Michel Houellebecq has been described as the enfant terrible of contemporary French writers. And I think that’s an apt description, in the same way that Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son or that rambunctious kid from The Omen were enfant terribles.
Whatever is my second journey into the mind of Houellebecq, after The Elementary Participles, which I found particularly (nailed it) brilliant. Much like the protagonist of The Elementary Particles the man who narrates Whatever is a young(ish) office worker in a technical field, reasonably professionally successful, on the cusp of middle age, and afflicted with equal parts self-loathing, self-awareness and social detachment. Indeed, I believe the repeated use of Houellebecq’s characters operating in technical fields is a method of forcing the characters into impersonal lifestyles, a way of increasing their levels of detachment, while also emphasizing the absurdity of human existence in an increasingly technical and numbers driven world. At one point, and I’m paraphrasing here, Houellebecq writes that the world needs many more things but information is not one of them.
At its heart Whatever is a very slightly defined narrative encompassing a social-political thesis. We meet our hero, if he can be called that, after the great events of his life have already occurred; he’s already experienced his one great love affair, his only great heartbreak. He’s settled into his job without any hope or desire to change or to earn a promotion. He’s actually somewhat satisfied in a very unhappy way. Over the course of the very short novel our hero is propelled forward, first by the whims of his job, which takes him all over France, and then by his own growing (and ever-darkening) impulses. Indeed these impulses become so deranged that even I, knowing pretty much what to expect from the author, felt shocked and a little frightened as I continued reading. But as unsettling and funny (and it does get quite funny in places) the narrative becomes, it is merely entertaining set dressing for Houellebecq’s thesis on humanity, the absurdity of which is illustrated by putting these thoughts forward as a series of dialogues between various animals, a cow, a stork, an ape, etc. At this point the narrative dissolves and it is as if the reader has entered Houellebecq’s living room, where he’s sat us down and has begun reading to us from some deranged children’s book that he’d written, perhaps hastily and using his own blood or feces in lieu of a pen. He is at once very earnestly proffering his dissatisfactions and observances of people and the world at large while laughing at his own absurd notions. It, of all things, makes the hero of Whatever and Houellebecq himself unaccountably likeable, even sympathetic. Quite a trick to pull off for a main character who gets a depressed co-worker drunk and tries to convince him to commit murder, and for a writer who seems so unabashedly prejudiced and vile.