This is an overtly philosophical French novel. Michel is a molecular biologist who lives in France and later moves to Ireland (much like the author, Michel). Michel has no relationships with other people except perhaps for the friendship he once had with his childhood friend; he lives alone and does not seem to need sex. In contrast his half brother Bruno is obsessed with sex, seeking as many joyless couplings as possible.
I suppose Michel and Bruno represent the soul and the body in a modern version of classic Cartesian dualism.
It is a long time (over thirty years) since I read Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy and I am not sure if I remember it rightly but it seemed to me that Sartre's existentialism was told in a much more believable novel, with a human face, than this cold, impersonal, almost nihilistic book. But perhaps that was the point. Perhaps Houellebecq is trying to show us that we are all isolated individuals gtrapped within our own identities and unable to relate to anyone else in any way that is in the least bit meaningful. But it makes for sterile and inhuman story.
And if you feel that stories should be about humans and their relationships and that you should be able to suspend disbelief as you relate to at least one of the characters you will, like me, find this novel challenging. There was no-one you could like. The best moments were when the priapic Bruno tries ever more desperately to get laid in a New Age hippy camp while simultaneously trying to avoid the contingent clap trap. But in the end he was unbelievable. And the end of the book, with its swift execution of almost all the major characters amid despair and loneliness degenerated into humourless farce. Finally we descend into a science fiction philosophy and discover that the book is written in the future.
Depressing. October 2012; 379 pages