ‘Il est difficile d'imaginer plus con, plus agressif, plus insupportable et plus haineux qu'un pré-adolescent […] le pré-adolescent semble la cristallisation subite, maléfique […] de ce qu'il y a de pire en l'homme. Comment, dès lors, douter que la sexualité ne soit une force absolument mauvaise?’ (PE, 168; 199).84 More precisely, the problem may be that adolescent modes of sexuality have increasingly come to define the norm for the rest of society. As Jean Claude Bologne suggests, with marriage and childbirth taking place later in life, there is a tendency to spread over a much longer period-perhaps a decade and a half-behaviours typical of the relatively short phase of sexual development: a certain sexual urgency, little time for tenderness, a concern above all for seduction as a way of shoring up self-esteem.85 Moreover, the ‘problem’ of sexual frustration, as it is set out in Houellebecq's work, appears in a different light if we approach it from a feminist perspective. For the experience of Houellebecq's protagonists-that of feeling exclusively valued in terms of their (very limited) sexual appeal and finding themselves effectively excluded from society as a result-is one that has long been familiar to women. Compare, for instance, the indignation of Virginie Despentes: ‘je suis verte de rage qu'en tant que fille qui intéresse peu les hommes, on cherche sans cesse à me faire savoir que je ne devrais même pas être là’ .86 Despentes has also suggested that had a woman written the equivalent of Houellebecq's novels a great deal more media attention would have been paid to her appearance, her behaviour and her sexual history.87 It may be a relatively new phenomenon-and one specific to the heightened sexual consumerism that currently pertains in the west-for men to feel themselves defined by their sexuality; it is by no means new for women.

The sociologist Catherine Hakim has recently published something like a formalisation of Houellebecq's theory of sexual differentiation in a book entitled Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. Hakim identifies ‘erotic capital’-‘a nebulous but crucial combination of beauty, sex appeal, skills of self-presentation and social skills’88 – as a ‘fourth asset’ possessed by individuals in addition to the other kinds of capital: economic (wealth), cultural (education, manners, class) and social (networks, ‘who you know’).89 Although erotic capital can be accessed to a greater or lesser degree by all individuals, women are historically more used to investing time and money to make it work to their advantage. This is because of what Hakim calls the ‘male sex deficit’: a ‘systematic and apparently universal’ tendency for men to (p.31) have a higher sex drive than women, with the result that the majority of heterosexual men ‘spend most of their lives being sexually frustrated, to varying degrees’.90 Given this structural inequality, Hakim concludes that it is in the interest of women to use their erotic capital in order to achieve their goals in other areas (economic, etc.). Hakim's book represents a call for the importance of erotic captital to be recognised; she argues that it has often been marginalised, precisely because it tends to be concentrated most densely in those individuals who have historically been lacking in the other forms of capital, specifically women and young people.91

Hakim's theory is, in many ways, very persuasive: most people could readily agree that erotic capital is a reality and that is has demonstrable effects in our societies. Nonetheless, there are a number of unfortunate blind spots in Hakim's presentation. First, she accepts the ‘male sex deficit’ as an almost universal fact without really historicising or questioning it. Hakim cites a wealth of evidence based on countless sex surveys but does not critically interrogate the categories under discussion. If women are less interested in sex, is this a naturally occurring proclivity or the result of the cultural construction of sex in our societies? What is the role of bravado in men's self-reported sexuality? Women may report less recourse to masturbation, pornography and sexual fantasy than men, but this is to ignore the social meanings of masturbation, the cultural contexts of pornography and the difficulty of defining a sexual fantasy. Secondly, Hakim argues that women should make full use of their erotic capital in order to get what they want, yet gives no recognition to the physical discomfort and emotional pain that countless women endure in the pursuit of this erotic capital, for instance by dieting, by becoming alienated from their own bodies and sexuality in an attempt to dress to please men, or by constantly facing unwanted sexual attention from men. In short, there is a danger that Hakim's promotion of erotic capital simply becomes complicit with our hypersexual culture which has been denounced by many feminists for the highly constricting roles if offers to women.92 Thirdly, in addition to assuming that all men are sexually frustrated, Hakim's theory also implies that they are stupid. Even if we accept the reality of the male sex deficit, men are not so gullible as to assume that all flirtatious behaviour on the part of women is going to lead to sex. A man with very limited erotic capital may not be taken in by the flirtatious overtures of a very beautiful woman; on the contrary, he may come to resent them and seek to retaliate in some way. This could ultimately lead to further discrimination and violence against (p.32) women of precisely the kind that Hakim decries. One advantage of Houellebecq's analysis over Hakim's is the recognition of this bitterness and resentment stirred up by the market for erotic capital.

Part of the problem, here, is the residual sense of what Carole Pateman has called ‘the law of male sex-right’, that is the ‘demand that women's bodies are sold as commodities in the capitalist market’.93 This notion of men's right to sex depends precisely on the idea of the male sex deficit which, far from being a universal fact, is revealed, upon interrogation, to be profoundly ideological and backed up by a series of dubious assumptions about male sexuality (whether straight or gay). Sheila Jeffreys, citing the work of Gabriel Rotello, summarises these assumptions as follows: from this ideological standpoint, all men would share ‘a belief that sex ought to be without consequence and responsibility’; ‘a sense of entitlement about sex’; and ‘the notion that males […] are at the mercy of biological forces beyond their control, forces that impel [them] to seek as many partners as possible’.94 These assumptions, left over from another era of unquestioned patriarchal rule, are cast into sharp relief in the contemporary sexual arena where men, almost as much as women, are defined and judged by their sexual attractiveness, their sexual prowess and their sexual history. The discrepancy between the two positions, and the subsequent loss of imagined sexual potency and real social authority, is surely responsible, at least in part, for some of the masculine despair expressed in Houellebecq's world.

Whatever the reasons, the men in Houellebecq's novels-and a number of the women too-are thoroughly depressed. The typical response of Houellebecq's protagonists towards the world hovers somewhere between weariness, disappointment and despair. These are, perhaps as much as anything else, books about depression, especially Extension du domaine de la lutte. In his first novel, Houellebecq defines the ruling mental state of our times as bitterness: ‘une immense, une inconcevable amertume’ (‘an immense and inconceivable bitterness’ (EDL, 148; 148)). Similarly, the narrator of Les Particules states from the very beginning that, in our era, lives are lived out mainly ‘dans la solitude et l'amertume’ (‘in solitude and bitterness’ (PE, 7; 3, my translation)). Far from being filled with possibilities, ‘Une vie peut fort bien être à la fois vide et brève’ (EDL, 48; 46).95 As Annabelle puts it in Les Particules, ‘jamais je n'aurais imaginé que la vie soit si restreinte, que les possibilités soient si brèves’ (PE, 275; 329).96 Houellebecq's poetry, too, is filled with terribly moving testimonies to the experience of depression. There is a frequent sense of renunciation in these lines, a depressive logic whereby (p.33) the whole of life comes to seem futile-‘La soirée est fichue; peut-être la semaine, peut-être la vie’ (Po, 17)97 – and nothing will ever change: ‘Et cela recommencera ainsi, tous les jours, jusqu'à la fin du monde’ (Po, 18).98 Houellebecq's narrators sometimes designate themselves as being somehow abnormal-‘tout semblait normal à l'exception de moi’ (Po, 67)99-and, as a result, definitively excluded from social life: ‘Je ne suis plus tout à fait là’ (Po, 71);100 ‘Il y a quelque chose de mort au fond de moi’ (Po, 147);101 ‘Personne ne me regarde, je suis inexistant’ (Po, 165).102 Fantasies of self-harm and suicide are not far away-both appear in Extension du domaine de la lutte. Some critics103 have argued that Houellebecq's view of the mediocrity of contemporary civilisation is merely his projection of his own misery on to the rest of the world, which makes his judgement unrepresentative and unfair. But, to attempt a ‘corrective’ reading of Houellebecq, in which his work is seen to be the result of an individual pathology, is surely to miss both the political and the literary force of his writing.

Given the evidence of mental disorder in Houellebecq's writing, some critics have sought to use psychoanalysis as an explanatory tool in discussing his work. Sabine van Wesemael is not wrong to suggest, in the lineage of Freud, that Houellebecq's characters fall ill because of their sexuality.104 However, I would contend that she rather misses the point when she suggests, of Extension du domaine de la lutte, that the narrator's libido has failed or that he is afraid of his libido.105 There is nothing wrong with the narrator's libido-it is just that no one wants to sleep with him. The psychiatrist in the novel similarly fails to grasp this basic point when she seizes triumphantly upon the fact that the narrator has not had sex in over two years, yet fails to understand the demonstrative evidence of his almost rhetorical question: ‘Est-ce que vous accepteriez de faire l'amour avec moi?’ (EDL, 148; 148).106 Houellebecq's unreserved demolition job on psychoanalysis in Extension – analysis serves only to turn women into ‘d'ignobles pétasses, d'un égocentrisme délirant’ (EDL, 103; 102)107 – should give critics considerable pause before seeking to use it in understanding his work, and to see Houellebecq's tirade as evidence of some kind of ‘reaction formation’ is too facile a reflex. As Liam McNamara comments, psychoanalysis in this sense is ‘an alibi for a generalized system of sexual inequality’.108 The narrator of Extension is clear about the real cause of most of the disorders in his psychiatric hospital-the answer is not difficult: ‘ils manquaient simplement d'amour. Leurs gestes, leurs attitudes, leurs mimiques trahissaient une soif déchirante (p.34) de contacts physiques et de caresses; mais, naturellement, cela n'était pas possible’ (EDL, 149; 149).109 Houellebecq's narrators are nothing if not lucid about their condition. Indeed, the narrator of Extension diagnoses himself with an ‘excessive’ lucidity (EDL, 146; 146). His own actions make little sense to him; instead, he feels himself placed, in relation to them, ‘en position d'observateur’ (‘in the position of observer’ (EDL, 153; 151, original italics)). As Martin Robitaille has suggested, this notion of a depressive lucidity goes some way towards explaining the peculiar, distanced perspective from which Houellebecq's novels are narrated.110


The issue of lucidity brings us to the question of Michel Houellebecq's style. No serious consideration of Houellebecq's stance on sexual politics or other matters is possible without some analysis of the way in which his pronouncements are framed, that is to say an interrogation of his written style. Furthermore, as this section will seek to demonstrate, if Houellebecq can be seen to take up a posthumanist position in his accounts of human life and behaviour, this position must be articulated and needs to be understood as a question of style, that is to say as determined by rhetoric, narrative voice and point of view. As we have repeatedly seen in this chapter, the world of Houellebecq is a frustratingly contradictory one. The novels are seemingly full of sex, and yet they are principally concerned with the agonising experience of sexlessness. Houellebecq has been criticised as sexist and offensive towards women, yet some of his arguments rejoin in surprising ways key tenets of feminism. The writing is often crude and objectionable, yet it manages to paint sensitive and moving portraits of loneliness and depression. If Houellebecq is able to be all these things at once, and yet still present a coherent oeuvre, it is surely because his work is held together by its style. Dominique Noguez was the first critic to engage seriously with the question of Houellebecq's style. As he pointed out, the author was often accused of having no style,111 and yet many of the passages that made Houellebecq so controversial were striking precisely because of the way they were formulated.112 As Best and Crowley have written, ‘his texts scandalise, but, scandalously, do so evasively, moving the goalposts’.113 If it is difficult to pin Houellebecq down to a particular position, it is partly because his style is so restless. As he himself advised (p.35) in his ‘method’, Rester vivant (1991): ‘Au sujet de la forme, n'hésitez jamais à vous contredire. Bifurquez, changez de direction autant de fois que nécessaire’ (RV, 16).114 Christian Monnin has remarked that it is often difficult to know whether to take Houellebecq's novels seriously or to treat them as a monumental joke. The solution, he suggests, is to read them at two different levels, both as an indication of one individual's prejudices and hang-ups and as a revelation of the unspoken truths and structural blockages that organise our society and our era.115 Or, as Best and Crowley put it, ‘His work is, unavoidably, both the ultimate symptom and the critical diagnosis of the mediated, self-conscious, lost world it describes’.116 As such, Houellebecq's style is deceptively simple, and nowhere is this clearer, suggests Marc Weitzmann, than in the writing of those who have sought to imitate him and succeeded only in producing clichés and banality.117 Our own analysis of Houellebecq's style will focus on two points that appear crucial to the elusive nature of his writing: his unstable register and his shifting focalisation.

Houellebecq's writing switches frequently and disconcertingly between registers just as his novels move in and out of different genres. In a valuable article, Robert Dion and élisabeth Haghebaert have discussed the variety of genres marshalled in Houellebecq's novels, Les Particules élémentaires in particular: from family saga to Bildungsroman, romance to science fiction, poetry to essay. This also includes some of the most unfashionable or unacceptable of genres – pornography, roman à thèse, the experimental novel à la Zola, the one (e.g., porn) serving to make the other (e.g., roman à thèse) more palatable. At the same time, the inclusion of sociological, historical and scientific analyses – Les Particules frequently includes physiological or zoological descriptions, often employing scientific or Latin terms for particular organs and organisms – gives the novel a totalising ambition that it shares with German romanticism. As Dion and Haghebaert suggest, the novel partakes of ‘une logique de l'hypermarché où les formes sont à portée de main et constituent autant de produits de consommation disponibles pour un plaisir immédiat’.118 Thus, Houellebecq can move from the appearance of ostrich steaks in Monoprix to the replication of DNA from one paragraph to the next (PE, 162–3; 194) or interpet a cartoon character as a Kantian ideal (PE, 35; 37–8). More charitably, Houellebecq can be seen to be underlining the necessary coexistence of different interpretational models in an uncertain, quantic world, ‘puisque la “réalité” telle que l'envisagent les disciplines scientifiques se révèle au total aussi parcellaire, contradictoire (p.36) et sujette à caution que la représentation littéraire qu'on peut en donner’.119 Dion and Haghebaert conclude that although Houellebecq's individual generic exercises may be flawed their combination produces a whole of a new and strange complexity, and helps to generate ‘une ambivalence qui n'est ni bien-pensante, ni gratuitement provocatrice’.120 As Dominique Noguez showed, Houellebecq moves confidently between literary and colloquial registers.121 He can move suddenly from the slangy to the sublime. Thus, at the beginning of Extension du domaine de la lutte, when describing the ‘deux boudins du service’, the narrator remarks, incongruously: ‘Leurs voix me paraissaient venir de très haut, un peu comme le Saint-Esprit’ (EDL, 6; 4).122 Both Extension and Les Particules, despite all the grubby material they contain, achieve something like an elevation to the sublime at their respective ends. At the end of Extension, the narrator cycles out into the hills of the Ardèche, exclaiming to himself, ‘Combien je me sens capable, jusqu'au bout, d'imposantes représentations mentales! Comme elle est nette, encore, l'image que je me fais du monde!’ (EDL, 155; 154).123 Meanwhile, Les Particules closes with evocations of the poetic luminosity of the Irish landscape into which Michel disappeared: ‘Ce pays a quelque chose de très particulier. Tout vibre constamment, l'herbe des prairies comme la surface des eaux, tout semble indiquer une présence’ (PE, 292; 350).124 (The ambivalent role of the sublime in Houellebecq's writing will be discussed further in Chapter 3.) As for the poetry, Marc Weitzmann has commented upon the unusual combination of a very classical form with the mundane modern subject matter of supermarkets, motorways and unemployment benefits.125 However, as David Evans has persuasively demonstrated, the rigorous form of this poetry tends to break down at precisely those points of greatest mental and emotional distress: ‘C'est un drame qui se joue en microcosme entre une structure métrique absolue et des éléments textuels qui sont, comme le poète, “difficiles à situer”’.126

