by Ryan Joseph Slater
In the late 1990s, people projected technological progress, rapid economic growth, and political stability into the future and assumed those developments would define the 21st century. Prosperity would naturally ensue. And while such predictions now seem stupid and trite, they were hard to let-go of; and it was even harder to predict that the opposite forces — conservativism, economic stagnation, and political radicalization— would define the 21st century.
While people were only faintly grasping the reversal, Michel Houellebecq had already begun outlining the basic features of this new era, especially in his last three books: Submission (2015), Serotonin (2019), and Annihilate (2022). We, like the characters in Submission, must endure an age of rapid political polarization in which colluding minority factions dictate the fate of nations; and we, like the protagonist in Serotonin, are dying of sadness. In short, we direct rage towards society and turn our despair inward until apathy envelopes our souls. Both these insightful novels provoked hostile criticism, but anybody with a functioning central nervous system can see that emotional health crises and crises of liberal democracy will continue to plague the Western world for the foreseeable future.
If those novels envisioned a world of rage and depression, then his newest book, Annihilate, offers some advice on how to inhabit this world. Although Anneantir’s characters still lead lives of quiet despair and terrorism still sketches the contours of politics, the novel is really about a family that lives within those conditions.
Understanding that Annihilate is not actually about politics enables us to easily sidestep the fact that the novel’s political plotline, which revolves around a strong of terrorist attacks and a political campaign, is excruciatingly boring. The murders of African migrants and the bombing of a sperm bank are more like background noise. Even catastrophe is banal. Prudence, the protagonist’s wife, does not follow politics despite the fact that her husband works for France’s prime minister; the incredible build-up that existed around Submission’s election is gone. It seems unlikely, however, that Houellebecq has lost the capacity to write a political thriller.
The truth is that the future’s politics will no longer be thrilling. Even Paul, the man who works in the government, acknowledges that his vote, “was a non-choice, a banal rally,” which makes sense given the fact that France has developed into a post-democratic state because, “democracy is dead as a system because it is too slow and too heavy,” (281, 538). When people become detached from their governments, political engagement becomes superfluous, which can be a luxury or a cause for despair depending on one’s perspective.
What actually matters in the novel is the characters’ relationships and their lack of relationships. The bulk of the plot revolves around the Raison family and its members trending towards death: the patriarch goes into a coma; one son commits suicide; and Paul, the protagonist, develops cancer. All plotlines lead towards death, which sets up the perfect excuse to write about what matters in life.
This makes Houellebecq more sentimental than in his previous novels, which also makes the book less interesting. As Paul Raison reflects on his father’s deteriorating health, he concludes that, for now, “If his father could still get hard, if he could still read and contemplate the movement of leaves blown by the wind…. he lacked absolutely nothing in life” (482). Recede into the simple pleasures of life, which, as always for Michel, has s sexual hue. Another family member, Aurelian, kills himself after his ex-wife sabotages his relationship with the new woman he loves, which leads us to the same conclusion: one’s life must pay homage to gentle pleasures, the peak of which is sexual love.
Houellebecq makes this most compelling with the story of Paul. At the novel’s outset, he and his wife are so alienated that they sleep in separate beds and haven’t had sex in years; they’ve fallen into a “standardized despair.” At one point, Paul doesn’t even know if his dick still works or if he remembers how to have sex, so he hires a prostitute to double check. But, over the course of the novel, they both make efforts — the wife becomes more feminine, Paul becomes more masculine — to connect with one another. The climax of the novel is that they finally start to have sex again and form a strong bond, which deeply satisfies them both— even as it becomes clear that cancer is going to kill Paul.
They fuck as if it were a final solution to life, but Houellebecq makes sure to tell us that such a resolution cannot exist. Paul knows that, “an orgasm so strong that it could justify life… didn’t exist except perhaps in Hemmingway novels” (633). We cannot escape the basic existential fact that, “human life is constituted by a series of administrative and technical difficulties, followed by medical problems” (272). The irreducibility of individual suffering extends to the social world, where democracy is in decay and even sperm has become commercialized. It is hard not to be sympathetic to terrorists in such times. (316).
But it’s no coincidence that Houellebecq uses the same words to describe the powers of love as the forces of terrorism. He writes that, “loving eyes are capable of annihilating the normal conditions of perception,” (136). Towards the end of the novel, when Paul’s doctor tells him about the dying process, he says that Paul has no need of morphine, which he always prescribes to people dying alone, because he has a loving wife whose company is like morphine in that they both restore peace with the world and envelope a person in a halo of sweetness (723). We know that this isn’t mollifying bullshit because Paul describes Prudence in similar terms nearly 200 pages earlier when he compares her to an island in the middle of a nothingness (593).
Love requires sex, which means male well-being relies on the functioning of their dicks. Houellebecq understands that this is absurd and off-putting— perhaps too horny. The potency of penises in the face of global despair and personal anguish is, “unforeseen and even absurd, impressive, grotesque, and even undignified because it didn’t correspond at all to the idea that he was in agony.” While sex and love do not provide final solutions to our existential issues, they do ameliorate the situation greatly.
Houellebecq’s oeuvre largely revolves around sad and honry men in radically hostile political environments— and this book is no different, except that it places special emphasis on the desirability of the transmutation of sadness into a sentimental vitality we call love.
All in all, I think about how Dostoevsky wrote 700 page novels about the fate of Russia, the fate of the sacred in an era of science, the meaning of Europe and its rationality, the quest for meaning in life, and so on, and I laugh at what Houellebecq has achieved in this book. Michel Houellebecq wrote a 700 page book that advises readers that they should have sex with their partner— and if one of so estranged from sex that fucking is an awkward thing, it is ok to practice on a whore. I don’t laugh because the theme is trite or stupid, but because people in the 21st century have had their psychological, sexual, and social capacities so gutted that such advice is powerful.
And if it’s not powerful, then Annihilate is Houellebecq’s victory lap for getting everything else right.