Swans Commentary » swans.com July 18, 2011  



A Novel Of Atoms And Small Minds


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Houellebecq, Michel: The Elementary Particles, Vintage, 2001, translated by Frank Wynne, ISBN-10:0375727019, 379 pages. (The UK title is Atomised.)


"Inconsequential, shallow and ridiculous—such is Man."
—Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles, page 205.


(Swans - July 18, 2011)   In the novel The Elementary Particles we watch main characters cavort who are convinced that it would have been better not to have been born. One of them calls his dying mother a slut. The other devotes a life of scientific work to bringing humanity to an end. Surely future historians will be intrigued by this attitude shared by other eminent writers of our relatively comfortable Western present. Samuel Beckett was categoric: "The only sin is the sin of being born." (Proust, page 49.) Thomas Bernhard advises people to mark their birthdays by "a memorial hour for the monstrous deed their progenitors had committed against them." (Old Masters, page 89.) The Elementary Particles, intones on page 201, "For a man to bring a child into the world now is meaningless." These authors are not small-time scribblers. Michel Houellebecq has just won the Prix Goncourt and some French critics consider him their country's best living novelist. Beckett's Nobel Prize was only the beginning of his worldwide acclaim. A critic calls the Austrian Bernhard's work "The most significant literary achievement since World War II." (Dale Peck, The New York Times, December 24, 2010.)

Authors argue their personal case through the characters they animate. Houellebecq claims his feckless mother threw him away as a baby. Beckett's mother so overpowered him he literally had trouble breathing until she died. So there was no love, or the wrong kind of love or, with Bernhard, outright mutual hatred between child and parent. It will be up to those future historians to determine how much the mother bugaboo furnished a cover story for flaws too pervasive in our liberal societies to have a name. An old chestnut says the Inuit have no one word for snow.

Michel Houellebecq published his novel La carte et le territoire in 2010 to some fanfare, and the English translation will be out in September 2011. But to get the drift of this writer we should first read his The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq believes that society is now divided into atoms, everyone on his own. The "particules" of the original French title are subatomic. The author has a foible for metaphors that toady to science, but the novel-reader shouldn't be intimidated by his mumbo-jumbo. Houellebecq began to write inspired by the twisted fantasies of H. P. Lovecraft and like that worthy he regularly dons a white lab coat to impress us with his gravity. These pretensions can be funny. Here's the author reporting on the arrival of a house fly on somebody's face:

Diptera can be recognized by the fact that they have a single pair of membranous wings at the second thoracic ring, a pair of balancing antennae (to stabilize flight) on the third thoracic ring and a proboscis which pierces or sucks. (Page 312)

But Houellebecq knows that novels are about people. He especially knows that the best sellers he aims to write are no place to investigate quantum physics or molecular biology. Science can't be more than scenic background, wallpaper of sorts. A novelist can also, as Houellebecq regularly does, create a character inept at human interrelations and explain his emotional emptiness by making him a scientist.

The novelist, who studied agronomics, i.e., dirt farming, also fancies himself a philosopher of history or at least a sociologist. His social commentary, however, proves consistently lightweight (Page 79): "France in the 1970s was marked by the controversy surrounding Phantom of the Paradise, A Clockwork Orange and Les Valseuses..." Did two American and one French movie actually shake the decade up more than the relaxation of the divorce laws and the legalization of abortion? Giscard d'Estaing would be surprised that the novelist failed to notice the social unrest that marked his seven-year presidency and prepared the victory of the left in 1981.

On the other hand, Houellebecq's long-term history is all too ponderous. He feels we have moved into a new era. There was the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Age of Materialism, and now, well, the age of Houellebecq. An O-tempora-o-mores lament accompanies his fiction like a monotonous bass fiddle (Page 81):

It would be true to say that in the last years of Western civilization it [the question of the value of human life] contributed to a general mood of depression bordering on masochism. (Page 81)

But the depression with which he stifles our whole world would seem to be largely his own. Never mind the slide rule and graph on the lab wall, the hard kernel of Houellebecq's existence is right here. The Elementary Particles in essence tells the story of two half brothers who blame their hippie mother's irresponsibility for ruining their lives. The novelist in his surgical cap tells us on page 68: "Male rats deprived of maternal contact during infancy exhibit serious disturbances in sexual behavior, especially in mating rituals."

The Elementary Particles will be in the main a description of these disturbances. Such is the deeply felt part of the novel. But intensity of feeling doesn't guarantee truth. One concerned reader, Houellebecq's mother, Lucie Ceccaldi, called her son a liar. In her book the 83-year-old threatened to knock his teeth out with her walking stick. (L'Innocente, Scali, Paris, 2008, ISBN: 9782350122564, 400 pages).

