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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Michel Houellebecq

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To purchase Whatever

Title: Whatever
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994
Length: 160 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Whatever - US
Whatever - UK
Whatever - Canada
Whatever - India
Extension du domaine de la lutte - France
Ausweitung der Kampzone - Deutschland
Estensione del dominio della lotta - Italia
Ampliación del campo de batalla - España
  • French title: Extension du domaine de la lutte
  • Translated by Paul Hammond

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Our Assessment:

B : tale of an unhappy Frenchman, decently though darkly done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 30/1/1999 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent . 17/1/1999 Kevin Le Gendre
London Rev. of Books . 21/1/1999 John Sturrock
The New Republic . 20/11/2000 Paul Berman
The NY Rev. of Books . 30/11/2000 Mark Lilla
The Sunday Times . 28/2/2000 Phil Baker
Tages-Anzeiger A 22/5/1999 Andreas Isenschmid
The Times B 2/1/1999 Amanda Craig
TLS . 15/1/1999 Adrian Tahourdin
The Washington Post . 27/6/1999 Jennifer Howard
World Lit. Today . Summer/1995 Maria Green

  Please note that Maria Green's review in World Literature Today (and, apparently, Paul Berman's in The New Republic) refer to the French original.

  Review Consensus:

  Generally impressed, though also a bit wary. Surprisingly positive on the whole. Some sense that the critics think this is exactly the type of book the French deserve.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The balance between philosophy and narrative detail is perfectly judged; the book slips down easily, like a bad oyster. As is the nature of such things, it is grimly comic. This is not literature as nobility and uplift; it's a sly drawing-pin placed under your bottom in the Spirit Zone of the Millennium Dome." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Flick open any page, and within a few paragraphs you see that the author has not so much built his narrative on a premise of disengagement from life as declared a total commitment to non-existence. (...) To a certain extent, I can see where Houellebecq is coming from: the anti-action storytelling is all part of the grey, platitudinous world he brings to life. The problem is, though, that the dry, detached narrative is so tightly in sync with his grim info-generation angst that you're left with no emotion to deflate." - Kevin Le Gendre, The Independent

  • "Extension du domaine de la lutte (...) is a much less ambitious novel [than The Elementary Particles] -- a thin novel, that only hints at larger thoughts. But the smaller ambitions are more neatly packaged." - Paul Berman, The New Republic

  • "(A) tighter work of fiction and more successfully realized [than The Elementary Particles]." - Mark Lilla, The New York Review of Books

  • "Misanthropic and pessimistic books are often something to relish, not least for their black humour, but this one is deliberately charmless and gives off an authentic chill. Intellectually impressive." - Phil Baker, The Sunday Times

  • "Dieser Autor hat aus seinem deprimierenden Durchschnittsstoff ein ganz und gar überdurchschnittliches, lebendiges und leidenschaftliches Buch gemacht. Seine 155 einfach geschriebenen Seiten gehen rasch und wirksam rein wie Traubenzucker, entfalten dann aber überraschende und nachhaltig irritierende Nebenwirkungen." - Andreas Isenschmid, Tages-Anzeiger

  • "Though his material is poorly organised, the dismal veracity of Houellebecq's vision of modern France is his strength." - Amanda Craig, The Times

  • "The book does have echoes of Camus's novella, most obviously in its description of a botched attempt at a murder on a beach (although in Houellebecq's book there is a motive of sorts), but also in its sour, laconic tone, and in the moral torpor of its narrator" - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Disaffected Houellebecq may be; he certainly understands that blankly desperate state of mind." - Jennifer Howard, The Washingtom Post

  • "It seems that the author of Extension du domaine de la lutte can still display a new aspect of our modern ailment [alienation] when he ushers the reader into the realm of computer science." - Maria Green, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The anonymous narrator of Whatever is a computer programmer who is not particularly happy with life or society. His is a fairly sad and sorry life. He does not like his job or colleagues, has few ties, and a dark outlook. He tries to write (animal fables !), but he does not find anything approaching fulfillment here or elsewhere.
       Most of the novel is a description of his dreary life, with some essayistic digressions interspersed as he tries to make sense of it. He deals with customers. He travels with a colleague to introduce customers to his company's software. He gets sick while on the road and is hospitalized. Returning to Paris after being away for three weeks he is surprised to find a "1" flashing on his answering machine -- not because there is only one message, but rather because he can not imagine having gotten any messages at all (the question of what on earth he needs an answering machine for in the first place is left unanswered). A wrong number, he assumes -- and he is almost right.
       A depressing Christmas season rolls around, and he hatches a plan to toy with a colleague, the virginal Tisserand. They look for some action at a bar, but Tisserand is predictably unsuccessful in chatting up the girls. When one he had been talking to leaves with another man the narrator leads Tisserand on. Following them in the car he takes out a knife and eggs Tisserand on to kill them. Tisserand acts predictably (the 28 year-old virgin isn't much for taking any chances) and the fates conspire predictably against him.
       The narrator's life spirals out of control too, though it seems just to be a straightforward (but deep) depressive state he works himself into -- no surprise, given his outlook. He sees a therapist, he gets institutionalized, life goes on (most of the time -- there is some euthanasia on the side too, as others are more successful at playing god than the narrator was). But it is not a happy world out there, any which way you look.
       In a sense, Whatever is the lite version of The Elementary Particles -- or Atomised, if you prefer the British title (see our review in any case). There is less sex (though what there is is similarly sordid and unsatisfactory), less violence, and, most of all, less ambition. Houellebecq shows a dark world here, with little hope, but he does not do so in the same resounding, emphatic terms as he does in The Elementary Particles/Atomised.
       There is some clever writing here, and Houellebecq makes his case for a society that has lost its way quite convincingly. Nevertheless, the novel is too programmatic and also a bit too dull. It is missing the relentless abandon that makes The Elementary Particles/Atomised such a perversely fascinating read. A good try, but really it is just a warm-up for the novel that followed.

       Please note that this review is based on the original French, not Paul Hammond's English translation.

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Whatever: Reviews: Extension du domaine de la lutte - the film: Michel Houellebecq: Other books by Michel Houellebecq under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.

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