Le Provocateur

Michel Houellebecq is the most controversial French novelist in decades. But what’s shocking about ‘The Elementary Particles’ isn’t all the anonymous sex — it’s his attack on everything the 60’s generation holds dear.

Anomie is a disease that disproportionately afflicts French novelists. But even by the standards of the country that gave us Proust (a bedridden neurasthenic) and Sartre (the author of “Nausea”), Michel Houellebecq represents a particularly acute case. Houellebecq is France’s biggest literary sensation in 20 years — and his suffering is enormous.

To spend a weekend in his company is to become an unwitting participant in a sensory-deprivation experiment. External stimuli are reduced to a minimum. Physical movement is discouraged. Likewise talking and eating and any other activity that might detract from the primary objective — getting from Saturday morning to Sunday night with as little conscious awareness as possible. Living outside Dublin, where Houellebecq moved from Paris last year, helps: he knows almost no one in the city and doesn’t like to speak English. When I rang the bell of his suburban town house in June, I was the first person to have done so in quite some time. Houellebecq answered the door in stocking feet, blinked at me with his sad brown eyes and ushered me into the living room. He curled up in a chair with a pack of Silk Cuts and a bottle of Jim Beam and hardly moved for the entire weekend. He murmured obligingly in response to my questions, but finishing a sentence often proved beyond him. Whatever energy he had seemed mostly consumed by the quiet labor of existing. Houellebecq’s wife, Marie-Pierre, came and went, refilling liquor glasses and emptying the ashtray. By late afternoon, the room was choked with smoke, and Houellebecq was no longer sober. Through a door, half hidden behind some drapes, was a balcony and directly beyond it the gray expanse of the Irish Sea. When I asked Houellebecq when the tide came in, he seemed taken aback. “I know it moves,” he reflected, “but we shut the curtains.”

By the time we sat down to dinner — in the living room — he was too inebriated to eat. He picked at his boiled crab and got some of it on his sleeve. His head began to nod; his eyelids drooped. But for the first time all day, he looked almost cheerful. “I am the star of French literature,” he slurred. “The most radical one of all.” He reached over and petted my knee. “What’s your name again?” he mumbled. “How would you like to be in my erotic film?”

n France, Houellebecq (pronounced WELL-beck) is famous for being a lot of things. Being a pitiful shut-in, however, is not one of them. To 20-somethings, he’s a hero; to baby boomers, he’s a menace to society. He is also considered by turns a pornographer, a Stalinist, a racist, a sexist, a nihilist, a reactionary, a eugenicist and a homophobe. About the only thing the French seem to agree on about Houellebecq is that he is the first French novelist since Balzac whose work captures the social realities of contemporary life. It’s an extraordinary claim — all the more unlikely given Houellebecq’s palpable aversion to the world. But then, “extraordinary” is the word that best sums up Houellebecq’s career. A few years ago, he was an obscure poet and recovering mental patient with a single novel under his belt and a day job debugging computers at the French Parliament. Then in 1998, he published “Les Particules elementaires” (“The Elementary Particles”). A novel overflowing with anguish and graphic descriptions of anonymous sex, it sold 300,000 copies and incited a national verbal slugfest unlike anything France had ever seen.

Debated on the front page of Le Monde and denounced by the Catholic press, the book bitterly divided the jury of the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize. (The award went to someone else.) Meanwhile, French Gen X’ers launched a Houellebecq fan club on the Internet to discuss his philosophical kinship with Nietzsche and Celine. “Suddenly it’s a question of agreeing or disagreeing with ‘The Elementary Particles’ the same way one had to agree or disagree with Picasso’s ‘Guernica,”‘ Le Monde grumbled. It’s a quixotic wager. Houellebecq’s book is an original work of art — ironic, intelligent and as airtight and elegant as a geometry proof. It is also considerably bleaker than any French sex-and-death novel in recent memory.

“Elementary Particles” tells the story of Bruno and Michel, a pair of half-brothers who are palmed off to grandparents at a tender age by irresponsible hippie parents. Bruno grows up to become a self-loathing, sex-obsessed psychiatric patient who, though “prepared to go to the ends of the earth” for nubile flesh “wrapped in a miniskirt,” is rarely satisfied. He abandons the one woman who loves him when she becomes a wheelchair-bound invalid. As for Michel, he becomes a chronically depressed molecular biologist who commits suicide off the Irish coast — but not without leaving a blueprint for establishing a new species of perfectly rational human clones, the only hope for saving mankind from self-destruction. In a clever twist clear only at the end, the book’s narrator turns out to be one such clone and the novel itself a mordant history of the now-extinct human race.

The wretched characters, affectless prose and clinical descriptions of group sex (“Bruno and Rudi took turns penetrating Hannelore”) are deeply disturbing. But the French took exception to something else: the book’s militant ideology. “The Elementary Particles” takes pains to ensure that we don’t see Bruno and Michel merely as products of bad parenting or dumb luck. Rather, they are victims of a culture awash in post-1960’s values. Over the course of the novel’s 272 pages, Houellebecq catalogs a daunting number of alleged scourges — the free market, New Age mysticism, legal abortion, skyrocketing divorce rates, materialism, debauchery — and lays them at the door of counterculture idealism. According to the novel’s freewheeling historical logic, the 1960’s begat not peace and prosperity but selfishness, misery and violence. “In a sense,” muses Bruno in a characteristic aside, “the serial killers of the 1990’s were the spiritual children of the hippies of the 60’s.” For those fortunate enough to have avoided a criminal fate, the book implies, loneliness is the reward. “We live in a world in which there are no more links,” Houellebecq told me. “We’re just particles. It’s a simple metaphor.”