This mixture of styles and registers has been observed to have a kind of levelling effect on Houellebecq's writing, flattening out his prose. Whether describing the monotonies of daily life and depression, the heights of romantic love or graphically horrific episodes of violence, everything seems to be narrated in the same dispassionate, unflinching tone. More than one critic has suggested that in the title Plateforme we should read plate forme or forme plate: flat style.127 Others have described the apparently unwavering ‘placidity’ of Houellebecq's tone.128 As we saw, Robitaille sees this as a kind of extension of the protagonists' (p.37) depressive lucidity.129 Houellebecq himself, following the work of Jean Cohen, has suggested that this kind of flattening could be regarded as a poetic mode of perception in the same way that certain atmospheric conditions such as fog or crepuscular light incline towards the poetic: ‘Tout ce qui contribue à dissoudre les limites, à faire du monde un tout homogène et mal différencié sera empreint de puissance poétique’ (I, 33/I2, 77).130 In Rester vivant, Houellebecq notes the similarity between the depressive and the poetic modes: ‘L'expérience poétique et l'expérience névrotique sont deux chemins qui se croisent, s'entrecroisent, et finissent le plus souvent par se confondre’ (RV, 25).131 Practically, Houellebecq's flat style is achieved, as Noguez has shown, through an abundance of litotes, expressions such as ‘pas mal’, the adverbial use of ‘assez’ and ‘un peu’; the expressionless narration of horrific incidents, or focus on mundane, irrelevant points of detail; the closure of paragraphs on short, neutral, resigned sentences such as ‘C'était bien’, ‘C'est très déplaisant’, etc.132 The overall effect is of a kind of blankness to the writing. As Noguez puts it, ‘C'est comme si, sur les sujets les plus noirs, la très particulière qualité de cet humour gris était obtenue par une écriture blanche’.133

This blankness of tone has given rise to one of the most frequently cited intertexts in discussions of Houellebecq: Albert Camus's L'étranger (1942). The back-cover blurb (attributed to Tibor Fischer) on the English translation of Extension du domaine de la lutte proclaims the novel as ‘L'étranger for the info generation’. In places, Houellebecq does seem to be making deliberate reference to Camus, as in the opening line of Plateforme – ‘Mon père est mort il y a un an’ (‘Father died last year’ (P, 9; 3)) – which echoes the famous beginning of L'étranger, ‘Aujourd'hui, maman est morte’ (‘Mother died today’). Similarly the murder to which Extension's narrator tries to incite Tisserand – ‘fais-toi donc la main sur un jeune nègre!’,134 he encourages (EDL, 118; 117) – recalls the killing of an Arab in Camus's novel. It is true, too, that there is sometimes an ‘existentialist’ tone to Houellebecq's writing, as in these lines from Le Sens du combat: ‘Les objets sont bien là, mais sa raison s'absente/Il traverse la nuit à la recherche d'un sens’ (Po, 14).135 But, arguably, the comparison of Houellebecq's ‘blank’ style with that of Camus does not hold up. As Noguez remarks, the ‘blank’ epithet has been so widely applied, to everyone from Stendhal to Jean-Philippe Toussaint, that it is ultimately fairly meaningless.136 Especially as Houellebecq's style also contains sudden exclamations, dark ironies, hyperbole and hysterical outbursts. It is, finally, according to Roger Célestin, precisely (p.38) the self-consciousness with which Houellebecq's narrators mix their registers that distances them from L'étranger's Meursault.137

It is this mixture of registers that gives Houellebecq's writing its troubling, unstable tone. Consider, for instance, this passage from near the beginning of Extension du domaine de la lutte:

Mon propos n'est pas de vous enchanter par de subtiles notations psychologiques. Je n'ambitionne pas de vous arracher des applaudissements par ma finesse et mon humour […] Toute cette accumulation de détails réalistes, censés camper des personnages nettement différenciés, m'est toujours apparue, je m'excuse de le dire, comme pure foutaise […] Autant observer les homards qui se marchent dessus dans un bocal […] Du reste, je fréquente peu les êtres humains.138 (EDL, 16; 13-14)

The passage moves from sophisticated authorial comment, through outright insult to Houellebecq's literary peers (‘foutaise’), to the disorientating comparison to lobsters, and finally back to the narrator's social isolation. The tone of the passage is difficult to pin down, somewhere between false modesty, unabashed arrogance, veiled aggression and disarming self-deprecation. Houellebecq frequently achieves these sudden changes of gear through bathos, as in another example from Extension:

Bien entendu l'expérience m'a rapidement appris que je ne suis appelé qu'à rencontrer des gens sinon exactement identiques, du moins tout à fait similaires dans leurs coutumes, leurs opinions, leurs goûts, leur manière générale d'aborder la vie […] Il n'empêche, j'ai également eu l'occasion de me rendre compte que les êtres humains ont souvent à coeur de se singulariser par de subtiles et déplaisantes variations, défectuosités, traits de caractère et ainsi de suite – sans doute dans le but d'obliger leurs interlocuteurs à les traiter comme des individus à part entière […] Certains cadres supérieurs raffolent des filets de hareng; d'autres les détestent.139 (EDL, 21; 19)

Here, the seriousness of the sociological demonstration is undercut by the absurd anticlimax of the filleted herrings example. The use of food to provide this effect is common in Houellebecq, so much so that it becomes something of an easy riff found throughout his work. The narrator of Extension imagines the night on which he was conceived by his parents, concluding: ‘Peu après, ils avaient mangé du poulet froid’ (‘They'd eaten cold chicken afterwards’ (EDL, 151; 150)). Commenting on the existential anguish of individuated consciousness in Les Particules élémentaires: ‘Malgré le retour alternatif des nuits, une conscience individuelle (p.39) persisterait jusqu'à la fin dans leurs chairs séparées. Les rollmops ne pouvaient en aucun cas constituer une solution’ (PE, 201; 241).140 All of this culminates in the La Possibilité d'une île's notorious sentence: ‘Le jour du suicide de mon fils, je me suis fait des oeufs à la tomate’ (‘On the day of my son's suicide, I made a tomato omelette’ (PI, 28; 19)).

More generally, though, Houellebecq's writing is littered with non sequiturs –alien, inappropriate remarks that seem to come out of nowhere.141 During a meeting at the Ministry of Agriculture, the narrator of Extension says of Catherine Lechardoy: ‘je l'imagine très bien éclatant en sanglots, le matin au moment de s'habiller, seule’ (EDL, 35; 33)142 and, of an older colleague, ‘je n'aimerais pas être son fils’ (‘I wouldn't like to be his son’ (EDL, 35; 33)). Michel in Les Particules, throwing the body of a dead canary down a rubbish chute, imagines it ending up in vast waste bins ‘remplies de filtres à café, de raviolis en sauce et d'organes sexuels tranchés’ (PE, 16; 14).143 As Martin Robitaille has commented, the levelling gaze of Houellebecq's depressive lucidity lends such images ‘un surcroît d'étrangeté’.144 Often such non sequiturs are deployed to generate humour – ‘David [di Meola] se mit au jogging et commença à fréquenter des cercles satanistes’ (PE, 208; 249)145 – but, as Christian Monnin has observed, the humour often emerges at the most serious or emotional moments of the novels.146 Houellebecq himself has suggested that in a culture in which conversation is ruled by a generalised tone of derision, with the expression of genuine feelings or ideas considered somehow ‘vulgar’, the omnipresent filter of humour threatens to break down and collapse into the tragic: ‘le tragique intervient exactement à ce moment où le dérisoire ne parvient plus à être perçu comme fun’ (I, 73/I2, 38/RV, 50).147 But these shifts in tone can also be dependent upon the precarious coexistence of genres. Thus, Best and Crowley have shown how Houellebecq's pornographic episodes are often interrupted by the appearance of real emotion, precisely that which is usually absent from pornography;148 while Liesbeth Korthals Altes notes how emotional material is frequently cut short by the introduction of cold, scientific descriptions, as in the evocation of the parasites that feed upon the corpse of Bruno's grandfather.149

As all of the above examples have shown, it is often difficult for the reader of Michel Houellebecq to know how to situate him or herself in relation to the text and the ideas expressed therein. In short, it is hard to know what, and indeed whom, to believe. This is doubtless responsible for much of the controversy surrounding Houellebecq and for some of the critical unease over many of his pronouncements. To (p.40) quote just one example: ‘on ne sait jamais s'il est dans la dérision ou s'il endosse les propos de ses personnages’.150 As Best and Crowley put it, ‘His texts intermittently juxtapose irony and sincerity in a manner which makes it impossible to know which tone we should be taking seriously, if any’.151 Extension du domaine de la lutte may be, in a sense, a roman à thèse, at least in so far as it seeks to involve the reader in the demonstration of its thesis; yet the black humour and parodic tone undermine the establishment of a doctrine. If these techniques invite a kind of complicity with the author – or at least the narrator – it remains impossible to determine the ideological or affective position of that author.152 Dominique Noguez has gone as far as to see in Houellebecq's distanced, ironic focalisation ‘l'arrière-petit-fils le plus doué du Flaubert de Bouvard et Pécuchet’.153

The uncertainty with which we are to treat Houellebecq's literary statements is further complicated by the complexity of the narrative voice in his novels. The use of the first person can lead to a lazy critical assumption that the narrator can be unproblematically mapped on to the author – all the more so in Plateforme where Houellebecq mischievously named his first-person narrator Michel. But, as he has remarked, ‘Le “je” est vraiment flexible, on peut avec lui exprimer aussi, au mieux, ce qu'on voudrait ne pas être’.154 Best and Crowley suggest that given what we learn of the narrator in Extension – the bitterness over his failed relationship with Véronique and his increasingly serious mental illness – his misogynistic rants are ‘implicitly disowned, displaced by [their] articulation through this desperate frame’ .155 But, in any case, the narrator himself is not spared the force of his own critical, self-deprecatory remarks, nor the sense of strangeness with which the novel becomes coloured (‘il y a déjà longtemps que le sens de mes actes a cessé de m'apparaître clairement’ (EDL, 152–3; 151)156). Elsewhere in Extension, Houellebecq seems momentarily to favour a second-person narration (a form he occasionally employs in his poetry).157 The passage begins as a kind of generalised second person, or perhaps just another way for the narrator to address himself: ‘Vous avez eu une vie […] L'existence vous apparaissait riche de possibilités inédites […] Vous aussi, vous vous êtes intéressé au monde’ (EDL, 13; 11).158 But subsequently this passage turns into a very direct address to the reader:

Maintenant, vous êtes loin du bord: oh oui! comme vous êtes loin du bord! Vous avez longtemps cru à l'existence d'une autre rive; tel n'est plus le cas […] L'eau vous paraît de plus en plus froide, et surtout de plus en plus amère. Vous n'êtes plus tout jeune. Vous allez mourir, maintenant. (p.41) Ce n'est rien. Je suis là. Je ne vous laisserai pas tomber. Continuez votre lecture.159 (EDL, 14; 12)

The play of pronouns, and the shift of persona and responsibility here are unexpected and puzzling.160 In Houellebecq's third-person narration, too, the authority of each voice is open to question. For instance, Korthals Altes points out the way in which Bruno's report on the Cap d'Agde resort in Les Particules, which he presents as a sort of Utopia of social-democratic sexuality, is subtly undermined by incongruous comparisons to both Enid Blyton's Famous Five and to Nazi Germany!161 Liam McNamara has further pointed out the hypocrisy of Bruno who repeatedly laments a cruel system of sexual inequality and aggressive erotic interpellation, yet, when he gains access to more liberal sexual practices through his relationship with Christiane, ‘he leaps in with gusto; all moral and ethical judgement is suspended’.162 In short, all of Houellebecq's characters and narrators seem to be subject to a constant process of ironising, sometimes through such classical, almost Flaubertian techniques as free indirect speech (‘Oui, c'est du travail, mais le travail ne lui fait pas peur, à elle’ (EDL, 27; 25)163) or the italicisation of received ideas: ‘Peut-être, me dis-je, ce déplacement en province va-t-il me changer les idées’ (EDL, 49; 47);164 ‘ma société a développé une authentique culture d'entreprise’ (EDL, 17; 15).165

Above all, the narration of Houellebecq's novels is characterised by a seemingly unbridgeable distance. It is in this sense that Houellebecq's fiction can most clearly be seen to adopt a posthumanist perspective in that the narrative voice frequently refuses to identify with the human. Houellebecq's gaze is clinical: in Renaissance (1999) he talks of ‘Découvrant l'existence humaine /Comme on soulève un pansement’ (Po, 290).166 The point of view appears, on numerous occasions, almost anthropological, or ethnological – our society is observed as though from the outside precisely because Houellebecq's narrators do not feel themselves to be fully a part of it. Thus, a disco at the Lieu du Changement ‘confirmait à l'évidence le caractère indépassable de la soirée dansante comme mode de rencontre sexuelle en société non communiste. Les sociétés primitives […] axaient elles aussi leurs fêtes sur la danse, voire la transe’ (PE, 116; 136).167 This millennial perspective allows for thoroughly dispassionate judgements such as, of Michel and Annabelle: ‘Sur le plan des intérêts de l'espèce ils étaient deux individus vieillissants, de valeur génétique médiocre’ (PE, 237; 282).168 The point of view of Houellebecq's narration is similar to that of Marc Djerzinski, Michel's father, himself an ethnographic filmmaker: ‘Il promenait sur les célébrités (p.42) qu'il côtoyait un regard indifférent, et filmait Bardot ou Sagan avec autant de considération que s'il s'était agi de calmars ou d'écrevisses’ (PE, 29; 29–30).169

Comparisons of people to animals in Houellebecq's writing are ubiquitous (indeed, we have already seen several in passing in this chapter). So much so that, rather than an easy fallback, they represent a veritable world view for the author.170 Tisserand's black and gold tracksuit ‘lui donne un peu l'allure d'un scarabée’ (EDL, 62; 61).171 A young black man on a train is described as ‘Un animal, probablement dangereux’ (‘An animal, probably dangerous’ (EDL, 82; 81)); compare the black high-school student in Les Particules, a ‘big baboon’ (PE, 192; 230). Racial and national stereotypes are certainly not spared in such comparisons: ‘à la table à côté une demi-douzaine de touristes italiennes babillaient avec vivacité, tels d'innocents volatiles’ (PE, 269; 321).172 Elsewhere, however, animal imagery is more extensive, as in the description of a school dormitory:

Les sociétés animales fonctionnent pratiquement toutes sur un système de dominance lié à la force relative de leurs membres. Ce système se caractérise par une hiérarchie stricte […] Les positions hiérarchiques sont généralement déterminées par des rituels de combat […] La brutalité et la domination, générales dans les sociétés animales, s'accompagnent déjà chez le chimpanzé (Pan troglodytes) d'actes de cruauté gratuite accomplis à l'encontre de l'animal le plus faible. Cette tendance atteint son comble chez les sociétés humaines primitives, et dans les sociétés développées chez l'enfant et l'adolescent jeune.173 (PE, 45–6; 51)

As Robert Dion remarks, the persistence of animal metaphors in Houellebecq serves repeatedly to remind the reader of humanity's place in nature, a nature which is portrayed as cruel and dangerous, characterised by behavioural determinism and the survival of the fittest.174 Not only does Houellebecq's perspective reject the idea of a human ‘exception’, it also challenges the spurious notion that humans are ‘more evolved’ than other animals.175 As Dominique Noguez points out, this results in some difficult ontological questions for readers: ‘quelles raisons sérieuses avons-nous de considérer qu'une vie consciente vaut mieux que l'existence léthargique des moules ou des têtards? […] quelles raisons sérieuses avons-nous de tenir le fait d'exister comme préférable à son contraire?’.176

It is not simply the case that the overall narration of Houellebecq's novels – be it first-person or third-person – is characterised by a distanced perspective; often the author seeks to add a further layer of (p.43) distance between himself, or between his narrators, and the sentiments expressed in his writing. The deliberate distancing device of placing controversial ideas in the mouth of secondary characters is one that recurs frequently throughout Houellebecq's work. Thus, the hysterical tirade against feminists quoted above is itself delivered by a woman, Christiane, as though to pre-empt the criticism that these are merely the bitter, misogynistic comments of a male. This device achieves its most notorious exploitation in Plateforme where Houellebecq repeatedly invents Arab characters to voice anti-Islamic sentiments. As Dion and Haghebaert have suggested, in such passages Houellebecq could be accused of reviving the worst qualities of the roman à thèse, since his characters here become mere ciphers to demonstrate his overarching thesis, frequently disappearing from the narrative or being killed off once their job is done.177 Sometimes, however, the purpose of such characters is more complicated. In Extension du domaine de la lutte, the notion that people are less interested in sex than the media would have us believe is expressed by a priest friend of the narrator. Now, one might think it unremarkable that a priest should feel some distaste for, and resistance to, the sexual clamour of the media. But, in any case, the narrative proves him wrong, since the priest ends up experiencing a crisis of faith after developing an erotic obsession for a twenty-year-old nurse, herself never seriously interested in him: ‘c'était surtout l'idée de coucher avec un curé qui l'excitait, qu'elle trouvait marrante’ (EDL, 140; 140).178 The character's trajectory thus illustrates much of the ambivalence around sex to be found in Houellebecq: at once a sense of weariness or disgust at the constant pressure of sexual one-upmanship and, at the same time, a deeply ingrained incapacity to resist sexual allure when it presents itself and a tendency to allow sexuality to play a defining role in our sense of self.

