Thursday, November 26, 2015

Town and Gown

One of the reasons why I chose to retire to Middlebury was that it has some similarities to the town where I attended college, namely, Greencastle, Indiana. Greencastle is also a rural county seat, and DePauw University is about the same size as Middlebury College. There were things that I liked about DePauw, but I wouldn't want to live in Greencastle again. I still have some connections in Indiana, but none of my relatives live there, it is a right-wing state, the educational level is low, the terrain isn't interesting and it gets hot there during the summer. Middlebury and its vicinity are much prettier and more rural, the people are better educated, the cultural amenities are superior, and so is the college. Actually, it would be fine with me if I never returned to Indiana again.

My first year at DePauw was almost a magical experience for me. I set off on a train by myself to college, sight unseen, from Manhattan, with a trunk and a reel-to-reel tape recorder in August of 1968. My father, the drunk, drove me to the station and symbolically gave me an acorn to plant when I arrived. In those days, prior to the closing of the rail line, Greencastle was a whistle stop, and I had to tell the conductor when to stop the train. It seemed as if I were in the middle of a cornfield, because that was about all you could see, and the old train station had long been abandoned. I left my belongings unattended by the tracks, walked toward town, came across a drugstore and called a cab. As colleges go, DePauw wasn't as bad as it might have been, and living in that environment was nirvana to me after living with a dysfunctional family in a suburb that had become an enclave for social climbers. Knowing that fraternities were idiotic, I elected to live in a dorm. I met many of the international and out-of-state students, so at first it didn't occur to me that the majority of the students were dull Hoosiers or the children of wealthy families from the Chicago suburbs. I was just elated to live in a place where ideas seemed to matter and most of the people I ran into didn't seem like fools. Unfortunately, I was later hoodwinked into marrying one of the dull Hoosiers, and the rest is history.

No doubt there were some town and gown disputes while I lived in Greencastle, but I wasn't aware of them at the time. DePauw is a Greek-dominated college with lots of rowdy fraternities. Things changed considerably while I was there, and by the time I left most of the students looked like hippies and smoked pot, though beneath the surface they were still conservative Midwesterners who ended up becoming accountants and lawyers. DePauw was originally associated with the Methodist Church, but Middlebury had no church affiliation and was created by townspeople who felt a need for an institution of higher learning. If you fast forward to today, there are some town and gown disputes in Middlebury, but they seem to be minor.

The relationship between town and gown has gradually become clearer to me. The townspeople are just ordinary people earning a living, and the college is populated by professors who generally know far less than I once attributed to them. As I've said, professors are usually just good students who wind up teaching college, and in hindsight I don't think I learned much from them. I used to be annoyed by the fact that my college experience wasn't well thought out and that no one at the college took any responsibility. I would have been OK with DePauw if anyone had said that with my curriculum I would receive some intellectual stimulation and have a good time, but that I would eventually have to learn something more useful to earn a living. I did eventually study printing and business, which proved sufficient to finance the rest of my life, but the process would have been far more efficient if I had gone into it knowing that I would be doing a few years of broad study followed by a few years of vocational study, and that the two would not necessarily intersect. I only found this out on my own over a long period without any help. If I knew then what I know now, I would not have expected to be prepared for the workforce when I finished college and would have selected an actual vocation before receiving my B.A. degree. At the time, the people at liberal arts colleges were mindlessly repeating the mantra that they were teaching you how to think critically and communicate well, which supposedly would leave you set for the rest of your life. In retrospect it was a lie, because throughout my working years critical thinking and communication skills were far less important than following instructions and conforming. If anything, my liberal arts education made me more incompatible with the American workforce than I might have been otherwise, because the ability to think independently is a handicap in most jobs. My undergraduate experience turned out to be a personal growth period with no practical advantages. I now view many of my former professors as vaguely incompetent adults who should never have been given the charge of vulnerable minds.

The town and gown here are fairly well integrated, and most conflicts are quickly resolved. It helps that the college has a billion-dollar endowment and doesn't balk at spending it to keep the downtown looking respectable, which makes it appealing to the wealthy students they seek. Some of the students are so rich that they could live off their trust funds and never work. There are cases in which the town and gown have literally merged. After he graduated from Middlebury in 1972, future governor Jim Douglas married his dentist's assistant, Dorothy, a woman who grew up on a farm here. She still does all the yard work (and probably all of the home repairs) and he now works as an executive in residence at the college. We have no affiliation with the college and are just as likely to oppose it as support it, depending on the issue. Recently we opposed the use of a neighbor's house for student housing, since Middlebury students have a reputation for drunkenness and loud parties. On that issue we sided with the local bubbas, who stopped by our house in a large pickup truck to tell us that there would be shooting practice next door to the students' house early in the morning after a Halloween party there. Although I sympathize with students who want to live off campus – I lived off campus myself for two out of four years – I'd rather not have them living around here.

