By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
By midnight, only the usual suspects, Christophe, Lipsyte and myself, joined this time by the leggy essayist and critic Cristina Nehring, were still at the table. Though he would be rising at dawn to drive back to San Francisco before flying home to Dublin, Houellebecq ordered another triple espresso and a further glass of red wine. A few minutes later, he asked for yet another espresso, and was told the kitchen was closed. Where else could we find some? he wanted to know. At this time of night, nowhere, he was told. Surprised by how early the city shut down, Houellebecq decided that it would be best for all concerned if we adjourned to his hotel room.
“C’est comme les pays de l’Est[It’s like Eastern Europe under communism],” he joked to Christophe, who burst out laughing.
At the hotel, Houellebecq was having trouble entering his room. The electronic eye on the door handle was supposed to turn green; this one stayed red and the lock held. Perhaps he had the wrong room? He called down to reception to find out. It was 1 in the morning now, and he seemed perfectly comfortable with his temporary homelessness. “We have to rethink the situation in global terms,” he announced grandly, tottering down the corridor.
Eventually the problem was resolved, and the drinking commenced, as did the smoking. “There is no last cigarette in my life. I am a perfectly organized smoker,” he announced, claiming never to be caught without a lighter and a pack of Silk Cuts. The shyness and reticence that had afflicted him earlier in his stay had almost entirely disappeared. Now that the EU referendum had been concluded, he joked, he would write a newspaper article urging the French to vote YES. The true question the referendum had posed, he said, boiled down to, “Are you enthusiastic, or do you just accept?”
Asked about some of the highlights of his trip, he mentioned his visit to a PetCo (where he had bought a gift for his dog) and to a dusty nutritional-supplements store on Lincoln Boulevard. Houellebecq, who believes that shopping is an overlooked literary subject, had wandered up and down the aisles for almost half an hour, gazing at bottles of algae and tubs of protein powder like an anthropologist studying the artifacts of an extinct tribe. (“Fascinating,” he murmured.) In the end, he had bought some melatonin and a Geni-Soy bar, having briefly flirted with the purchase of a bottle of “Ripped Fuel.”
“I am for the muscles,” he now declared in the hotel room. “I would like to have a lot of muscles, because women like it. I’m for bodybuilding, but it’s very exhausting.”
“Perhaps you should dedicate yourself to that,” Lipsyte suggested dryly. “It would surprise people.”
“Me more than anyone,” Houellebecq replied.
Nehring asked him about his impressions of California. “What do you think of us?” she cried plaintively.
“But people don’t understand,” he protested, saying that Californians kept demanding to know what he thought of them and their state. “Sometimes you think nothing, you have no impressions. Nothing happened, it was an ordinary story with normal people. It was a human experience.”
At the words “human experience,” Houellebecq doubled up with laughter.
Going over to the pricey silver laptop on his desk, he showed us a proposed image for the British edition of PerhapsThereIsanIsland.The front cover showed a very beautiful woman standing in the ocean, with only her head above water, staring straight at the viewer with brazenly seductive eyes. The back cover showed the same woman in profile, turning away. It might have been a travel poster for one of those sex-tourism agencies he wrote about in Platform.Houellebecq wasn’t sure he liked it.
Feeling about the mouse pad with his cigarette hand, he searched for another proposed cover image. The ash from his cigarette lengthened steadily until, an inch-and-a-half long, it fell onto the keyboard. Houellebecq ignored it. It was now 2 in the morning and he looked exhausted; there was a large red boil on his left earlobe that must have been painful. Soon he was being monopolized by Nehring, who sat on the floor at his feet and talked to him about love, a subject on which she is writing a book.
Houellebecq smoked and listened, his face turned aside, contributing the occasional murmured assent as Nehring talked on. In his own peculiar way, he looked happy enough. And why not? His trip to California had been a success, and by now he must be ranked as one of the more popular Frenchmen in America. Like us, he enjoys taking potshots at France (“a sinister country, utterly sinister and bureaucratic”). There is also something immensely appealing about the fact that, despite being hailed as a great novelist, in person he acts more like a standup comedian. (One who, moreover, often looks like he’s about to fall down.) In an era of phony rebels, Houellebecq is the rare real thing.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city