Riffing on Michel Houellebecq’s Novel The Elementary Particles

Books, Literature, Writers

1. If I had anything resembling a decent thesis about Michel Houellebecq’s 1998 novel The Elementary Particles, I’d try to write a proper review; but I don’t have anything approaching a thesis about it, so I’ll just riff a bit.

2. Re: item 1: there are just too many “big ideas” to hash out without a second reading. The book tackles social and cultural evolution, taking a hard aim at what the boomers hath wrought: it attacks the concepts of the free market, free love, and even free will.

3. The themes of The Elementary Particles: sex and death.

4.  Les Particules élémentaires is the original French title. The book was sold with the title Atomised in its British publication. The Elementary Particles is the “American” title; it’s fine, I suppose, but Atomised strikes me as more fitting. Both titles allude to the book’s plot, which involves molecular biology as well as the “metaphysical mutations” that happen over human history. But the American title seems too positive—it connotes imagery of building blocks, of growth, of possibility. Atomised conjures disintegration, which is more in tune with the novel’s tone.

5. Frank Wynne translates.

6. Is it silly to say that I find the novel very French? I think this is a silly comment, one that says more about me than the book.

7. Still, I find the book very French.

8. The Elementary Particles isn’t a “novelly novel.” Don’t read this book if you are interested in plot arc, character development, or emotional uplift.  Catharsis? Validation of the existential human drama? Not gonna happen here.

9. This isn’t a book for everyone. This is probably not a book for most people, in fact.

10. I loved it though. It was funny and mean and shocking. Bristly, brisk, engaging. Most of all, I was fascinated by Houellebecq’s intelligence.

11. It is possible that many readers will be annoyed or aggravated at Houellebecq’s artless ventriloquizing of his characters, who often deliver long, occasionally polemical, speeches on any number of subjects, including the Huxleys (Aldous and his brother Julian), problems with the French education system, the merits and tragedies of anonymous sex, the emotional cost of a culture mediated by advertising and consumerist desire, the terrors of post-boomer moral fallout (ritualized slayings and the like) . . .

12. Things that The Elementary Particles reminds me of:

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

William Burroughs

Albert Camus

The Marquis de Sade

Aldous Huxley

J.G. Ballard

Neuromancer

Pornography

Wikipedia

Flat narrative voice-overs in films both foreign and domestic

Nietzsche

Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed and Two Noughts

The late twentieth century

13. What do the two half-brothers of The Elementary Particles crave? Motherly love.

14. Sensationalism that repels more than it titillates in The Elementary Particles: group sex, voyeurism, exhibitionism, ritualistic Satanic murder.

15. A weak shot at plot summary: Michel and Bruno are half-brothers. Their mother, a selfish hippie (there can be no other kind in Houellebecq’s world), abandons them to be raised by different family members. Bruno, more or less forgotten by his father, is brutalized in boarding school. Michel, raised by his paternal grandmother, becomes emotionally isolated and withdrawn. He grows up to become a brilliant molecular biologist whose work on DNA mapping leads to a new type of cow (later he does something that changes the course of humanity forever, but hey, no spoilers). Michel cannot make human connection and finds no interest in sex. Bruno, in contrast, spends his life in arrested development, lusting after young girls like a sex-crazed maniac (which he kinda sorta technically is, I suppose). Both men reconnect with each other, connect with meaningful women, and some other stuff happens too.

16. Look, the plot isn’t really that important in The Elementary Particles. It’s an idea novel. A novel of ideas. [Shudders].

17. A lot of people hated this book; that is, they hated the ideas in this book and the presentation of those ideas.

18. Here’s Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:

The reader of the newly translated English version can only conclude that controversy — over the book’s right-wing politics and willfully pornographic passages — accounts for the novel’s high profile. As a piece of writing, ”The Elementary Particles” feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read.

19. I generally disagree with Kakutani, who is often disingenuous or lazy as a critic. I think that she completely misreads the novel.

20. I find it reassuring that Houellebecq offends Kakutani.

21. Kakutani loved Gary Shteyngart’s awful dystopian sex and death and aging novel Super Sad True Love StoryI super hated it! While reading Houellebecq’s novel, I occasionally thought about Shteyngart’s book, which I think seems not just watery and weak next to The Elementary Particles, but cowardly.

22. Is The Elementary Particles sci-fi? Maybe. Sort of. Not really.

23. Is it dystopian? I think that it posits the globalized, post-boomer world as a dystopia, as a place obsessed with aging and image, as a world of enslaved people who falsely extol their own freedom. But it works its way toward a positive vision of life.

24. Is it utopian then? No, not really. I mean, this positive vision of life doesn’t include human beings.

25. The ending of the book is a philosophical dodge, the kind of misanthropy that too easily dismisses the entirety of history, philosophy, religion, and even basic biological impulses.

