French bad boy author Houellebecq makes room for love in gritty thriller


Michel Houellebecq – the world’s most famous French contemporary author – returns to familiar subjects of politics and power in his much-anticipated eighth novel Anéantir (Annihilate), out on Friday. But the 65-year-old also makes time for love and family ties.

A hefty first print run of 300,000 copies will hit bookshops on 7th January – two years after Houellebecq's novel Serotonin seemed to foresee the Yellow Vest movement and seven years to the day since the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks.

A simple coincidence perhaps, but Houellebecq is no stranger to provocation.

His best-selling novel Submission was slated for release on 7th January 2015. It tells the tale of sharia law being imposed in France following the victory of a Muslim who defeated real-life French politician Marine Le Pen in the 2022 presidential elections.

Now 2022 is upon us, hard-right Le Pen is a real-life candidate in the April polls, and she may make it through to the second round. But so far there are no Muslim candidates in the running.

Nonetheless, Houellebecq’s fans and reviewers of his work love to portray him as some kind of social barometer, if not an outright visionary.

The vision in Annihilate is, broadly-speaking, bleak on the political front but with signs of solace on the family side. 

Literary critic Eugénie Bastié praised a "poignant, depressing and tender novel" that talks about death and love as a couple.

Online website Mediapart struck a very different tone, however, saying Houellebecq's writing was "on its last legs".

« anéantir » est un roman poignant, déprimant et tendre, qui parle de la mort, mais aussi et surtout de l’amour conjugal. Du très beau Houellebecq.

— Eugénie Bastié (@EugenieBastie) December 30, 2021

Political thriller 

Houellebecq, whose work has been translated into more than 40 languages, specialises in the depressed, white, male anti-hero struggling to live in a world that's changing a bit too fast.

His latest protagonist goes by the name of Paul Raison, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Finance.

The 730-page book is woven with the melancholy of the human condition, with many of Houellebecq’s habitual themes: the couple who share nothing but solitude, sexual misery, existential emptiness, death, terrorism and political intrigue.

It starts out as a political cyber-security thriller, set during a fictional presidential election campaign in 2027, with security experts trying to track down a mysterious terrorist group that has hacked government IT systems.

One of the group's videos stages the execution of the economy minister Bruno Juge – who bears more than a passing resemblance to the incumbent economy minister Bruno Le Maire.

President Emmanuel Macron appears to feature in the intrigue, but is not mentioned by name like Le Pen and firebrand 2022 candidate Eric Zemmour.

Life and death

Against this background of Parisian politics and global cyber terrorism, the book turns into a more metaphysical meditation, taking on the weighty subjects of ill health, death, end of life, and ultimately the meaning of life in a liberal society that has lost much of its social glue.

The France of 2027 is bleak, gripped by tensions caused by inequality and the steady decline of rural communities – a theme Houellebecq explored in Serotonin.

"The gap between the ruling classes and the populace has reached unprecedented levels," the narrator comments.

French author Houellebecq sparks controversy

The second part of the book hones in on family affairs. Raison comes to recognise his wife's courage and beauty in later life, and grows closer to his father, now in a vegetative state following a stroke, on nightmarish visits to elderly care homes.

“Houellebecq finally drops the mask of provocation and cynicism to show an empathic face,” wrote Bernard Lehut and Aymeric Parthonnaud on RTL online.

“Anéantir is of course a dirge but lit up by love and the possibility of happiness,” they add in a nod to Houellebecq’s 2005 novel The Possibility of an Island.

Characters more human

Happiness is a big word in Houellebecq’s often nihilistic universe.

Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, author of a book on Houllebecq, nonetheless recognises a difference in his most recent characters. 

“They’re more ordinary, more simply human than usual,” she told Le Point magazine.

“Above all they’re shrouded in extraordinary goodwill, which ends up characterising the relations they have with each other.”

In a rare media interview last week Houellebecq defended showing this softer side.

"There's no need to celebrate evil to be a good writer," he told Le Monde. “There are very few bad people in Anéantir and I'm happy about it.

"The ultimate triumph would be to have no bad people at all."

However there is one nasty, unredeemable character in the novel – and she happens to be a journalist.

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