In Which We Overthink A Few Words

June 23rd, 2005 · 10 Comments
by Booksquare

Here it is, our problem in a nutshell:

With him were two journalists (myself and the jovial novelist Sam Lipsyte, who was profiling him for GQ), as well as Sylvie Christophe from the French Consulate, dashingly attired in a formfitting white jacket and knee-length white pants.

Well, we didn’t say it was a little nut, did we? We read the LA Weekly’s profile of Michel Houellebecq without glancing at the byline of the piece. It wasn’t important. Yet it took only minutes for us to know without question that the author (of the article; our French is sufficient to discern Houellebecq’s gender) was male. Sam Lipsyte is “jovial” while Sylvia Christophe’s outfit is puzzlingly described in great detail. Later, Cristina Nehring gets tagged as “leggy”. Though Houellebecq’s physical attributes are noted, they don’t define the man, except to frame the question of whether or not his sexual exploits are fictionalized or not.

This use of language fascinates us because it puts the players in the scene in context. Christophe is an extra on the set; if she had gone unmentioned, it wouldn’t have changed the essence of the story. She’s reduced to window dressing by virtue of her description. Nehring’s introduction essentially trivializes her skills. What is a leggy essayist anyway? Only one female character in this story (and, yes, we do realize it’s non-fiction) escapes the standard female shorthand descriptions, but that may be her occupation as a contortionist proved more fascinating.

Likely these descriptions were unconscious, but we found the characterization in this piece far more fascinating than the actual profile. As it turns out, Houellebecq is an interesting man, but not necessarily the same person as his characters. In other words, he writes fiction.

File Under: Tools and Craft

10 responses so far ↓

  • Brenda Coulter // Jun 23, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    Booksquare, dearie, you’re slipping. How could it have surprised you to read about Ms. Christophe’s “dashing” attire when the first paragraph of that article informed us that the White Lotus is a Hollywood restaurant “known for its deafening noise and nubile Asian clientele”?

    As for the story being nonfiction, I’d say the writer sounds an awful lot like someone who’s found himself a job to cover the rent while he works on his novel.

  • The Happy Booker // Jun 23, 2005 at 3:19 pm

    I’ve sent this link out to over a dozen friends today! Leggy essayist, indeed. You should teach a class in this– Wendi

  • Booksquare // Jun 23, 2005 at 5:22 pm

    You’re right, Brenda. What I took as a statement of the obvious was really was a clue. I will try to do better next time.

    Wendi — hmm, a third career. I think I could slip it in between dinner and anime. Excellent idea. Though I now insist on being known as the blonde blogger ….

  • The Happy Booker // Jun 23, 2005 at 7:44 pm

    That’s the blonde blogger bombshell!
    Wendi, the brunette in spandex gym shorts with legs that just won’t quit….

  • sporadic reader // Jun 24, 2005 at 10:55 am

    can i get an AMEN.

  • TC // Jun 24, 2005 at 3:20 pm

    Did it occur to you people that the writer interacted with these people for a whole evening and perhaps formed an unfavorable impression of Nehring, or maybe he knew her already and hated her, so he purposely described her in a manner which would be unflattering and offensive to one who’s ego may be wrapped up in considering themselves to be the intellectual sort? I think this seems more likely than the type of unconscious misogyny that you people probably imagine you see everywhere. That or he was jealous that she got to fuck Houellebecq

  • Bring Some Reality // Jul 6, 2005 at 8:34 pm

    Cheers to TC for the observation.

    Booksquare – Perhaps you’ve overlooked the strongest reason for the author’s distaste towards Nehring.

    At the finale of the piece, he implies that he catches Nehring and Houellebecq progressing towards intimacy:

    “The doorway tête-à-tête was still in progress, and it was now 3:15 a.m…Only later did we realize that Nehring was writing her own piece, and the final scene was all hers.”

    And this after Nehring fails to diclose that she is writing her own profile of Houellebecq. And after she conveniently leaves her car at the museum.

    Instead of scouring the piece in order to take offense, let us recognize that sometimes people properly earn the belittling treatment accorded them.

  • Booksquare // Jul 7, 2005 at 7:22 am

    Actually, I’m not so interested in the author’s personal like or dislike of Nehring — what fascinated me was the use of language to build character in the story. As you can see from what I wrote, I looked at the piece more as a fiction story (despite knowing it was non-fiction). The author’s use of language to describe the players was well done, even if I take issue with the fact that he succumbed to the easy way out by using traditional shorthand to describe women (looks, clothing) — Sylvia Christophe was also relegated to an interesting secondary role by virtue of her description. Sam Lipsyte, by being jovial, feels less like a competitor. Houllebecq continues to occupy exalted grounds despite the evidence throughout the story that he doesn’t quite meet the author’s image of him.

    And as for the author’s final comments, I figured he knew he’d been had (though one does wonder what he thought Nehring was doing there in the first place, if not writing her own piece). For all I know, he and Nehring are close friends and this is an inside joke. Or they’re lifelong enemies, which makes one wonder why he surrended the field.

  • Mischievous // Jul 12, 2005 at 2:29 pm

    Nehring wrote a letter to the editor of LA Weekly, in which she expresses being shocked at the idea, expressed in the paper that she was monopolizing Houellebecq for an article of her own !! She says she already wrote her article. Then what was she monopolizing him for ? I believe the whole scene had been carefully rehearsed and all had agreed to make a final gift of Nehring to the Author, so that after his burlesque show at the Hammer he would enjoy more concrete pleasures of the flesh, and return to French land in awe of Californian hopitality. Houelle Done indeed.

  • Mischievious European // Jul 12, 2005 at 3:54 pm

    What I find interesting (and trashy) in the LA-Weekly article is that the story is energized all along in a fairly subtle way by a problem that progressively builds up, and must be solved in the readers mind : ” How does this scrawny little Frenchie who writes in his novels one erotic scene after the other ever get laid ? ” And Nehring, out of nowhere, and probably unwittingly right at the end provides the surprise answer.

    Nehring, whom I met at the event, is a stunning tall bonde wiht tons of wits and intelligence to boot. I since looked for her previous articles on the net, and they are a pleasure to read: so much erudition and thought packed in a few words.

    What she was doing, or thought she was doing at 3am at Houellebecq’s hotel door is for each one of us to guess, but whatever our answer, it is titillating guess to form in our minds.

    Nehring wrote a letter to the editor of LA Weekly. She explains she already wrote her article about Houellebecq and therefore cannot be accused of unfair competition. But then she leads us to the conclusion that her presence was purely extracurricular, thus giving also credence to the conclusion the article wanted us to reach.

    Totally trashy, Mr. Bernhard (or is it Burn-Hard ?), but Houelle Done.