I have not found a book so initially distasteful as this since I read Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho“. I had to persevere at the beginning as much of the content was so unpleasant that it created a visceral emotional response. However, I am glad I persevered as, after a time, the satire of capitalism and consumerism was well worth reading. There are similarities between American Psycho and this book but Houellebecq’s satire is much more wide ranging and scathing. Rather than having an aspect of our society in its sights this book takes aim at the entirety of Western Culture.
This is a book about the end of our culture; a look at the end of a millennium that ‘had previously been known as Judeo-Christian’ and one that appears to be ‘one millennium too many, in the way that boxers have one fight too many’. This is a book about a culture which has lost its sense of love and purpose and has been left only with its desires and the consequential emptiness that this brings.
The narrator, of this story, has little that makes life worth living and only survives, after a fashion, by taking antidepressants to try and keep his brain biochemistry in the range where life is tolerable. He has lost love, both personal erotic love and also agape: the positives of life are absent. Similarly the negatives of life are no longer felt. He knows (intellectually) many things are wrong but he cannot feel appropriate anger or disgust. This is truly a nihilistic story. This is the story of a man, and a culture, who have huge gaping holes at the centre of their being which no amount of sex, pornography, eating or violence can fill. They are left with suicide as the rational options.
Despite these themes the book is well written and at times beautifully lyrical. It is also often very, very funny. A black desperate humour runs through this tale. This may be a problem to some readers as the author’s misanthropy and disgust with our cultural changes is very well described and it can be difficult to see, in back and white, just how debased some aspects of our lives have become. Many will find this story too excessive and gruesome, however, if you can stomach it, then it is a worthwhile read. Indeed, by the end, of this torrent of sadness and depravity the narrator, and reader, discover that only love and self-sacrifice really matter.