Riffing on Michel Houellebecq’s Novel The Elementary Particles

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.

“Brave New World Is Our Idea of Heaven” — A Passage from Michel Houellebecq’s Novel The Elementary Particles

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.”