How Michel Houellebecq Introduced the Incel to Modern Literature

By Bob Freville

At 62, controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq continues to rankle the literary community with his caustic post-modern novels, banal poetry, musical vanity projects and mundane photography.

For those unfamiliar with the author’s style, imagine Andrew Dice Clay if he was raised on a steady diet of hookers, Valium and Voltaire. His voice is that of the horny malcontent who is disgusted by the bondage of consumerism but enamored of a market that permits prostitution.

After years of being portrayed as a lecherous chain-smoking louse in hit piece after hit piece, it is rare to find Houellebecq suffering interviewers from the supposedly high-brow but always sensationalist media today. But his body of work continues to bloat with ballsy meditations on world religions and deliberately incendiary descriptions of the male sexual preoccupation.

In his last fiction book, 2015’s Submission, Houellebecq’s protagonist carries on sexual dalliances with his students at university. In one early passage, he writes, “If I broke up with these girls, it was more out of a sense of discouragement, of lassitude: I just didn’t feel up to maintaining a relationship, and I didn’t want to disappoint them or lead them on. Then over the course of the academic year I’d change my mind, owing to factors that were external and incidental—generally, a short skirt.”

While this and other references to sex in Submission may seem tame compared to passages from Houellebecq’s earlier work, such as the repugnant way in which he details the physical deterioration of aging women in The Possibility of an Island, the rotten spirit of Houellebecq’s first-person voice is still echoed in its words. It is clear at once that while Houellebecq’s writing style has matured, his opinion of women hasn’t evolved with it.

I should preface this by saying that I greatly admire what Houellebecq has done as a literary writer. Although his work is challenging at times and even infantile at others, I believe each of his books possess an inherent value. They offer us a reflection of modern man by holding a microscope up to all of his flaws.

Whether the POV of Houellebecq’s perpetually male protagonists are his own is irrelevant to me. It doesn’t matter because, at worst, he’s confessing his worst traits and, at best, he’s offering a commentary on the faults of [some] modern men.

What is particularly interesting about this commentary is the fact that Houellebecq has been exploring this subject since the advent of his career. In fact, I would argue that Houellebecq’s first book, the novella Whatever (originally published in French as Extension of the Area of Struggle), introduced the world to the incel.

For those who haven’t spent an exorbitant amount of time on Reddit, “incel” is an abbreviation of “involuntary celibate.” Self-proclaimed incels are members of an online culture that define themselves by the fact that they are unable to find a [willing] sexual partner or romantic companion despite desiring one.

You’ve likely come across some of these individuals on their YouTube channels or in their Reddit posts. They are usually very hostile towards the opposite sex and are prone to spouting misogynistic remarks or even threats on women’s lives that make it plain why women aren’t interested in them.

These are people who are so deluded that they fail to comprehend that their personalities are just as responsible for repelling the opposite sex as their physical appearance.

Incel-related forums are chock-a-block with posts about resentment, racism, sexism and entitlement, the kind of entitlement germane to white privilege. Which is why it is hardly shocking that the vast majority of incels are white heterosexual males.

Houellebecq’s 30-year old protagonist in Whatever is one such white hetero man, a sexless computer software employee whose uneventful life takes a turn for the worse (but no less banal) towards the end of the short but [bitter]sweet book.

Houellebecq’s narrator writes, “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.”

That big mistake almost occurs in the climax of the novella after the narrator, and his young and physically hideous charge strike out at a bar. But before this sequence of events plays out, we are treated to many philosophical ramblings and diatribes about the narrator’s inceldom.

At the start of the book, he attends an office Christmas party at which he lies down behind a colleague’s couch and watches one of his female co-workers dancing drunkenly. As he watches her shimmy about, he curses her as a dumb bitch among other colorful slurs.

The narrator’s hatred of women is rivaled only by his quiet self-loathing, a self-loathing that is textbook incel thinking. The pathetic dudes who make up the incel community all-too-often aim their outward discontent inward, channeling their resentment towards females into an insular emotional self-immolation.

When these feelings are left to ferment, we end up seeing one of two things: an eventual mental break in which the incel takes his frustration out on innocent people (think the tortured madman who mowed down 25 pedestrians in Toronto) or a move towards misguided communal empowerment (the Men’s Rights movement that continues to become more widespread and toxic as the days tick by).

Folks like the 4chan incels have gotten a lot of attention of late for their vitriolic chatroom rants, with online journalists wondering why are they so angry. The baseless reasons for this anger are well-documented in Houellebecq’s debut, to say nothing of later works like Platform and The Elementary Particles.

Houellebecq has long been obsessed with how, in his eyes, the sexual liberation of the Sixties ruined conditions for the beta male, but this obsession can be traced to its genesis in this excerpt from Whatever:

“…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…”

Of course, such heavy-handed political radicalism couldn’t carry an entire book, even one as lean as Whatever, which may explain why Houellebecq opted to pad out the sparse “plot” with vignettes written by the narrator himself, vignettes that are written from the perspective of barnyard animals.

It is in these interludes that we truly discover Houellebecq’s gifts for philosophical miserabilism and rapier wit. This is all well and good in the context of Houellebecq the author’s overall body of work, but here it does little to quell the overwhelming stench of chauvanistic extremity.

After all, real world incels aren’t as charmingly witty or harmlessly pretentious as Houellebecq’s protagonist. But they do share one thing in common with the narrator—the opaque way in which he articulates his emotions.

The narrator’s frustration with himself ultimately manifests in an even greater frustration with Tisserand, the hopelessly ugly male companion the narrator is forced to travel with for the purpose of training firms in how to use their company’s latest software upgrade.

Tisserand’s advances are rebuffed by an attractive woman at a pub. Moments later, she takes to the dancefloor with a fit young black man. It is then that the inebriated narrator reaches the end of his tether and decides that something must give.

He follows the attractive young woman to a beach where she is making out with the young black man. He then takes a knife from his glove compartment and hands it off to poor Tisserand,  goading him to go on a campaign of murder starting with the “slut” and the “nigger.”

Despite the foul language and consistent misanthropy that runs throughout the novel, this scene and its verbiage manages to hit the reader like a bludgeoning with a blunt object. The narrator could be forgiven, up until this point, for muttering about the not-quite-fairer sex and one could even feel a semblance of pity for his inertia, but this scene represents a turning point that casts everything that came before it, funny as much of it was, in an indigo blue light.

Fortunately for the attractive girl from the bar and her young lover, Tisserand doesn’t end up following the narrator’s grisly instructions, but what he does instead perfectly represents the behavior of the common contemporary incel.

We can take a little comfort in knowing that Houellebecq’s incel is safely confined to the page. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for countless men who are roaming our world at this very moment.