At this point in history, it‘s hard to term anyhing so old-fashioned as a novel ”shocking.“ What a novel can still be, though, is annoying — and, given the ruckus it has raised in Europe, French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles would appear to be just that. Less a novel than a novel mixture of fiction and essay, the book is extravagantly opinionated and pessimistic and, at times, extremely funny. Even as you wonder if the entire thing isn‘t an inspired practical joke, you feel there is something authentically desperate about it too — the novelistic equivalent of a gambler betting his fortune on a single card. Houellebecq has stated that his main fear after finishing a book is that no one will ever talk to him again. If so, he hasn’t let it cramp his style.
With his second novel before us, Houellebecq‘s first novel, Whatever, can now be seen as a reliable indicator of what was to come. A dyspeptic account of two morose computer programmers on a business trip, Whatever expressed a kind of raw loathing for contemporary life that was wonderfully bracing, a precise distillation of one’s blackest moods. This was an author who wasn‘t afraid to wear his pessimism on his sleeve.
The same is true of the new book, only more so. The Elementary Particles is the story of half brothers Bruno and Michel, who were abandoned in infancy by their hip French mother who had once ”danced to bebop at Tabou with Jean-Paul Sartre“ and later emigrated to Big Sur, where ”something radical was happening.“ With the mother’s first and second husbands showing an equal lack of interest in their respective offspring, Bruno and Michel are brought up by different grandparents for whom absolutely nothing radical is happening but who do put food on the table.
After surviving a fairly miserable childhood, Bruno eventually becomes a teacher and sometime writer who frequents sex clubs, masturbates on trains and, when he isn‘t hospitalized for depression, spends most of his life in an obsessive pursuit of women. Michel, his polar opposite in almost all respects, grows up to be a brilliant scientist who is largely uninterested in bodily pleasure. He lives most of his life in near isolation eating frozen dinners, taking antidepressants, pondering the big questions and studying department-store catalogs. One of his scientific discoveries, we are told in the book’s prologue, ushers in the birth of the post-human and a new era of world history. The Elementary Particles thus purports to be a novel written sometime in the future by a committee of our genetically engineered successors in an effort to demonstrate just how horrible the world was in the ”good old days.“
No doubt this explains the book‘s sometimes eerily cosmic tone and sweeping sociological assertions, not to mention its willingness to give offense. In France, as has been extensively reported, the book caused an uproar such as few novels, The Satanic Verses aside, can still provoke. Among other sins, it was attacked for being racist, homophobic and pro-eugenicist, as well as for favoring the extinction of the human race, and — and this is probably the crux of the matter — pissing all over the cultural revolution of the class of ’68. (In spite of all this, the book has sold 300,000 copies.) And, in fact, there is much here to infuriate the generation that taught the world not to trust anyone over 30. ”Their generation was about to make a dramatic shift,“ Houellebecq writes in a key passage about the 1960s, ”substituting the tragedy of death with the more general humiliation of old age.“ In a world in which only youth is revered and change is valued for its own sake, life, according to Houellebecq, rapidly becomes unbearable. Once age becomes humiliation rather than universally shared tragedy (the human condition), the only escape is to design a genetically engineered society in which such painful humiliation can be avoided.
In other words, Brave New World. Houellebecq‘s novel is haunted by Huxley. (Several of the ex-hippies in the book boast of having met Huxley in California.) As Bruno tells Michel,
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 age, the leisure society. That is precisely the world that we have tried — and so far failed — to create.
It‘s on those attempts at creating a more perfect world that much of Houellebecq’s novel is focused — particularly as it pertains to the winners and losers in the sexual free market. Despite his avowed revulsion, the author is so fascinated by consumerism and the idea of the ”leisure class“ that he allows his book to become lopsided. Though it is intended to be primarily about Michel — the man whose scientific discovery brings about the third great ”metaphysical mutation“ after the rise of Christianity and the cult of individuality — Houellebecq is clearly more interested in Bruno.
Much of the middle portion of the book is taken up by an account of Bruno‘s stay at a New Age nudist resort, where classes in sensual massage, orgone therapy, astrology, tarot, chakras, Siberian shamanism and tantric Zen serve to disguise the fact that this is essentially a place to get laid. The generation of the ’60s, having once promoted youth above all but now inhabiting aging bodies that fill them with self-loathing, is here held up to the most withering scrutiny.
There is comedy, too. During a New Age workshop in which participants pen odes to Mother Earth and Father Sun and ”the only halfway decent babe“ writes ”a nauseating poem about moon-sheep,“ Bruno‘s own contribution begins: ”Taxi drivers are fucking cuntsThey never stop, the little runts.“ But for all its brutality and cruel descriptions of the physically unattractive (accurately mirroring the brutality of the prevailing body cult), this section shows Houellebecq at his most tender and heartfelt. There is some real and unfashionable concern here about the price paid for sexual liberation by castoff middle-aged women; even more surprisingly, it is in this section that Bruno, now 42 and openly youth-besotted, comes close to finding something like love with a woman his own age.
Not that it lasts. Almost everyone in the book meets with a bad end, suicide being the death of choice. Houellebecq takes potshots at all sorts of people and things in this book — hence the broad array of charges against him — but his most consistent target is the relentless atomization (in Britain, the book was translated as Atomised) of society. ”It is interesting to note,“ he writes in one section,
that the ”sexual revolution“ is usually portrayed as a communist utopia, whereas, in fact, it was simply another stage in the rise of the individual. As the lovely phrase ”hearth and home“ suggests, the couple and the family would be the last bastion of primitive communism in a liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy this last unit . . .
Saul Bellow once wrote that the first duty of the intellectual is to state the obvious. Much of what Houellebecq has to say in this book is, in fact, deeply obvious — and can be legitimately criticized for being so. But, given the uproar it has caused, it’s evident that stating the obvious is precisely what few other novelists seem to be doing. Here one must also salute Houellebecq‘s sure narrative pace — the book is a page-turner — as well as his moving descriptions of loneliness, childhood cruelty, sexual frustration, social anomie and our inability to connect with any belief system that might take us beyond ourselves. Above all, his descriptions of the world as it is feel precise and real.
There’s a paragraph near the end of the book that illustrates this nicely. Michel has just arrived in Ireland after being hired by a man named Walcott to work for a company there. Walcott picks Michel up at Shannon airport and gives him a little introduction to the area:
[Walcott] turned on the windshield wipers and started the engine. ”Most of them around here are Catholics,“ he said. ”Well, that‘s all changing now. Ireland is coming into the modern world. Quite a few hi-tech companies have set up here to take advantage of the tax breaks and the low social-security payments. Round here, there’s Roche and Lilly. And Microsoft, of course; every kid in the country dreams of working for Microsoft. People don‘t go to mass as much as they used to, there’s more sexual freedom than there was a couple of years ago, there are more nightclubs, more antidepressants. The classic story . . .“
Indeed. And Houellebecq has put it down on paper.