Great American Losers (and the Houellebecq Violation)

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Art Fag
Great American Losers

New York Review of Books

Elaine Blair

March 9, 2012


While spending several weeks reading and writing about Michel Houellebecq, a loose thought kept rattling around in my mind. In American novels, we have a tacit set of conventions for writing about romantic losers. Houellebecq squarely violates them. This is one reason that The Elementary Particles (2000), his first novel published in the US, seemed (to some) so exciting and revelatory or (to others) completely repellent. We American readers immediately notice that he is covering familiar territory, but in a crucially different way from our own youngish novelists.

Houellebecq, in his first four novels, writes a lot about men who suffer because they are—or perceive themselves to be—unloved by women. Some characters are rejected by women pretty much every time they venture into a bar. Others are rejected only once or twice, but with catastrophic psychic consequences. Some hardly even bother trying to meet women, so paralyzing is their fear of the kind of intimate scrutiny that most of us take for granted as part of “dating.”

The man who feels himself unloved and unlovable—this is a character that we know well from the latest generation or two of American novels. His trials are often played for sympathetic laughs. His loserdom is total: it extends to his stunted career, his squalid living quarters, his deep unease in the world. Take Lewis Miner, of Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land (2004). Miner is a barely employed copywriter and prodigious masturbator who tells his story in the form of updates to his high school alumni newsletter:
Yes, the loser’s worst—that is to say, most important—problems are with women. His relationships are either unrequited or, at best, doomed. He is the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap. Think of the way Gary Shteyngart’s characters love to tell us how unattractive they are. Here is Lenny, of Super Sad True Love Story (2010), who will have his heart broken by a woman sixteen years younger, describing himself in his diary:

Richard Price

But loserdom is not limited to the physically unattractive—it can be even funnier when the schmuck in question is vain about his good looks. Richard Price’s 1978 novel Ladies’ Man (one of the earliest iterations of the hapless American bachelor) describes a week in the life of thirty-year-old Kenny. The novel’s ironic title gives a hint of its hero’s travails. At the beginning of the novel we learn that his girlfriend, La Donna, has lost interest in sex with him. Then he walks in on her masturbating with her vibrator, which sends him into a tailspin of sexual jealousy—of the battery-operated appliance. He runs to the local bar, and is now giving himself a semi-drunk pep talk:
Lipsyte, Shteyngart, and Price are, of course, writing about some of the same social conditions that Houellebecq also identifies (and rails against): the decade or two of post-college bachelorhood that has become standard among the educated middle class during which men (and women) continually risk romantic rejection and size themselves up in relation to their peers. And with the possibility of easy divorce, bachelorhood can be revisited at any age.

In 1997, Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay on sex advice books for The New Yorker . By coincidence, apparently, Franzen puts forward the same thesis that drives Houellebecq’s first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994) using the same economic metaphor. If Americans seem to have an especially acute case of sexual anxiety, Franzen writes, it’s because
The sexual free market is hardly all bad, as Franzen notes. And no one is wishing, in these novels, for fewer choices and irreversible marriage contracts. Yet the authors keep returning us to a certain kind of scene—the scene of romantic rejection—and a certain kind of feeling: the embarrassment of having been examined and found wanting. This is the heroes’ signal experience of sexually liberated adult life.

But there’s a reason that the characters must be losers on other, non-sexual fronts as well—professional, financial, social. The authors are saturating the novel in the hero’s sense of humiliation—a humiliation that, we learn, precedes any actual romantic experience. The hero finds himself wanting, and getting turned down by a girl is confirmation of what he’s always suspected. He is, in fact, pretty deft at anticipating any possible criticism of himself; he usually tries to get there first, with a piercingly funny joke at his own expense. Where he fails to understand his own folly, the author is quick to signal to us over the hero’s head; the poor fellow’s monologue gets a shade more florid, a shade more defensive, and we know we are witnessing a moment of self-deceptive bluster. Between the rueful self-knowledge of the hero and the ironizing impulse of the author, no vanity goes unpunctured.


Norman Mailer

This is about more than contemporary sexual manners, and about more, even, than urban middle class status anxieties. Our American male novelists, I suspect, are worried about being unloved as writers —specifically by the female reader. This is the larger humiliation looming behind the many smaller fictional humiliations of their heroes, and we can see it in the way the characters’ rituals of self-loathing are tacitly performed for the benefit of an imagined female audience.

