New York Review of Books
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:
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:
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
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.
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:
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.
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.