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