Smashing “The Elementary Particles”: A very biased commentary on why Michel Houellebecq’s writing is worse than repugnant.

Posted: July 7, 2012 in Experiences, My moral code
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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.

  1. Mr. Marville says:

    Having read both Elementary Particles and Atlas Shrugged, I have to say both are good books. From the beginning on Elementary Particles succeeds in describing the sense of loneliness and social atomism that hangs over the postmodern, post-industrial Western society.

    Michel bought a canary bird. Ever day before eating, he nurtured it, but alas as all things it died. He wrapped the bird-corpse in a plastic bag and threw it down the shoot. What else was he supposed to do with it? From now one he got home and ate.

    It really captivates the world of today so well – there is no loyalty to anything. The world is completely reframed in terms of the consumer’s wishes. A vacuous, desolate atmosphere is what remains, and one that clogs all potential human relationships. We are aware that we die and our narcissist selves -carefully cultivated by the consumption-society – seek eternal youth, seek oblivion of mortality death. We cannot have eternal youth and so we seek the eternal rouse of the sexual encounter.

    The atomism that Houllebecq describes is also perceived in Atlas Shrugged. Dagny tosses herself around between Francisco, Hank and John with no strings attached. It’s like a universal alpha-male jungle where they are all acceptant of “okay, she met one who is still more talented than I am. Off she goes now to the next best in rank.” Then, the portrayal of Houllebecq of humanity is infinitely more accurate.

    Compare Houllebecq to Ayn Rand, and the bottom line is that there will always be more money in selling booze, dope, sex and flimsy gadgets to the masses (Huxley style) than in working out something grandiose that will go underappreciated in its own time (for taking too much excercize of rational and creative faculties properly comprehend). Thus, capitalism employed on the scale of the mass-society works towards abolishing the cultural preconditions that were necessary for a culture of heroism, excellence and self-mastery to flourish in the first place.

    This is a fact that Ayn Rand doesn’t have the courage to admit, whereas Houllebecq does.

    Of course Rand’s main point, that collectivist government involvement stifles individual entrepreneurship, is valid. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We are talking about bringing the most Majestic products of Western civilization back to rouses. My brother’s girlfriend studies something related to maths and economics that supposedly delivers the future millionaires. I borrowed her an excellent book that describes Bertrand Russell’s quest to uncover the foundation of mathematic truths, in comic form even. And she said it didn’t captivate her before she was even a quarter into it. The days that our elites were supposed to make Western civilization their own before they were deemed worthy to be our elites are long past.

    It’s exactly as Houllebecq describes. We DO live in a collective Western suicide.

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