Houellebecq, Michel 1958-
HOUELLEBECQ, Michel 1958-
PERSONAL: Born 1958.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Flammarion, 26 rue Racine, F-75278, Paris, Cedex 06, France.
CAREER: Author. Former National Assembly computer programmer.
AWARDS, HONORS: Prix Flore, 1995, for Extension du domaine de la lutte; Prix Novembre, 1998, for Les Particules Elementaires; International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2002, for Atomised.
H. P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie, Editions du Rocher (Monaco), 1991.
La Poursuite du bonheur: poemes, Editions de la Difference (Paris, France), 1991.
Rester vivant: methode, Editions de la Difference (Paris, France), 1991.
Extension du domaine de la lutte, Nadeau (Paris, France), 1994, translation by Paul Hammond published as Whatever, Serpent's Tail (London, England), 1999.
Le sens du combat, Flammarion (Paris, France), 1996.
Les Particules Elementaires, Flammarion (Paris, France), 1998, translation by Frank Wynne published as The Elementary Particles, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000, also published as Atomised, Heinemann (London, England), 2000.
Plateforme, Flammarion (Paris, France), 2001, translation by Frank Wynne published as Platform: A Novel, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
(Author of text) Michel Houellebecq, Nudes (photography), Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 2003.
Lanzarote, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, William Heinemann (London, England), 2003.
ADAPTATIONS: Film rights to Les Particules Elementaires have been sold.
SIDELIGHTS: Michel Houellebecq is a best-selling French author who has a growing English-speaking audience as his work is translated. His two well-known and controversial works, the 1994 short novel Extension du domaine de la lutte (published in 1999 as Whatever) and the novel Les Particules Elementaires (title means "Elementary Particles"), earned him a Prix Flore and a Prix Novembre respectively. In his works, Houellebecq relates his concerns regarding various societal problems, including those affecting the United States.
Houellebecq's Extension du domaine de la lutte is a story of alienation in the computer age. The unnamed narrator is a computer engineer without friends or purpose who withdraws rather than adapt to the world around him. He has had no romantic life since breaking up with his girlfriend two years earlier. Even more deprived than the narrator is Bernard, who is still seeking his first encounter. The two men are sent by their company on a consulting job. Bernard is described as having a very unattractive appearance, and the inappropriate advances he makes to several women are rejected. "That both men see women only in terms of their sexual features makes their impotence even more pathetic," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The more the narrator tries to define love, the less able he is to experience it. "The topic of sexual misery emerges, and the narrator interpolates two miniessays," wrote Maria Green, who reviewed the French version of the novel in World Literature Today."The first deals with inequality, as pitiless on the sexual as on the economic level. The second is a virulent attack on psychoanalysis, another form of alienation."
The story has a tragic ending. The narrator has a nervous breakdown, and Bernard is killed in an automobile accident. While in a mental hospital, the narrator concludes that none of the patients are really ill—they are actually suffering from lack of physical contact. The narrator feels that, although technology keeps us informed and in touch, our lives are devoid of real interpersonal communication. In a Booklist review, Bonnie Johnston said, "Houellebecq captures precisely the cynical disillusionment of disaffected youth."
Houellebecq's novel Les Particules Elementaires sold over two hundred thousand copies in the four months following its publication. There are plans to produce a movie adaptation. An Economist reviewer said that the "remarkable best-seller is France's biggest literary sensation since Francoise Sagan, people are saying, or since Albert Camus even. It was not so much published as detonated in Paris . . . and the rows it provoked burst at once out of the review sections on to front pages." Houellebecq shows his contempt for the Socialist establishment that rose from the student protest movements, slams French universities for bowing to bureaucracy, and criticizes feminism.
The theme of Les Particules Elementaires (published in English as The Elementary Particles and as Atomised) claims that since 1968 sexual liberation and materialism have corrupted society, leading to despair and violence. Bruno and his half-brother Michel are the forty-something sons of a promiscuous and unloving mother. Bruno has failed at everything he has touched—marriage, fatherhood, writing, and teaching, and he "writes sadistic pornography," according to a reviewer writing in the Economist. Michel is a geneticist who despises humanity and envisions a world of engineered, sexless humans. The Economist contributor wrote that "the pairing of these two antiheroes—one literary and stuck in the past; the other scientific and future-mad—gives a clue to the book's ambition to be a novel of ideas." Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker that the book "is less a novel than a kind of eighteenth-century conte moral, at once a narrative and a philosophical essay, in which an obsession with oral sex oscillates strangely with fatuous ideological posturing, as in a story by Sade or in the proceedings of an American congressional committee. It is obscene, hateful, pretentious, half educated, funny, ambitious, and oddly moving."
Bruno is obsessed by sex. He has his penis surgically enlarged, divorces his wife, and begins a relationship with a woman named Christine. During a group orgy, Christine's back is broken, and she then commits suicide. Bruno is institutionalized after going mad. Michel takes a position in Ireland to work in genetic research and creates a sexless and immortal humanoid. Gopnik wrote that "though the book's bitter tone and its readiness to say the unsayable recall Genet, and even Celine, its literary, dystopian feel brings it much closer to Burroughs (who anticipated the sexless clone years ago), or to J. G. Ballard." In spite of the book's disdain for American culture, Gopnik called this "a very 'American' book. If anything, Houellebecq envies the land of Bill Gates and Snoop Doggy Dogg for its nearness to the real infernal machines; the whole Western world is going straight to hell anyway, but at least Americans get the window seat." Les Particules Elementaires has been condemned for its language, scenes about masturbation, and antiliberal sentiments. Gopnik pointed out that what is termed liberalism in France is what is considered conservatism in the United States. "To the French left, 'liberalism' (or, as it is often called, 'wild' or 'savage' liberalism, a quaint and comic thought in American terms) has also come to mean, essentially, American civilization, in all its McDonald's, 'Friends,' and Exxon aspects." Being antiliberal in France means being for big government.