In a 1998 review of John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time , David Foster Wallace identified Updike, along with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, as the “Great Male Narcissists” of mid-twentieth-century letters, characterized by their “radical self-absorption,” and “their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.” Wallace observes that the GMNs, especially Updike, have been significantly less appreciated by younger generations of readers than they were by their own, and he puts forward a hypothesis:
Whether you accept this view (or indeed, his characterization of Updike and the GMNs) or not, the important thing about Wallace’s essay, for our purposes, is the way in which he goes about building his case:

Gary Shteyngart

Put aside for a moment the blatant condescension of that last bit, and you can see an amazingly frank expression of anxiety about female readers. No one wants to be called a penis with a thesaurus. For an English-language novelist, raised and educated and self-consciously steeped in the tradition of the Anglo-American novel, in which female characters, female writers, and female readers have had a huge part, the prospect of not being able to write for female readers is a crisis. What kind of novelist are you if women aren’t reading your books? This is a crisis that the GMNs themselves did not face (their own female contemporaries read their books avidly). Wallace is identifying a sea change in the next generation of female readers. These women are not only children of divorce, but children of a feminist movement that had an especially profound influence on cultural criticism.

Wallace’s only reference to feminism (if you could call it that) is an aside about a “PC backlash” against Updike, but his depiction of the composite female reader suggests a real fear of her articulate scorn. He devotes the rest of the essay to explaining and justifying her point of view. In reality, of course, women have a variety of opinions, but for Wallace there exists a single under-forty female judgment on Updike—and, potentially, on other novelists as well. What is it, exactly, that Wallace thinks has the women so worked up?
Here is how he describes the problem with Updike’s characters: “Though family men, they never really love anybody—and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.” Wallace writes that the hero of Toward the End of Time is “such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps clarify what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this author’s recent characters”: It’s not simply that they “persist in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants to is a cure for human despair.” It’s that “the author, so far as I can figure out, believes it too. Updike makes it plain that he views the narrator’s final impotence as catastrophic.” The problem, in short, is that the heroes continue, all the way to the end of their lives, to view sex, apart from love, as a solution for extra-sexual problems—as a balm for everything wrong with life, especially the looming fact of death.


John Updike

This view of sex is of course not at all “bizarre” but common. Wallace’s point is that while we might all sometimes feel this way about sex, it is naive to believe in the liberating powers of the unconstrained sexual impulse. A novelist writing in our disillusioned age has no business being sentimental about free love. And when he persists in unqualified celebration of his male characters’ sexual responses, it is somehow a slight to women, or at least women readers are liable to perceive it that way. Why? And which is it—a real or imagined slight? This part is murky. With his assemblage of female quotes, Wallace creates a kind of suggestive collage (“misogyny” “penis” “son of a bitch”) that indicts Updike while also leaving open the possibility that the female reader, though she is on to something fraudulent in Updike’s writing, might not be reading him very carefully or fairly. This is what makes her so frightening. If the male novelist writes with undue fondness about his penis, the female reader might rashly close the book.
Art Fag

I submit that Wallace’s thesis, and its accompanying fears and assumptions about the female reader, is also held by other male novelists, including those mentioned above. When you see the loser-figure in a novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me.


Jonathan Franzen

There’s a very funny scene in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections (2001) that is a kind of fictional analog to Wallace’s argument. In a chapter called “The Failure,” Chip Lambert, one of the novel’s five main characters, is being dumped by his girlfriend, Julia. Chip, who is thirty-seven and recently lost his academic teaching job after an affair with a student, has written a commercial potboiler-type screenplay about a persecuted academic that he’s hoping will make him a lot of money. As she’s making her awkward exit from his apartment and their relationship, Julia, who works for a film producer, breaks the news to Chip that his screenplay is very, very bad. Her critique is wide-ranging (there is, for instance, the problem that the screenplay starts with a six-page lecture on “the anxieties of the phallus” in Tudor drama), but she emphasizes the “creepy” way that Chip keeps mentioning the female lead’s breasts. “For a woman reading it,” she says, “it’s sort of like the poultry department. Breast, breast, breast, thigh, leg.”

Chip starts to defend himself, but as he’s chasing Julia out of the apartment building he mentally reviews his script and remembers that it is indeed full of lines and stage directions like “eyeing and eyeing her perfect adolescent breasts” and “absolutely adore your honeyed, heavy breasts” and “drowned headlights fading like two milk-white breasts.”

