Michel Houellebecq Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michel Houellebecq 1958-

French novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Houellebecq's career through 2003.

One of France's most celebrated and notorious authors, Houellebecq attracted a firestorm of controversy for his disturbing critique of contemporary society and the future of genetic engineering in Les Particules élémentaires (1998; The Elementary Particles). In this and other novels, such as Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994; Whatever) and Plateforme: Au milieu du monde (2001; Platform), Houellebecq casts a bleak, highly cynical light upon the vacuity and alienation of Western consumer culture and sexual liberation. His sordid depictions of sex and nihilism, rendered with deadpan sociological detachment, link the deterioration of late-twentieth-century Western society to the emptiness of 1960s-era liberalism and the ideals of individualism, thus raising the ire of critics on both the left and right.

Biographical Information

Houellebecq was born on February 26, 1958, on the French-controlled island of La Réunion, located east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. His father, a mountain guide, and mother, an anesthesiologist—who were both involved in the counter-culture movement of the 1960s—eventually relinquished their parental responsibilities and, at age six, Houellebecq was sent to the Paris suburbs to live with his paternal grandmother. Houellebecq adopted his grandmother's surname and attended a boarding school near Meaux. In 1980 he earned a degree in agricultural engineering and married his first wife, with whom he had a son. After their divorce four years later, Houellebecq received treatment for depression in a psychiatric clinic and later worked for the French National Assembly. During the 1980s, he wrote poetry and befriended Michel Bulteau, editor of Nouvelle Revue de Paris, which published Houellebecq's early poems. In 1991 he published his first three books—H. P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie, a critical study of the acclaimed American horror writer, Rester vivant, a volume of essays and poems, and La poursuite du bonheur: poemes, a poetry collection that was awarded the Prix Tristran Tzara. In 1992 Houellebecq married Marie-Pierre Gauthier. Despite condemnation of his fiction from some critical circles, which resulted in his dismissal from the editorial board of the literary journal Perpendiculaire, Houellebecq has received several significant literary awards, including the Prix Flore for Extension du domaine de la lutte, the Prix Novembre for Les Particules élémentaires, and the Grand Prix National des Lettres Jeunes Talents for his overall body of work. Houellebecq collaborated with Philippe Harel on the screenplay for the film adaptation of Extension du domaine de la lutte, which was released in 1999. Houellebecq has also adapted and recorded his poetry to the experimental electronic music of Bertrand Burgalat, with whom he produced his first album, Présence humaine, in 2000. Houellebecq relocated to Ireland in 1999, taking residence on an island off the coast of County Cork.

Major Works

Extension du domaine de la lutte is the first-person account of an unnamed thirty-year-old computer analyst who travels to conferences to teach the use of a statistical program developed by his company for the government. At work he encounters young, egocentric corporate aspirants, and at night, he frequents local bars and discos with a feckless colleague in the hope of finding female companionship. Neither is successful in his efforts to connect with others, and their futility reflects the deleterious effects of social fragmentation and isolation in contemporary society. In the end, the narrator's colleague dies in a tragic car accident, and the narrator himself suffers a nervous breakdown. After being confined to a mental institution, the narrator observes that the patients are not sick, but merely long for physical connection. Les Particules élémentaires centers upon the experiences of two half-brothers: Michel, an eminent, though emotionally stunted, molecular biologist; and Bruno, an unattractive high-school teacher whose hedonistic longings are unfulfilled. The essential emptiness of both men is traced to the failure of their free-spirited hippie mother, who selfishly abandoned them to separate grandparents as children, leaving them fatherless and without maternal nurturance. The novel, which is a largely an indictment of 1960s permissiveness and hypocrisy, is finally revealed to be a retrospective account from the year 2079. From this future vantage, it is learned that the cloning techniques pioneered by Michel have facilitated the development of genetically superior human beings who are sexless and immortal, thus eliminating two of the most troubling but distinctive features of humanity—individuality and desire. In 2000 Houellebecq published Lanzarote: et autres textes, a novella set on the volcanic island Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. The story is told from an anonymous first-person narrator who, after becoming bored with his life in Paris, travels to Lanzarote with plans to indulge in his basest desires. However, after becoming involved with an eccentric cast of tourists and locals, including two lesbians from Germany, the narrator is consumed with depression and ennui fueled by the island's self-obsessed, overly commercial atmosphere. Houellebecq's next novel, Plateforme, again brings focus to the tourism industry, centering upon Michel, a disaffected forty-year-old employee of the French Ministry of Culture who travels to Thailand to escape the trauma of his father's murder. While on a package tour, he becomes enamored with Thai prostitutes and concludes that Western sexual desire and Third World economic interests are both fulfilled in sex tourism. Michel eventually helps Valerie, a sexually adventurous travel executive, develop an ambitious business plan for a sex resort in Thailand. Their scheme, as well as the intensive research and planning behind it, reveals the crassness of Western market forces and the inevitability of globalization. In the end, Islamic fundamentalists bomb the decadent Thai resort, and Valerie dies violently in the explosion. In addition to his novels, Houellebecq has composed several volumes of poetry, including La poursuite du bonheur: poemes, Le sens du combat (1996), and Poésies (2000). In 1998 Houellebecq published Interventions, an assemblage of book and film reviews, interviews, and provocative essays in which he espouses his left-conservative views on a variety of topics.

Critical Reception

Though Extension du domaine de la lutte has been well received and respected for its unrelenting bleakness, Les Particules élémentaires has placed Houellebecq at the center of a vitriolic French national debate that became known as “L'Affaire Houellebecq.” In particular, French leftists have reacted strongly against Houellebecq's suggestion that counter-cultural liberals of the late 1960s caused a social and moral catastrophe by privileging self-gratification over the needs of family and community. Others have condemned Les Particules élémentaires for its alleged advocacy of eugenics, the pornographic elements of the novel, and Houellebecq’s apparent sympathy—or at least ambivalence—toward Stalinism in giving the novel's antihero the last name of a former Soviet official (Djerzinski). Since the novel’s first publication, Houellebecq has become a cause célèbre in France and Les Particules élémentaires has become an international best-seller, translated into more than twenty languages. In Britain and America, Les Particules élémentaires has been widely praised, with critics lauding Houellebecq's unsettling dissection of contemporary life and his incitement of French intellectuals. Houellebecq's acerbic writing, misanthropy, and alleged fascism have caused many to compare him to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a notorious French writer whose seminal novels were marred by the author's anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies. Like Céline, however, the offensiveness of Houellebecq's political incorrectness has been often outweighed by the scathing humor and incisiveness of his social critique. As a novel of ideas, Les Particules élémentaires has also been favorably compared to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, though most reviewers have found Houellebecq's book an ambitious though lesser achievement. The publication of Plateforme has further enhanced Houellebecq's reputation as a social provocateur—this time for his derogatory portrayal of Islam, a religion he had denounced as barbaric in other public statements. Nevertheless, Houellebecq's cynicism and dark satire has continued to be appreciated by reviewers, though many have argued that Plateforme has failed to match the promise of Les Particules élémentaires.