Just thirty, with a well-paid job, no love life and a terrible attitude, the anti-hero of this grim, funny novel smokes four packs of cigarettes a day and writes weird animal stories in his spare time. A computer programmer by day, he is tolerably content, until he's packed off with a colleague - the sexually-frustrated Raphael Tisserand - to train provincial civil servants in the use of a new computer system
Houellebecq's first novel was a smash hit in France, expressing the misanthropic voice of a generation. Like A Confederacy of Dunces, Houellebecq's bitter, sarcastic and exasperated narrator vociferously expresses his frustration and disgust with the world.
The unnamed narrator of Houellebecq's novel is Marcuse's one-dimensional man. A single, 30-year-old computer engineer in Paris with no sex life, he suffers from a chronic passivity that, in Houellebecq's view, is characteristic of Generation X. He buys, but doesn't take joy in any of the things he possesses. He has acquaintances, but no friends. In his off hours he writes dialogues featuring an assortment of barnyard animals. When his company sends him and a colleague, Bernard, out to Rouen and La Roche-sur-Yon to consult on software, nothing much gets done. In Rouen he suffers from heart problems. Since Bernard visits him in the hospital, a bond develops between them. Bernard, cursed with a repulsive appearance and a horny disposition, makes obnoxious advances to every woman he sees and is predictably rejected. Sexual deprivation is the atmosphere in which these men exist. That both men see women only in terms of their sexual features makes their impotence even more pathetic. After breaking up with his last girlfriend two years ago, the narrator has withdrawn from the romantic arena. And yet he has developed an intricate and mean-spirited, if ill-defined, theory of sexual hierarchy. The loose narrative condenses to an action sequence when the narrator tries to get Bernard to murder a woman with a steak knife, but the incident is gratuitous. In the end, Houellebecq displays none of the novelist's eye for detail and, further, defaults on the development of a vital main character, who might have connected this series of threadbare incidents into an interesting social comment. FYI: A bestseller in France, this novel won the 1995 Prix Flore for best first novel.