It’s not just that Chip can’t get his life together and seeks refuge in sex. Chip’s problem is also the problem that haunts the male novelist: in his art, as in his life, Chip has completely failed to understand the female point of view. His humiliations will be many.

Into this theater of struggle, in 2000, arrived The Elementary Particles . Houellebecq’s loser characters have thoughts like “her big, sagging breasts were perfect for a tit-job; it had been three years since his last time.” And he doesn’t call them on it. Except occasionally he does. Houellebecq has a relaxed looseness about the whole matter of whose point of view (author’s or character’s) is being expressed in a given moment. He is happy to keep readers guessing about what he actually believes and what he’s satirizing. He’ll sometimes make a joke at the expense of his self-involved male characters, opening up a gap between himself and his character just long enough to show us that he knows perfectly well that the character is being an obnoxious jerk.


Michel Houellebecq

Bruno, one of the heroes of The Elementary Particles , is essentially a Chip-like character: an unconfident, irritable beta male (Houellebecq actually deems him an omega male) fruitlessly and comically preoccupied with chasing women. He too is both ridiculous and sympathetic, though he is illuminated by a harsher light than Chip. Here is a scene at a New Age retreat, where Bruno has gone to meet women. A female guest called Sophie has just told him that she really likes Brazilian dance. Bruno “was starting to get pissed off about the world’s stupid obsession with Brazil.”
Sophie is a version of Julia—she offers the corrective female perspective—but her time onstage is brief, and Bruno remains unchastened. A page later Bruno will be muttering that some woman in a see-through blouse must be a slut, and his author will not rebuke him. This offhand sexism is doubly infuriating to an American female reader (even one who also admires the book): not only are the characters casually misogynistic, but their author is casual about the whole question of misogyny. We are used to more solicitous novelists.

Houellebecq would never put a fine point, in the painstaking way of Franzen, on the fact that his hero is benighted when it comes to women. Of course not. Houellebecq’s mode is to shock and provoke, and offending female sensibilities is fair game, but it’s also the least of his ambitions. He is willing—indeed, eager—to be unlikable in order to get under our skin, and therefore make his social criticisms more forcefully than a likable narrator can.

The younger American novelists, they want to be liked. And their novels are, in fact, irresistible, among the best novels around, in my opinion—ingeniously funny, buoyant, true. The authors have exquisite control over point of view and tone. Their narrative voices are sexy. Which makes you realize that an entire realm of erotic experience goes unrepresented in most of these novels: the authors so scrupulously deflate any sexual confidence or self-regard on the part of their characters that they avoid dramatizing the fact that men, in the real world, can actually channel their libidinal energies into seductive power.


Philip Roth

This is, in part, a legacy of the GMNs. Mailer, Roth, and Updike write about successful seductions quite a lot—and tend toward a condescending view of the women being seduced, in the sense that the male characters rarely seem to meet their match (in wit, brains, fineness of perception, or vitality) in their female counterparts. Because of the GMNs, these two tendencies—heroic virility and sexist condescension—have lingered in our minds as somehow yoked together, and the succeeding generations of American male novelists have to some degree accepted the dyad as truth. Behind their skittishness is a fearful suspicion that if a man gets what he wants, sexually speaking, he is probably exploiting someone.

If there is something disingenuous about the American loser, it’s that in telling his story the writers substitute a kind of burlesque of total humiliation for a more measured sense of the character’s humility. Which is to say that the new generation of characters is, in its own way, also self-absorbed. How else to describe their loving scrutiny of all their faults? While their self-absorption is sharply criticized by author and fellow characters, it is reinforced by the very structure of the novels (with the exception of Franzen’s). Female characters get to remind the hero that he’s a navel-gazing jerk, but most of the good lines, and certainly the brilliant social and psychological observations, still go to the hero. The problem is not that he doesn’t share the spotlight, per se, but the subtle sense that a transaction is taking place: the hero is entitled to the spotlight because he has been appropriately self-critical—it’s his novel, bought and paid for with all those jokes at his own expense. The male novelists performing elaborate genuflections toward female readers are perhaps not exactly bargaining so much as trying to draw us into a new contract: I, the author, promise always to acknowledge my characters’ narcissism, and you, in return, will continue to take an interest in it. Okay? Agreed? Sign on the dotted line please, Ms., and I will countersign my book for you.
Art Fag

What I find interesting about Houellebecq is that through his losers he offers insights about society. American writers tend to glamorize loserness, and I find that boring. My favorite contemporary american writer is Tom Wolfe, because he writes about losers overcoming their limitations, rising above their weaknesses.

