A Bellow from France
by Christopher Caldwell
… The Elementary Particles is a veiled autobiography, and a frontal attack on the culture of the 1960s. To understand the centrality of that decade to Houellebecq’s worldview, it helps to know something about his childhood, which resembles that of no public figure so much as that of Barack Obama. He was born on Reunion Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, in 1956. His mother was a progressive doctor afflicted with wanderlust. Much like Obama’s mother, who wrote ethnological studies of the smithies of Indonesia for the Ford Foundation, Mrs. Houellebecq shipped her son back home to be raised by more traditional grandparents, while she went off to save the (Third) World. Houellebecq in traditionalist France, like Obama in hokey Hawaii, seems to have held out hope that the absent progressive parent was doing something of relevance to him, that his archaic upbringing was somehow linked to his mother’s modernizing adventure, even if the two seemed to be in contradiction. Each boy wanted to believe that no one was “relegating” or “abandoning” him to anything. The hidden system behind their upbringing would reveal its wholeness in the end, in a union of the nomadic and the sedentary. When that didn’t happen, each of the men turned against one half of his childhood, Obama against the traditional/provincial side, Houellebecq against the progressive/cosmopolitan side—though each remained fluent and comfortable enough in the other idiom to consort with, and “pass” among, those who still believed in it.