Elaine Blair on American Male Novelists v Houllebecq


30 March 2012

I enjoyed Elaine Blair‘s review of Michel Houllebecq‘s most recent novel, The Map and the Territory in the NY Review of Books.  It was one of those reviews that I suspected was more interesting/compelling than the book itself, the ultimate effect of which was to interest me in a book I otherwise would have bypassed.

Now, I realize that what I appreciated in Blair’s approach to the review was my sense that she is a kindred spirit: she is a woman interested in the “maleness” of male literature.   This week, she writes about Houllebecq v. American male novelists.  She cites (as I have many times) David Foster Wallace‘s essay on the Great Male Novelists (GMNs), and the gap between Updike/Bellow/Mailer/Roth and today’s younger generation of male novelists:

When you see the loser-figure in a[n American] novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me […]

Into this theater of struggle, in 2000, arrived The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq’s loser characters have thoughts like “her big, sagging breasts were perfect for a tit-job; it had been three years since his last time.” And he doesn’t call them on it. Except occasionally he does. Houellebecq has a relaxed looseness about the whole matter of whose point of view (author’s or character’s) is being expressed in a given moment. He is happy to keep readers guessing about what he actually believes and what he’s satirizing.

American male novelists (post-Updike et alia), according to Blair, want to be liked by female readers; Houllebecq is more interested in the reality, i.e. the duplicity, of maleness.

Now I suppose I really do want to give The Map and the Territory (and The Elementary Particles) a look.


One Response to “Elaine Blair on American Male Novelists v Houllebecq”

  1. […] the NYRB earlier this month, which I stumbled across thanks to Sonya Chung’s comments. Go to Sonya’s blog as well and read the David Foster Wallace quote there about Great Male Novelists and their attitudes […]

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