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.”