Michel Houellebecq lives in Ireland.
Houellebecq's second work of fiction (after Whatever) arrives with great fanfare, proclaimed as a great novel by critics abroad; the author even rated a feature in the New York Times Magazine. Indeed, the book is grand in its ambitions. At its heart are two half-brothers, Bruno Cl‚ment, an oversexed, sexist slob of a failed writer, and Michel Djerzinski, a brilliant but affectless scientist. Their mother, who has roots in Algeria, had the two boys in quick succession and then spun off into hippie heaven (this is the Sixties), the self-involved fathers aren't on the scene, and the boys, raised separately by different grandparents, have miserable childhoods. Houellebecq's condemnation of the consequences of Sixties-style liberation is acidulous and ferocious, and one can only nod agreement while reading; if these boys are any evidence, tie-dye was a catastrophe. Tough and direct, the documentary-like writing is complemented by brief scientific and philosophical passages that are fascinating in themselves but aren't well integrated and don't shed as much light as they might. Reading this work is thus not quite the intellectual feast it should have been. Important for literary collections but more problematic than the advance publicity would suggest. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/00.]ÄBarbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
"An original work of art-ironic, intelligent and as airtight and
elegant as a geometry proof."
--The New York Times Magazine
"[A] brilliant novel of ideas... [A] riveting novel by a deft, observant writer."
--The Wall Street Journal
"Fearless, vivid and astringently honest...surprisingly funny... [C]an permanently change how we view things that happened in our own lives. Not many novels can do that."
--Los Angeles Times
Houellebecq's controversial novel, which caused an uproar in France last year, finally reaches our shores. Whether it will make similar waves here remains to be seen, but its coolly didactic themes and schematic characterizations keep it from transcending faddish success. The story follows two half brothers, Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Cl‚ment. They have in common a minor Messalina of a mother, Janine Ceccaldi, who contributed most effectively to their upbringing by abandoning themÄBruno to his maternal grandmother, and Michel to Janine's second husband's mother. Bruno's is the harder life. Abused by fellow students at a boarding school, he grows into a perpetually horny adolescence, his sexual advances always rebuffed because he is ugly and devoid of personal charm. He spends the '70s and '80s exposing himself to young girls or masturbating. After his first marriage fails, he meets Christiane at an "alternative" vacation compound with a reputation for free love, and together they embark on a tawdry swingers' odyssey. Meanwhile, Michel (whose story is told in counterpoint) is so emotionally remote that he is unable to kiss his first girlfriend, the astonishingly beautiful Annabelle. In college, he loses sight of her and devotes himself to science, finally becoming a molecular biologist. Then, at 40, he meets Annabelle again. However, as Houellebecq puts it, "In the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear that they had no chance." Once death cheats both Bruno and Michel of happiness, Michel develops the basis for eliminating sex by cloning humans. The novel is burdened throughout with Houellebecq's message, which equates sex with consumerism and ever darker fates. The writer also upholds the madonna-whore polarization, pigeonholing his female characters with tiresome predictability. Still, it isn't the ideology that hampers the narrativeÄit is Houellebecq's touted scientific theorizing, which, far from covering fresh ground, resorts to the shibboleths of popular science. Houellebecq is disgusted with liberal society, but his self-importance and humorlessness overwhelm his characters and finally will tax readers' patience. 40,000 first printing. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.