The Cynical Celebrity

As musical debuts go, it was fairly tame. Standing before a crowd of 50 in the basement of the hip St-Germain club Le Montana, a middle-aged writer named Michel Houellebecq gave his first Parisian performance, warbling his own poems set to music. Accompanied by a four-piece orchestra, Houellebecq sang for nearly an hour, and gave the critics plenty to talk about. But it was nothing compared to the storm that followed the publication of his second novel, "Les Particules Elementaires," (Elementary Particles) last fall. A furiously cynical rant against modern France, the book attacked Greens, hippies, Muslims and feminists with equal fury. Critics labeled Houellebecq a fascist, a nihilist and a pornographer. The Perpendicularists--an intellectual salon he had helped to found--kicked him out. But the book sold 300,000 copies and polarized the French literary world into two camps: those who thought he was a disgrace, and those who thought he was a genius. "Houellebecq writes about real life in a way that makes people think," says critic Catherine Argaud. "He's been at the root of more conversations this last year than anyone else I can think of."

It looks as though he'll be the topic of debate at cafe tables for some time to come. Last week a film of Houellebecq's first novel, "Extension du Domaine de la Lutte," ("Whatever") opened in France. Audiences are flocking to see the story of two computer programmers who set out to give software seminars but end up on a beach contemplating murder and suicide. He's got plans to record a rock album, using his poems as lyrics. In June, a fan created first a Web site, and then a fan club called Friends of Michel Houellebecq, only the second such association dedicated to a living author in France. His Web site is host to impassioned arguments about his relationship to Goethe and Schopenhauer. The scholarly journal Atelier du Roman dedicated an entire issue to the book. The former computer programmer, abandoned by his parents as a child, is now being heralded as the greatest satirist of the age. "He filled an enormous void in French letters," says Argaud. "He's here to stay."

And not just in France--or in Ireland, where he retreated after the furor in the spring of 1998 for peace and a view of the sea. "Les Particules" has been translated into five languages, and will be published in 25 countries by the end of next year. Why the appeal? Perhaps because in an age of moral relativism, Houellebecq isn't afraid to be unequivocally negative. Both "Les Particules" and "Whatever" are soaked in hopelessness. Houellebecq's injunction to "insist on sickness, agony, ugliness" is the theme of the new movie, the story of the two computer programmers. Not cheery stuff. On the page or in person, Houellebecq's fury can reach alarming proportions. As he told NEWSWEEK, "I hate nature. I have little respect for freedom. Democracy doesn't do much for me either." Freedom of expression, however, has made him a well-known man.