Gopnik concluded: "What is memorable in Houellebecq's book is not the pseudoscientific incantations, or the potted 'theories,' but the depth of feeling, the authentic disgust with fin-de-siecle liberal materialism. The scathing, sarcastic loathing for consumer society and its rituals—for women's magazines, gyms, night clubs, Club Med—gives real pathos to the book."
Houellebecq's 2001 book Plateforme was published in English as Platform: A Novel in 2003. The author tells the tale of Michel Renault, a disaffected Parisian bureaucrat who works for the Ministry of Culture and whose father has been murdered by a Muslim. Renault takes his inheritance, travels to Thailand with a tour group, and falls for a fellow tourist named Valerie. When the group returns to Paris, Michel and Valerie move in together and act out their sexual obsessions. Michel subsequently convinces Valerie, who works for a hotel chain, and her boss to turn various third-world hotels into sex resorts. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that for Houellebecq hedonism is the only true thing of value in a culture that is spiritually bankrupt and, as a result, "only the sensations of the body have any worth—hence, the utopian value of sex tourism." As the novel progress, the plan appears to be going forward smoothly until one of the hotels is attacked by an Islamic terrorist group. The incident destroys Michel's love and ultimately his life. Calling Platform Houellebecq's "most controversial novel yet," Harper's contributor Cristina Nehring noted that "Houellebecq does, in fact, go after the big quarry, the big quandaries, the big issues of his age. But he goes after these issues in so individual and honest and blithely self-centered a way that it is almost impossible for him to offer a consistent statement about them." Nehring, who found the depiction of the constant coupling of the major characters to be "drab," also commented, "But if he is frequently incoherent in his general pronouncements, he is ingenious in his local insights. Houellebecq's fiction is full of jarringly honest microreflections; fascinating fragments, glittering shards that cut us to the quick." Richard Lacayo, writing in Time, noted that the author "has a gift for sleepy invective" and added, "But he's like a bad date—brimming with rank charm but few useful judgments." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, "This is an important book, a rare must-read for anyone who wants to take the measure of contemporary European discontents."
In Lanzarote Houellebecq continues his exploration of the disillusioned and bored who find that the promises of materialism leave them empty. This time, the narrator seeks to dispel his ennui by going on a vacation trip to Lanzarote, part of the Canary Islands. He then meets two bisexual women and, in typical Houellebecq style, engages in vigorous sex with them. Another character, a Belgian police inspector, disdains such decadence but later becomes suspect in a pedophile scandal. In addition to writing the book, Houellebecq includes his own photographs of the island, which plays an important symbolic role in the novel. As pointed out by Philip Horne in the Manchester Guardian, "The doings of the Eurotourists take place against an alienating waste land, 'a barren desert' in which vast geologic forces dwarf human effort." New Statesman contributor Jason Cowley commented, "Lanzarote is a peculiar book. It is not quite an unconventional travelogue, nor is it fiction in any recognisable form. It reads more like random diary observations, or perhaps a long, hastily written e-mail to a close friend." Cowley also commented that readers should not expect realism in the author's works because "he is a programmatic writer, a thinker who begins with a thesis and ideas, and then seeks to dramatise them in a series of increasingly unreal situations. You read him, therefore, not to be drugged by narrative, but to be exhilarated by his insight into, and understanding of, the defining conflicts and tensions of the present."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 1999, Bonnie Johnston, review of Extension du domaine de la lutte (translated as Whatever), p. 832.
Economist, February 13, 1999, review of Les Particules Elementaires (translated as The Elementary Particles).
Entertainment Weekly, July 18, 2003, Troy Patterson, review of Platform, p. 80.
French Review, December, 1997, p. 316.
Guardian, November 28, 1998, p. S10.
Harper's, August, 2003, Cristina Nehring, review of Platform, p. 75.
Independent, January 2, 1999, p. WR9.
Library Journal, July, 2003, Barbara Hoffert, review of Platform, p. 122.
New Statesman, July 28, 2003, Jason Cowley, review of Lanzarote, p. 37.
New Yorker, December 28, 1998, Adam Gopnik, review of Les Particules Elementaires (translated as The Elementary Particles), pp. 61, 64-67; July 7, 2003, Julian Barrnes, review of Platfrom, p. 072.
People, August 25, 2003, review of Platform, p. 43.
Print, July-August, 2004, review of Nude, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, November 23, 1998, review of Extension du domaine de la lutte (translated as Whatever), p. 58; June 9, 2003, review of Platform, p. 34.
Report, November 18, 2002, review of Platform, pp. 58-59.
Time, July 14, 2003, Richard Lacayo, review of Platform, p. 72.
World Literature Today, summer, 1995, Maria Green, review of Extension du domaine de la lutte, p. 550.
Guardian (Manchester England), http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (August 9, 2003), Philip Horne, "Dust to Dust," review of Lanzarote.*