Part of the reason for the distanced perspective of Les Particules élémentaires, of course, is that it is supposed to be recounted from a point far in the future. It is revealed at the end of the novel that the omnisicent narrator is in fact a representative of the cloned posthuman race that came to replace humanity largely thanks to the scientific advances begun by Michel. This helps to explain the lengthy passages of historical synthesis in the novel which appear, as Monnin suggests, as the voice of science.179 Certainly such episodes are concerned with the dispassionate establishment of a historical causality, as in the identification of the year 1974 as a turning point for the liberalisation of morals and the installation of a leisure society in France, or the neutral tone of sentences (p.44) such as: ‘L'extension progressive du marché de la séduction, l'éclatement concomitant du couple traditionnel, le probable décollage économique de l'Europe occidentale: tout concordait en effet pour promettre au secteur [de la chirurgie esthétique] d'excellentes possibilités d'expansion’ (PE, 27; 28).180 Elsewhere, however, the scientific objectivity wavers and description takes on a derisory tone that belongs firmly to the present, as in this evocation of rural life in the generation of Michel's grandparents:

on a la nature et le bon air, on cultive quelques parcelles (dont le nombre est précisément fixé par un système d'héritage strict), de temps en temps on tire un sanglier; on baise à droite à gauche, en particulier sa femme, qui donne naissance à des enfants; on élève les dits enfants pour qu'ils prennent leur place dans le même écosystème, on attrape une maladie, et c'est marre.181 (PE, 24; 24)

The tone of the paragraph implies that this way of life is dated, vanished and a little absurd, and, while this may be true from the point of view of a rich western nation at the end of the twentieth century, it is difficult to see why it would be any more dated and absurd for a historian centuries in the future than would the lifestyles of Michel and Bruno themselves. Speaking of whom, the character of Bruno is highly problematic from the point of view of this future narration. More than half of the novel is told from Bruno's perspective, but on reflection it is not clear why this should be so, since the book is ostensibly about Michel and his invention of the conditions of possibility for the new race. As such, as Jack Abecassis has noted, it is ‘structured as a hagiography (the birth, struggle, temptation and finally conversion of a Savior)’.182 As various commentators have pointed out, Bruno effectively serves to demonstrate the sexual misery that Michel's science enables the human race to transcend. However, that does not explain how the future narrator should come to know the intimate details of Bruno's life, nor why they should be told from his point of view. To cite just the first example among many, Bruno's first memory is related as his humiliation, aged 4, at being unable to make a leaf necklace at school. But the detail of the memory could not realistically be available to the narrator, nor even to Michel, unaware of Bruno's existence at the time; while the identification of the schoolgirls as displaying ‘déjà les signes d'une stupide résignation femelle’ (PE, 38; 41)183 clearly belongs to the voice of the adult Bruno.

The existence of the future narrator goes some way towards explaining a stance that has been much criticised in Houellebecq. Not only does Houellebecq present human life as an arena characterised by much (p.45) suffering and disappointment, the novels tend ultimately to imply that this suffering is inevitable. This is a largely deterministic, not to say fatalistic view of life with apparently little room for meaningful social change. This attitude needs to be understood as the point of view of humanity's successor, relating the teleological narrative of the advent of its own race: the sexual stalement of millennial man appears therefore as the ineluctable outcome of a series of incremental steps up the social and economic ladder of capitalism, with the only solution proving to be the radical one of species change. Thus the narrator of Les Particules may be sympathetic towards the plight of humanity, but the question of action to change that plight is entirely moot since history has already shown that the solution to the problem was a collective decision by the species to organise its own overcoming. However, this narratorial point of view – which we might characterise as a kind of impotent compassion – already describes the attitude of the narrator in Extension du domaine de la lutte. He too feels sorry for many of his fellow humans, but there is nothing he can do. We have already seen the narrator's perception of Catherine Lechardoy's secret suffering, but he makes no move to reach out to her emotionally. When his priest friend confesses his personal crisis, the narrator remarks: ‘à l'évidence, je ne pouvais rien pour lui’ (EDL, 140; 140).184 Compare this passing remark about a policeman to whom the narrator reports a stolen car: ‘je ne pouvais rien faire pour alléger son fardeau’ (EDL, 22; 20).185 The consequence of Houellebecq's (narrators') depressive lucidity, in other words, is a chronic inability to act. The poetry refers to ‘L'impossibilité permanente de l'action’ (Po, 13).186 And the political consequences of Houellebecq's writing must therefore stem from this ‘exhausted, depressing premise that there is in fact no alternative’ .187 In other words, it is as though the posthuman perspective of Les Particules's future narrator – for whom any question of action to change the living conditions of humanity has ceased to be relevant – is in a sense anticipated by the arguably already posthumanist perspective of Extension's narrator who no longer belives in the humanist promises of self-improvement and social progress.


In this context of apparent surrender, to what extent can we continue to see a political significance in Houellebecq's work? To what extent, in fact – let us go further – is Michel Houellebecq a political writer? (p.46) First of all, it is worth remembering that Houellebecq's descriptions of sexuality, whether sexual ease or sexual hardship, unfailingly take place within the carefully developed context of a socio-economic reality. The opening chapters of Extension du domaine de la lutte, for instance, describe the difficulties of what Houellebecq calls ‘living according to the rules’ (‘vivre selon la règle’ (EDL, 12; 10)), a process which proves to be ‘complex, multiform’ (‘complexe, multiforme’ (EDL, 12; 10)), since it involves not only paying bills on time, but also a certain amount of compulsory consumption, plus the effective occupying of a small margin of free time and, through all of the above, the maintenance of a sense of respectability and self-worth. For instance, when the narrator forgets where he has parked his car, he is torn between the obligation to report it missing, the realisation that the vehicle ‘ne [lui] avait causé que des tracas’ (EDL, 8; 6)188 and the recognition that ‘Avouer qu'on a perdu sa voiture, c'est pratiquement se rayer du corps social’ (EDL, 9; 7).189 Similarly complicated is the experience of buying a bed, which offers perhaps one of the neatest demonstrations of the way in which the economic and the sexual are interwoven in Houellebecq's world: ‘l'achat d'un lit, de nos jours, présente effectivement des difficultés considérables, et il y a bien de quoi vous mener au suicide’ (EDL, 101; 100).190 Quite apart from the cost and the necessity to take time off work for delivery, the purchase of a bed involves a public statement of one's sex life: ‘Acheter un lit à une place c'est avouer publiquement qu'on n'a pas de vie sexuelle, et qu'on n'envisage pas d'en avoir dans un avenir rapproché, ni même lointain’ (EDL, 102; 101).191 The pleasures and terrors of consuming ‘according to the rules’ are further evoked in Houellebecq's frequent reference to supermarkets, a topos that has become so thoroughly associated with him that images of carrier bags and shopping trolleys adorn the covers of his books. A stanza from the poem ‘Hypermarché – Novembre’ perhaps best captures the ambiguous nature of the supermarket, at once a place of delirious possibility – ‘l'authentique paradis moderne’,192 as Houellebecq has called it elsewhere (I, 42I2, 58) – and of frighteningly brutal compulsion, a balance which is precariously maintained by a series of unspoken rules of behaviour:

  • D'abord j'ai trébuché dans un congélateur.
  • Je me suis mis à pleurer et j'avais un peu peur.
  • Quelqu'un a grommelé que je cassais l'ambiance;
  • Pour avoir l'air normal j'ai repris mon avance.193 (Po, 113)

The fact that the narrator in Extension witnesses a man's death in a (p.47) supermarket implies that this has now become the locus for the rites of passage of human existence. Meanwhile, in Les Particules élémentaires, supermarkets appear to play a much more significant role than governments in shaping the meaning of citizenship: ‘Dans leur dernière livraison, les Dernières Nouvelles de Monoprix mettaient plus que jamais l'accent sur la notion d'entreprise citoyenne. Une fois de plus, l'éditorialiste croisait le fer avec cette idée reçue qui voulait que la gastronomie soit incompatible avec la forme’ (PE, 228; 272).194

In particular, Houellebecq's writing, and especially Extension du domaine de la lutte, provides a detailed portrait of the world of middleclass, white-collar work in France around the turn of the millennium. Marc Weitzmann has called the novel an ‘autopsy’ of company life.195 Houellebecq employs the language of business in Extension, but does so from the perspective of ironic distance that characterises all of his narration, thereby lining this discourse with a layer of deadpan sarcasm:

Bien avant que le mot ne soit à la mode, ma société a développé une authentique culture d'entreprise (création d'un logo, distribution de sweat-shirts aux salariés, séminaires de motivation en Turquie). C'est une entreprise performante, jouissant d'une réputation enviable dans sa partie; à tous points de vue, une bonne boîte.196 (EDL, 17; 15–16)

Houellebecq's work is perhaps at its most profoundly French in the contempt it displays for the rigid hierarchy of formations and titles in the social life of the country. Thus, on his IT demonstration tour in Rouen, the narrator meets the local manager Schnäbele who proudly declares himself to be an IGREF: ‘je ne sais pas ce que c'est, mais j'apprendrai par la suite que les IGREF sont une variété particulière de hauts fonctionnaires, qu'on ne rencontre que dans les organismes dépendant du ministère de l'Agriculture – un peu comme les énarques, mais moins bien tout de même’ (EDL, 58; 58).197 Schnäbele's triumph is complete when he learns that Tisserand studied at ‘l'école Supérieure de Commerce de Bastia, ou quelque chose du même genre, à la limite de la crédibilité’ (EDL, 58; 58).198

Working life, as portrayed by Houellebecq, is almost entirely thankless. He remarks, in Les Particules élémentaires, on the impossibility of establishing meaningful human relationships among colleagues in a culture where ‘authentic’ interaction is indefinitely deferred (PE, 268; 320–1). This is especially so in a business environment where individuals are called upon to be, as Houellebecq puts it in ‘Approches du désarroi’, ‘indéfiniment mutables’ (‘infinitely mutable’ (I, 65I2, 29; RV, (p.48) 45)). Nonetheless, working life remains largely monotonous – ‘Une fois qu'on est entré dans le monde du travail toutes les années se ressemblent’ (PE, 185; 222)199 – and is unlikely to end well. Extension relates the sad spectacle of a farewell drink for a retiring colleague: after thirty years of loyal service, plus a couple where he became sidelined after failing to keep up with the latest technical innovations, the man is presented with a fishing rod. The narrator's own departure from the firm, following a nervous breakdown, is described as ‘the death of a professional’ (‘Mort d'un cadre’, (EDL, 134; 134)). However gloomy this portrait may appear, though, Houellebecq is also disarmingly honest about the ways in which workers can be taken in by colleagues who play their management role to perfection. The narrator of Extension describes his dynamic young boss: ‘il ne marche pas dans les couloirs, il glisse. S'il pouvait voler il le ferait’ (EDL, 36; 34).200 When the boss meets with him, ‘C'est un moment très tendre; il est penché vers moi et vers moi seul; on pourrait croire que nous sommes deux amants que la vie vient de réunir après une longue absence’ (EDL, 37; 35).201 A little later: ‘Je discerne en lui un grand professionnel de la gestion des ressources humaines; intérieurement, j'en roucoule. Il me paraît de plus en plus beau’ (EDL, 39; 37).202

The world of work that is described and satirised by Houellebecq is, to a large extent, the same world that has been analysed and criticised by Luc Boltanski and ève Chiapello in their monumental work Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme.203 Boltanski and Chiapello describe a transition to a post-Fordist, post-Taylorist organisation of work where large bureaucratic companies are no longer considered to be profitable entities. The new organisation of labour, by abolishing traditional hierarchies, tends to give more autonomy to the worker, but increases job insecurity by eliminating the very conditions of possibility of the ‘job for life’. Thus, large companies are replaced by networks of smaller enterprises while careers themselves are replaced by projects. Success in one project will provide opportunities for valuable networking and it is hoped will lead to the next project by effectively demonstrating an individual's employability. But such projects require constant renewal precisely because each one is recognised as having a limited lifespan. The failure to renew one's projects and to extend one's networks implies, in the long term, one's effective exclusion from the world of (white-collar) work. Alain Ehrenberg, who has noted the way in which the rise in clinical cases of depression has accompanied this transition in business culture, suggests that the new demands placed on individual initiative are taking their toll in terms of the strain placed on people's mental health. Depression (p.49) appears as the pathological mirror image of precisely the kind of mental attitude that is demanded of today's workers: ‘Défaut de projet, défaut de motivation, défaut de communication, le déprimé est l'envers exact de nos normes de socialisation’.204 As Boltanski and Chiapello stress, the reason the demands of this new culture place such a heavy emotional burden on workers is because they tend to cause a confusion between the boundaries of professional and personal life. The launching of a new project requires a demonstration of enthusiasm and an investment of trust in colleagues from other networks, both qualities more usually associated with personal relationships. Increasingly, the world of work necessitates the deployment of certain personal qualities, what Arlie Russell Hochschild some twenty-five years ago referred to as ‘emotional labour’ – the situation in which ‘Seeming to “love the job” becomes part of the job’.205 Thus it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between work and leisure time, or between professional networking and genuine human sympathy (as in the narrator's experience with his boss, cited above). Or, as Hochschild puts it, it becomes harder to answer the question ‘is this me or the company talking?’206 In this context, each individual produces himself. If one's personality has an exchange value in the world of work, then that personality comes to be seen not only as a tool of work, but as the product of work upon the self. As a result, suggest Boltanski and Chiapello, each individual comes to be seen as responsible for his or her own body, image, success, and ultimately destiny.207

In some of the more speculative passages of their book, Boltanski and Chiapello suggest that the prevailing trend of short-termism in the labour market may have spilled over into the sphere of personal relations, as demonstrated by the decline in marriage rates and the tendency towards ‘casual’ cohabitations without any formal documentation.208 Their intuitions are confirmed by other researchers working more specifically within the sociology of interpersonal relations. Thus Jean-Claude Guillebaud suggests that the institution of the family begins to lose its importance just as traditional companies based on the hierarchical model of the family disappear leaving only ‘share-holders in search of markets and consumers in search of products’.209 Somewhat more precisely, Jean Claude Bologne notes that marriage rates have actually been on the rise again in recent years, but so too have rates of divorce and of people living alone. Bologne too deduces a casualisation of intimate relationships in which marriage would take its place within ‘une sorte de “vie active” sentimentale qui connaîtrait, elle aussi, ses (p.50) périodes de chômage, ses changements d'employeurs […] et sa retraite’.210 More generally, Guillebaud complains that the discourses surrounding both sex and economics have undergone a parallel restriction in recent years such that the only tenable position with respect to both becomes a kind of ultra-liberalism; the alternatives – a socialist Utopia in one case, a disciplinarian puritanism in the other – having been discredited, there appears frustratingly little room for ideological manoeuvre between what are, after all, extreme poles of both arguments.211 Meanwhile, the trend for self-auditing that rules the commercial sector, together with the tyranny of statistics, leads each individual to evaluate his or her own sexuality in terms of desirable statistical norms, which can only lead to a spirit of competition, in this domain as in every other.212

