Elementary Particles, The

by Michel Houellebecq


I have done something while reading this book that I very seldom do with a novel — I have pondered. In the last few years I have read dozens of novels, most of them rather serious and hefty (e.g., Tolstoy, DeLillo, McCarthy, Atwood, Saramago, Morrison, etc.), but only a few have provoked me to think like this one did. The others that provoked such thought are: Saramago’s Seeing (see my review), Camus’s The Fall (review), Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf (review), Borges’s Labyrinths (review) and Lindsay’s incomparable A Voyage to Arcturus (review).

That’s some good company for Mr. Houellebecq, and it’s interesting to put his name in that group of “Authors Who Have Made Me Think” because his style is so distinct from theirs. He is the most shocking of the group by a long shot; only Lagerkvist’s misanthropic Dwarf even ventures near the same territory.

As compelling as it is disturbing, as thought-provoking as it is perverted (well maybe not quite that thought-provoking. . . I believe it’s the single most perverted book I’ve ever read), Elementary comprises the parallel stories of two half-brothers who are as isolated from each other as they are from humanity. The book records their struggles to connect with something in life, to find meaning, and it’s not spoiling anything to relate that they fail miserably. Houellebecq relates the story in crisp, workmanlike prose, a style that you understand by the end is highly intentional.

But the real question is: what does this book have in common with all of those books I listed above? What quality of all of them caused me to stop and dwell on certain ideas or passages moreso than in any other novel? It’s not difficult to see a common thread, for all of them deal with the Big Picture of Humanity, with those mysteries and miseries that make us how we are. They search for answers of what we can do and how we can behave in order to avoid suffering. These are the questions that most interest me in life.

Here, Houellebecq addresses these questions in fascinating ways. The characters discuss lots of different philosophers amongst themselves, most notably Aldous Huxley (one of my favorite thinkers) and his principal works. A huge theme of the book is the moral emptiness to which humanity sank with Charles Manson and the Satanists, a movement that (Houellebecq claims) was the natural conclusion to the sexual liberation of the 60s, but which has roots throughout 20th century materialism. Frequently the novel feels like little more than a vehicle for these philosophical ideas, which is unpleasant to notice. In this way it brings another book to mind: Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Somehow Pirsig’s effort seems more original than Houellebecq’s; the latter is really just extending Brave New World to an even more radical extreme.

While the book highly intrigued me, I didn’t love it. The chief reason is the sex. I think I understand the point of it but it still feels really gratuitous. It’s not just me being a prude, because I found the Satanist stuff far more disturbing, yet it fit better thematically than page after page of Bruno’s graphically related sex addiction. Put it this way: I think Houellebecq could have reduced the details of said addiction by 50% or so and I would have been impacted just as much.

A related issue I had was Houellebecq’s tendency to generalize such extreme behavior to the entire gender. He did this equally with men and women, although it was most noticeable regarding Bruno’s perversion, which the narrator routinely implies is typical male behavior. Of course, this was less annoying after the ending; it actually makes sense once you see who’s narrating.

Duncan Richter, a Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Military Institute, has written a wonderful critique of Houellebecq, both engaging and insightful, in which he discusses this novel, specifically the charges of racism, sexual perversion and misanthropy leveled against Houellebecq. He argues persuasively that most of Houellebecq’s works need to be viewed through a comedic lens. And while I have failed to an extent in reading this (in that it seems more gloomy than humorous to me), I still like a lot of what Richter says. For example:

Houellebecq is no misanthrope. This comes out perhaps most clearly in chapter fifteen of The Elementary Particles, in an extended passage on sadism. It is graphic, but quite clearly intended as a shocking portrayal of the depths to which people have sunk. It is not a celebration. The character David di Meola is fictional, but Charles Manson and the Viennese Actionist artists, who killed animals painfully as “performance art,” are real. It is not people that Houellebecq has a problem with, but the inhumanity of so much of life. It is tempting to say of modern life, but he is under no illusions about the lives of nineteenth century peasants. Today we have more freedom, and our desires are satisfied efficiently, but it’s all a bit sterile and lonely. His complaints are familiar communitarian ones about alienation and atomization but, unlike many communitarians, he sees no solution through traditional religion. Like Nietzsche, he does not see how true faith in God is compatible with our faith in science and the empirical method. And a scientific religion, offering immortality through cloning, offers only more life, not more meaning, and a loss of humanity. This is the theme of The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island.

So is there no hope? Not, I think Houellebecq is saying, in the directions that you might think to look. Efficiency, either in terms of bureaucratic rationalization or capitalist free markets, is not a recipe for happiness. Nor is new technology. Nor is old style religion (such as Islam). Nor is casual sex, since we all age and no one wants to swing with the elderly. Yet these are the things that our culture pushes the most. What we really need, of course, is love, the opposite of cruelty and neglect. But this does not guarantee happiness. We might give and give to others only to be neglected in our turn, like Bruno’s grandmother, who dies painfully, alone. This is one reason why so many of the women in The Elementary Particles suffer such horrible fates. Being a paragon of virtue does not save you from the contingencies of biology or the cruelty of others. For the paragon this does not matter, of course, but can we really embrace such a selfless ideal? Houellebecq poses the question, and suggests that as well as virtue we need the goodwill of others, but it is not all we need.

Richter’s article really opened my eyes to what Houellebecq was trying to do here, because my first impression was that he was seriously proposing ending our species. I’m embarrassed to admit that, since it now seems obvious that he’s critiquing this position, just as Huxley did in his day (after all — duh — the world-changing technological innovation is conceived by a man totally divorced from humanity and incapable of love).

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I like this book (it also has that in common with the list of the opening paragraph). I still don’t quite love it because it was uneven and all the sex was tedious. But the ideas are strong, as well as the supporting structure. In fact, I am sufficiently intrigued to read The Possibility of an Island, for which Mr. Houellebecq can cordially thank Prof. Richter.


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