26. Maybe the ending is ironic. So much of the book is blackly bleakly ironic, that, hey, yeah, it’s possible the ending is ironic.

27. I’m not really sure, of course.

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13 thoughts on “Riffing on Michel Houellebecq’s Novel The Elementary Particles

  1. I like your riffing on the book here – I think Houellebecq invites riffing, because he’s a bit all over the place himself. And I think your #14 is exactly true. The sensationalism in all of Houellebecq is never meant to titillate, but to repel. His sex is depressing, even when his characters find meaning in it; the reader always knows that the meaning is false or misplaced.

    Have you read The Possibility of an Island? That is my second favorite Houellebecq, besides his latest The Map and the Territory.

    And just one quick note – the original title in French is Les Particules Elémentaires. I’m not sure at all why they changed the title to Atomised in the UK translation. I don’t have a problem with Atomised, and I agree that it’s appropriately harsh sounding. The Elementary Particles sounds soft in comparison, but that is the original.

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    1. Hi, Michelle,

      Thanks for the correction on the French title, which *is* Les Particules élémentaires, and not Atomised as I first noted (I’m not even sure where I got that idea).

      I haven’t read any other Houellebecq, but I will.

      I like that you agree that “the reader always knows that the meaning is false or misplaced” — only some of the commentary I’ve read on Houellebecq suggests that that modifier “always” isn’t in play for all readers — it seems like some commenters think that H presents Bruno and Michel as ideals, rather than, you know, sad little men.

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      1. Yes, I suspect you are right – not all readers see that Houellebecq’s characters are meant to be pathetic. I think that part of this problem is that Houellebecq doesn’t always make it easy for the reader to know which way to read his books. I especially had this problem with Platform, his third novel. It isn’t surprising that this book got the most negative criticism because it really isn’t clear whether Houellebecq wants you to agree with & sympathize with or dislike and disagree with his narrator.

        I look forward to your thoughts on his other novels.

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  2. 2. “taking a hard aim at what the boomers hath wrought” — I find myself turned off by these kinds of cultural analyses because the makeup of a generation is not a homogenous set of individuals and, too, insofar as the constituents of a generation may have an effect on another, they are as much a product of their environment as the succeeding generation is. Boomers are a demographic that is most beloved for its capacity to be be-hated, but I can’t figure out why. Most of your individual ‘boomers’ have little to nothing to do with all the awfulness that is attributed to them.

    8. Indeed, “The Elementary Particles” is probably the novel least like a novel that I’ve ever read. The prose was flat and was definitely only intended to move along ideas. No poetry to be found here.

    10. “Houellebecq’s intelligence.” — Unfortunately, I felt his intelligence was on the same level of the intelligent, but insufferably right-wing/libertarian freshman in a poli-sci class who is so enamored of his own wit that he’s become crippled by his arrogance and thus fulfills the role of ‘misunderstood loner.’

    11. Of the things I disliked about the novel, this wasn’t really one of them. However much I might have disliked what the characters had to say, this is common in “novels of ideas” (which I’m prone to read — I’d argue that “Blood Meridian,” “White Noise” and most of Pynchon’s oeuvre are, if not outright idea-novels, then a hybridized form of it).

    13. I imagine Houellebecq wants the same.

    17. I may have been one of those people. But I’m a little tempted to read some of his other stuff, like a person addicted to self-flagellation. I mean, I kind of like the novel, but find everything about it abhorrent.

    1. Who said this has to be sequential? I like this riffery. Makes for a good way to make more coherent responses (or maybe less coherent or something I don’t know).

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    1. Also, something I was going to touch on, but forgot to as I was making numbered responses (and the response I forgot to make didn’t fit into a numbered category as it is in response to something brought up in the comments) is this: if Houellebecq’s characters are meant to be pathetic, then what’s the point? If they’re meant to be pathetic, then presumably they’re outliers, which makes it difficult to interpret the novel. Which, hey, may be why it was hard for me to really understand them, because they’re outside of my frame of reference. Houellebecq doesn’t seem to provide a reference point to which Michel or Bruno compared to someone who isn’t as pathetic. Especially, I would say, because they’ve both dug themselves into these niches in their lives, Michel into the academic world and Bruno into his nympho’s world, where anybody they would come into contact with would be too much like themselves (at least to an outside observer — or, rather, the reader) to make note of any difference.

      I could be wrong though. It’s been almost a year since I read it.

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      1. Hey Hank, thanks for your considered responses.

        I think you bring up a good point about Houellebecq withholding any ref point for “normalcy” — although this might be part of his method. Again, I don’t know, but I found a lot to relate to in both characters.