In Houellebecq's novels, from the very beginning, sex and sexlessness are frequently mentioned in the same breath as work and economics, as though to imply that both domains come under broadly the same set of rules. Thus the narrator of Extension notes that he has ‘déjà un joli pouvoir d'achat’ (‘a tidy purchasing power’ (EDL, 15; 13)) with good prospects in his company, but that ‘Sur le plan sexuel […] la réussite est moins éclatante’ (EDL, 15; 13).213 He confesses that since splitting up with his girlfriend he has not had sex in over two years: ‘Mais en réalité, surtout quand on travaille, ça passe très vite’ (EDL, 15; 13).214 Ironically, though, as we have already seen, however close the two spheres of activity may appear in terms of their discursive framing, the world of work singularly fails – if only because of the premium placed on time215 – to provide opportunities to form meaningful, intimate relationships. The narrator's therapist ‘précise sa pensée en me parlant des “possibilités de rapports sociaux” offertes par le travail. J'éclate de rire, à sa légère surprise’ (EDL, 132; 132).216 Instead, the real influence of business over sexuality is in providing the model for a quantification of sexual value. Houellebecq has perhaps set out this argument most clearly in ‘Approches du désarroi’. He suggests that just as the symbolic value of certain professions has become increasingly irrelevant in a context where annual income and hours worked are all that really matter, in the same way sexual attraction has gradually been reduced to a series of objective criteria: age, height, weight and vital statistics. Crucially, though, ‘Si la hiérarchie économique simplifiée fit longtemps l'objet d'oppositions sporadiques (mouvements en faveur de la “justice sociale”), il est à noter que la hiérarchie érotique, perçue comme plus naturelle, fut rapidement intériorisée et fit d'emblée l'objet d'un large consensus’ (I, 66; I2, 30/RV, 45).217 As Guillebaud comments, when sexuality becomes subject (p.51) to such a brutally reductive market logic, it necessarily leads to narrow definitions and limited choices for individuals: ‘Le tri est brutal, sans nuances ni accommodements. On peut payer ou non. On est contraint de vendre son corps ou pas. On est jugé performant ou sans valeur’.218 When sex is so clearly marked with its value, suggests Houellebecq in Les Particules élémentaires, relationships have little to do with love and everything to do with narcissism. When young people go out with each other, they look upon it as ‘une activité de loisirs, un divertissement où inter[viennent] à parts plus ou moins égales le plaisir sexuel et la satisfaction narcissique’ (PE, 282; 339).219 Elsewhere, Houellebecq has insisted that this quest for narcissistic gratification has in fact become the primary goal of sexual activity, over and above physical pleasure (I, 42–3/I2, 58). It is for this reason, too, that our culture places ever more value on youth: within the context of a quantified sexual value, the return guaranteed by the erotic appeal of young people appears as simple economic logic: ‘Le désir sexuel se porte essentiellement sur les corps jeunes, et l'investissement progressif du champ de la séduction par les très jeunes filles ne fut au fond qu'un retour à la normale, un retour à la vérité du désir analogue à ce retour à la vérité des prix qui suit une surchauffe boursière anormale’ (PE, 106; 125).220

All of the above observations bring us to the central thesis in Houellebecq's work, most forcefully expressed in Extension du domaine de la lutte. Sexuality, argues Houellebecq, is a system of social differentiation and hierarchisation, structurally parallel to that of money, just as ruthless as just as capable of producing ‘des phénomènes de paupérisation absolue’ (‘phenomena of absolute pauperization’ (EDL, 100; 99)). ‘En système économique parfaitement libéral, certains accumulent des fortunes considérables; d'autres croupissent dans le chômage et la misère. En système sexuel parfaitement libéral, certains ont une vie érotique variée et excitante; d'autres sont réduits à la masturbation et la solitude’ (EDL, 100; 99).221 Houellebecq's poetry makes frequent reference to both forms of marginalisation, their existence as two sides of the same coin evoked through imagery of day and night, both approached with equal terror: the day because it brings the demands of conforming to a capitalist lifestyle; the night because it forces the poet back into contemplation of his erotic worthlessness, and concomitant solitude. The key to Houellebecq's frustration, across these various passages, is not so much – or not only – the parallel existence of these two regimes, but rather the fact that there is nothing else, there is no other way to achieve long-term personal satisfaction in life. Bruno confronts the stark reality of our (p.52) value system when he realises the profound irrelevance of Proust to his high-school students: ‘La duchesse de Guermantes avait beaucoup moins de thune que Snoop Doggy Dog [sic]; Snoop Doggy Dog avait moins de thune que Bill Gates, mais il faisait davantage mouiller les filles. Deux paramètres, pas plus’ (PE, 192–3; 231).222

Although these passages undoubtedly constitute some of the most frequently cited in discussions of Houellebecq, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the context of their presentation.223 The thesis presented herein tends almost to be advanced as a kind of stand-alone summation of Houellebecq's views, but, despite the fact that he has made comparable remarks in non-fiction texts, most notably ‘Approches du désarroi’, we should not lose sight of the fact that the above examples are embedded within a literary narrative. How seriously, therefore, should we take the central thesis of Extension when it is put forward by a somewhat dubious narrator who, as we have already seen, is seriously depressed and still bitter about his break-up with a girlfriend two years ago? The narrator riffs on the same theme later in conversation with his psychiatrist: ‘Il y a un système basé sur la domination, l'argent et la peur – un système plutôt masculin […]; il y a un système féminin basé sur la séduction et le sexe […]. Et c'est tout […] Maupassant a cru qu'il n'y avait rien d'autre; et ceci l'a conduit jusqu'à la folie furieuse’ (EDL, 147; 147).224 The psychiatrist points out that Maupassant in fact died of syphilis. How much credence should we give to Bruno's rant about his students' narrow criteria of value when we know that he is masturbating behind his desk? Most particularly, we should note that the first and most blunt statement of the thesis that ‘La sexualité est un système de hiérarchie social’ (EDL, 93; 92)225 occurs in the context of one of the animal stories that periodically interrupt the narrative of Extension du domaine de la lutte. The story is presented as a ‘Dialogue between a Dachshund and a Poodle’ (‘Dialogue d'un teckel et d'un caniche’ (EDL, 84; 83)) in which one of the dogs draws conclusions about human society based on the observation of behaviour including the unfortunate fate of Brigitte Bardot, cited at length above. Not only is the whole discussion therefore cast in a rather absurd light, but the actual presentation of the conclusion about sexual hierarchy is surrounded by hyperbolic rhetoric such as this: ‘laissant s'allumer d'eux-mêmes dans vos cerveaux les candélabres de la stupéfaction, je continuerai à dérouler les anneaux de mon raisonnement avec la silencieuse modération du crotale’ (EDL, 93; 92).226 If this were not enough to question the seriousness of the conclusions drawn, the first narrator specifies at the end of the chapter (p.53) that his animal story remained ‘unfinished’, and that anyway ‘le teckel s'endormait avant la fin du discours du caniche’ (EDL, 96; 95).227 ‘Enfin j'étais jeune,’ he concludes, ‘je m'amusais’ (‘I was young, I was having fun’ (EDL, 96; 95)). Houellebecq appears, then, with these techniques, to be deliberately distancing himself from his own sociological conclusions. Yet Carole Sweeney wonders whether this strategy might be designed specifically to refuse the recuperation and recycling of Houellebecq's argument as one more piece of merchandise to be circulated on the market. As Sweeney writes, these bizarre animal tales ‘point to a textual space outside of exchange value, a place for thought that has no truck with the niceties of literary good taste’.228

In such a ludic and uncertain context, though, how much justification can there be to grant a political significance to Houellebecq's thesis? Houellebecq's rhetoric partakes of what we might call a degraded discourse of struggle. It is in the key passage establishing the centrality of the sexual hierarchy that we find the lines that contain the title of Extension du domaine de la lutte: ‘Le libéralisme économique, c'est l'extension du domaine de la lutte, son extension à tous les âges de la vie et à toutes les classes de la société. De même, le libéralisme sexuel, c'est l'extension du domaine de la lutte, son extension à tous les âges de la vie et à toutes les classes de la société’ (EDL, 100; 99).229 The key word lutte (‘struggle’) occurs a couple more times in the novel. In Rouen, the narrator reads that students have been demonstrating and railway workers on strike, and comments: ‘Le monde continuait, donc. La lutte continuait’ (EDL, 79; 78).230 Following Tisserand's sudden death in a car accident, the narrator remarks, ‘Au moins […], il se sera battu jusqu'au bout […] je sais que dans son coeur il y avait encore la lutte, le désir et la volonté de la lutte’ (EDL, 121; 120).231 The word is hardly innocent, bringing with it a long tradition of Marxist rhetoric. Marc Weitzmann has suggested, somewhat glibly, that if there is a proletariat of sex, then Michel Houellebecq is their prophet, their Karl Marx.232 Perhaps rather more seriously he has proposed that Houellebecq responds to a certain nostalgia for the proletariat on the part of the middle classes, the sense of two or three generations (since the baby boom) of being spectators of, rather than actors in, history.233 At the same time, though, we might argue that the struggle Houellebecq describes is as much a neo-Darwinian ‘struggle for life’ as it is a post-Marxist class struggle (this question will be explored further in Chapter 3, below); and, as Robert Dion points out, both the domain of the rule and the domain of the struggle, in Extension, ultimately come across as equally (p.54) undesirable.234 Houellebecq himself has somewhat cryptically suggested that the title of his first novel ‘pouvait être lu pour le contraire de ce qu'il signifie’.235 Nonetheless, this is the same author who has declared, in interview, that the guiding spirit of all his work is ‘l'intuition que l'univers est basé sur la séparation, la souffrance et le mal; la décision de décrire cet état de choses, et peut-être de le dépasser […] L'acte initial est le refus radical du monde tel quel’ (I, 39I2, 55).236 However ambivalent such a statement might be (the fact that Houellebecq says ‘the universe’ rather than ‘society’ implies a metaphysical, as much as a political, understanding; the notion of ‘separation’ has a long conceptual history, from Hegel, through Marx, to Guy Debord, but it is unclear in what sense Houellebecq intends it), it is this notion of radical refusal – which is frequently discernible too in the text of the novels and poetry – that may allow for Houellebecq's recuperation as a political writer. If nothing else, Houellebecq's analysis of the parallel development of sexual consumerism and labour under capitalism implies that the former domain has as much need of organised political resistance as the latter.237 In a passage that recalls the descriptions of emotional labour above, Houellebecq notes that

le modèle sexuel proposé par la culture officielle (publicité, magazines, organismes sociaux et de santé publique) était celui de l'aventure: à l'intérieur d'un tel système le désir et le plaisir apparaissent à l'issue d'un processus de séduction, mettant en avant la nouveauté, la passion et la créativité individuelle (qualités par ailleurs requises des employés dans le cadre de leur vie professionnelle).238 (PE, 244; 293)

As a result, just as in the examples of emotional labour, individuals can become irretrievably alienated from their sexuality by the sense that even moments of sexual happiness are coopted to the ideology of consumption. Of Michel and Annabelle, Houellebecq writes: ‘De retour à Paris ils connurent des instants joyeux, analogues aux publicités de parfum’ (PE, 239; 285).239 At the very least, we might argue that the political significance of Houellebecq's writing is in seeking a different way of viewing sexuality, somewhat as Jean-Claude Guillebaud does in his book La Tyrannie du plaisir. As Guillebaud suggests, a position somewhere between nostalgic moralism, on the one hand, and irresponsible libertarianism on the other, would be the only really habitable position.240 Michel Houellebecq's novels, whose unrepentant thirst for sexual experience is matched by a dispassionate critique of the real conditions of sexual interaction, are in search of just such a ground.

(p.55) For Houellebecq, so-called sexual liberation cannot succeed because of the problem of individualism. This is where Aldous Huxley was mistaken in imagining the Utopia of Brave New World (1932).241 The death of God and the effective end of Christianity's reign over social and mental organisation gives rise to two parallel phenomena, in Houellebecq's analysis: rationalism and individualism, the latter heightened by the acute awareness of death that comes with the former. Now, if it is rationally conceivable to construct a society in which wealth is equitably distributed and everyone is sexually satisfied (with sexuality effectively divorced from procreation), this is to reckon without individualism. The continued requirement for sexuality, and wealth, to act as factors of narcissistic differentiation serve to maintain inequality (PE, 160–1; 191). Jean-Claude Guillebaud suggests that, in this context, sexuality becomes an essentially solitary affair. He argues that the contemporary preference for the rather neutral term ‘partner’ is revelatory in this regard: a partner is little more than a masturbatory tool, a more or less efficient instrument susceptible to trials, evaluations and comparisons, while the only real prohibition remaining in the field of desire – a lack of desire on the part of the partner – is greeted with impatience, if not exasperation.242 As Houellebecq reminds us in his customarily hyperbolic way, ‘La conséquence logique de l'individualisme c'est le meurtre’ (‘The logical consequence of individualism is murder’ (I, 47/I2, 63)). Houellebecq's rejection of the ideology of liberal individualism is frequently blunt and uncompromising. One of his poems, entitled ‘Dernier rempart contre le libéralisme’ begins:

  • Nous refusons l'idéologie libérale parce qu'elle est
  • incapable de fournir un sens, une voie à la
  • réconciliation de l'individu avec son semblable dans
  • une communauté qu'on pourrait qualifier d'humaine,
  • Et d'ailleurs le but qu'elle se propose est même tout
  • différent.243 (Po, 52)

The rather abrupt presentation of the poem, shorn of all pretense to rhyme and metre, conveys the brutal urgency of the sentiment. The poem is similarly intransigent in its closing lines:

  • C'est que l'individu, je veux parler de l'individu humain,
  • est très généralement un petit animal à la fois cruel et misérable,
  • Et qu'il serait bien vain de lui faire confiance à moins
  • qu'il ne se voie repoussé, enclos et maintenu dans les
  • (p.56) principes rigoureux d'une morale inattaquable,
  • Ce qui n'est pas le cas.244 (Po, 53)

Houellebecq, in other words, pleads in favour of a kind of moral absolutism and against the reigning ideology of tolerance, ‘ce pauvre stigmate de l'âge’ (‘poor stigmata of our age’ (RV, 27)). In Rester vivant, he goes as far as to declare: ‘Vous devez haïr la liberté de toutes vos forces’ (‘You must learn to hate freedom with all your might’ (RV, 27)).

