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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Michel Houellebecq - 'Atomised'

‘Atomised’ is one of those rare beasts in modern fiction: a novel with the cojones to take on big ideas and envisage a world in which the human condition has been completely redefined.
Set several decades in the future, it looks back on the lives of two half-brothers at the tail end of the 20th century. The cerebral Michel is a semi-autistic molecular biologist who has no understanding of (or need to indulge in) everyday human emotions, while Bruno is a frustrated free spirit, trapped in an overweight body, but still managing to enjoy a series of sexual adventures which he hopes will somehow give meaning to his life.
Both men are dysfunctional and, through their various shortcomings, western liberal society is put under the microscope. It would be fair to say that the author finds it wanting.
Houellebecq is the bĂȘte noire of the French left-liberal mainstream and ‘Atomised’ rips with contemptuous abandon into a number of his favourite targets: anthropology, psychoanalysis, New Age philosophy and organised religion (the author achieved a degree of notoriety for his outspoken views on Islam).
The big idea in ‘Atomised’ is that our society –in the early part of the 21st century- will undergo a startling metaphysical transformation. Genetics will offer us the opportunity to procreate without recourse to sex. Thereafter, human sexual activity –historically fraught with neuroses, anxiety, commodification and shame- will be downgraded.
In envisaging this utopia beyond the demise of the liberal west, Houellebecq is writing arguably the most powerful and prescient literature of our times.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Oh no, it's the Oscars!

For most of the year, I’m able to pass myself off as a laid back, happy-go-lucky sort of chap, with a reasonably pleasant disposition and an inclination to accentuate the positive things in life. There is, however, one annual event that forces me to raise my head above the parapet to reveal my secret identity as a middle-aged curmudgeon, stewing in a fug of grumpiness and embittered scorn. Exposure to this event, for even a fleeting moment, has me swooning with nausea and plotting violent, old-testament revenge on some of the most feted people on the planet. I’m talking, of course, about the Oscars.

It’s difficult to feel anything but indifference and antipathy to this horrible event. And no, there isn’t a contradiction between the ‘indifference’ and the ‘antipathy’. I’d be quite happy to maintain the indifference, in the way that I can maintain indifference to figure-skating, crossword puzzles, The Archers, cooking programmes on TV, horse-racing and the music of Coldplay. But sadly, it gets harder each year to stick with mere ‘indifference’ to the Oscars, because the wretched thing is all over the telly, newspapers, internet and radio and will remain so for days after the prizes are handed out. My natural (and perfectly logical) antipathy for the Oscars, therefore, is further fuelled by its sheer ubiquity; it denies me the option to be merely ‘indifferent’.

There are three main reasons to despise this annual orgy of self-congratulation:

1. The Oscars present a generally unedifying spectacle in which a bunch of needy, overpaid, over-rated ninnies will get to feel even better about themselves by celebrating their various 'achievements' and by picking up thoroughly unmerited accolades and prizes. If you’re already paid humongous sums of money for your work and you are generally adored by the people who consume that work, why on earth would you need further reward? If you’re a film star, you’ve already won the lottery of life; are the wealth, the fame and the adoration not enough, already?

2. Hollywood being what it is, some of the winners won’t be able to resist the temptation to use the occasion to pontificate on matters of which they have, at best, a superficial grasp. This, I suspect, is because they know –in their heart of hearts- that they are criminally overpaid for the essentially trivial work that they do and so feel the need to make statements about, y'know, really important stuff. Eight years ago, when the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh was murdered for his art, nobody at the Oscars cracked a light. No mention was made of an artist whose executioner actually left a five-page note with the murdered body, declaring explicitly that he had been killed precisely because of the art he had made. No-one at the Oscars in 2005 thought that the murder of someone in their profession for carrying out that profession might have been worth a sentence or two in commemoration; they were too busy being ‘brave’ in their acceptance speeches by having digs at that fish-in-a-barrel target, George W. Bush.

3. The Oscars themselves are awarded on the basis of matters of opinion. It's not like sport, wherein contestants actually compete and (usually) stick to an agreed set of rules, allowing the person or team that out-performs their opponent to win. The so-called ‘competition’ of the Oscars is decided by anonymous people sitting in darkened rooms declaring, in effect, that “we like this film better than that one”. Why should we care what other people think is the best film, or the best supporting actor, or the best foreign movie soundtrack? It’s merely an opinion and, as such, has about the same value as any other opinion. When it comes to judging artistic performance, at least X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing seek the views of the consuming public. The Oscars judges don’t take anything as vulgar as mere public opinion into account. I suppose they must know better than the folk who pay actual money to watch the films.

I’d like to see the Oscars replaced by something altogether more egalitarian and entertaining. If, for instance, the ‘best supporting actress’ were to be decided by throwing darts, potting balls or taking penalties, we’d be able to witness a clear and transparent process, leaving no doubt as to how and why each winner came to triumph. Or better still, we could dress the contestants in sumo costumes and make them tackle an assault course, before immersing them in a huge vat of custard.

Now that would be a competition worth watching. In terms of judging methodologies, it would certainly beat a bunch of folk sitting in a room, arguing over cinematography. And, better still, it would probably cut down on the need for speeches.