“Heh heh,” I thought. A review of Lanzarote by Michel Houellebecq

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Michel Houellebecq, Creative Commons

This weekend only, appearing at the Comedy Cellar, NYC, Michel Houellebecq opens for headliner Thomas Hobbes. Buckle up for a night of saturnine hilarity!

I’m with the group who considers Houellebecq a comic writer. I like the manner in which he positions his soulless, opinionated protagonists in absurd and meaningless situations. I appreciate his rarified humor. I find the rants that tumble from character’s minds irreverently parodic. To illustrate, one of the main characters, Rudi, says, “I believe Belgium is a country which never should have existed. I remember seeing a poster in a centre for alternative culture with the simple slogan: ‘Bomb Belgium’; I couldn’t have agreed more. When I married a Moroccan, it was to escape the Belgians.” You’ve got to admit that this is black comedy. It’s funny and surrealish in the way that the Danish movie Festen by Thomas Vinterberg is funny and surrealish, meaning if you don’t hoot over sick family dynamics and brutal verbal arguments you won’t have a very good time. Houellebecq is much milder, in the way that his characters are low key, but he’s in the general arena.

The whole idea of his unnamed main character, I’ll call him SOP for soulless opinionated protagonist, thinking that a vacation to a tourist spot will offer self-actualization must be taken as ludicrous if we expect to appreciate Houellebecq in Lanzarote. The clue comes in the first sentence where SOP explains, the year will probably be a disaster, and he admits he’d prefer to stay home as he walks into the first travel agency he finds. SOP expresses a restless nature although true enough he is not bringing up the rear of every funeral he meets but he does hope to drive off the spleen. Of course, if we know Houellebecq, we know this won’t, excuse me, can’t, happen, in part because SOP’s decisions are at the whim of circumstance.

He says, “it’s perfectly possible to live without expecting anything of life; in fact it’s the most common way. In general, people stay at home, they’re happy when their phone never rings; and when it does, they let the answering machine pick it up. No news is good news. In general, that’s what people are like; I am too. Even when there is nothing left to expect from life, there is still something to fear.” This comes from a man who sees life much as does Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and who self-selects discontent. When there’s nothing left to lose, everything’s a gain. On our part, we must have a touch of cynicism to laugh at first-worlders who choose such a path, and it is I think Houellebecq’s wish that we laugh.

SOP accepts a recommendation from a travel agent, upon particular advisement by his economic situation, “‘My means are limited,’ I continued modestly,” a sentence much like “Are you staring at my breasts? She tittered.” He heads away to the island of Lanzarote which is a melange of ochre desert, the volcano Timanfaya, and the blue-water resort Bougainville Playa, described as a superior four-star with all the amenities including a hairdryer and hammam (the Turkish wet cousin of the sauna). Steeped in such touristic luxury, SOP meets temporary friends: two women, Barbara and Pam, who are lesbian island mermaids except when they are stout German bisexuals, and a man, Rudi, who is a Brussels based inspector except when he is a criminal facing charges for child molestation. What’s great about Houellebecq is that he doesn’t try to turn all such oddities into long, icky, boring storylines a la Updike or Tartt. Houellebecq pares their stories down almost to nothing, in otherwords he doesn’t beat a dead horse.

At Tequise, SOP meets the Azraelians (yes you are right to think this sounds a lot like members of the International Raëlian Movement) who are handing out leaflets that help tourists calculate their sensual quotient (Scientology e-meter riff). This keeps them busy, in part, while they await Anakim’s (Anakin Skywalker riff) next visit to Earth.

As the week ensues, Barbara, Pam, and SOP explore the island (with Rudi) and they explore each other (without Rudi). Rudi checks out early and leaves. At the end of his vacation SOP returns to France. He receives the occasional postcard from Barbara and Pam and he sees Rudi on the television heading to trial charged in connection with, as the headlines say, “Child Orgies Among Alien Hunters.” The trial drags on but SOP never learns the outcome. He’s already left for a new vacation on Bali.

As comedy is one of the subjects of this review, I’ll point out a couple humorous lines.

“Heh heh! I thought.”

That’s worthy of Chandler or Lardner.

When SOP partakes one of the three excursions offered by the resort he finds, “You could buy souvenirs, go to the restaurant and enjoy the international cuisine. The more sportif could opt for a camel ride.”

The unbearable dullness of being a tourist.

It may be, as Hobbes considered, that in a civil society we make compromises with authority, bargaining away a few of our freedoms for the safety that authority may provide. The philosopher writes, “Fear and liberty are consistent, as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly….” We are not sure exactly what SOP has bargained away, but whatever it is we are convinced he did so willingly and so long ago that there is no danger of reconsideration. We suspect the list includes: analysis, happiness, delight, and love. In return, he was granted a misanthropic, self-affirming sense of safety. He’s clear that he has no need to travel to countries where live those who hold extreme beliefs and he’s willing to let people know this, with prejudice.

So it appears we enter SOP’s life as mildly urged onward by Hobbesian jacunda, appetites, delights and pleasures and molesta, the offensive. Delights enhance vital motion, the offensive hinders vital motion. SOP’s goal seems to be to enhance his vital motion and in this pursuit all the rest of the important events of the world are better off ignored.

SOP’s social contract, beyond his unstated job and role in society, centers around travel. Travel provides him with the illusion of freedom and the possible surmounting of internal-to-life barriers even if such travel always ends up as another staging of Waiting for Godot, light on the absurdity and nihilism and heavy on the idea that the human condition is ultimately one in which all that is hedonistic turns to monotony. Again, P knows this and he accepts an I’ll take it as it comes approach to his travels, without an agenda, without hopes, and without expectations.

Lanzarote is a short book written when Y2K panic was omnipresent. I read the e-version without pictures (I hate pictures in novels) so thankfully I don’t have to critique the art. This short type of novel is what many writers seem do, they interrupt their major productions with what I might describe as a tone poem, or an extended sketch, or a footnote novella. I tend to view Lanzarote as either a follow up to Houellebecq’s past works or a prelude to his later works.

If, as Robert Frost wrote, “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say ice” then Lanzarote makes the case for the world ending in fire. I also learned there really won’t be much to say when the apocalypse arrives — it will be one big Meh — not a bang but with a whimper (thanks T.S.E.) No matter — we’ll then be traveling to another location, perhaps where we’ll find Houellebecq’s version of improvised sex and extended ennui.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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