In the novels, the distanced, historical perspective of the narration, especially in Les Particules élémentaires, tends to work to prevent the characters from being seen as free individuals. Bruno, for instance, is described as being nothing more than ‘l'élément passif du déploiement d'un mouvement historique’ (PE, 178; 212).245 A similar effect is achieved through the use of scientific language and concepts which serve almost to disqualify the bourgeois humanist notion of individual liberty. This begins in Extension where a computer-programmer colleague of the narrator's compares society to the human brain with individuals as brain cells and freedom conceived as the multiplication of possibilities of connection between cells. The narrator, however, is sceptical, considering the metaphor meaningless in the absence of ‘un projet d'unification’ (‘a unifying project’ (EDL, 40; 38)) to hold all this activity together. Besides, he suggests, the comparison is a little derisory when ‘freedom’ means little more than choosing your dinner by Minitel. But the discussion of individual freedom in terms of neurological activity persists in Les Particules élémentaires where it is used to justify the assertion of behavioural determinism:

les échanges d'électrons entre les neurones et les synapses à l'intérieur du cerveau sont en principe soumis à l'imprévisibilité quantique; le grand nombre de neurones fait cependant, par annulation statistique des différences élémentaires, que le comportement humain est – dans ses grandes lignes comme dans ses détails – aussi rigoureusement déterminé que celui de tout autre système naturel.246 (PE, 92; 108)

Much of this science is rather vague, and some of it probably groundless, but there are two good reasons for this. First, some of the science properly belongs to the realm of fiction – and is therefore necessarily sketchy – since it is Michel's discoveries that are the basis for the generation of a cloned posthuman race that surpasses the problem of individual consciousness. But, secondly, Houellebecq's discussions take place on the fringes of human knowledge. He is clear that the origins of consciousness, although probably located in the brain, remain largely (p.57) mysterious and, in this context, the Darwinian argument that it provides some kind of evolutionary advantage is little more than ‘une aimable reconstruction mythique’ (‘Just So stories’ (PE, 225; 268)). Houellebecq has gone further in interview, suggesting that the answer probably lies in the quantum level of the brain and, as such, belongs to a domain that is inaccessible to our current categories of thought – which he sees as all the more reason to abandon them in favour of new ways of conceiving of the world (I, 48I2, 64).

In the meantime, though, the ideology of individualism is causing considerable damage to our societies. In particular, Houellebecq's work repeatedly stresses the declining influence of the family. The family, he argues in Les Particules élémentaires, was the last bastion of communitarianism separating the individual from the brutal laws of market forces. With the inexorable rise of the individual in the twentieth century, even this micro-community has ceased to play much of a role. The idea of a heritage transmitted across generations has lost all meaning when most adults have little material wealth and very few skills (in the sense of a craft or trade) to pass on. Besides, reserving one's savings for one's children would prevent one's own full enjoyment of life, which is sacrosanct. As Houellebecq puts it, ‘Accepter l'idéologie du changement continuel c'est accepter que la vie d'un homme soit strictement réduite à son existence individuelle, et que les générations passées et futures n'aient plus aucune importance à ses yeux’ (PE, 169; 201).247 In this context, children are far from desirable; on the contrary: ‘L'enfant c'est le piège qui s'est refermé, c'est l'ennemi qu'on va devoir continuer à entretenir, et qui va vous survivre’ (PE, 169; 201).248 Les Particules élémentaires serves as the demonstration of this thesis. Both Bruno and Michel are abandoned by their selfish parents at an early age, with the emotional consequences we know. Of Bruno's parents, the narrator writes: ‘Les soins fastidieux que réclame l'élevage d'un enfant jeune parurent vite au couple peu compatibles avec leur idéal de liberté personnelle’ (PE, 28; 28).249 Bruno's father ‘lui voulait plutôt du bien, à condition que ça ne prenne pas trop de temps’ (PE, 48; 53).250 Much later in life, Bruno bumps into his father in a Thai massage parlour and the older man does not even recognise him. The failed paternal relationship reproduces itself in the succeeding generation. The fact that we only learn of the existence of Bruno's son about halfway into the novel is a good indication of how important the boy is in his father's life. When his son comes to stay with him for a while, Bruno realises that they have absolutely nothing to say to each other. In fact, Bruno's principal (p.58) emotion with regard to his son is jealousy: he is tormented by the idea that the boy ‘allait peut-être réussir sa vie alors que j'avais raté la mienne’ (PE, 186; 223).251

Christiane's relationship with her son is no better. She has become actively afraid of him since he started hanging around with the wrong crowd and confesses that, if he died in a motorcycle accident, ‘j'aurais de la peine, mais je crois que je me sentirais plus libre’ (PE, 214; 257).252 Again, Houellebecq's observations about the incompatibility of family life with a culture of ruthless individualism are shared by sociological commentators. Jean Claude Bologne suggests that the lifestyle of the single person has nowadays become the ideal, such that married couples often live out a kind of ‘égoïsme à deux’ , more like the juxtaposition of two single lives rather than the formation of a life specific to the couple, enjoying separate cars, separate holidays, sometimes even separate homes.253 The very idea of ‘settling down’ has come to be seen as a hindrance to personal fulfilment. Guillebaud too suggests that an ultra-liberal consumer market would prefer to deal with employees and consumers that are free from ties and responsibilities.254 This is surely, however, a little overstated. Anyone who has tried to change their name, their marital status, their job or even just their address (heaven forbid their sex!) will know that the structures organising our society are actually a lot less flexible than this discourse of nomadic lifestyles would imply.255 The truth about contemporary capitalism is probably somewhat closer to the schizophrenic nature of capital identified by Deleuze and Guattari in L'Anti-Œdipe – a system that seeks to release energy on the one hand and store or bind it on the other, that encourages spending one minute and saving the next.256 Thus, on the one hand the free movement of capital encourages individuals to be flexible, ready to switch jobs, lifestyles and opinions with the next change in the market, but, on the other hand, an older tradition of surveillance, cataloguing and control likes to have each individual assigned to a recognisable category with a career, a home and a marital status that remain relatively stable. From this latter perspective, the loosening of the family's stranglehold over social organisation can still be regarded as a positive development. As Jeffrey Weeks argues, it is after all ‘productive of creative efforts at coexistence’,257 as the proliferation of non-traditional families will testify. Weeks takes a stand against the naysayers and doom-mongers of the social-breakdown hypothesis, insisting that ‘the new individualism is about more than doing your own thing. It is about developing forms of autonomy that are also profoundly social’.258

(p.59) Be that as it may, the evidence suggests that this individualism is, after all, having serious consequences for people's mental health. In his history of depression, Alain Ehrenberg stresses that it is essentially a modern disease coinciding with the increased demand for individual initiative and people's accompanying feelings of inadequacy. It is, for Ehrenberg, ‘une maladie de la responsabilité […] Le déprimé […] est fatigué d'avoir à devenir lui-même’.259 When the narrator of Extension du domaine de la lutte is told by his psychiatrist that he must try to focus on himself, he replies, ‘Mais j'en ai un peu assez, de moi-même’ (EDL, 145; 145).260 Houellebecq's argument is that individualism, ultimately, is boring, sterile and empty. Today's young people, he suggests, may be resistant to romantic passion for fear of being dependent on someone else but ‘la disparition des tourments passionnels laissait en effet le champ libre à l'ennui, à la sensation de vide, à l'attente angoissée du vieillissement et de la mort’ (PE, 283; 339).261 Les Particules élémentaires is repeatedly marked by the idea of escaping from individual consciousness. Bruno remembers an occasion when he overheard his parents talking about him: ‘Il est toujours curieux d'entendre les autres parler de soi, surtout quand ils ne semblent pas avoir conscience de votre présence. On peut avoir tendance à en perdre conscience soi-même, ce n'est pas déplaisant’ (PE, 42; 46).262 Later, at the Lieu du Changement, Bruno takes a moment out from the activities: ‘il ne demandait plus rien, il ne cherchait plus rien, il n'était plus nulle part; lentement et par degrés son esprit montait vers le royaume du non-être, vers la pure extase de la non-présence au monde. Pour la première fois depuis l'âge de treize ans, Bruno se sentit presque heureux’ (PE, 131; 154).263 Meanwhile, Michel has a dream in which he sees space as separated into a sphere of being and a second sphere of non-being: ‘Calmement, sans hésiter, il se retourna et se dirigea vers la seconde sphère’ (PE, 236; 282).264 This persistent desire to lose consciousness obviously culminates in the novel's science-fictional finale with the creation of a cloned future race for whom the individual self has ceased to be meaningful. But if this is an extreme and utopian solution to the malaise diagnosed by Houellebecq, it is worth mentioning that at the end of ‘Approches du désarroi’ he offers a much more modest and practical form of resistance. Every individual, argues Houellebecq, is capable of launching their own ‘cold revolution’ against the tyrannical flow of information and advertising by placing themselves momentarily outside it, simply by ‘stepping aside’ (‘faire un pas de côté’ (I, 80/I2, 45/RV, 54)). Houellebecq's advice is to turn off the television and the radio, not buy anything, not even think about buying anything, suspend all mental (p.60) activity: ‘Il suffit, littéralement, de s'immobiliser quelques secondes’ (I, 80/I2, 45/RV, 55).265 This quiet, private revolution, although hardly likely to shake the institutions of capitalism to their foundations, is at least the beginning of a refusal to allow the pace, shape and character of one's life to be entirely determined by the movement of markets. There is perhaps a similarity between Houellebecq's ‘pas de côté’ and the similarly minimal form of resistance that Boltanski and Chiapello suggest can be achieved in the face of the new spirit of capitalism, simply by slowing down:

Un pas dans le sens d'une libération passe peut-être aujourd'hui par la possibilité de ralentir le rythme des connexions, sans craindre pour autant de ne plus exister pour les autres, de sombrer dans l'oubli et, à terme, dans ‘l'exclusion’; de différer l'engagement dans un projet ou le moment de rendre public un travail et de le donner en partage – par exemple dans une exposition ou un colloque – , sans craindre pour autant de voir la reconnaissance à laquelle on pense avoir droit appropriée par un autre; de s'attarder dans un projet en cours, dont on n'avait pas vu d'emblée toutes les possibilités; de retarder le moment de l'épreuve et peut-être, plus généralement, non pas de supprimer les épreuves – ce qui ne manquerait pas de susciter de violents sentiments d'injustices – mais de les espacer.266

Other aspects of Houellebecq's apparent conclusion are, however, more questionable. He argues, reasonably enough, that the rampant selfishness of individual consumerism needs to be checked by a sense of duty, claiming for instance: ‘on doit faire en sorte que le bonheur d'un autre être dépende de votre existence’ (I, 41/I2, 57)267 and ‘la seule supériorité que je reconnaisse, c'est la bonté’ (I, 41/I2, 57).268 But his work is marked by a certain nostalgia for tenderness that is frequently coloured by dubious gendered assumptions. There have indeed been human beings who worked hard their whole life out of love and devotion for others, notes the narrator of Les Particules, ‘En pratique, ces êtres humains étaient généralement des femmes’ (PE, 91; 107).269 At the Lieu du Changement, when a woman responds to one of Bruno's sarcastic barbs by telling him ‘Tu as dû pas mal souffrir’ (‘You must have really suffered’ (PE, 134; 157)), he muses: ‘Les femmes, parfois, étaient tellement gentilles; elles répondaient à l'agressivité par la compréhension, au cynisme par la douceur’ (PE, 134; 158).270 Michel comes to a similar conclusion by watching wildlife documentaries: ‘Au milieu de cette saloperie immonde, de ce carnage permanent qu'était la nature animale, la seule trace de dévouement et d'altruisme était représentée par l'amour maternel, ou (p.61) par un instinct de protection, enfin quelque chose qui insensiblement et par degrés conduisait à l'amour maternel […] décidément, les femmes étaient meilleures que les hommes’ (PE, 164; 195–6).271 As a result, the new race to which Michel's research eventually gives rise will effectively represent, at least in part, a feminisation of humanity. Les Particules élémentaires, for all its cynical rhetoric, and for all its apparently cold, posthumanist vision, actually has a deeply romantic ending. Michel's disciple Hubczejak claims that by removing individual freedom from the equation Michel's research reinvented the conditions of possibility for love. And if he was able to do this, it was because he himself experienced love with Annabelle. In this happy ending then, Annabelle's unhappy life and early death, together with Michel's passive cruelty, which was partly responsible, are both redeemed, through science, for future generations of (post)humanity. Meanwhile Houellebecq, in interview, has made unequivocal calls for a new, matriarchal organisation of human life, since men, apparently, are useless and frequently dangerous.272 As Bruno puts it in Les Particules: ‘les hommes sont incapables d'éprouver de l'amour, c'est un sentiment qui leur est totalement étranger’ (PE, 168; 200).273 But, as Luis de Miranda has protested, this kind of romantic discourse about women is ultimately unhelpful since it consigns women to the subordinate role they have always had, while forcing men into a position of masochism.274 As Miranda asks, what if the supposed tender instincts of women were in fact a strategy of survival of a class of people living in a relation of social domination? Arlie Hochschild has pointed out that women's loving qualities may not be as natural as many men like to think, but precisely an example of the kind of emotional labour that has only been criticised as it has become more visible: ‘As a matter of tradition, emotion management has been better understood and more often used by women as one of the offerings they trade for economic support. Especially among dependent women of the middle and upper classes, women have the job (or think they ought to) of creating the emotional tone of social encounters’.275 He goes on: ‘when we redefine “adaptability” and “cooperativeness” as a form of shadow labor, we are pointing to a hidden cost for which some recompense is due and suggesting that a general reordering of female-male relationships is desirable’.276

Houellebecq has claimed that, contrary to appearances, there is in fact some ‘good news’ in Les Particules élémentaires. He lists four positive conclusions: (1) the reign of materialism is coming to an end; (2) women continue to be capable of love; (3) the practical means of (p.62) defeating death is within our grasp; (4) the search for knowledge does not lead to unhappiness , but perhaps to a rather abstract kind of joy.277 On the basis of these conclusions, Marc Weitzmann has argued that Houellebecq is a ‘utopian communist’.278 I would be more inclined to agree with Liam McNamara that he is, at best, ‘pre-revolutionary, unenlightened by any notion of praxis to transform the new sexual means of production’.279 In fact, an alternative set of ‘good news’ at the end of Virginie Despentes's book King Kong Théorie provides a welcome counterpoint to Houellebecq's position. Despentes writes, ‘Échec du travail? Échec de la famille? Bonnes nouvelles. Qui remettent en cause, automatiquement, la virilité? Autre bonne nouvelle. On en a soupé, de ces conneries’.280 Although Houellebecq's diagnosis of our current sexual malaise is incisive, unforgettable and largely accurate, perhaps it is time to stop blaming a long-overdue historical transition for all our hang-ups and start getting on with our present purpose of redefining the form and function of our social and sexual relations in ways that allow, encourage and require us, finally, to respect one another.

Houellebecq's political position is ultimately difficult to pin down, and the more one reads of his work, the more confusing and contradictory his stance can appear. On the one hand, Houellebecq appears highly critical of the individualism encouraged by capitalist democracy, suggesting that it is responsible for the breakdown of the family, social isolation and sexual misery and may even be leading the human species into a demographic impasse. On the other hand, however, the majority of Houellebecq's characters are guilty of precisely that individualistic behaviour that elsewhere they condemn. Thus these characters (both women and men, although men are perhaps the worst culprits) neglect their children, they allow professional success to take precedent over long-term relationships, they abandon partners who are growing old and losing their physical charm, they chase after sexual adventures with ever younger targets in which the satisfaction to be derived must be at least partially narcissistic. The key to understanding what may initially appear simply as hypocrisy perhaps lies in two different understandings of individualism. First, there is the humanist understanding, which, from a belief in self-determination, instructs us that, beyond a certain age, each individual is responsible for the shape and character of his or her own life. When harnessed to a liberal capitalist economy that defines choice in terms of different types of acquisition, this necessarily gives rise to some selfishness of behaviour as individuals learn to treat (p.63) their relationships, their career and even their own personality traits as objects to be acquired but also as indicators of value in future social and economic transactions (although the distinction between social and economic tends to lose its meaning here, and this is one of Houellebecq's most striking lessons). Faced with this kind of individualism, and the objectification it tends to operate among people and relationships, Houellebecq sometimes – albeit rarely – succumbs to a nostalgia for an era when families and other micro-communities played a more significant role, and he occasionally falls into the essentialist trap of idealising maternal love without sufficient recognition of the historical conditions that left generations of women with no choice but to devote their lives to their husbands and children.

