Whatever Paperback – Jun 28 2011
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Michel Houellebecq's book Whatever was a smash hit in his native France and has already gained him a cult following here. A funny, sometimes bitter, modern existentialist fable Whatever truly seems to capture the zeitgeist. Whilst his next novel Atomised showcases greater sophistication and is certainly more complex and reaching, Whatever remains a brisker, more distilled affair.
Houellebecq's clarity of style is often remarked upon and the translation does a mostly decent job of conveying, in short chapters, in a fairly staccato book, his distaste for modern life. The narrator of the novel is young (just 30), well paid (computers!) and without a love life--not a geek, nor particularly a social inadequate, rather someone who just doesn't connect. He writes strange, allegorical animal stories; is a clumsy philosophical dilettante; and finds himself bored, overly self-aware and analytical, unable to settle and settle for his life. Then he is told to go on a extended work trip training provincial civil servants in the use of a new computer system accompanied by the extremely ugly Raphael Tisserand. Throughout the novel, the cheapening of sex and intimate relationships through commodification and modern communication technology is contemplated, but the interrogation remains relatively uncommitted; the attacks on psychoanalysis come thick and fast, seem more personal and often find their target.
Houellebecq does do a good job here of exemplifying the cul-de-sac that bored intelligence often finds itself languishing in. The trouble with this as a stratagem for a novel is that the reader is in danger of caring as little for the book as the characters do for their lives; this tightrope is better walked by writers such as Beckett or even Brett Easton Ellis and navigated more successfully by Houellebecq himself in his next novel. Indeed in many ways Whatever seems like a dress rehearsal for Atomised with similar characters imbued with the same concerns, the same post nouvelle-philosophes ennui running throughout. But it is a dress rehearsal worth attending: there is more than enough clever writing here, with its mordant articulation of a very particular kind of modern unhappiness, to consider it a success. --Mark Thwaite --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
The unnamed narrator of Houellebecq's novel is Marcuse's one-dimensional man. A single, 30-year-old computer engineer in Paris with no sex life, he suffers from a chronic passivity that, in Houellebecq's view, is characteristic of Generation X. He buys, but doesn't take joy in any of the things he possesses. He has acquaintances, but no friends. In his off hours he writes dialogues featuring an assortment of barnyard animals. When his company sends him and a colleague, Bernard, out to Rouen and La Roche-sur-Yon to consult on software, nothing much gets done. In Rouen he suffers from heart problems. Since Bernard visits him in the hospital, a bond develops between them. Bernard, cursed with a repulsive appearance and a horny disposition, makes obnoxious advances to every woman he sees and is predictably rejected. Sexual deprivation is the atmosphere in which these men exist. That both men see women only in terms of their sexual features makes their impotence even more pathetic. After breaking up with his last girlfriend two years ago, the narrator has withdrawn from the romantic arena. And yet he has developed an intricate and mean-spirited, if ill-defined, theory of sexual hierarchy. The loose narrative condenses to an action sequence when the narrator tries to get Bernard to murder a woman with a steak knife, but the incident is gratuitous. In the end, Houellebecq displays none of the novelist's eye for detail and, further, defaults on the development of a vital main character, who might have connected this series of threadbare incidents into an interesting social comment. (Jan.) FYI: A bestseller in France, this novel won the 1995 Prix Flore for best first novel.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Houellebecq tries to examine the nature of the individual in contemporary society and points to the paradox that increased ease of communication through technological advances has not resulted in closer relationships between people, rather the reverse. Fulfilment and happiness are not an automatic by-product of the computer age. Furthermore, economic liberalism and sexual liberalism have marched hand in hand, but both produce winners and losers (and not necessarily the same groups in each case).
I thought that "L'Extension du Domaine de la Lutte" was a challenging novel, unsettling at times even though there are some lighter touches (such as the perils of buying a single bed when you're single). The anti-hero is an unsympathetic figure, intentionally so, and his acerbic views can exasperate, but the novel does make you think about the nature of "progress" and how the modern world might be reshaping the lives of individuals.
Houellebecq's narrator/central character is an unhappy man who feels contempt for women, love, society, technology, his job, himself, etc. He has an acerbic wit that, at times, is amusing, but it's a bitter sort of humor. There's nothing light-hearted about it.
