Michel Houellebecq is always performing Michel Houellebecq.
I didn’t really read that many new books—by which I mean books published in 2012—this year.
The highlight of the new books I did read was Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the moving story of the lives of several people (and a bee!) who live in the titular building (and other places. And other buildings. Look, it’s difficult to describe). Building Stories is a strange loop, a collection of 14+ elements (the big box it comes in is part of the puzzle) that allows the reader to reconstruct the narratives in different layers.
I also really dug the second installment of Charles Burns’s trilogy, The Hive; Burns and Ware are two of the most talented American writers working right now, suggesting that some of the most exciting stuff happening in American literature is happening in comic books.
Speaking of second installments in ongoing trilogies, I also listened to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which I liked, and read Lars Iyer’s Dogma and liked it as well—sort of like Beavis & Butthead Do America by way of Samuel Beckett.
I read Dogma at the beach the same week I read Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & The Territory, an uneven but engaging novel about art; the novel eventuually shifts into a strange murder procedural before exploring a fascinating vision of what a post-consumer future might look like. I dig Houellebecq and look forward to whatever he’ll spring on us next.
Another strange book I liked very much was Phi by Giulio Tononi, an exploration of consciousness written as a kind of Dante’s Inferno of the brain. A beautiful and perhaps overlooked book of 2012.
Indie presses in general tend to get overlooked—not in the sense that their books don’t have a community of readers, but in that their books don’t always reach the wider audience they deserve. I liked new books this year by Matt Bell (Cataclysm Baby), Matt Mullins (Three Ways of the Saw), and Jared Yates Sexton (An End to All Things). These books are all very different in style and content, but all marked by precise, unpretentious writing. Good stuff.
Like I said though, I didn’t read that many books published in 2012—even when I intended to. Like George Szirtes’s English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango, for instance. I was right in the middle of something when I got my review copy, and by the time I started it the hype surrounding it was almost unbearable—the sort of palate-clouding noise (to mix and misuse metaphors) that deafens a fair reading. (To be clear: I blame myself. I could easily refrain from Twitter and quit following lit news online). By the time Hari Kunzru documented the hype in a mean-spirited (but hilarious) article forThe Guardian, I knew I’d have to set Satantango aside for a bit. It’s worth noting here that Hari Kunzru’s own novel Gods without Men had been lingering in my to read stack for some time at that point, but his Satantango article managed to get it shelved. Still, I’m interested in reading it—maybe sometime late next year.
There were plenty of top listed writers who put out books this year that I probably would’ve been excited to read six or seven years ago or at least feel obligated to read and write about two or three years ago. But by 2012 I just don’t care anymore. At the risk of sounding overly dismissive (not my intention), I just can’t make time for another middling Michael Chabon novel, or another bloated tome from Zadie Smith, or another empty exercise in style from Junot Diaz, or another whatever from Dave Eggers.
Most of the great new stuff I read in 2012 was really just playing catch up to 2011—I loved Teju Cole’s Open City, found Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes to be an amusing diversion, and declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella. I also read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, and used it, along with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot as a kind of springboard to discuss lit criticism (which everyone in my particular echo chamber wanted to spar about this year) and what I want from books these days.
Two books I pretty much hated: Joshua Cody’s clever but empty memoir [sic] and Alain de Botton’s facile self-help book Religion for Atheists.
On the whole though, most of what I read in 2012 was fantastic and most of what I read in 2012 was published before 2012.
The major highlight of the year was finally reading William Gaddis’s novels The Recognitions and J R. I also read Gaddis’s posthumous novella AgapēAgape, an erudite rant that purposefully echoes the work of Thomas Bernhard, another cult writer I finally got to in 2012. His novels Correction and The Loser challenged me, made me laugh, and occasionally disturbed me.
And while I’m on Bernhard, perhaps I should squeeze in the collection I read by one of his predecessors, Robert Walser, and the poetry collection (After Nature) I read by one of his followers, W.G. Sebald. Both were excellent. And while I’m squeezing stuff in—or perhaps showing how writers lead me to read other writers—I’ll admit that I hadn’t read Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (referenced heavily in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn) until this year.
Another book that I finally got to this year that blew me away was John Williams’s lucid and sad novel Stoner. Reading Stoner, produced one of those can’t-believe-I-haven’t-read-it-before moments, which I experienced again even more intensely with Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, a surreal comic masterpiece which may be the best book I read in 2012. I also finally read—and was blown away by—Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (why had I not read it yet? Maybe I read it before. Not sure. In any case, if I did read it before it’s clear to me that I didn’t really read it). I took another shot at Marcel Proust but it didn’t take. Again.
Clarice Lispector received some much-deserved attention from the English-speaking world this year when New Directions released four new translations of her work. I found her novella The Hour of the Star sad, funny, and captivating. Also on the novellas-by-South-Americans: I’m working my ways through Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and they are fantastic.