But there is a second type of individualism evoked in Houellebecq's work that we might describe as posthumanist and that complicates this picture. This view would suggest that human self-determination is, in fact, very limited: indeed, that the very concepts of free will and intentional development are misleading. Instead, it suggests that human behaviour arises out of a complex, but nonetheless entirely determined, set of causes that include evolutionary instincts, physical, genetic and neurobiological constraints, cultural norms and infant socialisation. Our range of possible responses to any given situation might be somewhat greater and less predictable than that of, say, a chimpanzee, but it is nonetheless determined by a series of factors of which we may only be dimly aware in the moment. From this posthumanist perspective, then, if human beings are individualistic, it is because they are animals like any other and concerned above all with their own survival. Social relations (families, clans, etc.) emerged at an earlier stage in the life of our species as a means of ensuring the survival of individuals within a hostile environment, just as other animals congregate in herds for their own protection or hunt in packs for maximum efficiency. Arguably, however, in our advanced technological societies – and especially in western social democracies where the basic needs of all are guaranteed by the state – these small-scale social units no longer serve an essential function and, for some, they can be seen to hinder the individual's full enjoyment of the resources the world has to offer. This understanding of the world seems to lie behind the cold logic of the isolated protagonists in Plateforme and La Carte et le territoire. This type of individualism is also destructive of families, but to ascribe it to wilful selfishness would be to ignore its much deeper historical causes. It is perhaps the difficulty of separating these two individualisms that leads Houellebecq (p.64) to the extreme solutions of his science-fiction Utopias, which many readers have seen as depressing visions, drastic failures to think through our common plight. As we will see in Chapter 3, the cloned future of La Possibilité d'une île, in particular, eradicates individualism as we understand it, but at the cost of society as a whole. Abandoning all social interaction appears as the only way out of individualism's aporia. In the next chapter, we will see how Houellebecq brings these stark conclusions to bear on the social questions arising from economic globalisation in Plateforme and La Carte et le territoire.


(1) ‘almost the sole theme of his narratives’, Sabine van Wesemael, ‘Le Freudisme de Michel Houellebecq: Extension du domaine de la lutte, une histoire de maladie’, CRIN 43 (2004), pp. 117–26 (p. 118).

(2) Deciding what constitutes pornography is of course notoriously problematic and one person's pornography is another person's erotica. These problems of definition are the subject of this and the following paragraph and I have tried to make clear what each critic's understanding of the term implies. For my own purposes, I am working with the following commonsense understanding of pornography: a representation is pornographic if it is sold on the understanding that it contains graphic depictions of sexual bodies and/or sexual activity and that the principal goal of the representation is the sexual arousal or titillation of the consumer, over and above any other effects that the representation may have (e.g., related to its aesthetic qualities). This understanding is consistent with that of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2008), which defines pornography as ‘printed or visual matter intended to stimulate sexual excitement’. From this perspective, I do not believe anyone could seriously claim that any of Houellebecq's novels are pornographic as a whole, although certain passages could be seen to serve a pornographic function. It is precisely this question that is explored in these paragraphs.

(3) Murielle Lucie Clément, ‘Michel Houellebecq: Érotisme et pornographie’, CRIN 43 (2004), pp. 99–115 (pp. 99–100).

(4) Franc Schuerewegen, ‘Scènes de cul’, CRIN 43 (2004), pp. 91–8 (p. 92).

(5) Victoria Best and Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies: Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 192.

(6) Douglas Morrey, ‘Michel Houellebecq and the International Sexual (p.166) Economy’, Portal: Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies 1.1 (2004): http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/ojs/index.php/portal/article/viewArticle/44/0.

(7) Best and Crowley, The New Pornographies, p. 181.

(8) Clément, ‘Michel Houellebecq: Érotisme et pornographie’, p. 114.

(9) Schuerewegen, ‘Scènes de cul’, p. 93.

(10) Julian Barnes, ‘Haine et hédonisme: L'art insolent de Michel Houellebecq’, Les Inrockuptibles, special issue Houellebecq (2005), pp. 30–5 (p. 33).

(11) Michel Houellebecq, ‘En toutes lettres’, Les Inrockuptibles, special issue Houellebecq (2005), pp. 10–14 (p. 13).

(13) Mads Anders Baggesgaard, ‘Le Corps en vue – trois images du corps chez Michel Houellebecq’, in Murielle Lucie Clément and Sabine van Wesemael (eds), Michel Houellebecq sous la loupe (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), pp. 241–52.

(14) ‘The sluts were wearing nothing under their tee shirts. Bruno watched them as they passed; his cock ached’ (PE, 98; 114).

(15) Best and Crowley, The New Pornographies, p. 186.

(16) ‘it was a melodrama where the characters were babes and dogs, hot guys and bitches; that was Bruno's world’ (PE, 122; 143).

(17) ‘the girl was no great beauty, and would doubtless be a pushover; her breasts, though good-sized, were already a bit slack, and her buttocks appeared flaccid; in a few years, one felt, all this would sag completely. On the other hand her somewhat audacious get-up unambiguously underlined her intention to find a sexual partner […] here was a girl who must surely carry condoms in her bag’ (EDL, 112; 110–11).

(18) ‘she had probably been quite pretty once, but her delicate features had faded a little and her skin was blotchy […] The curve of her mons was beautiful even if her labia sagged a little’ (PE, 139–40; 165).

(19) ‘The good thing, though, was she had big tits […] Later, her tits started to go south and our marriage went with them’ (PE, 170; 203).

(20) ‘My body is like a bag criss-crossed with red threads’; ‘deep inside me I can feel /Something soft, and nasty, is moving’; ‘For years I have hated this meat /That covers my bones. A fatty layer /Sensitive to pain, slightly spongy…’ (Po, 117).

(21) ‘you are always waiting /For a kind of tribute /That could be paid to you or refused /And your only possibility in the final analysis is to wait’ (Po, 102).

(22) ‘She's not all that pretty. As well as prominent teeth she has lifeless hair, little eyes that burn with anger. No breasts or buttocks to speak of. God has not, in truth, been too kind to her […] I get the impression she's beyond trying it on with a man’ (EDL, 28; 25–6).

(23) ‘That hole she had at the base of her belly [that] must appear so useless (p.167) to her; a prick can always be cut off, but how do you forget the emptiness of a vagina?’ (EDL, 47; 44).

(24) ̒At the time I knew her, in the bloom of her seventeen years, Brigitte Bardot was truly repulsive. First of all she was extremely fat, a porker and even a super-porker, with abundant rolls of fat gracelessly disposed at the intersections of her obese body. Yet had she followed a slimming diet of the most frightening severity for twenty-five years her fate would not have been markedly improved. Because her skin was blotchy, puffy and acned. And her face was wide, flat and round, with little deep-set eyes, and straggly, lusterless hair. Indeed, the comparison with a sow forced itself on everyone in an inevitable and natural way. She had no girlfriends, and obviously no boyfriends. She was therefore completely alone […] Her hormonal mechanisms must have functioned normally, there's no reason to suppose otherwise. And then? […] Did she imagine masculine hands lingering between the folds of her obese belly? (EDL, 88–9; 87–8).

(25) ‘The terrible predicament of a beautiful girl is that only an experienced womaniser, someone cynical and without scruple, feels that he is up to the challenge. More often than not, she will lose her virginity to some filthy lowlife in what can prove to be the first step in an irrevocable decline’ (PE, 58; 67–8).

(26) Jean-François Patricola has also argued, not without some justification, that the female characters in Houellebecq's novels are not sufficiently interesting or well drawn for us to care about their unfortunate fates. See Michel Houellebecq ou la provocation permanente (Paris: éditions écriture, 2005), p. 146.

(27) ‘smoke marijuana cigarettes with very young girls attracted by the spiritual aura of the movement and then fuck them amongst the mandalas and the smell of incense’ (PE, 81; 94).

(28) ‘Having exhausted the possibilities of sexual pleasure, it was reasonable that individuals, liberated from the contraints of ordinary morality, should turn their attentions to the wider pleasures of cruelty’ (PE, 211; 252).

(29) Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution (London: Women's Press, 1990), p. 93.

(30) ‘women who turned 20 in the late Sixties found themselves in a difficult position when they hit 40. Most of them were divorced and could no longer count on the conjugal bond – whether warm or abject – whose decline they had served to hasten. As members of a generation who – more than any before – had endorsed a cult of youth over age, they could hardly claim to be surprised when they, in their turn, were dismissed by succeeding generations. As their flesh began to age, the cult of the body, which they had done so much to promote, simply filled them with disgust for their own bodies – a disgust they could see mirrored in the gaze of others’ (PE, 106–7; 125).

(31) ‘Never could abide feminists […] they could never shut up about the (p.168) washing up […] In a few short years, they managed to turn every man they knew into an impotent, whingeing neurotic. Once they'd done that, it was always the same story – they started going on about how there were no real men any more. They usually ended up ditching their boyfriends for a quick fuck with some macho idiot […] and [would] wind up with a kid. Then they're off making jam and collecting recipe cards from Marie Claire’ (PE, 145–6; 173–4).

(32) For instance, Natasha Walter notes that the ‘focus on independence and self-expression is now sold back to young women as the narrowest kind of consumerism and self-objectification’, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (London: Virago, 2011), p. 65. Nina Power even suggests that the very term ‘feminism’ may have ceased to be useful given its hasty appropriation by all manner of ideological positions: ‘As a political term, “feminism” has become so broad that it can be used to justify almost anything, even the invasion of other countries’, One-Dimensional Woman (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009), p. 12.

(33) ‘The guy's name was Laurent, he was about 30, expansive, with a little red moustache. He insisted that she call him Laurent […] He liked to establish a rapport with his clients; he thought of them almost as friends. He had been an advocate of women's rights from the beginning, and he believed that there was still a long way to go’ (PE, 86–7; 101–2).

(34) ‘He hasn't made love in over a year’ (Po, 14).

(35) ‘he was surrounded by the vulvas of young women, sometimes less than three feet away, but Bruno realised that they were closed to him’ (PE, 60; 69).

(36) ‘a bad farce, one last sordid joke that life had played on him’ (PE, 245; 295).

(37) ‘Most people, in fact, are quickly bored by the subject […] we need to hear ourselves repeat that life is marvellous and exciting; and it's abundantly clear that we rather doubt this’ (EDL, 31–2; 29–30).

(38) The remark is in fact made by a priest in conversation with the narrator. We will look again at the significance of this attribution in our discussion of narrative voice later in this chapter.

(39) Jean-Claude Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir (Paris: Seuil, 1998), p. 137.

(40) David Fontaine, No Sex Last Year: La vie sans sexe (Paris: Les Petits Matins/Arte Éditions, 2006), pp. 15–16.

(41) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 138.

(42) Virginie Despentes, King Kong Théorie (Paris: Grasset, 2006), p. 19.

(43) David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, ‘Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study’, Scandinavian Journal of Economics 106.3 (2004), pp. 393–415 (p. 393).

(44) Nathalie Dumas, ‘Lutte à 99F: La vie sexuelle selon Michel H. et son extension à Frédéric B.’, in Clément and van Wesemael, Michel Houellebecq sous la loupe, pp. 215–25 (pp. 218–19).

(45) ‘You must desire. You must be desirable. You must take part in the competition, in the struggle, in the life of the world. If you stop, you will no longer exist. If you stay behind, you're dead’ (I, 76/I2, 41/RV, 52).

(46) Jeffrey Weeks, The World We Have Won: The Remaking of Erotic and Intimate Life (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 124–5.

(47) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 16.

(48) Ibid., pp. 152–3.

(49) Jeffreys, Anticlimax, p. 96.

(50) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 136.

(51) Despentes, King Kong Théorie, p. 111.

(52) Jean Claude Bologne, Histoire du célibat et des célibataires (Paris: Fayard, 2004), pp. 333–4.

(53) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 424.

(54) Weeks, The World We Have Won, p. 113.

(55) ‘In a world that only respects youth, individuals are gradually devoured’ (PE, 112, my translation. Wynne's translation of this sentence is incorrect: ‘A world in which the young have no respect eventually devours everyone’, 131).

(56) ‘the sum of pleasures that life has left to offer is outweighed by the sum of pain […] This weighing up of pleasure and pain which, sooner or later, everyone is forced to make, leads logically, at a certain age, to suicide […] in general, the suicide of elderly people – by far the most commonplace – seems to us perfectly rational’ (PE, 247–8; 297).

(57) ‘For women, their mature years brought only failure, masturbation and shame’ (PE, 107; 126, modified).

(58) ‘It was starting to become a national obsession, all because they hated old people and loathed the idea of old age’ (PE, 198; 237–8).

(59) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 388.

(60) A. Rochelle Mabry, ‘About a Girl: Female Subjectivity and Sexuality in Contemporary “Chick” Culture’, in Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young (eds), Chick Lit: The New Women's Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 191–206 (p. 194).

(61) Ibid., p. 204.

(62) Bologne, Histoire du célibat, p. 353.

(63) Ibid., p. 9.

(64) Ibid., pp. 170–1.

(65) Also missing from statistics are the potentially significant numbers of people who are married but not having sex. As Catherine Hakim notes, ‘Celibate marriages are far more common than we realize, because hardly anyone wants to admit to the problem. Sex surveys never bother to provide the relevant statistics, because celibacy and sexual abstinence are not a problem for AIDS and other STDs’, Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital (London: Allen Lane, 2011), p. 59.

(67) ‘Why does my gaze frighten women away? Do they find it beseeching, desperate, angry or perverse? I don't know, I will probably never know; and this is the cause of my life's unhappiness’ (Po, 17).

(68) ‘The problem with Raphaël Tisserand – the foundation of his personality, indeed-is that he is extremely ugly’ (EDL, 54; 53).

(69) ‘protected from the world by a transparent film, inviolable and perfect […] like a shrink-wrapped chicken leg on a supermarket shelf’ (EDL, 99; 98).

(70) Douglas Morrey, ‘Sex and the Single Male: Houellebecq, Feminism and Hegemonic Masculinity’, Yale French Studies 116/117 (2009), pp. 141–52.

(71) R. W. Connell, Masculinities, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), p. 77.

(72) Ibid., p. 76.

(73) Compare the opening lines of the poem ‘L'amour, l'amour’: ‘Dans un ciné porno, des retraités poussifs / Contemplaient, sans y croire, / Les ébats mal filmés de deux couples lascifs; / Il n'y avait pas d'histoire.’ (‘In a porno cinema, wheezy pensioners /Gazed, incredulous, / At the poorly-filmed frolics of two lustful couples; /There was no story’ (Po, 127)).

(74) ‘He had no intention of really replying to any of the small ads; he did not feel up to a gang bang or a sperm fest. The women seeking single men were generally looking for black guys, and, in any case, he did not come close to the minimum size they required. Issue after issue, he came to the conclusion that his cock was too small for the porn circuit’ (PE, 101; 118).

(75) In Catherine Argand, ‘Michel Houellebecq’, Lire (September 1998).

(76) See Bertrand Leclair and Marc Weitzmann, ‘Le Désir liquidé’, Les Inrockuptibles, special issue Houellebecq (2005), pp. 56–62 (p. 56).

(77) Quoted in Gavin Bowd, ‘Michel Houellebecq and the Pursuit of Happiness’, Nottingham French Studies 41.1 (2002), pp. 28–39 (p. 34).

(78) In this, too, Houellebecq shares the conclusions of some feminists. Nina Power remarks that ‘Contemporary pornography informs us of one thing above all else: sex is a type of work, just like any other […] Contemporary pornography is realistic only in the sense that it sells back to us the very worst of our aspirations: domination, competition, greed and brutality’, One-Dimensional Woman, pp. 55–6.

(79) ‘Gaping from multiple penetrations and brutal fingering (often using several fingers, or indeed the whole hand), their cunts had all the sensitivity of blocks of lard. Imitating the frenetic rhythm of porn actresses, they brutally jerked his cock in a ridiculous piston motion as though it was a piece of dead meat […] He came quickly, with no real pleasure’ (PE, 245; 294).