We have many affinities with the college. Occasionally we attend concerts and lectures, and the art museum isn't bad for a small college. We attended the wedding reception of one of our neighbors, who is an economics professor. Her children had been over for some stargazing. The college has an enormous economic impact on the county, and I think of it as comparable to a large manufacturing plant, but with a highly-educated workforce. We're not close friends with any of the faculty, but I think they add to the desirability of the region. Last September, when my daughter and grandson were visiting, we happened to be seated next to Jay Parini and his wife at a restaurant. Parini is a well-known English professor who was a friend of the late Gore Vidal. His wife struck up a conversation with my daughter about babies. I like that informality. If the college wasn't here, this would be an economically depressed county with far less cultural vibrancy than it currently possesses.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bad Behavior

As promised, I read Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill. It consists of nine short stories, many of which deal with dark behaviors that don't ordinarily find their way into literary fiction. I thought I was going to finish it but gave up on the last story, which failed to capture my interest and featured multiple family members over a long period of time, making it seem too condensed to work as a short story. I read a used copy in which a previous owner had folded the top corner of the page at the end of each of the first two stories and none thereafter, perhaps signifying that they had stopped there. What stands out about the book is its honest look at prostitution and sadomasochism, and it also covers the New York writing scene from the point of view of people who are trying to succeed in it as of the 1980's.

Gaitskill's writing style is less affected than that of many of her peers and often reads like straight journalism, but with close-up looks at individuals who speak in their own voices as they go about their daily lives. For someone like me, who has never been promiscuous, solicited a prostitute or had a sadomasochistic thought in his head, the book is somewhat of a revelation. The drug abusers bear no relationship to my own use of psychedelics in my hippie days: they anesthetize themselves with heavy drugs that I never took. The impression I get is that Gaitskill is intent on emotional precision, especially regarding women, and that she likes to humanize characters who are typically discarded by society and never thought worthy of discussion.

Although much of the writing seems a little flat and factual to me, Gaitskill is good at description, and occasionally she inserts short flourishes that few writers could match:
Connie drew up her legs and sat with her arms around both knees and looked out the window again. It was true that in the summer the air shaft had an oddly poetic aspect. On days when the apartment air was as heavy and stifling as a swamp, noises and smells came floating up it on clouds of heat, lyrical blends of voice and radio scraps, drifting arguments and amorous sighs, the fried shadow of someone's dinner, a faded microcosm that lilted into their apartment and related them to everyone else in the building.
I gather that Gaitskill is considered an expert writer on female emotions, both positive and negative, but to me this volume seems like reportage; just as we never hear much about prostitution or sadomasochism, we never hear much about female emotions, but they are all there for anyone to see, and it could be argued that Gaitskill has found a fishing hole that has mostly been avoided by other writers of her generation.

Since this is my personal blog, I reserve the right to make simplistic, unsupported assertions from time to time (subject to your rebuttal, of course). If I were to sum up Bad Behavior, I would say that it is carefully written and strives for authenticity, which means that it is honest and accurate, without much emotional wavering and no moral judgment. Compared to her female peers, I think Mary Gaitskill stands up well. That would include Francine Prose, Mona Simpson, Cathleen Schine, Anne Beattie, A.M. Homes, Maxine Chernoff (I confess to having read one book of each), and Lorrie Moore. Although I no longer read Lorrie Moore, she seems comparatively remote and disengaged, as if she were writing from the point of view of an insular girl who has never left home but has heard bad reports from the outside; I think contrivance has been seeping into her work for years, and I'm not even convinced that she still likes to write. But if Moore has had too little experience, perhaps Gaitskill has had too much.

