Elementary, My Dear Watson

Elementary, My Dear Watson

I recently read Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles. The fact that I’m only now writing a review about a book that was first published in France in 1998 clearly demonstrates how far behind the times I am. Perhaps sometimes late is better than never. Additionally, in an effort to have the following be mine alone, I skipped reading any reviews on the book until after I finished writing this. In other words, what you’re getting is all me, which is a ham-handed way of preemptively acknowledging shortcomings, inaccuracies and fallacies in reasoning and analysis. 

The reviews slathered across and inside the covers of this book insist that this is a “novel of ideas.” That there are ideas aplenty I will not debate; that this is a novel is worthy of question. 

The story’s presentation is a framework story, or, loosely, a framework within a framework, double-panes apparently being preferable for keeping out those dreary Parisian winters. From the outside in we are presented with a mysterious and never-explained narrator, pane one, who tells us about Hubczejak, pane two, who at some point in the early-2010’s compiled and championed the works of Michel Djerzinski, a molecular biologist who worked from the 1960’s-2000’s. Djerzinski’s ideas of altering the human genome eventually led to the creation of the nameless narrator, who, beyond simply being the next step in human evolution, is also both purely rational and immortal. How this narrator, twice removed, came to know and be capable of narrating the details of the stories contained in this book is, like the notion of the desirability of pure rationality, taken for granted; even less time is spent discussing the appeal of immortality. Never mind. Largely, the story follows Michel and his half-brother, Bruno, through France from the 60’s through the 90’s, an era Houellebecq presents as an ever declining fall into a chasm of more vacuity. 

To question if this is a novel it seems essential first to define one. Being sympathetic to the medium I see no need for limiting definitions; in addition, plenty of academics draw their paychecks from such concerns, and who am I to try and steal their thunder? Still, I see several options, the first being the presentation of interesting, complicated, unique and well-rounded Characters, none of whom, sadly, had the time to stop by during the writing of this book. Michel is a cold, distant academic for reasons we never comprehend—he’s oddly less-understandable than the theories of physics strewn throughout. Bruno is Michel’s opposite, a wanna-be sexual slugger whose reasonings we hear all too much about in endless backstories, none of which serve to depict him as anything other than a phallus shoving itself toward the nearest hole. 

In fact, since Houellebecq is grinding axes rather than developing characters, in his hands Bruno has to become more than just a phallus: he must develop into a would-be pederast and an outright racist on his ever-declining path toward epitomizing everything terrible in society. That such a conception of 20th-Century man-as-hankering-penis is Houellebecq’s point is all too clear; that such a notion may be true is extremely debatable, both in its validity as well as its applicability solely to our current days; that such a man, or many men, can be found does nothing to substantiate Houellebecq’s implications that all men in society are such. To think that such irredeemability of character might be interesting, to say nothing about pleasurable, is beyond me.

At one point the narrator wonders the following, which is revelatory for two reasons: first, I imagine if you start with such an idea you’re almost forced to arrive at characters as flat as Bruno and Michel; second, and more curiously, what type of author would choose to spend time with such people? 

“Was it possible to think of Bruno as an individual? The decay of his organs was particular to him, and he would suffer his decline and death as an individual. On the other hand, his hedonistic worldview and the forces that shaped his consciousness and desires were common to an entire generation. Just as determining the apparatus for an experiment and choosing one or more observables made it possible to assign a specific behavior to an atomic system—now wave, now particle—so could Bruno be seen as an individual, or, from another point of view, as passively caught up in the sweep of history. His motives, values and desires did not distinguish him from his contemporaries in any way.”

As for women—forget about it. You’ve got more chance of finding a developed female character in a Tarantino movie (the odds of which, at last count, were hovering somewhere around 1.37%) The two women present, Annabelle and Christiane, are ultimately little more than the sexual holes Bruno’s (and others’) penis is perpetually seeking to penetrate, which makes paragraphs such as the following not simply highly disputable but oddly discordant:

“… women were indisputably better than men. They were gentler, more affectionate, loving and compassionate; they were less prone to violence, selfishness, cruelty or self-centeredness. Moreover, they were more rational, intelligent, and hardworking.”

Women are praised for greater compassion, though in Houellebecq’s hands women’s compassion seems only to take the form of relenting to male sexual advances. Some may find the fact that both women commit suicide once they become sexually undesirable an insightful analysis of the pressures upon modern women; to me it only felt heavy-handed and absurdly fatalistic. 