(80) ‘Sexual frustration in the human male manifests itself as a dull ache in the lower abdomen as though the sperm flows up, and shooting pangs towards the chest. The penis itself is painful, constantly hot and slightly sweaty’ (PE, (p.171) 132; 154). Again, the translation here is dubious: ‘dull ache’ hardly gives the sense of violent tension conveyed by Houellebecq's ‘crispation violente’.

(81) Schuerewegen, ‘Scènes de cul’, pp. 96–7 and van Wesemael, ‘Le Freudisme de Michel Houellebecq’, p. 120.

(82) ‘She could only assist, in silent hatred, at the liberation of others; witness the boys pressing themselves like crabs against others' bodies; sense the relationships being formed, the experiences being undertaken, the orgasms surging forth; live to the full a silent self-destruction when faced with the flaunted pleasure of others […] jealousy and frustration fermented slowly to become a swelling of paroxystic hatred’ (EDL, 91; 90).

(83) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, pp. 87–8.

(84) ‘There's nothing more stupid, more hateful and more obnoxious than a teenage boy […] at puberty boys seem to epitomise everything that is evil in mankind […] When you think about it, sexuality has to be a corrupting influence’ (PE, 168; 199).

(85) Bologne, Histoire du célibat, p. 334.

(86) ‘it makes me furious that, as a woman who isn't very attractive to men, I am constantly made to feel as though I have no right to exist’, Despentes, King Kong Théorie, p. 10.

(87) Ibid., pp. 126–7.

(88) Hakim, Honey Money, p. 1.

(89) Ibid., pp. 11–12.

(90) Ibid., p. 39.

(91) Ibid., p. 21.

(92) For one particularly visceral attack on this culture and the suffering it causes, see Laurie Penny, Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2011).

(93) Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Cambridge: Polity, 1988), pp. 193–4.

(94) Sheila Jeffreys, Unpacking Queer Politics: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), p. 65.

(95) ‘A life can just as well be both empty and short’ (EDL, 48; 46).

(96) ‘I never imagined that life would be so constrained, that there would be so few opportunities’ (PE, 275; 329).

(97) ‘The evening is ruined; maybe the week, maybe my life’ (Po, 17).

(98) ‘And it will start all over again, every day, until the end of the world’ (Po, 18).

(99) ‘everything seemed normal apart from me’ (Po, 67).

(100) ‘I'm no longer really here’ (Po, 71).

(101) ‘Something inside me has died’ (Po, 147).

(102) ‘Nobody looks at me, I don't exist’ (Po, 165).

(103) See, for instance, Denis Demonpion, Houellebecq non autorisé: Enquête sur un phénomène (Paris: Maren Sell Éditeurs, 2005), p. 196 and Claire Cros, (p.172) Ci-gîl Paris (L'impossibilité d'un monde): Pamphlet d'anticipation (Paris: éditions Michalon, 2005), p. 50.

(104) van Wesemael, ‘Le Freudisme de Michel Houellebecq’, p. 117.

(105) Ibid., p. 119. See also van Wesemael, ‘La Peur de l'émasculation’, in Clément and van Wesemael, Michel Houellebecq sous la loupe, pp. 169–83 (p. 176).

(106) ‘Would you be willing to make love with me?’ (EDL, 148; 148).

(107) ‘vile scumbags of delirious egocentrism’ (EDL, 103; 102, modified).

(109) ‘they were simply lacking in love. Their gestures, their attitudes, their dumb show betrayed an excruciating craving for physical contact and caresses; but that wasn't possible, of course’ (EDL, 149; 149).

(110) Martin Robitaille, ‘Houellebecq ou l'extension d'un monde étrange’, Tangence 76 (2004), pp. 87–103.

(111) Éric Naulleau, for instance, writes: ‘Michel Houellebecq n'est pas un écrivain à style, mais un écrivain à thèmes’ (‘Michel Houellebecq is a writer with themes, but with no style’), Au secours, Houellebecq revient! Rentrée littéraire: par ici la sortie … (Paris: Chifflet & Cie, 2005), p. 86.

(112) Dominique Noguez, Houellebecq, en fait (Paris: Fayard, 2003), p. 97.

(113) Best and Crowley, The New Pornographies, p. 190.

(114) ‘When it comes to form, don't hesitate to contradict yourself. Branch out, change direction as often as necessary’ (RV, 16).

(115) Christian Monnin, ‘Le Roman comme accélérateur de particules: Sur Les Particules élémentaires de Michel Houellebecq’, Liberté 242 (1999), pp. 11–28.

(116) Best and Crowley, The New Pornographies, p. 185.

(117) Marc Weitzmann, ‘L'Arpenteur’, Les Inrockuptibles, special issue Houellebecq (2005), pp. 16–19 (p. 18).

(118) ‘a logic of the hypermarket in which forms are all accessible and constitue so many consumer products available for instant gratification’, Robert Dion and Élisabeth Haghebaert, ‘Le Cas de Michel Houellebecq et la dynamique des genres littéraires’, French Studies 55.4 (2001), pp. 509–24 (p. 522).

(119) ‘because the “reality” envisaged by scientific disciplines is revealed to be just as fragmented, contradictory and open to doubt as its literary representation’, ibid., p. 515.

(120) ‘an ambivalence that is neither self-righteous nor gratuitously provocative’, ibid., p. 523.

(121) Noguez, Houellebecq, en fait, pp. 105–7.

(122) ‘Their voices appeared to come from on high, a bit like the Holy Ghost's’ (EDL, 6; 4).

(123) ‘What a capacity I have for grandiose mental images, and of seeing them through! How clear, once more, is the image I have of the world!’ (EDL, 155; 154).

(124) ‘There's something very special about this country. Everything seems constantly trembling: the grass in the fields or the water on the lake, everything signals its presence’ (PE, 292; 350).

(125) Marc Weitzmann, Rester vivant, méthode; La Poursuite du bonheur’, Les Inrockuptibles, special issue Houellebecq, pp. 45–6 (p. 46) (first published in Les Inrockuptibles in June 1997).

(126) ‘It is a drama in microcosm played out between an absolute metrical structure and those textual elements which, like the poet, don't quite fit in’, David Evans, ‘Structure et suicide dans les Poésies de Michel Houellebecq’, in Clément and van Wesemael, Michel Houellebecq sous la loupe, pp. 201–14 (p. 211).

(127) Roger Célestin, ‘Du style, du plat, de Proust et de Houellebecq’ and Olivier Bessard-Banquy, ‘Le Degré zero de l'écriture selon Houellebecq’, both in Clément and van Wesemael, Michel Houellebecq sous la loupe, pp. 345–56 (p. 350) and pp. 357–65 (p. 357).

(128) Josyane Savigneau, ‘Houellebecq et l'Occident’, Le Monde, 30 August 2001.

(129) Robitaille, ‘Houellebecq ou l'extension d'un monde étrange’.

(130) ‘Anything that contributes to dissolving boundaries, to making the world into a homogeneous and ill-defined whole, will be imbued with poetic power’ (I, 33; I2, 77).

(131) ‘The poetic experience and the neurotic experience are two paths that cross each other, intertwine, and usually end up becoming confused’ (RV, 25).

(132) Noguez, Houellebecq, en fait, pp. 109–10.

(133) ‘It is as though, on the blackest of subjects, the very peculiar quality of this grey humour were obtained through a blank [or, white: blanche] writing’, ibid., p. 34.

(134) ‘Get the hang of it on a young nigger!’ (EDL, 118; 117).

(135) ‘The objects are really there, but his reason is absent / He crosses the night in search of meaning’ (Po, 14).

(136) Noguez, Houellebecq, en fait, p. 98. In addition, as Olivier Bardolle remarks, if Houellebecq's style were truly ‘flat’, it would give rise to no emotion in his readers, which cannot conceivably be the case, given his extraordinary success. La Littérature à vif (Le cas Houellebecq) (Paris: L'Esprit des péninsules, 2004), p. 54.

(137) Célestin, ‘Du style, du plat, de Proust et de Houellebecq’, p. 347.

(138) ‘My idea is not to try and charm you with subtle psychological observations. I have no desire to draw applause from you with my finesse and my humour […] All that accumulation of realistic detail, with clearly differentiated characters hogging the limelight, has always seemed pure bullshit to me, I'm sorry to say […] Might as well watch lobsters marching up the side of an aquarium […] Added to which, I associate very little with other human beings’ (EDL, 16; 13–14).

(139) ‘Of course experience has quickly taught me that I'm only called on to meet people who, if not exactly alike, are at least quite similar in their manners, their opinions, their tastes, their general way of approaching life […] Despite that I've also had occasion to remark that human beings are often bent on making themselves conspicuous by subtle and disagreeable variations, defects, character traits and the like – doubtless with the goal of obliging their interlocutors to treat them as individuals […] Certain higher management types are crazy about filleted herrings; others detest them’ (EDL, 21; 19).

(140) ‘Despite the nights when they were as one, each remained trapped in individual consciousness and separate flesh. Rollmops were clearly not the solution’ (PE, 201; 241).

(141) In addition, Aurélien Bellanger remarks astutely that many of Houellebecq's sentences seem to end in a phonetically awkward way which would cause the reader's mouth to twist into a sneer or pout. Houellebecq écrivain romantique (Paris: éditions Léo Scheer, 2010), p. 89.

(142) ‘I can just picture her breaking into sobs in the morning as she gets dressed, all alone’ (EDL, 35; 33).

(143) ‘filled with old coffee filters, ravioli in tomato sauce and mangled genitalia’ (PE, 16; 14).

(144) ‘an increased strangeness’, Robitaille, ‘Houellebecq ou l'extension d'un monde étrange’.

(145) ‘David took up jogging and began to hang out with Satanist groups’ (PE, 208; 249).

(146) Monnin, ‘Le Roman comme accélérateur de particules’.

(147) ‘the tragic intervenes at precisely that moment when the derisory ceases to be seen as fun’ (I, 73; I2, 38/RV, 50).

(148) Best and Crowley, The New Pornographies, pp. 192,199.

(149) Liesbeth Korthals Altes, ‘Persuasion et ambiguïté dans un roman à thèse postmoderne (Les Particules élémentaires)’, CRIN 43 (2004), pp. 29–45 (pp. 37–8).

(150) ‘One is never sure whether he is mocking or endorsing the remarks of his characters’, Isabelle Rüf, ‘Michel Houellebecq organise l'orgasme’, Le Temps, 1 September 2001.

(151) Best and Crowley, The New Pornographies, p. 181.

(152) Korthals Altes, ‘Persuasion et ambiguïté’, p. 43.

(153) ‘the most gifted great-grandchild of the Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet’, Noguez, Houellebecq, en fait, p. 74.

(154) ‘The “I” is truly flexible. With it, you can also express, at best, what you wouldn't want to be’, Houellebecq, in Savigneau, ‘Houellebecq et l'Occident’.

(155) Best and Crowley, The New Pornographies, p. 191.

(156) ‘it's been a while since the meaning of my actions has seemed clear to me’ (EDL, 152–3; 151).

(157) See, for instance: ‘Tu déjeuneras seul / D'un panini saumon / Dans la rue de Choiseul / Et tu trouveras ça bon’ (‘You will lunch alone / On a salmon panini / In the rue de Choiseul / And you will find it good’ (Po, 222)).

(158) ‘You have had a life […] Existence seemed so rich in new possibilities […] You too, you took an interest in the world’ (EDL, 13; 11).

(159) ‘You are far from the edge, now. Oh yes! How far from the edge you are! You long believed in the existence of another shore; such is no longer the case […] The water seems colder and colder to you, more and more galling. You aren't that young any more. Now you are going to die. Don't worry. I am here. I won't let you sink. Go on with your reading’ (EDL, 14; 12).

(160) We can note in passing, but without lingering unduly, Jean-François Patricola's argument that, if Houellebecq's narrative voice and focalisation are inconsistent, it is because he simply doesn't understand such literary principles having undergone a scientific training as part of his formal education. This view of literature as something that can be exclusively learned in school should be forcefully resisted. See Patricola, Michel Houellebecq ou la provocation permanente, pp. 169–70.

(161) Korthals Altes, ‘Persuasion et ambiguïté’, p. 39.

(163) ‘Yes, it's hard work, but work doesn't frighten her’ (EDL, 27; 25). Bellanger suggests that free indirect speech is more than a stylistic figure for Houellebecq, rather it is ‘un état cognitif normal définissant une importante modalité de notre compréhension du monde et résumant notre existence sociale’ (‘a normal cognitive state defining an important modality of our understanding of the world and summing up our social existence’), Houellebecq écrivain romantique, p. 121.

(164) ‘Maybe, I tell myself, this tour of the provinces is going to alter my ideas’ (EDL, 49; 47).

(165) ‘my company developed an authentic enterprise culture’ (EDL, 17; 15).

(166) ‘Discovering human existence / As you would lift up a bandage’ (Po, 290).

(167) ‘confirmed the dinner dance as the ideal means of sexual selection in non-communist societies […] primitive societies were brought together by feasting, dancing and the pursuit of collective trance’ (PE, 116; 136).

(168) ‘From the point of view of the good of the species, they were a couple of ageing human beings of little genetic value’ (PE, 237; 282).

(169) ‘Though he was surrounded by celebrities, his gaze never seemed more than indifferent. He filmed Sagan and Bardot with the same attention to detail as he might a lobster’ (PE, 29; 29–30).

(170) Noguez, Houellebecq, en fait, p. 121.

(171) ‘makes him look rather like a scarab beetle’ (EDL, 62; 61).

(172) ‘At the next table, half a dozen Italian tourists were babbling excitedly like innocent birds’ (PE, 269; 321).

(173) ‘Animal societies, for the most part are organised according to a strict hierarchy where rank relates directly to the physical strength of each member […] Combat rituals generally determine status within the group […] While dominance and brutality are commonplace in the animal kingdom, among higher primates, notably the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), weaker animals suffer acts of gratuitous cruelty. This tendency is at its greatest in primitive human societies and among children and adolescents in developed societies’ (PE, 45–6; 51).

(174) Robert Dion, ‘Faire la bête: Les fictions animalières dans Extension du domaine de la lutte’, CRIN 43 (2004), pp. 55–66 (p. 59).

(175) On the misconception that some organisms are ‘more evolved’ than others, see Jean-Marie Schaeffer, La Fin de l'exception humaine (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), p. 191.

(176) ‘What serious reasons do we have to value conscious life more highly than the lethargic existence of mussels or tadpoles? What serious reasons do we have to hold existence to be preferable to non-existence?’ Noguez, Houellebecq, en fait, p. 41.

(177) Dion and Haghebaert, ‘Le Cas de Michel Houellebecq’, p. 519.

(178) ‘it was mainly the idea of sleeping with a priest that excited her, that she found droll’ (EDL, 140; 140).

(179) Monnin, ‘Le Roman comme accélérateur de particules’.

(180) ‘The use of sex in marketing and the resulting breakdown of the traditional couple, together with the economic boom […] coming to post-war Europe, suggested a vast untapped market [for cosmetic surgery]’ (PE, 27; 28).

(181) ‘You are at one with nature, have plenty of fresh air and a couple of fields to plough (the number and size of which are strictly fixed by a hereditary principle). Now and then you kill a boar; you fuck occasionally, mostly with your wife, whose role is to give birth to children; said children grow up to take their place in the same ecosystem. Eventually, you catch something serious, and you're history’ (PE, 24; 24).

(182) Jack L. Abecassis, ‘The Eclipse of Desire: L'Affaire Houellebecq’, Modern Language Notes 115 (2000), pp. 801–26 (p. 804).

(183) ‘already betraying a hint of the dumb resignation of women’ (PE, 38; 41).

(184) ‘Clearly I could do nothing for him’ (EDL, 140; 140).

(185) ‘I could do nothing to lighten his burden’ (EDL, 22; 20).

(186) ‘The permanent impossibility of action’ (Po, 13).

