Maria Green (review date summer 1995)
SOURCE: Green, Maria. Review of Extension du domaine de la lutte, by Michel Houellebecq. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (summer 1995): 550.
[In the following review, Green comments on Houellebecq's depiction of modern alienation in Extension du domaine de la lutte.]
In his fourth novel, Michel Houellebecq deals with our modern mal du siècle, alienation. Can we still learn anything new on this worn-out topic, depicted, described, analyzed, turned inside out by the best artists, writers, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists of our century? It seems that the author of Extension du domaine de la lutte can still display a new aspect of our modern ailment when he ushers the reader into the realm of computer science.
The narrator sets out to chart his own voyage of discovery in a novel about himself. Of course, this modern novel is a far cry from the sizzling passions of Wuthering Heights. The genre of the novel was not invented to display indifference, dehumanization, nihilism. The narrator sees clearly that while society is moving toward the goal of being perfectly informed, transparent, and in perfect communication, meaningful individual communication is simply obliterated in our private life.
The antihero-narrator is a well-paid engineer in a company that has just developed a new program to make statistics easy for government offices. He is sent to various provincial towns with a colleague to teach the use of the new program. In his seminars he meets young, dynamic, ambitious computer experts. He sees and describes them with deft originality in terms of snakes and bulldogs—whereas he himself feels like a trapped chimpanzee. Our modern world appears to him under the rule of Mars and Venus, based on domination, money, and fear on the masculine side and on seduction on the feminine side.
Life in the office is structured, but what are you supposed to do in your free time? Should you spend it looking out for others? Our narrator is not interested in others. After the botched-up seminars, he and his colleague roam and stake their sensual claim in the territory of the young, in bars and discotheques. The colleague is plagued by his calvary: the young man with a froglike face and not an ounce of charm cannot get rid of his virginity. The narrator had lost his Véronique two years earlier. Now he is unable to find a new girlfriend on his own terms. The topic of sexual misery emerges, and the narrator interpolates two miniessays. 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. He bets that if you place a decent, slightly disturbed girl in the clutches of an analyst, she will quickly be turned into an antisocial, egocentric, avaricious shrew, unable to love physically or mentally. Véronique adopted Lacan's motto: “Plus vous serez ignoble, mieux ça ira!”
This bleak novel, in which the adjectives sinistre, morose, and amer abound, ends tragically. The colleague is killed on the highway after a frustrating night at a disco, and the narrator suffers a nervous breakdown. In the mental institution he suddenly understands that none of the patients is sick, they simply crave physical contact. As nobody loves them, they turn violently against themselves. Without intimate friendships, without love, the realest reality, the very tapestry of life is unraveled.
Anita Brookner (review date 2 January 1999)
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Prize-Winning Novels from France.” Spectator 282, no. 8891 (2 January 1999): 35.
[In the following excerpt, Brookner discusses Houellebecq's controversial portrayal of sexual excesses and cloning in Les Particules élémentaires.]
The disgusting and depraved Les Particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq led to the author being suspended from a literary journal on grounds of offences against good taste. (The publicity did him no harm at all.) I liked this, though it is undoubtedly obscene, but, more than obscene, despairing. The sexual revolution to which the
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