Of course, if women are so elevated, the opposite must be true of men, a line of thinking that rests on what I imagine could best be called the Gorilla View of Human Behavior:

“In reality, men don’t give a damn about their kids, they never really love them. In fact, I’d say men aren’t capable of love; the emotion is completely alien to them. The only emotions they know are desire—in the form or pure animal lust—and male rivalry.”

Let me assert that upon reading that I felt, in addition to lust and rivalry, annoyance, frustration and impatience with such absurd reductions. 

What then about Plot? There’s plenty of story here, but what makes a story—any story: a novel, a news article, a TV program, a fairy tale—grip and engage us? Conflict, tension between things, something that has traditionally existed in one of the following ways: conflict between characters, conflict within-characters, and conflict between characters-and-the-world/nature. Again, sadly we get none of these.

The one place where there could have been conflict—between Michel and the vapidity of the social world around him, a conflict that possibly could have motivated him to rebel and develop genetic practices to forward evolution beyond our current state—is completely skipped over, subsumed under the umbrella of Michel’s impenetrable distance. Instead, we’re left with Bruno’s endless tales of being overlooked by women, which is to dramatic conflict what a vestigial tale is to the body: a needless addition whose removal alters nothing. (The only interesting part of Bruno’s bestial boorishness might have been their sexual lasciviousness. However, despite all the sexual frankness such scenes are really quite dulling, which is an issue of language we’ll discuss in a moment.) 

The main remaining novelistic device is Language. It’s true that some masters have managed to write so well that their usage of language brings more pleasure than what happens with and to their characters. I’m think here of Beckett, in whose stories and plays frequently next to nothing occurs; despite this, people continue to perform Waiting for Godot. Sadly, Houellebecq is not one of these writers, and where in Beckett (or Nabokov, or Faulkner, or Proust) language soars overhead long and graceful as a stunt plane at an air show, in Houellebecq we get all too much of the following:

“Bruno and Rudi took turns penetrating Hannelore while she licked Christiane’s vagina, before getting the women to swap positions. Then Hannelore fellated Bruno. She had a beautiful body, buxom but firm and visibly toned through regular exercise. She sucked very sensitively.”

“At about the age of thirteen, progesterone and estrogen secreted by the ovaries in a girl’s body produce pads of fatty tissue around the breasts and buttocks. When perfectly formed, these organs have a round, full, pleasing aspect and produce violent arousal in the male.”

“Sexual frustration in the human male manifests itself as a violent contraction in the lower abdomen as the sperm seems to back up, and pangs shoot toward the chest. The penis itself is painful, constantly hot and slightly sweaty; Bruno had not masturbated since Sunday, which probably had been a mistake. The last remaining myth of Western civilization was that sex was something to do; something expedient, a diversion.”

“…he was surprised to discover that he could get a hard-on and even ejaculate inside the researcher’s vagina without feeling the slightest pleasure.” 

That makes two of us. 

All of those examples are sexual in nature, for the simple reason that this book is composed of three things: Ideas, which we’ll discuss in a moment, narrative descriptions that move character A to point B, and Sex. We’ll come back to Houellebecq’s complicated and conflicting views on sex in a moment, but first there are a couple points to be made: the reality is that writing about sex is extremely difficult. Imagine for a moment you want to narrate a couple having sex: what verbs do you use? Thrust, penetrate, rampump, hammer, slamnailinsert… And those are only a short list of verbs: consider the noun to be used for a man’s penis—is it his cock, dick, penis, member, organ, Johnson…? We squirm and shudder, quickly, for sex writing is not only the one area where the harlequin has, with few exceptions, outpaced the literary, but where choices of language so immediately alter the tone and feeling of the story. There’s a chasmic difference between the following sentences: He inserted his penis into her vagina and He thrust his cock into her pussy.

Houellebecq’s choice of language—factual descriptions that typically fall mid-range between the anatomical and the lurid—is a safe bet, but in settling for safety he also sacrifices not simply the erotic, but the interesting. For all the pages of Sex, rarely did I feel anything that even bordered on arousal. I presume Houellebecq’s emphatically factual descriptions are done to emphasize his critique of sex’s overabundance and everywhereness, of, ultimately, the banality of sex in modern culture. Still, did he have to sound so much like Attenborough describing oxen coupling? Houellebecq’s approach here reminded me a lot of Brett Easton Ellis in American Psycho, which, despite not being an “idea(s) novel,” was both better written and a far more convincing and critical analysis of society.