The character Michel will be the scientist incapable of emotional rapport. Bruno, his half brother, can only make contact with others through sex at which he, alas, is all thumbs. Both experience spells of madness, exist on the frantic margins, and end up alone, admitting to themselves that they are incapable of love.

The brothers and their creator have no doubt about who is to blame. Their despised mother is pictured as a fairy-tale ogre. As babies she farmed them out to their two grandmothers, and the aging Flower Child went off to spread the 1960s' good news of liberation. (La Ceccaldi was in fact a convinced Communist working in the ex-colonies as an obstetrician.)

Houellebecq shouldn't be considered a misogynist. Rather, he sees woman as all good or all bad. The grannies, creatures predating 1968, are solid gold. Some third millennial females are heavenly too. The beautiful Annabelle who loved Michel as a boy finally catches up to him, all generosity, at forty. But though the scientist appreciates her body heat, he remains at bottom unresponsive and incapable of returning her sentiments. It's mom's fault.

Bruno never manages to get his head out of a wet dream. He's not so much a slave of love as a Stakhanovite of bad sex. Blame that New-Age Mom. After an assiduous career of masturbation, Bruno meets his ideal sexual partner. Christiane is always ready with eager orifices and tender fingers. The original failed rapist has met the prototypal handmaiden. But -- tragedy -- she succumbs to over-enthusiasm in a wife-swapping get-together. Will Bruno look after his dream woman now that her charms are confined to a wheelchair? In a word, no. But when she commits suicide he's terribly torn up and full of guilt. Why can't he love? It all goes back to 1968 and you-know-who.

It's fitting that the two brothers kibitz over their mother's deathbed. In fact, mortality has saturated their thinking throughout. Both of them are saddled with the author's "mood of depression bordering on masochism." They can't contemplate anyone out of short pants without noting his physical decline. Michel couches this in the impersonal language of science while down-in-the-gutter Bruno measures shrinking genitalia and sperm falloff. They finally have their mom where they want her, on her back, and unlike Lucie Ceccaldi incapable of riposte. Bruno tells her, on page 307, "You're just an old whore," and you "deserve to die." He asks "jovially": "Do you want to be cremated?". Michel, too flaccid emotionally to insult anybody, plays the cool man of science, reflecting, "She wanted to be with young people, certainly not her kids who just reminded her that she was part of an older generation." (Page 308)

Padded like cotton around the dramatic contortions of two vindictive sons is Houellebecq's depiction of where our societies have got to. This allows him to indulge in endless pages investigating liberated sexual mores (which he pushes to the edge of pornography), and more generally to consider the isolated (atomized) life of contemporary man. What's intriguing about these long stretches of low intensity writing is Houellebecq's ambiguity. At times he solemnly attributes the new evils to the collapse of religion and the demise of traditional life and its classic family. At others he appears to relish his own atom of bachelor existence. He likes slumping over a single-portion precooked gourmet meal from the supermarket while watching TV personalities he despises. Likewise with sex: the increasingly commodified product suits him, and he has dreamy moments envisioning something like Fourier's carefree sexual Eden.

At novel's end, three of the four key figures have committed suicide and the survivor, Bruno, is in an insane asylum. Michel the scientist has checked out after a brilliant streak of rolling molecules around like dice in a winning crap game.

The tacked-on epilogue continues the ambiguity. H. P. "Pappy" Lovecraft takes the wheel and the reader who has slogged through 350 pages of a "realistic" Paris-and-provinces novel suddenly finds himself in a speedy sci-fi rocket. It's 2079 for fuck sake! Michel, despite the scars left by maternal neglect, turns out to have been up there with Einstein. Sloganized as "the Revolution will not be mental, but genetic," his research has got rid of humanity in favor of "a new species which was asexual and immortal, a species that had outgrown individuality, individuation and progress." (Page 371) Hey presto! Cloning ends the need for mothers, hippie or straight stay-at-homes.

But what exactly did Houellebecq's harshest critic think of all this? In an interview of 2008 Mama Lucie said her son knew nothing at all about science, lusted only after money, and since boyhood had been in a blue funk about growing old. (The Guardian, May 7, 2008) Considering these homely facts we are inclined to peek behind the big talk of historical epochs -- he read too much Auguste Comte -- and the names of physicists dropped ad infinitum like a string of yawns. Back there in the shadows we can just make out a figure who would join Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front national if the old Vichyite wasn't so vulgar and if Houellebecq could ever bring himself to join in anything at all with other human beings.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 18, 2011