"I cannot think of another French novel over the past two decades that has generated this much interest, debate, and animosity," wrote Mark Lilla about Michel Houellebecq's novel Elementary Particles ten years ago in the New York Review of Books. The title of Lilla's essay, Night Thoughts, alludes to its conclusion, in which he notes that Houellebecq has written "a very knowing evocation of the night thoughts disturbing the slumber of the French centrist republic today."
Houellebecq evokes in particular, says Lilla, "a world in which love and soul have been abolished," a postmodern landscape of panting consumers jetting from one affluent setting to another in pursuit of material and sexual satisfaction.
Among these erotomanes will be found the "technically competent bureaucrats" who run our "global administrative and economic institutions;" but these people will have lost most of their "human characteristics," being devoted in their private lives mainly to "the cultivation of ... consumption, erotic satisfaction, and sports."
I don't know how much of a sports fan Dominique Strauss-Kahn is, but otherwise, in his combination of managerial competence, champagne socialism, and hebephrenic humping, the former head of the IMF seems to jump directly out of Houellebecq. To paraphrase Lilla, I cannot think of another French person over the last two decades who has generated this much interest, debate, and animosity. And surely this is because Strauss-Kahn's Houellebecqian appetites, culminating in his having possibly sexually attacked a hotel maid, are once again disturbing the slumber of the French.
The big picture here, the nightmare as much as night-thought, involves the national accomplishment of a sort of nervy debauched nihilism, a total cynicism at once secretive and brazen -- in other words, the emergence of confident sophisticated degeneracy as high-functioning French style. Adam Gopnik, in the New Yorker, talks about "what many in Paris see as the 'Italianization' of French life — the descent into what might become an unseemly round of Berlusconian squalor."
Houellebecq's literary distinction is that he doesn't shrink from describing the squalor. He gets right down in there, specifying its origins and traits. A mix of hyper-capitalist individualism and the corruption of '68 energies, the club échangiste culture of which M. and Mme. Strauss-Kahn were reportedly a part dominates the work of Houellebecq. Novel after novel, we're dragged into what one reviewer calls "the brilliantly banal awfulness... of Parisian sex clubs," full of the desperate old and calculating young, places where "concern for the body (health, beauty, sensation, etc.) has been raised to a cultural zenith, only without any corresponding apparatus to give meaning to decline and death."
Not that the French have a monopoly on all the fun. In his memoir, This Wild Darkness, the American novelist Harold Brodkey gets at the same vibe in New York City:
But what happens in a competitive city, among people who are clever imitators, students, really (more or less sedulous apes),is that the paucity of [emotional] authenticity leads to the constant manufacture of what you might call a sore-nerved and sensitive counterfeit sex. Counterfeit sex is a large part of what New York is. People here rebel by means of jealous promiscuity, a jealously restless sense of the possible happiness of others. What we have and live with is the institutionalization of sexual terror and sexual envy.
Michel Houellebecq has so keenly felt the leading edge of his own time's arrow that he seems to have created Dominique Strauss-Kahn.