Top critical review
The good, the bad and the ugly
on 12 May 2016
Judged by the usual criteria, this is not a great novel. Far too much ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ (yes, that's a creative-writing cliché, but it applies here, I think), plus the usual slender-to-non-existent plot and character development that we generally find with Houellebecq.
The writing itself is not always great, either, but I suspect most of this is down to poor translation: there are a number of obvious literals, for example. Also he tends to overdo the use of italics when highlighting certain words or phrases that are intended to have an amusing aspect to them, to the extent that we might get two or three of these per page.
Another complaint might be that, when the character Houellebecq appears in the story, as himself, he barely differs from the main character, the artist Jed. This isn’t surprising, as Houellebecq always seems to model his main character on himself, but it doesn’t make for much diversity.
But having said all that, I still found this to be a very readable and at times amusing novel, with an unusual twist in the final third of the book that I found entertaining, up until the last fifty pages or so, when the whole thing deteriorates quite badly. At this point a sudden burst of violence on the part of Jed, which I won’t describe here because it might spoil things for others, seems to me to be shockingly out of character and also quite stupid and repulsive. As if this isn’t bad enough, these last pages are really badly written, though again this might be down to poor translation.
Before I got to this last part, I was thinking I would rate this four stars, but the ending changed things. This is a pity, because in most respects this is a more subtle work than his previous books, perhaps reflecting a more mature author. The themes are similar, though: the absurdity of life; the commercialization of everything, in particular (in this novel) of art; the shallowness and emptiness of modern lives. I still think it’s worth reading, but the ending is grim, even by Houellebecq’s standards.