Whatever is a novel that will be recognised by the few who are familiar with Atomised. Fewer still will have read it. While Atomised occasionally pops up in charity bookshops, Houellebecq’s other works rarely appear in the secondhand market, perhaps because they’re held onto by readers to express their admiration of miserablism through their bookshelf, or perhaps because of a disposal carried out in a pique of disgust. It’s hard to imagine responses to this divisive author falling outside this polarity. Anyone familiar with him will already know about his latest novel that posits a French general election being won by an Islamic political party.
Seeing Whatever in my local library was therefore exciting. How, why, could a small and provincial library stock a lesser-read work by an author who is obscure to most and a major figure to the literati? Good call. This is a terrific inclusion for a public service. Why indeed should local libraries stock only crime fiction, TV tie-ins, and every how-to book that the public might usually expect from a public service?
It’s not often that ‘audacious’ and ‘librarianship’ come together in a sentence; this is even more so when you consider that Whatever is an novel that, oxymoronically, revels in indifference. The narrator, an unnamed computer programmer, frequently takes views on things only to qualify them by explaining another view that might be equally valid.
His narration uses a lot of mechanical description to reduce phenomena in life to formulae or to illustrate / justify pet theories. This contributes to his affecting a distant, non-committal, uninvolved, even disinterested approach to life. It is as though he is a scientist without either a method or objective for his research, condemned as he is to live the life he’s subjected to through no choice. He is, in a sense, a faint echo of a human struggling within his own inculcated existence as a calculator.
Most of the (in)action takes place while he’s on the road or on a course away from his regular office. In fact, there is something reminiscent of the TV sitcom The Office; in the latter, office tragedy is used for comic effect, whereas with Houellebecq, office tragedy is used for comic effect to evince tragedy. This may be why there’s no clear narrative. Any sense of cause and effect, motivations and obstacles to characters’ actions, or the cut and thrust of how events related to these can change things – all of this would disrupt a seeming unpattern that governs the arbitrary, meaningless, and happenstance world encapsulated by the novel. Glimmering in this glumness though, there are observations that the narrator makes that show, amid his general disgust, an acceptance that people and events have surprise to them, sometimes grace, dignity for sure, and maybe, if he cared more, signs that there may be reasons to live that elevate life above the baseline of the condemnation to live it.
Whatever will appeal to anyone with a sense of the absurd. It will appeal most to anyone who senses that a sense of the absurd isn’t enough. Order it through your library as an inter-library loan if your local one doesn’t have a copy. Send out the signal to your library service that this is the kind of book that has a place in the public imagination.
Extract from p.27:
In the afternoon I was due to see the head of the ‘Computer Studies’ department. I don’t really know why. As far as I was concerned I had nothing to say to him.
I waited for an hour and a half in an empty, slightly gloomy office. I didn’t really want to turn the light on, partly for fear of signalling my presence.
Before installing myself in this office I’d been handed a voluminous report called Directive on the Ministry of Agriculture Data Processing Plan. There again, I couldn’t see why. The document had nothing at all to do with me. It was devoted, if the introduction was to be believed, to an attempt at the predefinition of various archetypal scenarii, understood within a targeted objective. The objectives, which themselves warranted a more detailed analysis in terms of desirability, were for instance the orientation of a politics of aid to farmers, the development of a more competitive para-agricultural sector at the European level, the redressing of the commercial balance in the realm of fresh products… I quickly leafed through the opus, underlining the more amusing phrases in pencil: The strategic level consists in the realization of a system of global information promulgated by the integration of diversified heterogeneous sub-systems. Or indeed: It appears urgent to validate a canonic relational model within an organizational dynamic leading in the medium term to a data- base-oriented object.