(187) Best and Crowley, The New Pornographies, p. 182.

(188) ‘had given [him] nothing but trouble’ (EDL, 8; 6).

(189) ‘Saying you've lost your car is tantamount to being struck off the social register’ (EDL, 9; 7).

(190) ‘these days the purchase of a bed does present enormous difficulties, enough to drive you to suicide’ (EDL, 101; 100).

(191) ‘To buy a single bed is to publicly admit you don't have a sex life, and (p.177) that you don't envisage having one in the near or even distant future’ (EDL, 102; 101).

(192) ‘the genuine modern paradise’ (I, 42; I2,58).

(193) ‘First I fell into a freezer compartment / I started to cry and was a little scared / Someone grumbled that I was spoiling the atmosphere / In order to look normal I carried on walking’ (Po, 113).

(194) ‘In the most recent issue of Dernières Nouvelles de Monoprix, the accent was ever more on “real” food. Once again the editor took issue with the notion that convenience and gastronomy were incompatible’ (PE, 228; 272). This translation is, again, rather inadequate, removing the reference to ‘enterprising citizenship’ and replacing ‘fitness’ (forme) with ‘convenience’.

(195) Marc Weitzmann, ‘Les Particules élémentaires’, Les Inrockuptibles, special issue Houellebecq (2005), pp. 63–5 (p. 63) (first published in Les Inrockuptibles, August 1998).

(196) ‘Long before the phrase became fashionable, my company developed an authentic enterprise culture (the creation of a logo, distribution of sweatshirts to the salaried staff, motivation seminars in Turkey). It's a top-notch enterprise, enjoying an enviable reputation in its field; a good firm, whichever way you look at it’ (EDL, 17; 15–16).

(197) ‘I don't know what this is but will subsequently learn that IGREFs are a particular kind of higher civil servant who are only to be found in organisations depending on the Ministry of Agriculture – a bit like the graduates of the école Normale d'Administration, but less qualified all the same’ (EDL, 58; 58).

(198) ‘the École Supérieure de Commerce in Bastia, or something of the kind, which is scarcely believable’ (EDL, 58; 58). The translation is questionable: it is not that Tisserand's declared training is unbelievable, rather that it lacks any credibility within the sector.

(199) ‘Once you start work every year seems the same’ (PE, 185; 222, modified).

(200) ‘He doesn't walk down the corridors, he glides. If he could fly, he would’ (EDL, 36; 34).

(201) ‘It is a very tender moment. He is leaning towards me and me alone. You'd think we were two lovers whom life had just reunited after a long separation’ (EDL, 37; 35).

(202) ‘In him I discern a true professional in the management of human resources; I'm putty in his hands. He seems ever more handsome to me’ (EDL, 39; 37).

(203) Luc Boltanski and ève Chiapello, Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1999).

(204) ‘Without projects, without motivation, incapable of communication, the depressive appears as the exact opposite of our norms of socialisation’, Alain Ehrenberg, La Fatigue d'être soi: Dépression et société (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2008), p. 251.

(205) Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 6–7.

(206) Ibid., p. 34.

(207) Boltanski and Chiapello, Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme, pp. 235–6. Hakim's notion of ‘erotic capital’ is also relevant here. As she notes, ‘Erotic capital becomes valuable in occupations with business-related socializing and public display, where private life is in part a public performance, and erotic capital becomes especially valuable for both spouses’, Honey Money, p. 26.

(208) Boltanski and Chiapello, Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme, p. 506.

(209) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 478.

(210) ‘a kind of “active life” of the feelings which, it too, would experience its periods of unemployment, its changes of management […] and its retirement’, Bologne, Histoire du célibat, p. 364.

(211) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 40.

(212) Ibid., pp. 153–4, 165.

(213) ‘On the sexual plane […] the success is less resounding’ (EDL, 15; 13).

(214) ‘But in reality, above all when one is working, it's no time at all’ (EDL, 15; 13).

(215) On this point, see Boltanski and Chiapello, Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme, pp. 231–2 and also Morrey, ‘Michel Houellebecq and the International Sexual Economy’.

(216) ‘defines his thinking precisely, in speaking to me of the “possibilities for social rapport” offered by the job. I burst out laughing, much to his surprise’ (EDL, 132; 132).

(217) ‘If the simplified economic hierarchy was for a long time the focus of sporadic opposition (movements in favour of “social justice”), it should be noted that the erotic hierarchy, perceived as being more natural, was rapidly internalised and quickly became the object of a wide consensus’ (I, 66/I2, 30/RV, 45).

(218) ‘The selection is brutal, without nuance or room for manoeuvre. You can either pay or you can't. You're either forced to sell your body or you're not. You're judged to be a high-return on investment or completely worthless’, Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 123.

(219) ‘a game, a distraction based as much on narcissism as on sexual pleasure’ (PE, 282; 339).

(220) ‘Sexual desire is preoccupied with youth, and the tendency to regard ever-younger girls as fair game was simply a return to the norm; a return to the true nature of desire, comparable to the return of stock prices to their true value after a run on the exchange’ (PE, 106; 125).

(221) ‘In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude’ (EDL, 100; 99).

(222) ‘The Duchesse de Guermantes has a lot less dosh than Snoop Doggy Dog [sic]; Snoop has less than Bill Gates, but he gets the girls wet. There are two possible criteria, that's it’ (PE, 192–3; 231).

(223) For one notable exception to this rule, see Bellanger, Houellebecq écrivain romantique, pp. 94–5.

(224) ‘There's a system based on domination, money and fear – a somewhat masculine system […]; there's a feminine system based on seduction and sex […]. And that's it […] Maupassant believed there was nothing else; and it drove him completely mad’ (EDL, 147; 147).

(225) ‘Sexuality is a system of social hierarchy’ (EDL, 93; 92).

(226) ‘letting the candelabra of stupefaction light themselves in your brains, I will continue to unwind the coils of my reasoning with the silent moderation of the rattlesnake’ (EDL, 93; 92).

(227) ‘the dachshund dropped off to sleep before the end of the poodle's speech’ (EDL, 96; 95).

(228) Carole Sweeney, ‘“And yet some free time remains…”: Post-Fordism and Writing in Michel Houellebecq's Whatever’, Journal of Modern Literature 33.4 (2010), pp. 41–56 (p. 48).

(229) ‘Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society’ (EDL, 100; 99). Clearly the decision to render the novel's title in English as the (perhaps) misleadingly apathetic Whatever militates against any consideration of Houellebecq as a political writer. Sweeney, too, notes ‘the tight-lipped truculence and apparent indifference suggested by the translation’ and the fact that ‘the linguistic inertia expressed by “whatever” definitively closes down the possibility of and the desire for further meaningful communication’, ‘“And yet some free time remains…”’, pp. 41–2.

(230) ‘Things were proceeding as normal then. The struggle was continuing’ (EDL, 79; 78).

(231) ‘At least […], he'll have battled to the end […] I know that in his heart there was still the struggle, the desire and the will to struggle’ (EDL, 121; 120).

(232) Weitzmann, ‘Les Particules élémentaires’, p. 64.

(233) Weitzmann, ‘L'Arpenteur’, pp. 18–19.

(234) Dion, ‘Faire la bête’, p. 57 n. 14.

(235) ‘could be interpreted as the opposite of what it means’, Houellebecq, in Leclair and Weitzmann, ‘Le Désir liquidé’, p. 56.

(236) ‘the intuition that the universe is based on separation, suffering and evil; the decision to describe that state of things, and perhaps to overcome it […] The initial act is a radical refusal of the world such as it is’ (I, 39/I2, 55).

(237) All of the question, of course, is to know what kind of resistance. Bruno Viard argues that, at bottom, Houellebecq takes a left-wing stance with regard to the economy but is conservative in his views on sexuality. He suggests that (p.180) the central argument of Extension du domaine de la lutte, while it may appear banal, is in fact highly original precisely because of this unusual combination of left-wing economic views with a conservative approach to sexuality. Viard, Houellebecq au scanner: La faute à mai 68 (Nice: Les Éditions Ovadia, 2008), pp. 38–41. (NB this book has two titles! The cover gives Houellebecq au scanner and the title-page Houellebecq au laser.)

(238) ‘the sexual model proposed by the dominant culture (advertising, magazines, health education groups) was governed by the principle of adventure: in such a system, pleasure and desire become part of the process of seduction, and favour originality, passion and individual creativity (all qualities also required of employees in their professional capacities)’ (PE, 244; 293).

(239) ‘Back in Paris, they had happy moments together, like stills from a perfume ad’ (PE, 239; 285).

(240) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 9.

(241) It is worth pointing out, however, that Houellebecq's understanding of Huxley's intentions in Brave New World is arguably quite wrong. Jerry Varsava insists that ‘Houellebecq's appropriation of elements of Brave New World is based on a counterfactual intertextuality that radically transvalues Huxley's insistent anti-utopian liberalism’, Jerry A. Varsava, ‘Utopian Yearnings, Dystopian Thoughts: Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles and the Problem of Scientific Communitarianism’, College Literature 32.4 (2005), pp. 145–67 (p. 158).

(242) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 473.

(243) ‘We refuse liberal ideology because it is / incapable of giving a sense, a direction to the / reconciliation of the individual with his fellows in / a community that could be qualified as human, / And in fact the goals it sets for itself are altogether / different’ (Po, 52).

(244) ‘Because the individual, by which I mean the human individual, / is generally both a cruel and a miserable little animal, / And it is in vain that we put our trust in him unless / he is to be restrained, enclosed and maintained within the / rigorous principles of an irreproachable morality, / Which is not the case’ (Po, 53).

(245) ‘passively caught up in the sweep of history’ (PE, 178; 212).

(246) ‘In principle, the subtle transfer of electrons between neurons and synapses in the brain is governed by quantum uncertainty. The sheer number of neurons, however, statistically cancels out such differences, ensuring that human behaviour is as rigorously determined – in broad terms and in the smallest detail – as any other natural system’ (PE, 92; 108).

(247) ‘If a man accepts the fact that everything must change, then his life is reduced to nothing more than the sum of his own experience – past and future generations mean nothing to him’ (PE, 169; 201).

(248) ‘Kids are a trap, they are the enemy – you have to pay for them all your life – and they outlive you’ (PE, 169; 201).

(249) ‘The couple quickly realised that the burden of caring for a small child was incompatible with their personal freedom’ (PE, 28; 28).

(250) ‘wanted to do his best for the boy, as long as it did not take up too much of his time’ (PE, 48; 53).

(251) ‘might make something of his life, unlike me’ (PE, 186; 223). Similar sentiments are evoked in Houellebecq's poem ‘Non réconcilié’ which opens with the line ‘Mon père était un con solitaire et barbare’ (‘My father was a lonely, barbaric idiot’) and continues: ‘Il m'a toujours traité comme un rat qu'on pourchasse; / La simple idée d'un fils, je crois, le révulsait. / Il ne supportait pas qu'un jour je le dépasse, / Juste en restant vivant alors qu'il crèverait’ (‘He always treated me like a rat to be exterminated; / The very idea of a son I believe repulsed him. / He couldn't bear the idea that one day I would surpass him, / Just by staying alive when he would die’ (Po, 114)).

(252) ‘I'd be heartbroken, but I think I'd probably feel relieved’ (PE, 214; 257).

(253) Bologne, Histoire du célibat, p. 371.

(254) Guillebaud, La Tyrannie du plaisir, p. 436.

(255) In addition, though, as Jerry Varsava has pointed out, Houellebecq's discourse of neoliberalism is perhaps rather overstated in relation to France especially which continues to have a sturdy system of social welfare, certainly compared to genuinely neoliberal countries like the USA. Varsava notes: ‘Ironically, Bruno Clément and Michel Djerzinski as well as Michel Renault, the anti-hero of Platform, are all in the employ of the French state, and Bruno and Renault both find sanctuary from the vicissitudes of life in state health facilities’, Varsava, ‘Utopian Yearnings’, p. 161.

(256) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Capitalisme et schizophrénie: L'Anti-OEdipe (Paris: Minuit, 1972–3).

(257) Weeks, The World We Have Won, p. 109.

(258) Ibid., p. 133.

(259) ‘a disease of responsibility […] The depressive is tired of having to become himself’, Ehrenberg, La Fatigue d'être soi, p. 10, original italics.

(260) ‘But I've had a bellyful of myself’ (EDL, 145; 145). Jean-François Patricola notes that, for Houellebecq himself as for his protagonists, no amount of professional or material success seems to alter their fundamental state, which is more or less depressed all the time (this remains true, also, in later novels: see Daniel in La Possibilité d'une île and Jed in La Carte et le territoire). For Patricola, this apparent contradiction implies that the depression may be nothing more than a pose, a marketable trait. But why should material success cause depression to lift, if that depression is caused, in the first place, by the alienating effort of playing oneself in the arena of consumer capitalism? See Patricola, Michel Houellebecq ou la provocation permanente, p. 143.

(261) ‘the passing of the pains of love simply left the field clear for boredom, emptiness and an anguished wait for old age and death’ (PE, 283; 339).

(262) ‘It was disconcerting to hear other people talk about him, especially as (p.182) they seemed completely oblivious to his presence. He could almost forget that he was there; it was not an unpleasant feeling’ (PE, 42; 46).

(263) ‘He had stopped wishing, he had stopped wanting, he was nowhere. Slowly, by degrees his spirit soared to a state of nothingness, the sheer joy that comes of not being part of the world. For the first time since he was 13, Bruno was happy’ (PE, 131; 154).

(264) ‘Calmly, without a moment's hesitation, he turned and walked towards the second sphere’ (PE, 236; 282).

(265) ‘It is enough, literally, to be still for a few seconds’ (I, 80/I2, 45/RV, 55).

(266) Boltanski and Chiapello, Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme, pp. 570–1. ‘Maybe a step in the direction of liberation today involves the possibility of slowing down the pace of connections, without thereby fearing that one no longer exists for others or sinking into oblivion and, ultimately, “exclusion”; of deferring engagement in a project or publishing a work, and instead sharing it – for example, in an exhibition or at a conference – without thereby seeing the recognition to which one believes one is entitled appropriated by another; of lingering over an ongoing project, whose full potential one had not realized at the outset; of putting off the moment of the test and, more generally perhaps, not abolishing tests – which would be bound to provoke feelings of injustice – but spacing them out’, Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliot (London and New York: Verso, 2005), p. 468.

(267) ‘we must each behave in such a way that another being's happiness is dependent upon our existence’ (I, 41/I2, 57).

(268) ‘the only superiority I recognise is that of goodness’ (I, 41/I2, 57).

(269) ‘In general, such human beings are invariably women’ (PE, 91; 107).

(270) ‘Sometimes women were so compassionate; they met aggression with empathy, cynicism with tenderness’ (PE, 134; 158).

(271) ‘Amid the carnage and brutality which was the lot of animals, the only glimmer of altruism was the maternal instinct, which had gradually evolved into mother love […] women were indisputably better than men’ (PE, 164; 195–6).

(272) See Leclair and Weitzmann, ‘Le Désir liquidé’, p. 61.

(273) ‘men aren't capable of love; the emotion is completely alien to them’ (PE, 168; 200).

(274) Luis de Miranda, ‘Quand Bourdieu et Houellebecq nous annoncent la femme’, Chronic'art (May 1998). Patricola links this deification of women to Houellebecq's upbringing, raised by his grandmother rather than his mother: this provides an image of pure maternal self-sacrifice without being tainted by female sexuality. Michel Houellebecq ou la provocation permanente, p. 207.

(275) Hochschild, The Managed Heart, p. 20.

(276) Ibid., p. 170.

(277) See Argand, ‘Michel Houellebecq’.

(278) Weitzmann, ‘Les Particules élémentaires’, p. 63.

(280) ‘The decline of work, the decline of the family? Good news! Virility automatically called into question as a result? More good news! We've had it up to here with all that bullshit’, Despentes, King Kong Théorie, pp. 155–6.