Platform is the only book I've read by Houellebecq and I enjoyed it immensely. I also recently read Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism by Ben Jeffrey. Unfortunately, only the first chapter is interesting while the rest relies on English 101 explanations and quotations from middlebrow writers (Wallace, Franzen) whom the author finds exemplary of a more redemptive contemporary fiction. Jeffrey notes:

Indeed, the protagonists of Houellebecq's novels are realistic if underwhelming. They are also heavily based off the author himself. Their strength lies in their wry observations about the frustrating mores of contemporary Western society in addition to self contained thoughts about women which are echoed by the vast majority of the male population. In Platform , for example, the reader is treated to musings such as,

Where Houellebecq's protagonists get stale is in their intense preoccupation with physical gratification. While readers may sympathize with their observations and attitudes, one gets the impression that for Houellebecq not getting laid is tantamount to a new form of victimization. As such, there is the slight whiff of Men's Rights and the Forever Alone crowd. Houellebecq's protagonists "put the pussy on a pedestal" to quote a contemporary sex comedy, and like the protagonist of said sex comedy, they could be interpreted as being in a state of arrested development. Sex is seen as the only transcendent action for the individual, a view which comes off as adolescent to most people over the age of 25. Hence, Houellebecq's novels lend themselves to a form of Babbittry. What about the drudgery of work? The stupidity of mass culture? The petty but persistent indignities we undergo everyday as part of the trade off for a secure, comfortable open society? Houellebecq's protagonists are seemingly unquestioning of these factors. They just need to fuck some lithe slut and all is right in the world. Because of this as well as Houellebecq's "controversial" statements on Islam, it's easy to see how Houellebecq would be peripherally associated with writers like Martin Amis who pose as hard edged contrarians to the post 68 consensus. Of course, it doesn't take much to ruffle the feathers of the current feminized and ideas-deficient literary establishment and no where is this more apparent than with this tepid dissent.

A good compliment to the weaknesses of Houellebecq is Pleasant Hell by John Dolan. This "coming of age" autobiography takes place in the suburban California of the 1970s and also postulates that the sexual liberation of the 1960s only produced a more nuanced tyranny whereby the more socialized accumulate the most sexual experiences while the rest are relegated to invisibility. The adolescent Dolan is a fat, disgusting nerd with an avid knowledge of history and literature which is responsible for his cynical outlook. The novel puts more focus on existential dread of the "Hell is other people" variety than sexual frustration and this occasionally veers into something resembling the Gen Y preoccupation with awkwardness . That said, I find that Dolan more acutely describes the vacuity and cruelty of women than Houellebecq. In addition, both writers are possessed of a robust wit when it comes to describing the idiotic politics of the era.

The best parts of Pleasant Hell concern Dolan's relationship with Joanne, a ditzy lesbian who had been a member of the "Super People", a clique of beautiful hippie chicks Dolan was enamored with during high school. Seemingly unaware of Dolan's infatuation to her, Joanne treats him as one might a court eunuch. She obliges some sexual contact with him but only on the condition that it's practice for when he meets someone. At one point she even initiates sex with him after feeling spurned by her live in girlfriend, however she backs down from this just moments from intercourse because she doesn't want to have her hymen broken. Dolan, the perpetually losing beta male, thus finds himself stuck between postwar prudishness and a feminist-lesbian power play designed to keep men frustrated and powerless. In the end, Dolan's intelligence and cynicism becomes his strength and in a subtle but powerful move overcomes his silent despair by saying, "Fuck all."

This happens while our protagonist is hanging out Joanne and her dyke friends in a San Francisco dorm waiting for M*A*S*H to come on. The reader is then treated to bits of conversation whereby one young woman lavishes praise on the tv show while mistakenly thinking it was about the Vietnam War. But instead of M*A*S*H the group find themselves watching the breaking news of a standoff between police and the Symbionese Liberation Army. While the lesbians cluck disapprovingly about the situation ("They wanna show off their guns !"), Dolan lets go with, "Right on , man. Fry Tania!" He then basks in the horrified silence of his company and goes home.
President Camacho

I wasn't aware that Dolan/War Nerd had penned any novels... I've always liked his writing though, I'll be sure to check it out.

Pleasant Hell is Dolan's only novel. Other than that he's just written collections of poetry, War Nerd essays and a few short stories which were published in the New Zealand literary journal Deep South .