I also finally got to David Markson’s so-called “note card novels,” devouring them in a quick stretch. I reviewed the last one, The Last Novel.Markson’s novels are often called “experimental,” a term I kind of hate, but perhaps serves as easy tag for many of the novels I enjoyed best this year, including Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and Barry Hannah’s hilarious tragedy Hey Jack!
Hey, did you know David Foster Wallace wrote an essay on David Markson? The previous sentence is an extremely weak attempt to transition to Both Flesh and Not, a spotty collection from the late great writer; it showcases some brilliant moments along with undercooked material and a few throwaways probably better left uncollected. I fretted about the book on Election Night.
The posthumous book mill also kept pumping out stuff from Roberto Bolaño, including an unfinished novel called The Woes of the True Policeman that seems like a practice sketch for 2666 (I haven’t read Woes and don’t feel particularly compelled to). I did read and enjoy The Secret of Evil, a book that might not be exactly essential but nevertheless contains some pieces that further expand (and darken and complicate) the Bolañoverse. Going back to that Bolañoverse was a highlight of the year for me—rereading 2666proved to be tremendously rewarding, yielding all kinds of new grotesque insights. I also reread The Savage Detectives, and while it’s hardly my favorite by RB, I got more out of it this time.
I also revisited The Hobbit this year and somehow decided it’s a picaresque novel. Definitely a picaresque: Blood Meridian, which I reread as well. In fact, I’ve reread it at least once a year since the first time I read it, and it gets funnier and richer and more devastating with each turn. I also reread Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” and tried to make sense out of it. I will reread Moby-Dick next year, although it’s not “Bartleby” that sparked the desire—chalk it up to Charles Olson’s amazing study Call Me Ishmael.
Olson’s study reminds me to bring up some of the nonfiction I enjoyed this year: Stephen Bronner’s Modernism at the Barricades, Robert Hughes’s Goya biography, the parts of William T. Vollmann’s Imperial that I read, Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids,and big chunks of William Gass’s collection Finding a Form.
Perhaps the most significant change in my reading habits this year was embracing an e-reader. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas last year and wound up reading from it—a lot. About half the books I read this year I read on the Kindle. I also read lots of comics on it with my daughter, including all of Jeff Smith’s Bone, much of Tintin, and all of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck stuff. (I also read several hard to find volumes from Moebius via the Kindle).
And while I love my Kindle and it’s become my go-to for night reading (it’s lightweight and self-illuminating), I can’t see it replacing physical books. To return to where I started: Chris Ware’s Building Stories, an innovative, sprawling delight simply would not be reproducible in electronic form. Ware’s book (if it is a book (which it is)) reminds us that the aesthetics of reading—of the actual physical process of reading—can be tremendously rewarding as a tactile, messy, sprawling experience.
Perhaps because I’ve freed myself from the anxiety of trying to write on this blog about everything that I read, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to write traditional reviews on this blog, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to cover contemporary literary fiction on this blog—perhaps because of all of this, I’ve enjoyed reading more this year than I can remember ever having enjoyed it before.
What about your critics? Can you just sum up briefly what you hold against the French press?
First of all, they hate me more than I hate them. What I do reproach them for isn’t bad reviews. It is that they talk about things having nothing to do with my books—my mother or my tax exile—and that they caricature me so that I’ve become a symbol of so many unpleasant things—cynicism, nihilism, misogyny. People have stopped reading my books because they’ve already got their idea about me. To some degree of course, that’s true for everyone. After two or three novels, a writer can’t expect to be read. The critics have made up their minds.
From his Paris Review interview.
I’ve been reading Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel The Map and the Territory on my Kindle Fire, which is handy because I can easily hover my index over an unknown reference and figure out what Mich-dawg is getting at. Anyway, near the beginning of Part III, H-bomb drops a reference to French Romantic poet and essayist Gérard de Nerval, whom I will cop to not recognizing. But the detail seemed significant, so let my index finger hover I did, but, no dice, Nervs wasn’t in the preloaded dictionary—so I went to the next option: Le Wikipedia. And here’s a snapshot of what I saw:
The man’s life is divided into seven neat sections there on Wikipedia, and what’s right square in the middle? Pet lobster. Holmes had a pet lobster:
I’m guessing if you know about Nerval you probably know about his lobsterkins, but I didn’t. Harper’s ran a piece about Nerval and his lobster back ’08. From the piece:
With all due respect for cats, however, let us consider the case for the humble lobster. The poet Gérard de Nerval had a penchant for lobsters, or at least for one lobster. Nerval was seen one day taking his pet lobster for a walk in the gardens of the Palais-Royal in Paris. He conducted his crustacean about at the end of a long blue ribbon. As word of this feat of eccentricity spread, Nerval was challenged to explain himself. “And what,” he said, “could be quite so ridiculous as making a dog, a cat, a gazelle, a lion or any other beast follow one about. I have affection for lobsters. They are tranquil, serious and they know the secrets of the sea.” (The episode is captured by Guillaume Apollinaire in a collection of anecdotes from 1911). Was there any basis to this story? A generation of Nerval scholars attempted to debunk it, but then a letter to his childhood friend Laura LeBeau was discovered. Nerval had just returned from some days at the seaside at the Atlantic coastal town of La Rochelle: “and so, dear Laura, upon my regaining the town square I was accosted by the mayor who demanded that I should make a full and frank apology for stealing from the lobster nets. I will not bore you with the rest of the story, but suffice to say that reparations were made, and little Thibault is now here with me in the city…” Nerval, it seems, had liberated Thibault the lobster from certain death in a pot of boiling water and brought him home to Paris. Thus we know that it was Thibault, and not just “some lobster,” who went for that celebrated promenade in the gardens of the Palais-Royal.
