Tracing influence

I’m reading an interview with Michel Houellebecq in The Paris Review. These interviews are marvellous; along with First Tuesday Book Club catch ups on iView, these Paris interviews I think will take up much of my eyeball time over summer.

I’ve never read any of Houellebecq’s novels; I can barely spell his surname, there’s a sneaky first-e in there. But something jumped out at me:


You love citing product names. For example, “loup au cerfeuil Monoprix Gourmet” [“Monoprix Gourmet sea bass with chervil”].


“Sea bass with chervil . . .” It’s appealing. It’s well written. I also use product names because they are, objectively, part of the world I live in. But I do, it’s true, tend to choose the product with the most enticing name. For example the word chervil is very attractive, though I have no idea what chervil is. You want to eat something with chervil. It’s pretty.

When I read American Psycho, this is something Easton Ellis did as well, paid exacting detail and a lot of wordage to describing what people wore (including all the designer names) along with other commercial products (electronic sound equipment for example). It’s also something David Foster Wallace did in Infinite Jest (or at least the 300 odd pages I’ve managed to read so far); a meticulous recording almost like an inventory of brand-names (whether real or made up).

I know Foster Wallace’s literary influences have been traced to Pynchon and DeLillo (and even John Irving early on) but I think he was a bit guarded about articulating what he’d read and not read so that his work would seem new and fresh. Easton Ellis has bagged DFW mightily all over the place, but I wonder, I wonder what influences they share? Easton Ellis is a bastard on twitter and currently is thinking of taking a break because he said something mean about movie director Kathryn Bigelow.

In the interview, Houellebecq talks about his first novel Whatever, published in 1994. It is about two computer programmers working in a boring job, one of them sexually frustrated (because, Houellebecq says, he’s ugly). This reminds me of DFW’s Pale King, also about working life (boring, dead-end, accounting I think.)

To compare DFW books and Bret Easton Ellis (BEE):

Less than Zero – 1985The Rules of Attraction – 1987
American Psycho – 1991

The Broom of the System – 1987
Infinite Jest – 1996
The Pale King – 2011 (posthumous publication)

I love it. It’s almost like literature-archaeology; tapping down through layers of work, seeing threads and seams of precious metal buried in the quartz.

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