Whatever by Michel Houellebecq
|Whatever by Michel Houellebecq|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Chris Bradshaw|
|Summary: Nobody does existential angst quite like the French and nobody in France does it with quite as much biting satire as Michel Houellebecq.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: May 2011|
|Publisher: Serpent's Tail|
|External links: Author's website|
Interviewed by BBC film critic Mark Kermode shortly before his 60th birthday, Woody Allen gave the bequiffed one this somewhat startling piece of advice, You get to my age, you realise that when you die you're really not losing that much. Those words sprang to mind while reading Whatever, first novel by Michel Houellebecq. The main protagonist in Whatever may be only half the age of the film director, but the outlook on life shared by both men seems strikingly similar.
Apart from early era Woody, nobody does existential angst quite like the French, and of the modern era of French writers, none does it with such savage, biting satire as Houllebecq. After finally winning over the French literary establishment with the Goncourt Prize-winning The Map and the Territory (published in the UK in September) comes this timely reissue of his debut novel.
Whatever centres on the largely mundane, often tedious world of a Parisian computer programmer. Financially comfortably off but lacking motivation and ambition, he finds some solace for his bleak existence writing strange little allegorical stories about animals. Sent away to a provincial town for a week to train a bunch of civil servants in the intricacies of some obscure piece of software, our hero (or rather anti-hero) is forced to confront the realities of his life.
With breakdowns, car accidents, death and even a contemplation of a random murder, the picture of late twentieth century life (the book was first published in 1994) painted by Houellebecq is certainly a bleak one, full of despair at the supposed mind numbing banality of existence. Lonely, depressed with undertones of racism and misogyny the protagonists in Whatever provoke little in the way of empathy, let alone sympathy. What makes Whatever so readable then? If you're going to take the whole 'what's the point' line then you might as well go the whole scabrous way and Houellebcq certainly doesn't hold back.
Taking pot shots at rampant individualism, psychoanalysis, the decline of Christianity (a priest friend having an affair and losing his faith) and plenty of other bugbears, the author really gives it to his targets with both barrels. Whatever is sometimes frightening (and not in a Stephen King way), often very disturbing but always provocative. The danger of such provocation is that it can sometimes lapse into teenage posturing. Houellebecq largely avoids that though. Coming in at only only 155 pages, Whatever is a quick, punchy read. Given the subject matter it won't appeal to everyone but those who do try it will find a punchy if caustic read.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Whatever is to quote from the main character himself, speaking about the time he broke up with an old girlfriend, You get the feeling that you can roll around on the ground, slash your veins with a razor blade or masturbate in the Metro and nobody will pay any attention, nobody will lift a finger. As if you were protected from the world by a transparent film, inviolable and perfect.
My thanks to the publisher for sending it to Bookbag.
If you enjoyed Whatever, you'll like Rant: The Oral History of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk or The Facades by Eric Lundgren.
You can read more book reviews or buy Whatever by Michel Houellebecq at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Whatever by Michel Houellebecq at Amazon.com.
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