June 11, 2007

Book review: "HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life," by Michel Houellebecq

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HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
Michel Houellebecq
Believer Books / ISBN: 1932416188

For Americans who don't know -- there's this French dude named Michel Houellebecq who a lot of Europeans are super pissed at. And that's because he's a writer, see, a brilliant one, who also happens to be a misanthrope, and who sincerely despises just about 98 percent of all humanity, and takes great care to detail all the ways they deserve his hatred in his provocative novels, which have all been big hits in Europe but virtually unknown here, unsurprisingly enough. And this includes 2001's sex-tourism farce Platform, which has just some incredibly unkind things to say about Muslims (as well as Jews, Christians, atheists, women, men, the old, the young, and anyone else who breathes oxygen); so much so that a group of Muslims decided to take him to court in Europe for attempting to incite racially-based violence. And the lawsuit became a continental sensation, not the least of which was because of Houellebecq being in court each day and affecting the exact haughty, bored, superior tone and look throughout the proceedings that got him into trouble in the first place; for refusing to apologize, for refusing to say "you must've misunderstood me," for acting like the entire lawsuit was beneath him to begin with, and proof of what a bunch of moronic meatsacks humanity actually is. And this of course turned him into an even bigger sensation in Europe than he already was, which of course was also routinely ignored by the press here in the US, so that to this day barely any Americans at all know who Houellebecq is or why so many people are angry at him.

HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, by Michel Houellebecq

Well, except McSweeney's, that is, the small press started by literary wunderkind Dave Eggers, which in the 1990s became the posterchild not only for American hipster intellectuals but also for the power of daily digitally-distributed original content, years before the term "blog" had even been invented. Their organization, which also includes the "anti-poser" lit-crit publication The Believer, has become well-known for introducing global authors to a grateful American audience; in fact, one could argue that they are almost single-handedly responsible for the US popularity of Haruki Murakami. So when Believer Books recently got a chance to reprint Houellebecq's very first full-length manuscript in English form for the first time, plus managed to convince horror icon Stephen King to write a new introduction, I have to imagine that they almost peed in their pants jumping at it; the result is the extended literary essay HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, originally written in 1988, a slim tone which much like Nicholson Baker's U & I is partly an analysis of a particular writer's oeuvre (in Baker's case, John Updike), partly a gushing love letter as to why they like these particular authors so much. And make no mistake; if you're already familiar with Houellebecq's fictional work, the essay will also suddenly make his own motivations and aims so much clearer, and make you understand his own work so much better too.

As a matter of fact, when we look at Lovecraft and his work from the eyes of someone like Houellebecq, we see a man who looks a lot more like Houellebecq than we might have even thought possible, given the profoundly different nature of their subject matter; for those who don't know, see, Lovecraft was primarily the author of a series of trippy alternative-universe horror stories in the 1910s through '30s, specifically the creator of the C'thulu mythos which is just now finally starting to find a mainstream audience. The main thrust of Lovecraft's work is that when it comes to the subject of alien races, the way we usually think of it might in fact be all wrong; that instead of that superior race wanting to "meet our leader" and sign historic treaties on White House lawns, they might see us in no better a way than we look at ants or cockroaches, just as puny little "things" that occasionally get in their way and need to be swatted. This is a big part of the terror concerning Lovecraft's universe, in fact, is in the all-pervasive sense of doom and defeat that come with these creatures from the netherworld, of their all-consuming superiority over humanity in every way possible, and of there being nothing at all that humanity can do about it.

But by looking into Lovecraft's personal life in detail, Houellebecq argues in Against Life that what the author was writing about was no mere horror story: that because of his upbringing, his adult relationships, his lack of success in the workforce, Lovecraft really did look upon humanity in the same dismissive way as the Great Old Ones from his fiction, and indeed the entire C'thulu mythos would've never come about if Lovecraft hadn't been the pervasive life-hater, racist, and total misanthrope he was. And in fact, Houellebecq goes on to argue, almost everyone who reads books or watches movies in the first place needs to be at least a little bit of a humanity hater; if you loved humanity, after all, you'd be outside running around and having a ball with your fellow humans, not cooped up in a dark room alone getting lost in a made-up world. To embrace fiction, Houellebecq argues, is in a way to reject reality, to reject the humdrum humanity that exists around you in the real world on a daily basis; and the weirder of fiction you're into, the more profoundly you're rejecting reality, the more profoundly you're sick of the 'hoo-mons' who decide on the way things usually work.

In fact, Houellebecq has something very interesting to say about this topic, that when I first read caused me to laugh in appreciative humor, but then got stuck in my head and has more and more been making me think in a serious way; that far from it being a sign of immaturity, the fact that it is alienated teenagers who most passionately embrace Lovecraft's work should be a sign of what an absolute genius he is, and of why he is so utterly necessary to anyone who wants to craft a subversive life for themselves. It is the teen years, Houellebecq argues, where life most gets flipped on its head; when you are suddenly too old for children's books, too young for adult ones, a time when you are quickly starting to realize that all the truths you had heretofore known are in fact a giant pack of lies, conspiratorially fed to you by a cabal of adults trying to keep you in your place. It is this moment, these years, Houellebecq argues, where most people decide the fate that is awaiting them in their adult years: the moment they either start accepting the pop-culture consumerist swill that the mainstream media feeds them, in order to keep them complacent little sheep even as grown-ups, or they start embracing writers like Lovecraft, and remain intelligent and skeptical the rest of their lives.

And put like this, it suddenly makes a lot more sense that Stephen King would write the introduction for Against Life, because he is yet one more of these artists perpetually embraced by teens, and for whom Houellebecq argues we should be celebrating because of that, not dismissing; although make no mistake, putting a literary essay of King's next to one by Houellebecq pretty much proves every point any critic of King has ever had, to devastating effect no less. But it's true, what both of them argue in this book, that sometimes it really is enough just to be incoherently raging against something that needs to be raged against, in that at least you're not being complacent, at least you're not supporting the situation with your silence. Sometimes it's important or least just good to stand up in public occasionally and say, "I CAN'T STAND THIS AND I CAN'T STAND YOU, AND I'M NOT GOING TO PUT UP WITH ANY OF THIS STUPIDITY ANY MORE! I WILL NOT SIT HERE AND LISTEN TO ANY MORE OF YOUR CRAP!" And if a writer's prose is a little purplish sometimes in the course of doing this, the metaphors a little off, so what? At least they got their point across in an effective way, that has ended up influencing millions of others; and what have you done lately, you air-wasting coward?

Finishing Against Life makes you understand a little more why Houellebecq hates the world so much; because there's a lot about the world to hate, frankly, and the status quo of simply accepting things is such a difficult kind of inertia to overcome. I would humbly argue, of course, that the world is maybe not the completely useless place that Lovecraft saw it and Houellebecq still does, that there is a great beauty to humanity on top of its legitimately ugly half, and random moments of great sacrifice and love and empathy that occur as frequently as the random moments of stupidity and violence. Nonetheless, I'm glad that writers such as these two exist, to remind us of just what a bunch of monsters humans can become when not keeping a watchful check on themselves (metaphorically with Houellebecq, literally with Lovecraft). It's a lesson all of humanity needs to heed, a lesson that few humans have the courage to heed, which of course is what will keep both Lovecraft and Houellebecq misunderstood and feared by the vast majority of humanity for the rest of time. And of course what will simultaneously make both of them cult heroes to sullen teens for the rest of time as well. Just as it should be.

Out of 10: 9.3

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:26 AM, June 11, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |