Friday, May 19, 2006

Could I read Houllebecq?

After reading John Updike's piece on Michel Houellebecq in the New Yorker (oh, how upper-middlebrow can you be?), I am wondering whether I would be able to read Houellebecq. I have been asking my students over the years whether they think it's possible to write a "good" novel with either a loathesome protagonist or a loathesome moral message. Michiko Kakutani (descending into middle-middlebrow territory) would simply say no; end of discussion. I find that tedious. Updike gives Houellebecq a little more leeway, giving him credit in his latest novel for an interesting concept and vivid if incredibly bleak ending (a man living out his scientifically lengthened lifespan as, essentially, an oyster). Yet from all I read about Houllebecq's writing, the incredible misogyny, racism, and meaningless violence...well, he would be the best test case for the problem of the good novel about bad things. But what if you can't stand reading the book? Isn't some form of pleasure essential to the literary experience? I suppose his work must be pleasurable to some people, since he keeps publishing and being reviewed, and even being invited to speak at real venues. And I don't know that we can assume all the readers who like him are depraved. Perhaps they like the extreme challenge, like people who bungee jump or something. X-Reading. I'm not sure I can do it.

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