Certain basic things that important novelists do, Houellebecq does not. Great novels usually concern the relationships, institutions, and ideals out of which the “bourgeois” social order is knit together—marriages, schools, jobs, piety, patriotism. But in our time, relationships fail to take root. Institutions fall apart. The visible social order seems not to be the real one. Many novelists limit their vision to those narrow precincts where the world still makes sense (or can be made to make sense) in the way it did to Balzac or Flaubert. Often these are contexts in which a set of rules has been bureaucratically imposed, or grandfathered in: a SEAL team in bestselling fiction, a university literature department in more arty work. Houellebecq is up to something different. He places his characters in front of specific, vivid, contemporary challenges, often humiliating and often mediated by technology: Internet pornography, genetic research, terrorism, prescription drug addiction. This technological mediation can make his characters seem isolated, and yet it is an isolation with which any contemporary can at least empathize. The Outsider is Everyman. Houellebecq’s reputation as a visionary rests on his depiction of what we have instead of the old bourgeois social order.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor