18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2002
The reader is given the dubious treat of being invited into the thoughts and life of a young computor programmer as he approaches a mental breakdown.- Can we, the reader, withstand the pain for long enough to gain some insights?
At the end of this read you may be asking yourself: Is the modern world, and it's social interactions essentially fake, and therefore, totally lacking in love, real warmth and affection?- Are we constrained beyond tolerance to a life of sham?-Do we fail, totally, to communicate?-Do women, in particular, deserve retribution for their continued failure to love, succour and nourish?- and, do we need a modern prophet to take us by the scruff of the neck and tell it to us like it really is, thereby, hopefully, saving us,(or,particularly,to die trying), thereby,probably, saving us.
This is a good, aggressive, distressing and thought-provoking read. - The humour in it, is like sharing a laugh in the looney bin.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 3 May 2001
Simultaneously successful and controversial in its native France, Michel Houellebecq's "Whatever" is a disquieting and, at times, painfully funny exploration of white, male social and sexual inadequacy. The nameless narrator is a thirty-year old IT professional, well paid and ostensibly thriving. However, underneath the surface, he is bored, depressed and frustrated by the corporate jargon and insincerity that characterise his job. This nascent sense of alienation boils over during a series of sojourns in provincial towns while training Ministry of Agriculture employees in the use of a new computer system.
Although a times sounding worryingly reactionary and misogynistic, the narrator's personal philosophy is powerfully fashioned by Houellebecq. He dares to reject all the most sacred emblems of late 20th Century life - capitalism, sexual freedom, psychoanalysis, spirituality, and, most crucially of all, the notion that the information age liberates rather than imprisons its citizens. Such nihilism reinforces one of the novel's central themes - that business-speak has rendered language worthless, as real meaning is replaced by endless newly invented "buzz" words.
What could have been a po-faced denunciation of social and economic progress becomes a sad, but hilarious portrayal of urban alienation and failure. Houellebecq has created a wonderfully compelling anti-hero to whom anyone who has ever despaired of modern life can relate.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 24 March 1999
Shame the translators couldn't come up with something closer to the French title "Extension de la domaine de la lutte"--"Violence spreads to the mainland" perhaps--to underline the books political dimension. the narrator comes to believe that his isolation and despair is not personal, but a political consequence of the forces of oppression working in a new sphere: his and everybody else') personal life (or lack of one) He's "given up" on sex but realises to his horror that even though he can't win he can't get out of the game. His attempt to start a revolutionary backlash using a colleague he identified as a member of the sexual lumpenproletariat ends in disaster, and in the end he succumbs to his latent depression. An interesting book to compare this with is Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, particularly in the hero's final and deluded hope for a geographical solution to his troubles.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 12 June 2009
Whatever,' the throwaway line, the conversation stopper, the verbal tic, the ubiquitous response to complexity pregnant with meaning, ultimately meaningless.
Julian Barnes states that any serious writer must write as if both their parents were dead, I would expand this to include all relatives and friends and anyone whom you admire or seek to impress, otherwise the internal censor works surreptitiously to undermine your attempts at authenticity, undiluted honesty.
Of course in reality this is nigh on possible. However if any writer has achieved this it is surely Michel Houellebecq, (wellbeck). Having read `Atomised,' `Platform,' and `The Possibility of an Island' I have finally read his first novel `Whatever.'
A French writer who writes with a highly anglicised style, threatened in France by the Muslim lobby with legal action and accused of `Islamaphobia,' he now lives in exile, having first resided in Ireland and now in Spain. His books are like intellectual hand grenades, easy to read, his prose is uncomplicated, matter of fact, though never dry and always with wit and humour and an occasional curious quality of tenderness, they are not easy reading.
I have read no other writer with such a penetrating critique of modernity, the hollowness of so much that is `sold' to us as `living,' if there is a single theme in his work it is the sheer crappiness of modern life. Running through all of his work there is always a strong current of disgust, he views the contemporary world through the telescopic sights of a snipers rifle.
However those seeking to take offence and their numbers seem to grow daily, will find here plenty with which to take offence. Indeed it would be difficult, particularly in `Whatever,' to defend him against the charge of misogyny, though his portaits of male sexuality are hardly flattering, nor a whole other raft of intense and searing hatreds, though I would take the case pro bono, for his venom is so widespread, so indiscriminate, in this case more shot gun blast than snipers rifle.
Houellebecq has been compared to Camus and not since the existentialist French writers of the forties and fifties has France produced such an incendiary. He is a disturbed and disturbing man.
Whatever is a disturbing book, it left me feeling uneasy. I can think of no greater compliment.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2001
I found "Whatever" interesting mainly because of its relationship to Houellebecq's far superior "Atomised". It is in itself a fairly good book, entertaining and occasionally insightful, though perhaps a little disjointed in some ways.
My major problem with this book was the translation. The title, as a reviewer below mentions, is not a fair reflection of the original French - but the language is all over the place too. We have a fairly unattractive combination of American, British and "MTV Europe" English, and the overall effect is to break-up the reader's involvement in the narrative. Generally, the translation SOUNDS like a translation, and that is a great pity.
The marketing of the book is also a little unrealistic. It is not really an "Etranger" for the information age, or any kind of generation x, slacker novel. One would be forgiven for thinking that this is a would-be cult novel for computer-using males in their late teens, but Houellebecq's writing suggests that he offers something quite new and different: he is very much a European writer (in the sense that Joyce was a European writer), whose philosophical reach and empathy for others is vast.
So - worth a read, but it would be nice to see "Whatever" republished with an appropriate translation and marketing likely to attract the audience it deserves.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 September 2012
The original French title of this short novel translates as 'An Extension of the Domain of the Struggle', and although this might seem rather obscure (no doubt the reason it gets changed to 'Whatever' for the English edition) there is, buried away in the middle of the book somewhere, an explanation: the struggle is one for sexual recognition.
The narrator is a computer programmer who is fed up with his job, fed up with life, hates pretty much everyone and everything, but manages to keep going, just about. On a business trip with a colleague who he describes as 'extremely ugly', he watches as the other man tries to pick up women, failing as always. The point is that the ugly man's life is dominated by his futile quest for sexual fulfillment.
The novel, such as it is, follows in the great French tradition of existential angst. What does it mean, to find oneself in this world for no reason? Like Sartre and Camus, Houellebecq examines the hopelessness of life, though this is both funnier and less profound than those previous works.
I think the novel would have been better without the inclusion of some rather pretentious (and tedious) 'stories' that the author apparently wrote when he was in his teens, and which he adds here to show perhaps how mixed up he's always been, or perhaps just to fill out the book, which is pretty thin.
So a mixed bag: short on plot and all the usual things you expect in a novel, but in places observant and amusing, and in some respects better than his later best-sellers Atomized and Platform, which expand on the same themes without adding any new insights.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 15 May 2012
Whatever is a very very downbeat novel. If the writing wasn't so good it may have been unbearable. The plot follows an unnamed narrator who at first seems bitter and by the end psychopathic. He's a computer engineer in modern France who as a hobby writes animal stories loaded with philosophical symbolism. He has a friend and colleague called Tisserand who in a beautifully lurid passage is conveyed as one of the ugliest men alive.
The central themes of Whatever are sex and disaffection. Both the narrator and Tisserand suffer from too little of the former and too much of the latter. Tisserand is the worse off, however, because despite his greater hope all his ugliness is external, so no woman wants him. The narrator is blessed with being grotesque only on the inside. What author Michel Houellebecq's saying is that sex is like money. How much you have depends not on lasting qualities, like intelligence or empathy, but shallow ones. Houellebecq is not the sexual revolution's biggest fan. He blames it for the emergence of a hierarchy in human sexuality which excludes all but the most beautiful and ruthless.
The writing is an odd mix of gentle melancholy and satire so vicious it hisses. There are times when the narrator is poignant, like when he takes a walk through Paris on a Sunday, reflecting that such endeavours are sad "when one doesn't believe in God." As the novel progresses though he becomes angrier and angrier, until he begins plotting a terrible symbolic revenge against the sexual hierarchy.
There's also lengthy excerpts from his aforementioned animal stories, which serve the same function as the passages explaining society's present state in George Orwell's 1984. They exist primarily to set up the narrator's nihilistic philosophy, alternating between creepy, shocking and profound. They reward repeat readings.
The last paragraph is almost defiantly unhappy. Houellebecq's debut novel embodies the antonym of cathartic. It's dark and unforgiving, but for the right reader also beautiful.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
A jaded computer programmer is given the task of taking the computer program on the road and introducing it to various offices around France, training the workers in each office how to use the program. He writes short stories featuring talking animals. His travelling companion is a desperate and physically repulsive man. Along the way the narrator tells us how repulsive we all are, how pathetic love is, how sad and disgusting everything is, and blah blah blah.
I really like Houellebecq's work usually, "Platform" is one of the best novels I've read in the last 10 years and his brilliant essay on HP Lovecraft made me go back to the pulpy hack writer and read his stories again. But he fails to entice in this, his first novel.
It's not that it's unfailingly negative about the future and of society as it is today because that's what I enjoyed most from his writings and is a key theme in all his work. It's that this bile is the sole reason for this book. At least in previous books there's an attempt at a story, characterisation, etc. Here we just get a man complaining about the modern world. His colleague dies, he falls into a depression, he doesn't care. I get it, Houellebecq's tired of the niceties of existence and is looking for something more vibrant, something to wake him up out of his stupor. It's just a shame he couldn't articulate it into a more interesting book.
If this is your first encounter with the angry Frenchie I heartily suggest "Platform" instead of this and you'll see why he's so popular. "Whatever" is a bit dull and a bit dated. Whatever.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 May 2013
'Whatever', is the story of an alienated 30 year-old who is on the verge of a break down. It is dark and at times disturbing, however it is penetrating and uncovers some of the struggles of modern day, westernised societies.
The whole book revolves around one main idea: 'Sexual liberalism, like economic liberalism, is an extension of the domain of the struggle'. In the same way that in a totally liberal economic system the winners accumulate fortunes and others stagnate in misery and unemployment, in a totally liberal sexual system certain people get a varied and exciting erotic life, while others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.
This is an interesting, thought-provoking position. However, for Houellebecq, this second system of differentiation is completely independent of money and is mostly related to good looks and youthfulness for either gender. Although I would be willing to consider 'sexual capital' as another form of differentiation between the various members of a society, I find his approach a bit narrow and questionable on two accounts:
A) Not only young people of either gender are attractive but mature people can be attractive too.
B) The two systems - economical and sexual - may not be totally independent of each other.
on 19 February 2013
If you intend reading this novel - be prepared - it is seriously depressing, a very bleak portrait of a very bleak individual. If you work as a computer professional then be double prepared - it might make you a bit queazy.
Nonetheless this novel IS worth a read and it has a central thesis which is worth pondering on. The novel follows in the tradition of Catcher In The Rye by JD Salinger and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, in depicting the thoughts and experiences of a central character, the narrator, who is on a gradual slide into mental breakdown. However the character portrayed here is even sadder and even more beyond hope than the ones depicted in the aforementioned classic novels. This novel is not as enjoyable to read as those novels, and frankly it 'stings', so complete and so outright is its bleakness, darkness, and hopelessness. I almost fear for the state of mind of the author who conceived this novel, such is the profundity of the depressing message it relates.
The key to the novel comes on page 102 where deep distaste for women undergoing psychoanalysis is expressed. Apparently it turns them into very selfish and nasty individuals incapable of loving anyone. The narrator's previous girlfriend underwent such therapy for depression and it made her quite unbearable to live with, culminating in him being thrown out of 'her' rented flat and the police being called. The narrator is deeply bitter about this, and it seems he knows no other type of woman, and holds no hope of ever forming a relationship with one ever again.
On page 99 the central thesis in given - that sexual liberalism, like economic liberalism, results in extreme inequalities, and 'absolute pauperisation' of a class of person who have no hope of ever finding a relationship and thus are prone to developing severe depression. In respect of the economic theory, I disagree somewhat, because capitalism has generated wealth throughout society not just for an elite, and certainly it has done so much more effectively than any communist regime ever did. On the sexual liberation front though, the thesis certainly gives food for thought, and I think whole books can be written on this subject.
I suspect the author has, as have more and more people today, both men and women, realised the severe damage that the small and nasty but highly vocal brigade of 'gender feminists' have caused to society in the last 50 years or so. There is a blank greed and insolence in the faces of many misguided women today who shun family life, and pursue selfish but essentially unfulfilling lifestyles. One of the casualties of this perverse state of affairs is the emergence of a very poor character in men, such as the narrator of this novel.
This is a man ill because he cannot find love. Love is an impossibility to him - it is utterly unreal and inconceivable in his mental domain. His past experiences rule it out completely. In this regard, likewise, church attendences have declined rapidly in the last 50 years because men are no longer seen as attractive or good-husband material by women because they attend church regularly. Thus there is not the incentive to attend church. This phenomenon has been investigated in serious academic research recently.
The author I suspect knows his psychotherapy, and the vocabulary of RD Laing appears in places : 'being-in-the-world', 'being-in-self', a life that is 'tenable'. The narrator believes he has been a mere phantom shadowing his real self - he is not living his life through his own physical body - he is all 'in his head'.
However ultimately I take issue with the message of this novel, and here is why - the greatest cause of misery and moral collapse in this world is NOT, as is thought to be by many, sexual impropriety or promiscuity, or even debaucherated ways - these are all too human (though not exactly admirable). The true root of evil, and classed by Christians as the very greatest of ALL sins is CONCEIT - which is NOT human. This is the singular quality that is found in abundance in the very worst of tyrants and serial killers, and the sole cause of the very greatest of miseries inflicted on humans by other humans.
The conceit of the narrator is revealed in a jarring sentence on p106 - following a reflection on the simple rustic noble courageous way of life of ancient fisherman, he concludes with : 'And an extremely stupid way of life too'. Likewise, with his callous conceit in persuading his work colleague to commit murder of the two young lovers on the beach at night after the night-club.
The narrator lacks all hope and is depressed completely. He lacks the ability to see the fundamental absurdity of life, or the humour or spontaneity of life. The little spoken adage that 'if you want something BADLY ENOUGH you get' it is simply lost on him. He is a man without wisdom, philosophy, poetry, or spirituality. He is a catastrophe. He is the product of the gender-feminist misandrist mind-washing programme. He is a computer programmer - but what he needs is to be DE-PROGRAMMED!
The conclusion of the novel is this : 'the goal of life is missed'. That is to say the goal to find love, as in the love of another human being within a relationship. But that is NOT the goal of life! What an absurdity! For any number of reasons that goal may not transpire, and for reasons totally beyond our control as mere mortals. The goal of life is to attain oneness with the central beauty of the Universe and all creation. And if we find along the way that thing called 'love' then that is a bonus.