Global Entropy 

Going blind, can't find mommy, whatever . . .

Wednesday, May 5 1999
ONE OF THE NICE THINGS ABOUT BEING UNHAPPY IS you can do it anywhere. Whatever, French cult hero Michel Houellebecq's debut novel, shows you how to do it in France while smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and working in the computer industry. The Pollen Room, Swiss-German cult heroine Zoë Jenny's debut novel, shows you how to do it while searching for your mother in an unnamed European country. Finally, in his memoir, Slackjaw, New York Press columnist Jim Knipfel shows you how to do it in Green Bay, Philadelphia and New York while drinking heavily, playing in a band called the Pain Amplifiers and going blind. But here's the catch: Knipfel also shows you that just as you can be unhappy anywhere, you can be happy, too -- or at least a lot happier than you'd expect.

Whatever, which author Tibor Fischer has dubbed "L'Étranger for the info generation," was originally published in French as Extension du Domaine de la Lutte ("Extension of the Domain of the Struggle"). Its English title is perhaps best viewed as the publisher's comment on the French title, because it certainly doesn't suit the book. When an excerpt from Houellebecq's novel appeared in Granta two years ago, it ran under the title "We Are the Kings" (a line in the novel), and it's a shame the publishers didn't go with that. The kings referred to are the young French computer programmers who (theoretically) have the best and hippest jobs around, but the irony is that their kingdom is a gray and soulless one. As the narrator puts it:


I don't like this world. I definitely do not like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke. My entire work as a computer expert consists of adding to the data, the cross-referencing, the criteria of rational decision-making. It has no meaning. To tell the truth, it is even negative up to a point; a useless encumbering of the neurons. This world has need of many things, bar more information.

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In short, cancel my subscription to Wired.

Whatever isn't easy reading, but it is refreshingly bitter. It's not much fun living in a society you loathe, especially when that society is a global one, intent on wrapping itself around the planet like virtual Virginia creeper -- but that is the unnamed narrator's fate. The unnamed narrator is sent down to Rouen from Paris to train people in a new computer program. His companion on the journey, named Tisserand, is a sex-obsessed 28-year-old virgin of startling ugliness from whom women flee like angelfish from a piranha. As for the narrator, he hasn't slept with anyone in two years. ("No sex drive, no ambition, no real interests either . . . I consider myself a normal kind of guy," he tells us nonchalantly. "Well perhaps not completely, but who is completely, huh? Eighty percent normal, let's say.") His antisocial rage comes to a nasty head in a disco, when he encourages Tisserand to murder a stylishly sexy interracial couple they've spotted leaving together. Tisserand doesn't, and dies shortly afterward in a car crash. The narrator checks into a loony bin, where the psychiatrist assigned to him (a woman) points out that two years without sex might be what's causing his depression. But when he asks her if she'll sleep with him, she has herself replaced by a male psychiatrist.

Houellebecq, who's 40 years old, has become a generational spokesperson in France, and to show his thanks, he's decided to move to Ireland. His second novel, Les Particules Élémentaires ("The Elementary Particles"), caused a sensation in many a Paris café when it was published last year, but has yet to be translated. I predict it will appear on these shores entitled As If.

THE POLLEN ROOM, WHICH CATAPULTED ITS 23-YEAR-OLD author to literary stardom in Germany, is narrated in impressionistic, poetic and occasionally precious fragments by Jo, an 18-year-old girl who feels rudderless. The only child of a marriage that broke up when she was only a few years old, Jo grew up alone with her father and whatever woman he was going out with. If childhood means a certain quota of love and security emanating from two parents, then Jo seems not to have had one. Loss and a corrosive sense of displacement (reflected in the novel's nameless landscape) permeate her narrative, which, as in Whatever, is minimal. What little story there is mainly concerns Jo's attempts to find and then live with her self-absorbed mother, and eventually to figure out that the solution to her problems lies elsewhere. In one of the novel's more powerful moments, Jo travels to her mother's town, gets a hotel room and then calls her from a public phone booth. It's 12 years since they've spoken, and the receiver's shaking violently in Jo's hand:

  • Going blind, can't find mommy, whatever . . .

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