Mary Gaitskill probably deserves more to be read than the other writers I've mentioned, but that isn't saying a lot. I am not familiar with all of the details of her life, but apparently she ran away from home at the age of 15 and later on became a prostitute. She knows whereof she speaks. I don't have any evidence, but I wouldn't be surprised if the story "Secretary" stems from some kind of sexual abuse that she experienced during her childhood. In trying to think of someone similar to Gaitskill, Vivian Maier comes to mind. Though Maier was far more of an outsider and an eccentric than Gaitskill ever was, I get some of the same feelings from her work, and she apparently had a tendency to be cruel. Gaitskill is not on the "A" list of female literary authors, probably because she doesn't play well into the feminist propaganda of her generation or the sheltered political correctness of the current MFA environment. I don't feel compelled to read any more of her work, which is not to say that you shouldn't read her yourself, particularly if you have an interest in contemporary American fiction. I hardly bother at all with it now, though I liked The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, who is currently quite antique at 82.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Though I don't particularly like to comment on current events, it seems appropriate to say something about the terrorist attacks in Paris of November 13. There is a general consensus in developed nations that ISIL (or ISIS or Da'ish or Daesh) is an unfathomable organization whose destruction must be stopped by a coordinated international effort. That much is clear, but from a political and journalistic standpoint I haven't seen the events described in the same way that I think about them, namely, as a biological phenomenon. No doubt this is a highly complex situation, but I think the best way to look at it is through the lens of science.

What seems to stump commentators is the brutality of ISIL in conjunction with what looks like the absence of a coherent ideology. ISIL is wreaking havoc in the name of Islam when no one can see the teachings of Mohammed in its behavior. World leaders and journalists are at a loss to explain it in the familiar language of religious conflict. From my point of view this is a perfect opportunity to drop comfortable Western ideology and look at ISIL as a Malthusian phenomenon with the help of modern science. Although ISIL exists in real time, it can be studied in the same way that archaeologists, for example, are studying the collapse of Pueblo society in Mesa Verde, Colorado during the late 1200's.

Broadly speaking, what is occurring probably has to do with overpopulation, political instability, environmental change, in-group and out-group conflict and instinctive male behavior. It would appear that ISIL was conceived and is being operated by out-group male Muslims whose life prospects, for multiple reasons, whether they live in the Middle East or Europe, are inadequate. In a situation like this, religion is at best a pretext for violence and it may be a waste of time to look for coherent ideology. ISIL is following an ancient survival model that can be found throughout human history and has nothing to do with the contemporary templates that we use to describe the world.

What is different this time is the high population levels in the Middle East, where disruption has implications thousands of miles away and potentially throughout the world. Obviously this is an enormous topic that I can barely touch here. I'll just mention a couple of aspects that relate to some of my earlier posts. First, I think it is important to see beyond ideology such as political correctness in situations such as this. As I said earlier, the PEN protesters who didn't want Charlie Hebdo to receive a free speech award could not have had a good conception of the underlying causes of the January, 2015 attacks in Paris. They were probably thinking along politically correct lines something to the effect that the satirical magazine made Muslims feel insulted. If these Muslims had been students in America, perhaps they would feel "unsafe." No trigger warnings were provided! Is that how we ought to interpret these events? No, it isn't. Second, this is an opportunity to see how inadequate the arts and religion can be for dealing with occurrences like this. I am thinking specifically about Michel Houellebecq's novel, Submission, which I just reviewed. Although Houellebecq gets some credit for concocting an imaginative outcome for France in light of its growing Muslim population, the novel is actually rather inadequate if you are looking for an understanding of why so many Muslims live in France today or why the Middle East is in turmoil. The point here is that even if it isn't the responsibility of novelists to solve world problems, Houellebecq should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt and certainly should not be magnified to the status of a major thinker on the basis of his work. Similarly, if you regard Marilynne Robinson as a serious author, consider here that it is biology, not religion, that is driving these events. Religious traditions are malleable, and there is little to prevent outlier groups from diverting them to serve their purposes. If religions were static ideologies there would be far fewer varieties of them in the world than presently exist.

