In la belle France, the puerilities of Jerry Lewis are seen as Chaplinesque, the Stalinism of Jean-Paul Sartre sagacious, and the maunderings of Jacques Derrida profound. So it should come as no surprise that its current literary celebrity, Michel Houellebecq, has achieved pantheon status with his new work, The Elementary Particles: "The great novel of the end of the millennium," cries French Elle; "Here are ideas, here are dreams, here is a great novel," enthuses Le Monde.
In fact, the ideas are banal, the dreams pornographic, and the novel a rehash of high school science and pulp plotting. Nevertheless, Monsieur Houellebecq must be congratulated for one achievement: he is a con artist nonpareil, a poseur whose pseudo-attacks on nihilism are actually an endorsement of it. The New York Times is his latest conquest; it calls The Elementary Particles "an attack on everything the 60s generation holds dear."
If this is an attack, one wonders what a bouquet looks like. Houellebecq quite rightly states that the sixties mantra—free love, unrestricted dope use, rejection of the family, and an overturning of traditional values—led to nihilism. But after clucking about it, the author simply brings the mantra up-to-date with a book-length graffito: Vive le nihilisme!
In essence, the tale concerns the adventures of Michel and Bruno, half-brothers whose drop-out parents abandoned them early on. Bruno becomes a wanderer obsessed with, but not very good at, sex; Michel is an intellectual biologist who develops a method of cloning humans that are not quite human. Long after his suicide, this new species takes over the earth. Masturbation, drugs, and sadism dominate the narrative. ("The cat looked over at me from time to time while I was whacking off, but closed its eyes just before I came. I bent down and picked up a rock. The cat's skull shattered and some of its brains spurted out.") En route, Houellebecq puts down Aldous Huxley, but manifestly hopes to compare favorably with him. His novel is a restatement of Brave New World, without that book's originality, comic sense, or moral overview.
The saddest part of The Elementary Particles is not merely its author's lack of talent but the enthusiastic reception the book has received. In a recent profile, Emily Eakin, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine journeyed to Dublin, where the writer now lives. She commented sympathetically on his isolation and on how the artist seeks to lose himself in alcoholism and group sex. Indeed, had Houellebecq not made the mistake of hitting on Eakin, he might have emerged a tragic hero instead of a merely flawed one.
But he needn't worry: with Europe now comparing him to Albert Camus and Françoise Sagan, sales in America should be brisk. As one of France's truly wise men, Marcel Proust, observed: "L'inexactitude, l'incompétence, ne diminuent pas l'assurance. Au contraire" (Inexactitude and incompetence do not diminish assurance. Quite the contrary).