by Michel Houellebecq
(Serpent’s Tail, May 2011)

When I was a teenager, I attended a private Catholic school that was known for its athletic dominance as much as it was for its academic credentials. Every fall, shortly after the beginning of classes, the school threw a pep rally where the students would be herded into the gym for the last hour or so in order to cheer on our various sports teams before they went on to victory. Every nerdy kid dreads these kinds of events; we already get our social inferiority rubbed in our faces on a daily basis, and now we’re forced to have it rubbed in our faces with the administration’s backing. An hour of sweating in a hot gym while mustering up fake cheers for people who throw a ball around in their spare time is enough to make even the most gentle-hearted dweeb think that Reb and Vodka were on to something.

During one pep rally, I was sitting in the bleachers in front of a girl I’ll call “Kat,” a bottle blonde fond of bragging about her nipple piercings. When the football team was introduced, in her ecstasy to show her school spirit, she swiftly kicked me in the back while cheering. I immediately turned around, and upon seeing my face, she screamed, “No! Turn around! I wasn’t talking to you!” No attempt at an apology, nothing.

Years later, I told this story to another girl, who was shocked and responded, “This story is really making me want to have sex.” We were both drunk. So thanks, Kat. I guess.

Contrary to what women—particularly ugly women—believe, men who are losers are usually acutely aware of their loserdom. They aren’t single because they’re holding out for the prom queen and ignoring the geeky girl who is secretly into them: they’re single because both the prom queen and geeky girl are either lusting after the football player or retreating into online attention whoring. Life is a sexual buffet they’re allowed to stare at and smell but never to indulge in. While I was able to get out of that hell, I’m one of the lucky ones: there are countless more men who have been condemned to starve due to factors outside of their control.

Michel Houellebecq is a French novelist who has spent his life examining the consequences of the sexual revolution: its winners, its losers, and the carnage it has left in its wake. In a twenty-year writing career, Houellebecq has tackled everything from free love (The Elementary Particles) to third-world sex tourism (Platform) to the Islamic takeover of Europe (Submission). While often identified with the political right, Houellebecq denies that he is a reactionary due to his belief that the social changes he writes about cannot be reversed.

Unlike Anglosphere writers on these subjects, who are forced to deal with blackballing, ostracism, and prison time, Houellebecq occupies something of a respectable position in French society, though he was once taken to court for calling Islam “the stupidest of all religions.” For all their flaws (their sexual deviancy, their hatred of God, their pathological fixation on “equality”), the French are better than Anglos when it comes to grappling with socially unacceptable ideas. Luminaries of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) such as Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye are afforded a respect in France that would be inconceivable in the Manichean insane asylum of the Anglosphere.

Whatever, Houellebecq’s first novel, is a work that is as prophetic as it is entertaining. Released in 1994 under the title Extension du domaine de la lutte (literally “extension of the domain of struggle,” a reference to one of the slogans of the 1968 uprising), Whatever predicted the rise of the “incel” and the sexual stratification of society that is taken for granted today. While dated in some aspects and also lacking the polish of Houllebecq’s later work, Whatever’s bleak plot and nihilistic atmosphere make it a haunting and funny read.

The plot—if you can call it that—concerns an unnamed 30-year old office drone living in Paris. His life is instantly recognizable to the modern reader: he has no friends, no sex life, and nothing to do in his free time aside from writing Camus-esque philosophical dialogues starring anthropomorphic farm animals. (If Houellebecq had written Whatever today, I’m sure he’d have the protagonist shitposting on /pol/ instead.) He stumbles through life in a haze, reporting on everything from his employer’s brain-mulching “enterprise culture” to the theft of his car in the same detached manner:

I’ve lived so little that I tend to imagine I’m not going to die; it seems improbable that human existence can be reduced to so little; one imagines, in spite of oneself, that sooner or later something is bound to happen. A big mistake. A life can just as well be both empty and short. The days slip by indifferently, leaving neither trace nor memory; and then all of a sudden they stop.

Houellebecq’s diction is within the bounds of what I half-jokingly call “loser lit”: stories of protagonists who are self-abasing, pathetic, self-absorbed, and resentful all at once, yet still strangely compelling. Houellebecq’s hero Louis-Ferdinand Céline is the patron saint of loser lit, terming his novels “creative confessions” wherein he fessed up to compulsive masturbation and an aversion to toilet paper, among other things. While Céline’s stylings have successfully infected the Anglosphere canon through writers such as John Dolan and Charles Bukowski, Houellebecq shows that the French are still the undisputed masters of loser lit.

