Michel Houellebecq wins the Prix Goncourt

The enfant terrible of French literature is awarded his country's most prestigious literary prize.

Michel Houellebecq, the enfant terrible of contemporary French letters, was awarded the Prix Goncourt on Monday evening for his latest novel La Carte et Le Territoire. At the awards ceremony, held at the Drouant restaurant in Paris as it has been since 1914, Houellebecq, when asked whether he thought that the award of the Goncourt meant that La Carte et Le Territoire should now be considered as his best novel, replied: "I don't know. It might be the easiest to read, it's certainly the most complicated in its construction". Houellebecq now joins an illustrious list of other previous winners of the Prix Goncourt, amongst whose number are Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.

La Carte et Le Territoire is typically Houellebecq-esque in its plot: a biography of a French artist called Jed Martin, who goes to seek out a semi-fictionalised Houellebecq at his home in Ireland to persuade him to write an exhibition catalogue. Houellebecq has split critics since his debut novel, Whatever (1994), which traced the terrifyingly quotidian lives of two computer programmers, filled only by sexual frustration, junk food and a latent appetite for violence, and provoked huge controversy on publication, with some reviewers demanding that it be awarded the Prix Goncourt immediately and others decrying it as demonstrative of a new literary style that was as prosaic as the fictional events it described.

Curiously though, and despite Houellebecq's reputation for divisiveness amongst critics, the French press were almost uniform in their praise for his victory this week. Raphaëlle Rérolle, writing in Le Monde, commented that "they (the jury) ended by accepting the inevitable result ... they were forced to admit that it was no longer possible to avoid the obstacle of Houellebecq. That it was no longer feasible ... to ignore one of the most exciting writers on the contemporary French literary landscape".

Claire Devarrieux in a profile of Houellebecq in Libération lauded "the simple and supple style of the author of Atomised, his ability to bring to life the most trivial aspects of daily life in a phrase, to celebrate the banal whilst remaining original", whilst Le Point suggested that the fact that Houellebecq had finally been awarded the Goncourt, after more than a decade as an eternal also-ran, was due to a development in his prose style: "the tone of the new book is less obviously depressing and sordid than in those which preceded it, and the structure more classical."

La Carte et Le Territoire's publication was, however, not devoid of controversy. Houellebecq was criticised for using whole passages of factual content lifted directly from Wikipedia in La Carte et Le Territoire, though this didn't damage sales, which had reached 200,000 before the Goncourt was even announced.

In Susannah Hunnewell's excellent recent interview with Houellebecq in The Paris Review, when asked what he thought about the literary critics who had damned him previously, Houellebecq responded by saying, "they hate me more than I hate them". This time, it looks as if he might have just been proved wrong.

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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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