        As far as H’s politics, I really didn’t see them on display in this book—sure, Bruno flirts w/ fascism and Nat’l Front politics, but I found most of this to be presented as the reactionary delusions of a misguided dude who is condemned to a life on meds in a psych ward. He’s punished in the narrative, repeatedly, and I don’t think we’re meant to feel bad (or very bad) for him.

        The boomer thing—I get your point, but I think that H’s method in the novel was to attack the idea of individuality as cultural/social arbiter (while at the same time showing two personalities who deviate radically from normative behavior). His ideas on this front were the most attractive for me, because I *do* see that the boomers — on both a generational and personal level — have very heavily contributed to the general fucked-upedness of the modern world. Reading The Elementary Particles was like the flipside to David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I also read as an attack on the boomers, albeit one from a much bigger, kinder heart.

        I like your description: “I kind of like the novel, but find everything about it abhorrent.

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        1. I just don’t really get it. Maybe it’s because I’m a member of so-called Generation Y (I get the feeling that you’re more of, like, Generation X?), but I just don’t get what the Boomers — as a monolithic group — did that was so awful. And I hear this a lot, too, that the Boomers really suck, but nobody really seems to say what about them sucks.

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          1. Short version:

            Boomers are the biggest generation ever. They’ve enjoyed rapid and, to their eyes, limitless economic and technological growth. They’ve deflected the cost of this growth on my generation, yours, my children’s generation, and the entire planet. Their ideological failure can be neatly summed up by the images of the trash left behind at their celebrated Woodstock concert. Ditto the election of Reagan, their easy embrace of nefarious trickle down economics, their constant battle against age (the boomers will not age gracefully; they will fight to be young forever, clogging up our health care system and gobbling up all social safety net funding). They are the “me” generation and have spread that ideology throughout America so that every generation after believes that the individual is the primary social unit (and not the family, or the city, or god forbid the government). Their mantra of “individual identity” and “individual rights” has displaced older ideals of civic responsibility and civic virtue. They have destroyed the educational system in this country. They are greedy. They are children.

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            1. VICE Magazine did a write up attacking the boomers a few years ago (more like 7 years ago) that is pretty acerbic/silly/thorough/convincing:

              http://www.vice.com/read/the-vice-v12n8

              Sample:

              Goddamnit. Pick up the past few issues of Newsweek and all they want to talk about is transplants and Alzheimer’s and how to cure hearing loss and “Do we have the technology to extend life?” It used to talk about news occasionally but now you feel like you’re reading a trade magazine for geriatric medicine. Can’t these people just die? It’s not like any of this “care” makes a difference. According to Health Care Matters, “a 10 percent increase in pharmaceutical consumption would increase a 60-year-old’s unadjusted life expectancy by about 0.6 percent.” That means approximately 160 more days of crawling around the living room in a cardigan trying to figure out how to record Matlock.

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  3. Now I understand why I’m not a critic of the Boomer generation as a whole: I am not conservative, nor am I privileged. These criticisms of the Boomers seem to come from a viewpoint that’s just as privileged and conservative as the supposed Boomers that are being criticized. It’s telling that one of the points against the boomers in that admittedly not-entirely-serious article was women’s liberation. Too, that they blame the Boomers’ leftism on merely wanting to piss off their parents when, what, aren’t the writers of these diatribes against the Boomers really just doing the same thing? Methinks Generation X doth protest too much (about the boomers, at least).

    I understand if someone wants to say that the upper-middle class and up of this country are self-absorbed, but if you want to pretend that the Boomers are exclusively upper-middle class and up, then that’s your prerogative — but also very misguided.

    Re: individuality vs. civic virtue — when I was at Occupy Wall St. (and later at Occupy Pittsburgh) I saw plenty of people who were most definitely Boomer age. Was not the sixties when I good deal of the civil rights and anti-war protesting happened? That surely doesn’t have anything to do with civic virtue, I suppose.

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    1. Not misguided at all. The boomer generation controls the majority of the economic, cultural, and political capital in this country. As a demographic they are demonstrably far wealthier than any other group in this country.

      Awesome that you saw some old farts hanging out at Occupy. The anti-war protests of the the 1960s were as much about self-absorption as they were about civil rights; in any case, your boomers didn’t exactly carry out the dream. Seriously, they’ve fucked this country. I would point vaguely (and glibly) to the late twentieth century as evidence.

      Anti-boomer sentiment might be reactionary, but it isn’t necessarily conservative or privileged.

      Finally, sure, as individuals they might be fine, good people (I love my parents, my aunts and uncles, etc.). But as a generation or demographic, they are the worst.

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  4. I loved this book. Best one I read in 2006. My friend Mia picked it up on my recommendation a couple years ago. After she finished it, she told me that she “thinks of me totally different now,” whatever that means. We didn’t dwell on it.

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