Houellebecq: A Boocq

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Feb. 4 1999 11:55 AM

Houellebecq: A Boocq

Michel Houellebecq is a 40-year-old computer programmer who emerged from a French mental hospital a decade ago, started publishing poems, and branched out. His second novel, Les particules elementaires, concerns two desperately lonely half-brothers. One is a sex maniac, the other a genetic researcher who seeks through cloning to make sex obsolete. The two have more in common than it sounds--which is Houellebecq's point, sort of. The book has sold several hundred thousand copies and launched the first real French literary spat in years.

Particules has already got two write-ups you might have seen: a New Yorker piece on the affaire by Adam Gopnik and a driblet in the TLS. Both seek the source of the book's controversy in its politics. Houellebecq was kicked out of his Paris literary coterie, Les Perpendiculaires, on those grounds. But if his politics are right-wing, it's not in the French anti-dreyfusard-poujadist-lepenist line. No, these are '90s issues. Houellebecq rails at materialism--both consumerist and sexual. He especially damns the places where the two overlap, like drugs, abortion, and penile and breast implants. But the reader soon notices that these diatribes are being delivered in the course of lengthy gang-bang descriptions--which are lovingly, even excitedly rendered. A reviewer who, like this one, is shaky on his French idioms, will learn all sorts of words, like se branler for "whack off," partouze for "orgy," and branlette espagnole for . . . Sorry, that's where I draw the line. But finish this book and you'll have no trouble reading the menu in any French whorehouse.

How does Houellebecq reconcile his paeans to random sex with his lament over the world it leaves in its wake? By viewing both as stages on the way to a eugenicist paradise. Houellebecq even reads Huxley's Brave New World as a u-, not dys-, topia. (And defends his point with considerable documentation and brilliance on pp. 193-201.) Here's a sum-up of Houellebecq's thinking on the matter:

(1) without God and/or a belief in progress, life's a torture;

(2) still, sexual liberation's worth trying as a consolation;

(3) but it doesn't ultimately satisfy, so forget about it. Let's clone a new

race and get the hell out of here.

The critic Frederic Badre calls Particules "the first 21st-century novel" and Houellebecq "the first novelist who is not a humanist." One hopes (and suspects) that Houellebecq is describing not la condition humaine but la condition francaise.

(To order Particules, or indeed any French book, go to www.lemonde.fr/livres, www.fnac.fr, or www.alapage.com.)

--Christopher Caldwell

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