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.
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:
The moment I heard her voice, the long-prepared sentences tumbled from my mouth in an indecipherable tangle. The word mother and the voice on the other end of the line were two separate things, both of them enormous, towering over me . . .
“Hello? Who's there?” asked my mother impatiently.
I heard my voice speak my name. I told her I wanted to visit her. It seemed shameless somehow, as if I had asked a complete stranger to do me a great favor.
Like Michel Houellebecq, Zoë Jenny seems to have touched a generational nerve. “Never in history were there so many children of divorced parents,” she has noted, and as someone who spent most of his childhood in a one-parent family himself, I can vouch that Jenny's oddly drifting narrative, a boat from which engine and sails have been removed, rang true for me.
WHATEVER AND THE POLLEN ROOM ARE FIRST-PERSON novels that occasionally read like memoirs; Slackjaw is the real thing. Readers familiar with Jim Knipfel's column in the New York Press will have an idea of what to expect: a long series of personal disasters coupled with a complete lack of self-pity. Knipfel, as he tells us in the introduction to the book, suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable and degenerative disease of the eyes. He has had ever-diminishing vision all his life, and now, in his mid-30s, he is legally blind. But those who pick up his book hoping to read a long, grisly account of the horrors of living in darkness will be disappointed, because Knipfel is someone who gives denial a good name. Going blind is something he considers a nuisance, but he doesn't dwell on it until the end of the book, when he finally accepts that he's going to have to get a cane and some blind-man training. For Knipfel, who's also suffered from severe depression, brain seizures, heavy drinking and suicide attempts, encroaching blindness is just one more hassle in a life filled with them — in fact, it often seems to be the least of his problems. Here he is describing his literary debut, in a free paper in Philadelphia:
The first piece of mail I received, in response to the first story I'd published, was a scrawled death threat from a man who was set to track me down with his dog and blow my “garbage head” off. My would-be killer went on to call me a “foul-mouthed crepe” — something I vowed to put on the menu should I ever own a restaurant.
More death threats follow, including a “dense, poorly typed” missive assuring Knipfel that he has only two weeks to live. “Raise an unopened bottle of beer to your lips,” his correspondent instructs him, “to rehearse what it will feel like when I shove the gun in your mouth.” But Knipfel isn't fazed. “Had he been threatening someone normal,” he reflects, “he would've caused the person two weeks of panic and bowel trouble. I was frustrated that he was making me wait that long.”
Though it records a lot of wild behavior, Slackjaw is an unfashionably circumspect memoir. When he goes to see a therapist, Knipfel makes it clear from the outset that he doesn't want to hear any crap about his parents being the reason he's screwed up, because he loves his parents, and they've never been anything but good to him. Likewise, his account of his marriage and divorce is as chaste as a 1940s movie and entirely free of all those shaming personal details that memoirists like to reveal.
It's hard to imagine anyone reading the final chapter (“Getting Hip to the Lights-Out Way”) and remaining unmoved. But even as Knipfel finally decides to get a cane and accept the kindness of strangers (of which he receives plenty), he still refuses to treat his blindness as central to his existence.
I still feel uncomfortable around the blind. Not horribly uncomfortable, but vaguely so. Not nearly as uncomfortable as I felt around the deaf or the retarded, though. They have always made me nervous. I should know better. But it seems a normal, visceral human reaction to cripples, regardless of the fact that I was one of them.
Something like peace, like deepening twilight at the end of a long summer day, descends on Knipfel at the end of his book. It's not happiness, but something related to it: acceptance.
WHATEVER | By MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ
Serpent's Tail | 155 pages | $15 paperback
THE POLLEN ROOM | By ZOË JENNY
Simon & Schuster | 143 pages | $20 hardcover
SLACKJAW | By JIM KNIPFEL
Tarcher/Putnam | 231 pages | $23 hardcover