BACK AROUND THE time the English translation of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 came out, I mentioned to a friend that I planned to buy a copy. He rolled his eyes. "What, you don't like Bolaño?" I asked. It turned out that my friend had not actually read anything by Bolaño, but was just tired of hearing about him. He had come to think that enthusiasm for Bolaño meant one had drunk the book reviewers' Kool-Aid, so to speak, was a slavish follower of literary fashion.
That is more or less how I felt about Michel Houellebecq. You hear about a new novelist from X who is provocative, or transgressive, or controversial, and you think, "hmm, interesting," then you hear about him (perhaps her) again, and again, and again, and all of a sudden you have burned out on whoever-it-is before you have even looked her (perhaps him) up on Amazon. You have gone through the whole intrigue/enthusiasm/weariness/annoyance cycle without having read so much as a page.
Fortunately, I came around to thinking that I should not dislike a novelist solely because he has been touted as le dernier cri over and over and over. So I picked this up--and what do you know, it really is good.
The blurb on the back likens Houellebecq to Beckett (a certain preoccupation with western civilization's death spiral, check), Huxley (rooting around in contemporary science for ideas on which to base novels, check), and Camus (can't see it, frankly). He seems to me more a less exuberant, stylistically more chaste Céline, in demonstrating a deep disgust with contemporary liberal mores without in the least being a traditional church-and-state-and-family conservative. Unlike Céline, though, he is giddily optimistic about the future, imagining an already-unfolding transvaluation of all values. Maybe he's more of a Thomas Carlyle...?
The novel presents itself as a biography of Michel Djerzinski, a molecular biologist who dies/disappears about 2000 (the novel was published in 1998), leaving behind several groundbreaking treatises that usher in the new dispensation of the future (the novel purports to have been written circa 2079), in which cloning replaces sexual reproduction and makes possible the creation of a world-mind, hence peace and contentment for all (there is a somewhat similar conception in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, interestingly enough).
Most of the novel is about Djerzinski's works and days 1958-2000, with considerable attention to his half-brother, Bruno Clément. Sons of the same proto-hippie, boho-vagabond mother, they meet only as teens. Bruno is a teacher, a mostly unpublished writer, and a sex addict, I guess we could say. Michel, by contrast, is virtually asexual, wholly wrapped up in his research, breaking the heart of the beautiful Annabelle, who has loved him since their youth.
Bruno and Michel collectively illustrate--this is the key idea, I am guessing--the dead end of materialist ideology, born in the early modern era with the collapse of Christian faith, relentlessly pursued through the scientific, economic, and political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, issuing at last in the late 20th century as atomistic individualism, hedonistic, self-absorbed, incapable of love. Michel Djerzinski's new paradigm, over the course of the 21st century, liberates humankind from this dead end.
The real unifying theme of the novel, though, is that the supposedly liberating ideology of the 1960s was really a trap, an apparent explosion of transformative energy that rapidly degenerated into the Me Decade, drug addiction, promiscuity.... On this point, Houellebecq puts me in mind more of Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, or T. C. Boyle's Drop City, or even P. J. O'Rourke or Martin Amis.
This reminds me, I need to find copies of Edward St. Aubyn's novels with the New Age settings. I bet they're ruthless.