A perfect genetic future

The Elementary Particles By Michel Houellebecq Translated by Frank Wynne Alfred A. Knopf 264 pp., $25

A literary sensation in France, hailed as a great novel by critics in the rest of Europe, Michel Houellebecq's "The Elementary Particles" is an odd mixture of penetrating insight and old-fashioned ineptitude.

Although critics have compared its author to Balzac, Beckett, and Camus, it is no more a literary masterpiece than Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." Like Huxley's social prophecy, this is a novel that tackles big, life-changing ideas. But unlike Huxley's masterfully conceived vision of a prosperous, blandly hedonistic world governed by genetic and social engineering, the vision of the future that Houellebecq presents is poorly conceived: so full of holes, you could drive several small planets through them.

The unknown narrator tells the story from the perspective of a transcendently different "new world order" that has come about in the 21st century: "What men considered a dream, perfect but remote,/ We take for granted as the simplest of things," declares an unidentified poet in the book's prologue. In this respect, Houellebecq's approach is rather like Peter Ackroyd's in "The Plato Papers." But if both books share a vision of a harried, neurotic, materialistic world giving way to a joyous spiritual realm, Houellebecq's prose has none of the poetry of Ackroyd's.

Houellebecq gives us a pair of dissimilar half-brothers, born in 1956 and 1958, to a promiscuous, proto-hippie mother who consigned each of them to the care of a different grandmother. Bruno, the older, is a sad and typical child of his era: obsessed with sex, but not attractive or charismatic enough to rate very high in the sexual marketplace. Michel, the younger, has no sex drive, but a brilliant and original scientific mind that enables him to devise a plan for a new race of genetically engineered asexual beings who will replace humans.

The specifics of Michel's plan are not disclosed until the final pages of the book, and are rather anticlimactic. In order to accept the premise that it is possible to create a new race of beings who will be morally as well as physically improved to the point of perfection by genetic engineering, it would be necessary to believe that one's genetic makeup totally determines what kind of person one will be. It also presumes that an ability to genetically produce seemingly desirable qualities of temperament or disposition - say, calmness rather than excitability, pliability rather than stubbornness - is tantamount to creating morally superior people.

The bulk of the book - and its strength - lies in its scathing jeremiad against contemporary society. The culmination of the so-called sexual liberation of the 1960s, Houellebecq argues, is a society without moral values of any kind: "Actionists, beatniks, hippies and serial killers were all pure libertarians who advanced the rights of the individual against social norms and against what they believed to be the hypocrisy of morality, sentiment, justice, and pity.... Having exhausted the possibilities of sexual pleasure, it was reasonable that individuals ... should turn their attentions to the wider pleasures of cruelty." These, indeed, are words spoken by Bruno, the brother who is himself immersed in the pursuit of sexual satisfaction, and who can speak firsthand of the loneliness and emptiness that are its end results.

The story, filled with graphic portrayals of sexual excess, is not for the squeamish. But unlike some writers, Houellebecq succeeds in making it seem repellent, chilly, and sad rather than titillating. The dialogue, however, is almost comically awkward: When the brothers get together to talk, they sound as if they are reading aloud from polemical articles.

In many ways more manifesto than novel, "The Elementary Particles" is full of provocative ideas, powerfully expressed. But a great work of literature? Not likely. A book that people should read? Yes.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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