It is a mistake to think that our current social norms such as political correctness are going to be broadly applicable to other cultures on different continents. As humans, we have a very long history of resorting to religion and art to assuage the stresses of life, and it can be difficult for us to think beyond them. Admittedly there is an unsatisfying, counterintuitive aspect to modern science, and we tend to resist it even when it is our best option for understanding life's complexities. However, we stand a better chance of comprehending ISIL by studying disintegrating societies of the past than we do by falling back on the comforts of our cultural perspective, including religion and art.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


You may have noticed how my attitude has changed toward the Internet over the course of writing this blog. For a number of reasons I am reverting back to the way I used it ten years ago. I was a late adopter of computers and didn't buy one until the Internet had become an important tool for shopping, banking and investing, which justified my purchase at the time. I gradually became diverted into using it for broader reading and discussion, and am now finding it to be more problematic in these areas. Life in cyberspace is conducive to information overload, a short attention span, bad manners and, especially in my case, cognitive dissonance. The sense I get is that it contains chaotic, uncontrolled elements that undermine some of the benefits that its users imagine they are receiving. I find it jarring to enter an environment which at first seems coherent and rational only to discover that my initial perceptions were illusory and that I have inadvertently walked into an unexplained free-for-all in which discontinuities surround you. I occasionally end up feeling as if I have been attracted by a display window outside a department store and, upon entry, I discover an empty warehouse with a few lunatics wandering around. The ideas behind a given website may or may not match its outward appearance, and in the latter case you may be in for a series of rude awakenings. Websites loosely designed for literary and cultural content tend to be less reliable than ones designed specifically for the sale of products or services.

There is a tendency among many Internet users to become obsessed with the next new thing. This behavior is encouraged by companies like Twitter, which create the illusion of real-time news as events unfold. In a similar vein, there are more serious-seeming sites that have a tendency to pretend that they are offering content that is more in-the-know, that they are the sanctum sanctorum of the cognoscenti. In either case a web surfer may become buffeted around by waves of Internet nonsense and come out none the wiser in the end. Psychologically I feel myself pulled into this a little, and I'd rather not be, because on the whole it is a waste of time.

Not that I have ever tried to be "with it," I will henceforth retreat somewhat from the Internet resources that are available and if possible focus more on books. This will affect the blog, because it will take longer to absorb material and comment on it, resulting in a lower frequency of posts. I will continue to write about my favorite topics such as capitalism, Darwinism and AI, but will make an effort to do so only when I have something new to say. As always, I am open to suggestions for new topics and will write about them if I feel competent and am interested myself.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Among the people whom I know best, one of their greatest concerns is that they don't feel that they belong to any particular group. I think the need to belong is hard-wired into us and is a manifestation of our eusocial nature, as discussed earlier. We have evolved to live in cooperative groups, and if we're not integrated into one we are likely to feel uneasy, because it was once impossible to survive alone. A genetic predisposition for a solitary life is weak in our gene pool, because over hundreds of thousands of years it tended to result in early death.

Even though I am a relatively solitary person myself, I also have a need to belong, and it used to affect my decisions more than it does now. In my early years I thought that I might fit in well in a college environment, but I eventually determined that I am too independent and unscholarly for academia. I moved to Oregon in 1975 with the hope that the local culture would agree with me better than it had in the Midwest or the East Coast. It didn't. By the time I moved to Vermont in 2011, my view was that I was unlikely to fit in anywhere, and the decision to move here did not assume that I would find friends or like-minded people, and in fact I haven't and don't expect to.

You could also describe some aspects of my recent forays into the Internet as efforts to connect with specific groups of people. In that sense the efforts were of no avail. I eventually discovered that Internet communities are transient and often illusory. Besides that, they can be downright unpleasant, because it is a place where people can behave uncivilly with little or no consequence. As discussed, the New York Review of Books left me with the impression that it serves the needs of a small number of people who aren't necessarily cohesive themselves, and there is no evidence that they care about anything beyond their individual needs. Incongruously, the NYRB, which supposedly promotes ideas, has no apparent interest in the discussion of ideas or the public who wish to participate in it. From the standpoint of belonging, the Internet has been no different from my previous life experience. In effect, I have withdrawn to my own blog with no expectation of group participation, except perhaps on a minuscule level with a small number of readers. If the readership ever went up, the blog could easily be ruined.

Since we live in a capitalistic society, I should also mention that the widespread need to belong creates economic opportunities. A fairly large percentage of TV programming amounts to nothing more than a substitute for an actual social life. It took a while for TV executives to figure it out, but by the 1960's sitcoms and talk shows had become staples. Talk shows have changed little since then, but sitcoms have expanded broadly into the miniseries and reality TV formats. Network news is now far less devoted to actual news than to infotainment and feel-good moments. Most of this programming places an emphasis on providing an artificial sense of community. Its very existence can be attributed to profit motives that have nothing to do with artistic value, as I often complain. Because families and friends are often geographically separated and fragmented by contemporary living conditions, the media cater to them by providing substitute products to satisfy that basic human need.

