When Alek Minassian drove a van onto a Toronto sidewalk in April, killing 10 people, he joined a growing list of young male mass murderers. He also left a trail of internet posts suggesting his motivation had to do with his status as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate - a label adopted by men who are unable to form sexual relationships with women, and who often respond with virulent misogyny. Eight of Minassian’s victims were women. Minutes before he began his rampage, he posted on Facebook: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! … All hail the Supreme Gentleman
Elliot Rodger!” Rodger, who killed six people and then himself in California in 2014, was another self-described incel. He left behind a videotaped monologue on YouTube complaining of his loneliness and history of rejection.
After his death, Rodger became a hero to other incels, lauded in online discussion groups where rape threats and hate speech are common. (One such group, on Reddit, had 40,000 members when it was finally banned last fall.) Several other young male killers, including Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February, and William Atchison, who fatally shot two people and then himself at Aztec High School in Aztec, N.M., last year, appear to have admired and identified with Rodger. But until Minassian committed his crime, the grievances of incels had received little public attention. In May, Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has been celebrated and reviled for his views on society and gender, created a furor when he told The New York Times that “enforced monogamy” might be the only way to pacify their rage. Along with some other social conservatives, Peterson sympathizes with the notion that the sexual revolution, like the free-market revolution, has created classes of winners and losers, and that the losers have a legitimate grievance. “No one cares about the men who fail,” Peterson observed.
To any reader of the French writer Michel Houellebecq, this lament will sound eerily familiar. For the last 25 years, in novel after novel, Houellebecq has advanced a similar critique of contemporary sexual mores. And while Houellebecq has always been a polarizing figure — admired for his provocations, disdained for his crudeness — he has turned out to be a writer of unusual prescience. At a time when literature is increasingly marginalized in public life, he offers a striking reminder that novelists can provide insights about society that pundits and experts miss. Houellebecq, whose work is saturated with brutality, resentment and sentimentality, understood what it meant to be an incel long before the term became common.
The core of Houellebecq’s case against modern sexuality can already be found in his first novel, “Extension du Domaine de la Lutte,” which appeared in English under the unfortunate title “Whatever.” The book’s narrator set the pattern for all of Houellebecq’s antiheroes: depressed, misanthropic men who, precisely because they cannot achieve romantic or sexual satisfaction, believe that sex is the most important thing in life. “Lacking in looks as well as personal charm, subject to frequent bouts of depression, I don’t in the least correspond to what women are usually looking for in a man,” the narrator confesses. Houellebecq has always seen himself as speaking for and to such men; women figure in his novels almost exclusively as their tormentors or saviors. “It may be, dear reader and friend, that you are a woman yourself,” Houellebecq writes. “Don’t be alarmed, these things happen.”
The novel’s French title, which translates literally as “Extension of the Domain of Struggle,” encapsulates Houellebecq’s theory of sexuality (he is typically French in his love of abstraction and theory). The sexual revolution of the 1960s, widely seen as a liberation movement, is better understood as the intrusion of capitalist values into the previously sacrosanct realm of intimate life. “Just like unrestrained economic liberalism … sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization,” he writes. “Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never.” The latter group — the losers — are represented in “Whatever” by Raphaël Tisserand, who is so repulsive that he has never had sex with a woman, despite strenuous efforts to seduce one. He is a proto-incel, and his story builds to a disturbing scene in which the narrator urges him to murder a woman who has rejected him.
In the end, however, Raphaël doesn’t go through with it: “Blood changes nothing,” he observes fatalistically. And this is a key difference between Houellebecq’s characters and criminals like Rodger and Minassian: They recognize that violence will not change their situation. They are victims of generational trends that Houellebecq believes have plunged the West, particularly France, into incurable misery. Houellebecq’s second (and best) book, “The Elementary Particles,” reiterates his case against “sexual liberalism,” while adding a host of new culprits, from New Age spirituality and women’s magazines to social atomization and the decline of Christianity. “In the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear they had no chance,” he writes of the characters in the novel, in what could be a slogan for all his fiction.
This sounds like a familiar kind of reactionary pessimism. But it is not quite accurate to call Houellebecq a reactionary, since he does not believe that it is possible to return to the sexual regimes of the past - in particular, arranged marriages - which he suggests did a better job of providing mates for undesirable men. In his novel “Submission,” Houellebecq mischievously toys with the idea that such a return could be accomplished by a mass conversion to Islam. After all, a society in which women submit to men while men submit to the divine can be seen as Houellebecq’s version of utopia. “Screw autonomy,” his narrator muses - though he uses a more vulgar word; autonomy is the root of alienation.
In his more serious moods — as in “The Elementary Particles” or “The Possibility of an Island” — Houellebecq imagines a more radical solution to the problem of sexual inequality. Instead of going backward to an earlier stage of humanity, these books push forward to a posthuman future in which human beings are replaced by a species that has abolished sexual reproduction, and so is immune to the torments of desire and loneliness. This perfected species looks back on us as a “vile, unhappy race, barely different from the apes.” Houellebecq likes to cast his novels as the testimony of the present before the court of the future: To understand why we were so wretched, posterity will have to read him.
And it is in this sense, as diagnosis and evidence, that Houellebecq’s novels are now more urgent than ever. The portrayal of hatefulness is part of fiction’s mandate to give a truthful account of the world; there are characters in Dostoyevsky as revolting as anyone in Houellebecq (perhaps more so, because Dostoyevsky is a better writer). Houellebecq is able to give such a convincing portrait of incel-thinking because at some level he seems to share its core assumption, representing sex as something that women owe men. This misogyny can make reading Houellebecq an ordeal, and he ought to be read with the suspicion and resistance that his ideas deserve. But all the same, he ought to be read.