From Beyond

Photo: Wolfgang Schmidt/DPA/Landov

Michel Houellebecq is in trouble. His last novel, Platform, was a flop. Not content with producing just a tepid follow-up to the landmark Elementary Particles, Houellebecq actually undid much of that book’s work by travestying it, reversing it, watering it down. Some scenes were repeated and given different endings, and the tone perfected in the earlier book—a broken-down, bitter, quasi-sociological lyricism that he calls “depressive lucidity”—was deployed to make a completely different argument. The Elementary Particles attacked the sexual culture that emerged from the sixties; Platform focused its anger at Islamic extremism and seemed to let sex off the hook. So what now with Houellebecq? The appearance in English of his very first book, a study of the prewar American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, initially published in France in 1991, supplies some hints.

The book (which includes an annoyingly philistine introduction by Stephen King, who appears to think Houellebecq is some sort of French college professor) is a mixture of earnest critical analysis and young-writerly projection. Houellebecq turns Lovecraft, the scion of a shabby-genteel New England family whose tales of the monstrous many-tentacled Cthulhu have always been popular in the alternate-universe gaming community, into an early prophet of anti-modernity. “Absolute hatred of the world in general, aggravated by an aversion for the modern world in particular”: This is Houellebecq’s approving summary of Lovecraft’s worldview. As for the work, the idea of it is that “something is hiding beneath the surface of reality… . Something truly vile.” All of this quite congenial to a writer whose characters are compulsive public masturbators, racists, intolerably cruel to one another almost against their will—and who, eventually, as a general rule, kill themselves.

In Houellebecq’s reading, Lovecraft was initiated into the secrets of the vile by his disastrous move from Rhode Island to Brooklyn in 1924. He did it for love: At the age of 30, he’d married an older woman, Sonia Haft Greene, who was both Jewish and divorced (no small thing, Houellebecq points out, “for a conservative anti-Semite”). But affection, which had taken him this far, could take him no further. In the metropolis, he was jostled and out-hustled by immigrants and “negroes” and could not find work. “My coming to New York,” one of Lovecraft’s narrators concludes, “had been a mistake.” In that story, the hero is shown a terrifying vision of the future by a demon in Greenwich Village; in real life, the desperate Lovecraft and Sonia were forced to sell their furniture. For some time, he had to live alone in Red Hook. Two years later, utterly defeated, he left. The marriage failed.

Houellebecq’s own personal Red Hook had been the nightlife of Paris, in the clubs and early online chat sites, where he saw sexual competition at its basest and most fierce. Now, spurred to rage by the unhappy fate of Lovecraft, he begins to suspect a connection between money, sex, and modernity. “The value of a human being today is measured in terms of his economic efficiency and his erotic potential,” Houellebecq writes, “the two things that Lovecraft most despised.” And there’s no end in sight. “The reach of liberal capitalism has extended over minds… . Worse still, liberalism has spread from the domain of economics to the domain of sexuality.”

This is the remarkable idea that Houellebecq has chewed over and refined in all his subsequent writings: The sexual revolution, far from unbinding sex from the pressures of society, has merely tethered it, like all things, to the market. Some people might become sexually rich; others will be sexual paupers. And the state will not intervene.

Things are bad. “In the midst of the suicide of the West,” Houellebecq writes of the middle-aged couple at the center of The Elementary Particles, “it was clear they had no chance.” But an eerie kind of hope pervades that dark book. Or not exactly hope: Houellebecq imagines that humankind will die out and be replaced by a race of post-humans who will, for one thing, lack gender and therefore be safe from sexual competition.

This also feels like the legacy of Lovecraft, who had, Houellebecq writes, “the heroic and paradoxical desire to go beyond humanity.” As the best American postwar writers were nurtured in some way by the existence of an alternate universe, not the idea of the Soviet Union itself, or living there, but the idea that life could be different from the life they had, so Houellebecq was rescued from despair, in the fallow, end-of-history world of the nineties, by the thought of Lovecraft’s horrifying Cthulhu.

Lovecraft’s disastrous experience of New York turned him from a country-club racist to a foaming-at-the-mouth bigot. “Being poor,” Houellebecq writes, “he was forced to live in the same neighborhoods as the ‘obscene, repulsive, nightmarish’ immigrants” and “hideous negroes.” It also spurred him to write what Houellebecq calls his “great texts.” Houellebecq, for his part, has recently undergone the transformative experience of confronting radical Islam, and it’s what makes his performance in Platform so worrisome for those who admired his earlier work. Because Islam, too, is an alternate universe, and Houellebecq’s strident rejection of it in Platform—which culminates in an Islamic terrorist assault on an idyllic Thai sex-tourist resort—throws him straight into the arms of his former antagonists. “I Choose the West” was the title of Dwight Macdonald’s loyalty oath; add to that some Asian sex tourism, and Houellebecq is onboard.

Another novel is due out in France this summer. We’ll see what happens. It’s still possible Houellebecq was only just momentarily shaken from his position on Western modernity, on sex and money, those things that he and Lovecraft had hated so much and so well. Or maybe he was just flattering us. As one character says in The Elementary Particles, “I had to stick to my ‘liberal humanist’ position; I knew in my heart it was my only chance of getting laid.”

Among the Western values Michel Houellebecq has wound up defending is freedom of the press. In 2002, Muslim groups in France sued him for “inciting racial and religious hatred” for comments in a magazine interview: “The dumbest religion, after all, is Islam… . The Bible at least is beautifully written because the Jews have a heck of a literary talent.” Houellebecq declared in court, “I have never displayed the least contempt for Muslims, but I have as much contempt as ever for Islam.” He offered an additional disclaimer: “To get a general opinion out of me is almost absurd.” He was acquitted.

H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
By Michel Houellebecq.
McSweeney’s. 150 pages. $18.

From Beyond