The exploitation doesn't end there. Professional and amateur sports could never exist as dominantly in American society as they do without someone promoting their expansion. Team sports are quintessentially about group affiliation, and by association they become monopolies over large geographic areas. For example, I'm supposed to be a Boston Red Sox fan even though I live in a different state, about 200 miles away, and don't care about baseball. Likewise, colleges and universities have figured out how to use sports to generate funding directly through sporting events and indirectly through alumni giving stimulated by sports. They have also recently expanded their marketing to alumni by encouraging them to retire in or near their campuses, providing an even more concrete sense of community.

With advances in technology, it is beginning to become a little frightening to think about what might happen if current trends in the creation and marketing of artificial communities continue. It is easy to imagine younger people who have grown up in a digital environment inhabiting virtual communities tailored to fit their personalities and interests. Prima facie, given the plasticity of the human mind, I see no reason why people couldn't learn to live in the complete absence of actual human contact if suitable artificial substitutes were provided. As for myself, I am satisfied to inhabit the more traditional world in which I have created an imaginary relationship with the mostly invisible readers of this blog.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Kakutani on Houellebecq

Though I no longer make a habit of reading book reviews of popular fiction after years of finding them unsatisfactory, I looked at Michiko Kakutani's review of Submission out of curiosity to see what she thought. She has a reputation for being an honest, if quirky, reviewer who doesn't shy away from going into attack mode when she dislikes a well-received work of fiction. Unsurprisingly, she hates Michel Houellebecq and Submission, and I thought I would comment on the strengths and weaknesses of her review and on the whole reviewing system that readers have to put up with.

In the first paragraph of her review she links Houellebecq to "hate-mongering." In the second paragraph she refers to the novel as "ugly." In the third paragraph she says that for Houellebecq "controversy has proved to be a very rewarding career move," and remarks that one of his earlier novels is "filled with misogynistic put-downs, putrid sex scenes and nihilistic pronouncements on the depravity of the human species." In the fifth paragraph she says that "Mr. Houellebecq's writing tends to be highly derivative of earlier writers," and that "his protagonists are simply variations of one odious type–self-pitying, self-absorbed and misanthropic men who have a hard time feeling any emotion other than lust." Referring to the book in the eleventh paragraph, she says that Houellebecq's "mockery of French academics...and an arthritic political system" is "all done with an extremely heavy hand." In the twelfth and final paragraph she concludes that the protagonist, François, "gets a new start in life by remaining true to his egocentric, opportunistic self." While her summary of the plot and her description of some of Houellebecq's techniques are reasonably accurate, she seems to me to intensely dislike the book for reasons that cannot be considered objective.

Where I think Kakutani goes astray is in her understanding of what constitutes art. Certainly it is easy to see that Submission does not fit the model of conventional popular American fiction, but she makes no effort to identify how anyone who is not a deranged pervert or something of the sort might find it worthwhile. I agree with her that it is written in a specific French tradition, but think she is being lazy about examining how that tradition works and the ways in which Houellebecq falls short in that regard. She negatively compares him to Camus, whom I now think is rather overrated myself, but doesn't try to determine what Houellebecq might be trying to say or how he might have said it better.

My view is that Houellebecq is not first and foremost a good writer in the sense of producing beautiful writing or the clear exposition of ideas, but that those are not really the essence of the novel as a form of art. Kakutani's position is not unlike that of art critics in the late nineteenth century who might have said that van Gogh's crude brushstrokes are proof of an imbecilic lack of talent. It is a little difficult for me to evaluate just how badly Houellebecq reads in French, but it isn't hard to see that his sentences generally lack elegance. I also believe that the ideas underlying his novels could be expressed better even in novelistic form, but to a serious reader that is not a sufficient reason to dismiss an entire work. Houellebecq appeals to me in Submission and some of his other novels because I believe that there are aspects of his worldview that are legitimate and stand in contrast to conventional optimistic views of mankind, and he offers a needed corrective. Reviewers like Kakutani seem blind to the fact that a negative or pessimistic outlook on mankind may be just as plausible as their optimistic view, and that their critiques of Houellebecq are based more on dislike of a competing worldview than on substantive reasoning.

