By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Maybe he doesn’t,” Silverblatt said when I spoke to him a couple of days later. But then he speculated shrewdly that Houellebecq is probably one of those people who, despite being without the natural sexual advantages of looks and (early on) money or fame, mastered certain basic principles of seduction and discovered that if you just ask for what you want, you will often end up getting it.
The centerpiece of the L.A. trip was a conversation about his book on Lovecraft with Lipsyte at the Armand Hammer Museum. (The event was co-sponsored by the Weeklyand the French Consulate.) The discussion was bookended, McSweeney’s style, with two performances by the Velvet Hammer Burlesque troupe that didn’t quite come off. The MC, wearing a bowler hat and red jacket, was a corpulent purveyor of stale jokes that drew groans from the audience. Things got even more uncomfortable for some when three women — a thin one, a fat one and an extremely short one — took turns disrobing and shook their booties at the literati.
Though Houellebecq spoke quickly, by his standards, the performance was still judged narcoleptic even by his fans. But he became effusive when commenting on the results of the French referendum, which had now come in. Though he claims to find politics boring and belongs to no political faction, this was one bit of politics on which he was now clearly ready to pronounce.
“Well, it’s a great moment!” he enthused, delighting in the crushing setback suffered by Europe’s aloof and technocratic elites. (It would be hard to come up with a single important character from Houellebecq’s novels who would have voted yes to the constitution. In fact, it could be argued that his work, with its bewildering mix of insolent rebellion, rants against the generation of ’68 and dislike of Islam, was a clear foretaste of the constitution’s failure.)
“I am very surprised because normally the French are cowards,” he said from the stage. “When it’s important for the state, the government tells you that you have to vote yes, that you have no reason to vote no, it’s irresponsible to vote no. And they repeated it at high levels with more and more stress until the last day. And the people voted no! It’s an incredible failure.”
After the show, Houellebecq went upstairs to the reception, where he spent a couple of hours smoking cigarettes next to the THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING signs, autographing books, and schmoozing and posing for photographs with the dancers and other female admirers. He spent about 15 minutes talking to Kim Murphy, a.k.a. “Rocket Sapphire,” the troupe’s contortionist. Coincidentally, Murphy told me later, she was in the midst of reading one of Houellebecq’s novels. Her boyfriend has only one book in his apartment, and it’s Platform.“At the beginning, it was, like, what the hell is this?” she said about her reaction to the novel. “How am I going to read this book about this person who is not attached to the world at all? But now I can’t stop reading it.
“I found him very playful, in a coy, seductive way,” Murphy continued. “Almost like an adolescent boy, getting one over on the world. Like he’s laughing at all this stuff, you know? I don’t know his biography, but I would think that he was painfully shy and now he’s getting laid left and right. I was definitely attracted to him, and I’m not attracted to that type. Also because he’s so honest and so out there with his writing — that’s attractive.”
The reception was followed by a dinner, attended by around 20 people, at Kate Mantilini’s on Wilshire Boulevard. Houellebecq ordered a steak, heaped his salad on top of it, and helped himself to the red wine. Olivier Touraine, an L.A.-based French architect who sat across from him, seemed both excited and perturbed by his encounter with the most celebrated French writer of his generation.
“He is obviously very secluded, very isolated, there are many parts to him that he doesn’t show,” Touraine said afterward. “In a way he is an enfant terrible in a generic French way, burning the candle at both ends. But he is also the best contemporary French writer.”
Outside the restaurant, Houellebecq took a break to smoke a small cigar and talk about his literary rivals in France. “People claim to attack each other for ideological reasons, but it’s much more animalistic than that — it’s because they inhabit the same space.” Then he dropped into a martial-arts crouch and looked quickly from side to side. “They come from the left, they come from the right — it’s the kung fu littéraire!”he said, launching himself into a series of surprisingly deft swivels and kicks, dispatching his enemies one after another. But when it came to Bernard-Henri Lévy, the celebrated French philosopher known by his initials, “BHL,” Houellebecq transformed himself into a raptor out of a cheap Japanese horror movie and bit Lévy’s head off. “That was BHL, folks!”