As an admitted Francophile, I’m always looking to enjoy new books by French authors. I look at the beauty of the French language, yet, I know that almost everything more dificult than “Le Petit Prince” is beyond the grasp of my meager language skills. So, I’m always hoping that I can find acceptable English translations. Sometimes, as with Barthes “Incidents” and Foucault’s “History of Madness“, I find the English translation both beautiful and compelling (even if I don’t agree with some of the fundamental premises). Then there is the wonderful Bernard-Henri Levy who I read in both languages and who I think is a rock star. But, I never seem to find French fiction that holds my attention; at least not by anyone still living. Dead French guys have written some great stuff. But I’m looking for modern French fiction to enjoy.
In my seemingly futile attempt to find a French novel to read, I turned to Michel Houellebecq. He is a best-selling author who is considered the most controversial and compelling Euro-novelist since Camus. This sounded like a promising path and so I picked up a copy of his novel ”The Elementary Particles‘. The book was a best seller in France and quite a controversial phenomenon throughout Europe. Sadly, I remain both perplexed and monstrously unfulfilled.
A 2000 New York Times review had this to say: “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.” I have nothing really to add except to say that the last sentence I just quoted sums up my entire view of the 2/3 of the novel I completed before relegating it to the “junk pile”. Repugnant is, in my view, a gross understatement. It is simply crap.
I have read a lot of novels in my day. I’m not the kind of guy who needs a happy ending. I’m not even the kind of guy who insists that a book be inspirational, or meaningful, or profound, or motivating, or even particularly well written. I have no issues with sex and violence. And, to me, even novels that deal with the deep, desperate, alienation of our age can be great works of literature: look at Philip Roth – a man who, to me, can’t write a single bad word. My broad expanse of open-mindedness to literature leaves me room to love books as diverse as Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses“. So it’s not that I have a narrow range of likes. But, with Houellebecq, the line has been crossed. I can’t remember the last book I actually stopped reading in disgust.
I don’t want to give away too much of the, virtually non existent, story. Essentially you have 2 half brothers who are both suffering from the great alienation of the 20th century. One is an introverted physicist. The other…. well… Bruno just hangs out at the French version of the Eselan Institute feeling bad for himself and masturbating into everything he gets near until he gets older, finds a wife, remains unhappy, and masturbates into everything he gets near. Not sure what happens at the end but I imagine that Bruno does something associated with masturbating into everything he gets near (but I’ll never know).
Okay. No story. Add into that some really pitiful dialog (maybe due to the translation???); a whole array of terribly bad Sartre, Camus, Derrida, and Foucault blabber-isms; and a fair chunk of really badly written porn and: VOILA! you have NOTHING!
Did I like anything, you ask? Well… yes. As a child of the 60’s who had my years of yoga, Tai Chi, “Movement Expression”, “Inner Theater” classes, Dalai Lama lectures, Saturday nights at “Dance Home”, Alexander Technique, Whole Life Expos, Feldenkreis, Reichian therapy, Lomi body work, sensory deprivation tanks, aqua-energetics, bioenergetics, meditation, John C. Lilly workshops, and God knows what else – YES, Houellebecq’s descriptions of “New Age” classes and practitioners made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. But a few laughs among crap does not a novel make.
And, why did I stop before reaching the end? Well, lets just say that when characters began to get sexual pleasure from dismembering and torturing others, I decided I’d had enough of the bullshit. I closed the book, chucked it across the room (ask my wife), and decided that my mind was being put to poor use. I have a limited amount of time and I chose not to spend it on badly written, ultraviolent, plotless, porn. Au revoir Michel. You had your chance and you disgust me. QED
You know… Ayn Rand has said that fiction should express the authors deepest held moral values. It should make us see our potential and want to strive to achievement. I love that concept but my own capacity to like, respect, and enjoy fiction stretches far beyond hers. But, there are limits. When your only purpose is to shock and disgust, and when you can’t even do that with plausible characters and properly written prose, you really should try you hand at being something other than a novelist. That’s what I’d suggest for Houellebecq, if “The Elementary Particles” is indicative of his oeuvre.
Give it up dude. On you…. I have.