I concede that there is a somewhat cartoonish element to the way that Houellebecq writes, but must point out that even comic books are now accepted as a legitimate form of art. If you have read my previous posts you will have seen that I prefer to view the limitations of mankind more calmly, in a somewhat detached manner. I think Houellebecq is just a little more hysterical and uninformed than he might be. From my point of view it would be preferable to express Houellebecq's ideas in a clear and accurate essay, but the fact is that no one reads that kind of thing, and most people respond more to a Houellebecqian tirade. When you take objectivity seriously it becomes apparent that Americans are far more optimistic than they ought to be–delusionally so–and Houellebecq, though excessive in the opposite direction, is constantly drowned out by a majority that is optimistic to the point of obtuseness. Regarding the accusation that Houellebecq is a misanthrope, misogynist, nihilist, narcissist, bigot, etc., I think that these are primarily name-calling labels that people use without bothering to understand his work; he must take some blame for being less articulate than he might have been, but I think that being completely articulate is not necessarily the responsibility of an artist, because incomprehensible complexity is something that art, particularly the novel, seeks to address. For me it is more appropriate to see Houellebecq as an enfant terrible who presents a particular worldview in a forceful and expressive manner.

Kakutani's review looks like a barely civil hatchet job. Beneath the "Mr." this and so on of the stilted New York Times writing style that she employs, one gets the sense that there may lie a simmering rage against all things French. This could place her in same camp as Jeb Bush, who, during a recent Republican debate, said that Marco Rubio's poor attendance record in the U.S. Senate looked like "a French work week." Of course, that was a continuation of the long-running hate affair that the Republicans have held with France since they changed the name of french fries to "freedom fries" because France, showing great prescience, refused to support George W. Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. In this case I would only point out to Kakutani that French literary and intellectual history, whether one likes them or not, were once and perhaps still are the apex of Western civilization, and that beyond the fact that French writers and thinkers produced many of the ideas that made the very existence of the U.S. possible, throughout most of its history America has looked like a long-running episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" compared to life in France. Whether you like Houellebecq or not, he descends from a literary tradition that dwarfs American literature.

For me, reviews like Kakutani's are but another symptom of the cultural oligarchy that is headquartered in New York City. To figure out what's going on here you need only know that New York City is a center for publishing, and that major newspapers hire columnists who, in the course of producing columns, inevitably become hacks, regardless of their level of talent. The New York Times is in the business of making money, and to do that they need a constant flow of new content. One proven method for generating it is maintaining a fixed group of columnists with whom their readers come to identify. A few years ago it dawned on me that even the best columnists fail eventually if you hold them up to any real standards. If you look at what Michiko Kakutani has to do, there is no mystery to this. She speed-reads fifty-plus books each year that have been identified as being of potential interest to her readers, and then she quickly writes a short essay on each one. If she happens to come across a complex, puzzling or highly specialized book, she may not have the time or knowledge to do it justice, and usually no one will know the difference, because her columns are not combed religiously by scholars from all fields. To use Submission as an example, whether or not it is as lofty a work as I may have made it seem, it may simply be a matter of expedience for her to trash it. Her readers won't be any the wiser, her reputation won't be affected, and her company doesn't care whether the novel sells well or not. My point here is that the constraints under which reviewers like Kakutani work place an upper limit on the quality of their reviews. Besides the fact that it would be nearly impossible for one reviewer to produce fifty high-quality reviews per year, she would have no incentive to do so, because that would entail writing over the heads of her readers, contradicting the purpose of her employment.

Monday, November 2, 2015


After reading two novels by Michel Houellebecq I didn't feel that I quite had a handle on him, but now, with a third, I think I do. Submission ostensibly studies the intersection of the life of Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), the minor French writer, with the life of François, a fictional professor at the Sorbonne who specializes in Huysmans, against the backdrop of dramatic political changes in France of the year 2022. Houellebecq has variously been called a provocateur, a pornographer, a misogynist and a great novelist. I would now just label him as an imaginative French novelist and leave it at that.

The arc of Huysmans's life and career started with naturalism, like that of Émile Zola, evolved into decadence, like that of Oscar Wilde, and ended with a return to the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. François's life seems to be following a similar trajectory. He is a middle-aged man who has been serially dating students half his age and becomes dejected after the most recent one dumps him. Most of his relationships last for only one year, the academic year, and his primary interest in them seems to be sex. In a bizarre but theoretically possible turn of events, a charismatic, moderate Muslim with immense political skills becomes the head of the French government, and radical changes immediately follow. The Sorbonne becomes an Islamic university funded by Saudi Arabia, in which all professors are required to convert to Islam and adopt Muslim practices such as polygamy. Women are no longer allowed to work. For most of this short novel it looks as if François is going to follow Huysmans's arc along with his country and become born again, only into a different Abrahamic religion, which will have the effect of providing him with a new meaning to his life.