As the book progresses, the main character becomes increasingly alienated and miserable, ultimately scheming to convert his co-worker (a loveless, ugly man) to murder. The plan fails, but things continue to get darker and darker until the main character finally enters a mental hospital.
There is a bitter contempt for life/love/humanity that runs through this book and, while it is cleverly written at times, it's not really all that enjoyable experience and I'm not sure what the book really has to say other than "Life sucks." Frankly, I think the same sorts of themes are handled far more eloquently and with far greater insight by Camus' "The Stranger."
Houellebecq is a talented writer but this book just didn't do much for me overall.
I see other reviewers complaining about the translation, well, I thought the English version was OK, though I haven't compared specifically. Except perhaps the title, which perfectly translates into English as "Extension of the Domain of Struggle"--which linkes up with something in the text--but became "Whatever" (which doesn't, and is meaningless). Anyway, who cares about the title.
I also got another Houellebecq book (Elementary Particles), in English too, read just a bit so far, and it's not bad either. Now, here (it's a different translator though) the translation does seem a bit lacking, sort of choppy, awkward, so that tells you why you need to read stuff in the original. Meaning if you can read French, go for the original, don't be lazy, it's worth the effort in this case. Houellebecq's latest book, Plateforme, seems untranslated yet ... so here's a good justification to try the real thing if you can--if you put them side by side you'll see that a translation is always off, even if only in the overall feel... if it's close, it's awkward English, if it's more graceful, then it's not true to the source. Anyway, I'm deviating; what I wanted to say was that "Whatever" is an uncommonly honest and psychological book from a relatively unknown author and is well worth reading: thus my very strict evaluation is go get it.
What could be sadder than someone who understands the greatest problem of modernity but has
surrendered to it, rather than struggle against it ? The novelist Michel Houellebecq is the most
controversial and reviled Frenchman of the day--and just think what it must take to achieve that rare
distinction : the most hated man in France (actually, he's even fled now, to Ireland). He was widely
hailed on the publication of this novel, which was famously compared to The Stranger of Albert
Camus by many, including the critic Tibor Fischer, who is blurbed on the cover of the book. But
then his next novel, published here as Elementary Particles, attacked the French student
revolutionaries of 1968, indicting them for their hedonistic individualism and the exalting of the
pursuit of personal gratification, which he writes has effectively drained sex of any passion or love.
Such things simply aren't done in France; the Generation of '68, like the perpetrators of the original
French Revolution, are sacrosanct, are beyond criticism.
Not content to merely rile up the intelligentsia, Houellebecq's new book, Plateforme, attacks Islam
and celebrates sexual tourism, trips to Southeast Asia for the purpose of having sex with teenage
prostitutes. The advocacy of using the Third World as a brothel upsets people for all the obvious
reasons. But his comments on Islam may earn him his own fatwa.
The girlfriend of the novel's protagonist is murdered in a terrorist bombing, prompting this passage :
Islam had shattered my life, and Islam was certainly something I could hate.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
The main character in this book shouts a cynical diatribe against sexual and economical liberalism, wherein men and women are painted as disgusting, decrepit adolescents. Read morePublished on Feb. 6 2004 by Luc REYNAERT
The main character in this book gives us a cynical diatribe against sexual and economical liberalism, wherein men and women are painted as disgusting, decrepit adolescents. Read morePublished on Feb. 3 2004 by Luc REYNAERT
some of the English in here reads like the publisher fed the French version into an online translator like Babelfish...this really ruined an otherwise brilliant book for me...Published on June 11 2003 by Amazon Customer
He writes well about people feeling isolated and misunderstood
in the world. I will give him that. But this book hardly lives
up to The Elementary Particles. Read more
I've read this little novella twice, both in fits of insomnia, while lamenting the loss of my girlfriend. Read morePublished on March 31 2001 by James Liu
The cover art is horrible. The title doesn't fit. And the writing is just plain bad. Douglas Coupland does a much better job on the subject of alienation in modern society -- and... Read morePublished on Feb. 9 2001 by Troy McCullough
It's the shout of a weary man crying for help, disguising it as "black humour". It is not a "deeply philosophical novel" - of course it has some reality-driven... Read morePublished on Nov. 29 2000 by Andrea
When I read a book, I expect to have fun, or to feel emotions. Perhaps I am a fan of Ovid, who describes beautiful and seductive ladies.
What about Houellebecq? Read more