Whatever’s action picks up in the second part, when our hero is sent on a work detachment with Raphaël Tisserand, the first man he meets who is even sadder than him. Tisserand is a virgin with the face of a “buffalo toad” and the charm of a dead goat; his very existence repels women as assuredly as a dog turd on the sidewalk. But in the land of the incel, the guy with one notch is king, and Tisserand adores the protagonist for actually having slept with women in the past. When he isn’t hovering around our hero, Tisserand is trying (and failing) to hit on women, their misadventures resembling Andy and Randy from Sex Drive:

He raises his eyes from his drink and, from behind his glasses, fixes his gaze on me. And I remark that he’s run out of steam. He can’t go on, he has no more appetite for the fray, he’s had it up to here. He looks at me, his face trembles a little. Doubtless it’s the alcohol, he drank too much wine at dinner, the jerk. I wonder if he isn’t going to break into sobs, recount the stations of his particular cross to me; I feel him capable of something of the sort; the lenses of his glasses are slightly fogged with tears.

In between bouts of drinking, smoking cigarettes, and leading Tisserand around by the nose, our hero muses on the lonely, atomized nature of modern life. In Houellebecq’s observation, sexual liberation has led to a Gilded Age in relations between the sexes, in which the most attractive men and women can gorge themselves at will and the rest of humanity barely gets crumbs. More than sex, though, the modern world suffers a deficit of love, a fact made evident when Tisserand melts down and confesses his virginity to the protagonist:

The next morning at breakfast he stared long and hard at his bowl of Nesquik; and then in an almost dreamy voice he sighed, ‘Fuck it! I’m twenty-eight and still a virgin!’ I was astonished, even so; he then explained that a vestige of pride had always stopped him from going with whores. I upbraided him for this; a bit too strongly perhaps, since he persisted in explaining his point of view to me again that very evening, just before leaving to Paris for the weekend. We were in the parking lot of the departmental head office for Agriculture; the street lamps were exuding an extremely unpleasant yellowish light; the air was cold and damp. He said, ‘I’ve done my sums, you see; I’ve enough to pay for one whore a week; Saturday evening, that’d be good. Maybe I’ll end up doing it. But I know that some men can get the same thing for free, and with love to boot. I prefer trying; for the moment I still prefer trying.’

The common refrain for frustrated incels is that they should jerk off, go to prostitutes, or even become gay, but this misses the point. Men (and women) don’t want sex, they want love, or lust at bare minimum. They don’t merely want someone to give them an orgasm, they want someone to want to give them an orgasm: to desire them physically and mentally. As someone who’s observed sex tourist culture in Southeast Asia, I know for a fact that the men who pay for prostitutes aren’t happy. They pop Viagra before going out whoring because their dicks can tell the difference between women who want them and women who are just sleeping with them for the money.

At our core, humans want to be wanted by someone else. Eternal loneliness is so terrifying to the average person that the mere threat of it is one of the easiest ways to manipulate them. As Faceberg put it, there’s a reason why the meme is “TFW no GF,” not “TFW no sex.” Whatever shows how an entire class of people have been effectively locked out of the family of man. The protagonist’s detached nihilism and Tisserand’s creepazoidery represent the two manifestations of the “extension of the domain of the struggle,” the sexual stratification of society:

…It’s a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none…

Some men can escape this existence. I could have been condemned to this fate, but I had the good fortune of going to college, where I could shed the baggage of eighteen years’ worth of dorkery and reinvent myself. But the trends that Houellebecq wrote about in Whatever have only accelerated. In particular, the Internet and smartphones have enabled even ugly, fat, or physically deformed women to assemble legions of admirers, their egos—and expectations of men—shooting into the stratosphere. The percentage of losers among the male population has spiked, and when one of them goes nuts and plows a van into some innocent people, roasties freak out the world over, perhaps subconsciously aware of the ramifications of their lifestyles.

There’s something rotten in the state of the sexual marketplace, but how do we fix it? Houellebecq doesn’t see a solution. Humanity never willingly abandons technology, and I don’t see the hordes of iPhone-addicted Instahoes turning their back on an invention that allows them to score endless adulation for the price of a selfie. Whatever’s own protagonists cannot claw their way out of the hole for all their attempts, in part because they’re too damaged themselves. The meat grinder of modernity spares no one who is shoved into its maw.

Click here to buy Whatever.