Of course, it was the numerous sex scenes that got you a lot of attention in the media.
I’m not sure that there are such an unusual number of sex scenes in my novel.
I don’t think that’s what was shocking. What shocked people was that I
depicted sexual failure. I wrote about sexuality in a nonglorifying way. Most of all I described a basic reality: a person filled with sexual desire who can’t satisfy it. That’s what people don’t like to hear about. Sex is supposed to be positive. Showing frustrated sexual desire is obscene. But it’s also the truth. The real question is, Who is allowed to have sex? I don’t understand, for example, how teachers survive with all these alarming young girls. When women become sexual tourists, that is even more hidden, shameful, and taboo than when men do it. Just as, when a woman professor puts her hand on a student’s thigh, it’s even worse, even more unspeakable.
A constant refrain in your novels is that sex and money are the dominant values of this world.
It’s strange, I’m fifty years old and I still haven’t made up my mind whether sex is good or not. I have my doubts about money too. So it’s odd that I’m considered an ideological writer. It seems to me that I am mostly exposing my doubts. I do have certain convictions. For example, the fact that you can pay a girl, that I think is a good thing. Undeniably. An immense sign of progress.
You mean prostitutes?
Yes. I’m all for prostitution.
Because everybody wins. It doesn’t interest me personally, but I think it’s a good thing. A lot of British and Americans pay for it. They’re happy. The girls are happy. They make a lot of money.
How do you know that the girls are happy?
I talk to them. It’s very difficult because they don’t really speak English, but I talk to them.
What about the more commonly held idea that these women are victims who are forced into these circumstances?
It’s not true. Not in Thailand. It’s just stupid to have objections about it.
(Click the CC button for English subtitles).
You’ve said that you are “an old Calvinist pain-in-the-ass.” What do you mean?
I tend to think that good and evil exist and that the quantity in each of us is unchangeable. The moral character of people is set, fixed until death. This resembles the Calvinist notion of predestination, in which people are born saved or damned, without being able to do a thing about it. And I am a curmudgeonly pain in the ass because I refuse to diverge from the scientific method or to believe there is a truth beyond science.
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:
The Marquis de Sade
Flat narrative voice-overs in films both foreign and domestic
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 Story; I 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.
The following passage from Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Elementary Particles is part of a dialog between half brothers Michel and Bruno. Otherwise, context unimportant:
When Bruno arrived at about nine o’clock, he had already had a couple of drinks and was eager to talk philosophy. “I’ve always been struck by how accurate Huxley was in Brave New World,” he began before he’d even sat down. “It’s phenomenal when you think he wrote it in 1932. Everything that’s happened since simply brings Western society closer to the social model he described. Control of reproduction is more precise and eventually will be completely disassociated from sex altogether, and procreation will take place in tightly guarded laboratories where perfect genetic conditions are ensured. Once that happens, any sense of family, of father-son bonds, will disappear. Pharmaceutical companies will break down the distinction between youth and old age. In Huxley’s world, a sixty-year-old man is as healthy as a man of twenty, looks as young and has the same desires. When we get to the point that life can’t be prolonged any further, we’ll be killed off by voluntary euthanasia; quick, discreet, emotionless. The society Huxley describes in Brave New World is happy; tragedy and extremes of human emotion have disappeared. Sexual liberation is total—nothing stands in the way of instant gratification. Oh, there are little moments of depression, of sadness or doubt, but they’re easily dealt with using advances in anti-depressants and tranquilizers. ‘Once cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments.’ This is exactly the sort of world we’re trying to create, the world we want to live in.
“Oh, I know, I know,” Bruno went on, waving his hand as if to dismiss an objection Michel had not voiced. “Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world that we have tried—and so far failed—to create.”