Monday, September 19, 2005

Book #29: The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

Perhaps I am an idiot. I don't understand why Houellebecq is constantly compared to Camus in reviews of this book. Both men are French and interested in ethics, but that's where the comparisons end. Houellebecq is more similar to Celine in his repulsion towards society and overriding disgust with humanity, but his muse is Nietzsche, pure and simple.

The half-brothers of this book, Michel and Bruno, appear to represent Nietzsche's intellect and physicality, respectively. Michel is barely in the world, a mostly asexual scientist who will ultimately destroy mankind in favor of an immortal, psychologically-superior über-man. He is interested (vaguely) in the world, but his opinions (which he mostly keeps to himself) revolve around the causes of pain, sex, and death, to which he blames uncertainty in an overly liberal, overly permissive society. His primary model is Bruno, a former teacher with a raging sex addiction. Bruno longs to be an alpha male, bringing his will to power to bear on the world around him, but he is instead a sad sack, constantly hesitating at crucial moments or acting out his fantasies inappropriately. He achieves happiness during the novel when he meets another sex addict, Christaine, at an intentionally grotesque hippy-dippy retreat, and travels with her to a permissive sex retreat that would inspire de Sade.

Both brothers were abandoned by their criminally negligent mother, a self-obsessed proto-hippie, and were raised by their grandmothers on their fathers' side. Both tend to give speeches rather than communicate, a writing tic somewhat explained by the epilogue (perhaps they are intentionally bad, but perhaps they are just a problem with Houellebecq's writing - I reserve judgment), as are the somewhat funny asides throughout the prose (such as a digression on mating rituals in rats juxtaposed with Michel's crucial inability to kiss the young woman who loves him).

Despite the graphic descriptions of sex and late 20th century anomie, the novel has the sensibility of an earlier age. Each brother tells his history in the type of detail often found in Victorian novels and there's a distinct pre-modern feel in all of the interactions, as if realism never happened in fiction, which is carried through to the sudden sci-fi ending, more like the jarring early fantasy-based sci-fi of H.P. Lovecraft or H.G. Wells rather than the modernist-influenced, "realistic" sci-fi of the 20th century.

My understanding is that this novel was quite controversial in France when it was published 8 years ago, which sort of makes sense, given its unrelenting assault on the state of emotional lives in the modern world, but sort of doesn't, given that most of Houellebecq's points have been around for over a century, given his tendency to echo Nietzsche and Celine. Houellebecq is also apparently playing the literary bad-boy to the hilt in interviews, but I really could not care less about the guy himself. Hm, I think I'm out of comments about the book, so I'll leave it here.

The only review I've thus far read that a) doesn't resort to hyperbolic rhetoric and b) has a grasp of literary history. I'm deeply disappointed in the NY Times reviewers in particular, but also saddened that J. Hoberman's review in the Village Voice was so much weak tea.


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