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L’Étranger in a Strange Land 

Michel Houellebecq’s Weekend in L.A.

Thursday, Jun 23 2005
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Photos by Ted Soqui

You dine with Michel Houellebecq at your peril — just ask Oliver Stone. Shortly after sharing a table with the ultracontroversial French novelist at the White Lotus, a restaurant in Hollywood known for its deafening noise and nubile Asian clientele, the film director was pulled over by the cops on Sunset Boulevard and taken down to the station, charged with driving under the influence and possession of an illegal substance. It took a $15,000 bail to get him out.

But then, nobody said hanging with the author of The Elementary Particles and Platform would be easy. Houellebecq (pronounced wellbeck) may be the only writer alive to have been accused of being a Stalinist and a Nazi, not to mention a sex maniac and a drunk. He is almost certainly the only writer to have fallen asleep while being interviewed on television. (The question was too long, he explained later.) His work has been described as racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, nihilistic, pornographic and repulsive, as well as moving, funny and prophetic. Three years ago, he was put on trial in Paris for inciting anti-Muslim hatred after he called Islam the world’s “most stupid religion” during an alcohol-laced interview with the French literary magazine Lire. Even those lovable Brazilians (“morons obsessed with soccer and Formula One”) have failed to escape his satirical pen.

The night after his dinner with Stone, Houellebecq, on his first visit to L.A., could be found smoking a cigarette at a sidewalk table at Mel’s Diner on Sunset Boulevard. With him were two journalists (myself and the jovial novelist Sam Lipsyte, who was profiling him for GQ), as well as Sylvie Christophe from the French Consulate, dashingly attired in a formfitting white jacket and knee-length white pants. A small, birdlike man with a waxen complexion and wispy brown hair, Houellebecq had finished picking his way through a mound of what was billed on the menu as Santa Fe Chicken Salad. (Asked what he thought of it, he described it tactfully as “something quite specific.”) The dish had now been moved aside, replaced by an enormous cup of black, glimmering liquid.

A passerby stopped at the table and stared down at the cup. “Is that a quadruple espresso?” he asked in amazement, and everyone except Houellebecq burst out laughing. What the passerby couldn’t know, of course, was that Houellebecq was a French writer; that all French writers worth their salt drink terrifyingly strong coffee, usually in enormous quantities; and that, historically, the crème de la crème like Jean-Paul Sartre have added to their coffee habit several packs of cigarettes a day along with amphetamines in the morning and barbiturates at night. It’s a tough tradition to follow, but Houellebecq was doing his best.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Well, uh, I am feeling, hmm . . . tired,” he replied softly.

He squinted at me vaguely, as if pained by the white glare of the enormous billboard across the street advertising a new Disney movie. Smoke drifted out of the side of his mouth, and an inch of drooping ash fell silently onto the sleeve of his old blue windbreaker, which was spotted with white paint. Though he was nominally the center of attention, his movements and speech were so minimal it took a certain amount of concentration to remember he was there.

It was the night before the French referendum on the new EU constitution. What did Houellebecq think? Everyone leaned forward to hear his opinion.

“Well, hmm . . . It’s complicated . . . I don’t know, really,” he said, his voice barely audible above the hum of traffic. “Maybe democracy is out of control? Maybe we need another kind of system? I don’t know, it’s interesting. Why not?”

With his virtuosic repertoire of “ums” and “ers” and “hmms” and long silent pauses accompanied by frequent puffs on his ever-present cigarette, Houellebecq can dramatize the process of thinking as few novelists can. But there were times when, at the conclusion of all that process, no discernible thought appeared to have resulted. Perhaps it had something to do with the amount of alcohol he had consumed, his shaky grasp of English and sly comic sensibility.

Few doubt his intelligence on the page, however, or the sense of isolation and loneliness that underlies his satire. The tone of his work is one of radical estrangement and ennui, and his books are studded with statements bleak even for a French writer who was once frequently treated for nervous depression.

For example: “Anything can happen in this life, especially nothing.” Or: “It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it’s that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable.”

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