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




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 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.

Amerika — Franz Kafka


I had a (very, very minor) Kafkaesque moment when Mark Harman’s new translation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished first novel, Amerika first arrived at Biblioklept International Headquarters. Wanting to compare the style of Harman’s translation to Edwin and Willa Muir’s work, I searched for my old copy of Amerika. I figured I’d re-read the first chapter, “The Stoker,” the only part of the novel that Kafka reworked (it was published as a short story). So I looked and looked and it turns out that I don’t own Amerika, despite the obligatory Kafka phase I went through in high school (followed by a post-bac Kafka phase years later). But I knew I’d read “The Stoker,” or at least it seemed likely that I’d read “The Stoker,” and it turned up in a collection of Kafka’s short stories that I own–only it was the Donna Freed translation. So I re-read it, only I’m not sure that I was re-reading it. I didn’t remember any of it, other than the famous opening image of a Statue of Liberty armed with a sword. I’m still not sure that I ever read it before now; that is, I’m not sure that I read the Muir translation that Harman seeks to amend. I guess it doesn’t matter, and it seems appropriate that a Kafka review begin with a meandering false start. Where were we?

Yes. Harman’s translation. With Amerika, Harman continues a project he initiated with his translation of another unfinished Kafka novel, The Castle. (This book was published in 1998, and I listened to the audio book last summer, incidentally, and it was really, really good). Harman’s translations aim to restore some of the humor, ambiguity, and modernism that the Muirs’ early translations occlude in favor of their own religious readings. Harman also takes great pains to remove Max Brod’s editorial interventions, even going as far as to keep many of Kafka’s consistent solecisms (“Oklahoma” is restored to Kafka’s original – and consistent – “Oklahama”). Now, my Kafkaesque confusion over whether or not I’ve read the Muirs’ translation of Amerika prevents me from commenting here on Harman’s apparent restoration of Kafka’s humor, but I do think that Amerika is often funny, and often terrifying. Its protagonist Karl finds himself in a parallel-universe America (one constructed wholly from Kafka’s imagination, and announced in its surreal glory from the opening image of a Statue of Liberty armed with sword), one where he’s consistently misled, swindled, cornered, cramped, and generally mistreated by various enigmatic authority figures (yes, its Kafkaesque, if you’ll allow the tautology). As noted, Kafka never finished writing the book (or any of his three novels, for that matter), and Harman makes no attempt to reconcile the plot, opting instead to simply reproduce (in frank English, of course) the words Kafka wrote.

Amerika is not the starting place for those new to Kafka’s work–I would suggest readers who weren’t turned off by their high school English teacher’s inept bungling of The Metamorphosis start with a collection of the short stories. However, I think Harman’s translation is not only essential for fans who wish to rediscover an old favorite, I also believe that it will quickly become the definitive translation. It’s modern and terse and funny, and it also pays subtle respect to the dialogic interplay between Karl’s point of view and that of the omniscient narrator, often creating moments of intense and delicious irony. Reading a translation of Kafka focusing on his oft-neglected humor brought to mind the late great David Foster Wallace’s essay, “A Series of Remarks on the Funniness of Kafka, from Which Not Enough Has Been Removed” (read it here or get the mp3 of DFW reading it here). Here is Wallace, explaining why American undergrads don’t get Kafka’s humor:

And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get — the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.

Wallace’s observation stealthily acknowledges why the heroes of Amerika and The Trial and The Castle never get to where they’re going, why Kafka could never wrap up his big stories. Kafka, the first modern writer, embraced the “horrific struggle” of humanity and never sought easy reconciliation or pat conclusions. Harman’s new translation brings this critical aspect of Kafka’s writing to the fore, and he achieves this in the most simplistic manner: unobtrusively letting Kafka’s words stand on their own. Recommended.

Amerika is now available from Schocken Books.