Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Incredible Shiteness of Being: The Fiction of Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq at home in County Clare
French novelist Michel Houellebecq has a reputation as a pervy, intellectual, misanthropic shit stirrer. If you're a hipster who lives in Notting Hill, The West Village or the Rive Gauche this is sufficient reason to read his books but alas neither you nor I are such hepcats. Fortunately for us Houellebecq is also funny. I've read three of his books now: Platform, The Map and the Territory and Lanzarote and they were all pretty amusing. French humour is like French rock music: at best an acquired taste; but Houellebecq has decided not to mine the vein of French comedy that is exemplified by Jacques Tati and Marcel Marceau, no he's decided that he wants to be that rare fromage - a Frenchman who actually makes you laugh. 
Platform is his best book with a deliriously sarcastic first third, a rather boring middle section and a surprisingly great ending. Lanzarote is a kind of dry run for Platform and is terrific all the way through its large print 80 pages. The Map And The Territory is a different animal. It won the Prix Goncourt and has a much more serious feel about it. Houellebecq is really trying hard to say something about art (his hero is an artist) life (the artist is depressed) and the artificiality of the novel form (Michel Houellebecq appears as a character in the book). The book has attained some controversy because Houellebecq lifted entire sections of the novel from French Wikipedia, but thats not really the problem. The problem is that Houellebecq didn't sufficiently bring the funny, except in the chapters that take place in and around Shannon Airport where his depression and misanthropy really have a fertile soil in which to grow (as all of us who have spent time in Shannon will testify). Still if you're going to read one French novel this year The Map and the Territory is a good one to go for. If you want a few laughs and are not easily scandalised try Platform.