Houellebecq, who writes in French and lives in Dublin, offers a second try (after Whatever, 1999) that’s said to be a hit abroad. Often pretentious—or flat-footed—it nevertheless holds the reader solidly with its guess about mankind’s biological future.
In the late 1950s, two brothers are born to the same hedonistic and socially rebellious mother, by different fathers; both of the boys (since none of the parents—all brilliant—is much interested in them) are raised by grandparents and, in the case of one, sent then to boarding school, where miseries are unspeakable as older boys torment and torture him. That’s Bruno, two years older than Michel, who, luckier than Bruno in living with a beloved grandmother, proves to be ultra brainy. The novel trudges on through the lives of these two brothers, Michel turning inward (seemingly more and more incapable of expressiveness or of love) and drifting toward becoming the molecular biologist who will later change humanity forever, and the ultra-sexed Bruno going through intensities of sexual experimentation that will end in madness. Least believable may be the descriptions of Bruno’s forays through the sex-camps and -clubs of France (“ ‘Sophie,’ he said with heartfelt emotion, ‘I’d like to lick your pussy’ ”), though contenders lie also in long unrealistic “conversations” on relevant topics (Huxley, utopianism) and in Houellebecq’s tendency toward the ungrounded pronouncement (“A subtle but definitive change had occurred in Western society during 1974 and 1975 . . .”). And yet, all this having been said, the working out of these lives does gain power and the sheer ambition of what Houellebecq is aiming for slowly becomes clear. Probing for the primal definitions of personality and emotion, he sets Michel to his work in molecular DNA discoveries—and introduces a narrator speaking to us from 2079 to explain the awesome and ironic revolution that’s been brought about.
Much of the time clumsy, but fiercely interesting.