Never one for tight narratives, Houellebecq has François balk a little toward the end as he begins to question Huysmans for the first time:
It had been a mistake to give too much importance to Huysmans's glib talk about "debauches" and "dissipation." That was just a Naturalistic tic, a contemporary cliché, part of the need to scandalize, to shock the bourgeoisie. In the end, it was a career move; and the opposition he set up between carnal appetite and the rigors of monastic life was equally beside the point. Chastity wasn't a problem and never had been, not for Huysmans or anyone else....In reality this had never posed the least difficulty for monks, and in my own case, as the Islamic regime pushed women's clothing in the direction of decency, I had felt my own sexual impulses gradually diminish.
François goes on to pick apart several of Huysmans's ideas, and at the same time Islam itself doesn't appear to offer solutions to any of his life problems. Nevertheless, after a long discussion in which the new university president attempts to recruit him, without any noticeable soul-searching he finally decides to convert to Islam for no compelling reasons other than vague financial ones; he is already technically retired from his academic position and is not under any real pressure.

The novel is disappointing from a conceptual standpoint in the sense that François merely goes with the flow, adapting as necessary, and principles never factor into the process. He stands little to lose by following the patriarchal model of Islam: he will have ample income from an unspecified sinecure if he elects to stay on with the university, along with three attractive young wives. He never gives the conversion much thought, and he never has to. If you compare this to Czeslaw Milosz's musing in The Captive Mind, François has taken the Murti-Bing pill and buried any reservations that might lead to his rejection of Islam. I suppose this is a predictable outcome, and it is easy to imagine someone like Houellebecq making the same decision himself under similar circumstances.

Along the way there is some good and bad writing. The pornographic sections are really too much for me to read, as I can only take so much discussion of orifices. Sex doesn't add anything to the novel and only shows that Houellebecq is consciously counting prurient male consumers as part of his base readership. Alternatively, this kind of writing may be viewed as passé in Western Europe, where Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for smuttier work. As with sex, Houellebecq uses other kinds of contemporary fillers that even show up in American novels. One that I'm already tired of is the listing of food and drink. Novelists these days must spend half their time copying menus at high-end restaurants only to insert the items throughout their work. The other half must be spent taking notes at various tourist attractions so that they can place them somewhere in their novels. Besides these standard tricks, Houellebecq arranges to have both of François's divorced parents die during the course of the novel, though François has never kept up with either of them and is completely indifferent to their deaths. In The Map and the Territory the protagonist's father also dies, but he is portrayed with greater sympathy; there is also no sex in that novel, and I surmise that Houellebecq intentionally cleaned up his act in order to obtain greater critical approval: it worked and he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, so now he can return to his old habits. If you took out all of the nonsense from most novels, they'd probably be only ten pages long.

On the good side, Houellebecq occasionally makes astute observations:
Many men take an interest in politics and war, but these diversions never appealed to me. I was about as political as a bath towel. No doubt it was my loss. To be fair, when I was young, the elections could not have been less interesting; the mediocrity of the "political offerings" was almost surprising. A center-left candidate would be elected, serve either one or two terms, depending how charismatic he was, then for obscure reasons he would fail to complete a third. When people got tired of that candidate, and the center-left in general, we'd witness the phenomenon of democratic change, and the voters would install a candidate of the center-right, also for one or two terms, depending on his personal appeal. Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.
He can also be quite funny in a deadpan, self-deprecating way:
I had no plan, no exact destination, just a vague sense that I ought to head southwest–that if a civil war should break out in France, it would take a while to reach the southwest. I knew next to nothing about the southwest, really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war. Though, of course, I could be wrong.  

Whether you want to read this book or not is obviously up to you. I think I've summarized the main points adequately, and I doubt that it will get much press in the U.S. In the unlikely event that France goes Islamic in the future, Houellebecq may be considered prophetic. For me, he touches on some of the larger human questions, but in a manner that is primarily superficial, so if I read any more of his work it will be mainly as a diversion. Even so, he probably writes at a higher level than any American author I've ever read, and that is to his credit, to say the least.