Ultimately, what I think underpins Houellebecq’s choice of language around sex, as well as the joylessness of that very language, is his understanding of the subject of Sex, which likely lands somewhere right in the middle of the following two passages:

“Sexual pleasure—the most intense feeling of which human beings are capable…”

and

“… sexuality would be seen for what it really was: a useless, dangerous and regressive function.”

Well then.

As far as Ideas, which the critics on the book jacket were so gaga about—

“A novel on the grand scale…”

“A look through his (Houellebecq’s) eyes can permanently change how we view things that happened in our own lives”

and, my favorite,

“Intelligent people should soon be divided into those who have and haven’t read it yet.”

—let me confirm that Yes, there are ideas in this book. Lots of them. Sometimes they’re handled nicely and thoughtfully, a welcome addition to far too much fiction. That too much literature has moved away from contemplating the human condition to entertaining it is a sad fact, for several reasons, not least of which is that as entertainment it’s far less consumable (and entertaining) than other media, specifically television/film. That Houellebecq chose to engage modern physics, biology and philosophy is great; but in truth praising him for doing so seems a lot like commending a plumber for properly installing a flush valve: after all, examining the human condition is part of a novelist’s job description. Where he falls short is the delivery, for all too frequently the Ideas land heavy and plodding, predictable jabs punched straight at the chin. 

Eugenics got a bad rap under the Nazi’s, Michel coldly notes, and that’s both an historical understatement and a truth worth reconsidering. That we as a species will fiddle with our genomes in efforts to improve our lot appears inevitable; putting aside technical complications and moral questions, there’s something obviously desirable in the idea: who wouldn’t want to alter future humans to be resistant to cancer or AIDS, nearsightedness and HPV?? What undercuts Houellebecq’s presentation of this and other Ideas, sadly, is an absence of the things mentioned above: developed characters, engaging language, dramatic plot. Houellebecq’s future-spanning solution of speeding up evolution via manipulating the human genome is never convincingly examined, let alone explained. Where there should be wrestling with Ideas instead there’s all too much griping about contemporary moral laxity, as if Houellebecq were an offended PTA schoolmarm, and finally a fast-forwarded ending to a never-detailed future where everything that’s bad today is righted. Surely there’s more to Ideas, as well as Literary Ideas, than this. 

Curiously, for all the philosophers and Big Ideas discussed in this book, one whose theories go completely unmentioned is Marx. We get several of the big Germans—Kant and Hegel and Husserl—but not Marx, possibly because, out of all of those just mentioned, he was most concerned with material reality, and in Houellebecq’s approach material reality, like a comprehensive understanding of sex, appears too complicated even to address. Instead we get abstractions such as the following: 

“Human behavior is predetermined in principle in almost all of its actions and offers few choices, of which fewer still are taken.” 

The validity of that statement can be debated; what is beyond doubt is that in writing a story such limitations are able to be transcended. Sadly, Houellebecq chose to overlook that opportunity, or, more aptly, he took his own comments far too literally.  

I don’t find much use for genre-determiners, but I hope I’ve shown that I don’t think much of this as literature, and by failing to spool beyond general concepts into specificity it refrains from developing into science-fiction. When Ideas are juggled they’re handled all too quickly, as if holding them for more than a moment might burn the fingertips. For its part, Humanity is examined equally quickly and obliquely. Ultimately, this book lands in the vein of Camus or Sartre, writers whose books often function far better as propaganda than art; that is, stories in which characters are little more than pawns for their masters’ pre-determined ideas, ideas whose conclusions are presented as comprehensive and definitive when typically they’re as easily dismissed as whipped cream is slipped from atop a slice of pie. 

Is this a novel?, is of course a silly question. Is this a novel you should read?, however, is far less silly, as well as much more easily answered. After nearly 300-pages, The Elementary Particles most often feels like a wordy encyclopedia entry written by a precocious and sexually malnourished teen. 

Midway through the story, Michel and Bruno discuss Aldous Huxley, whose Brave New World underpins a lot of the countercultural, sexually libertine situations throughout the book. Bruno’s comments seem to me far more prescient for describing Houellebecq than Huxley: 

“Oh, Huxley was a terrible writer, I admit. His writing is pretentious and clumsy, his characters are bland ciphers, but he had one vital premonition: he understood that for centuries our evolution of human society had been linked to scientific and technological progress and would continue to be more and more so. He may have lacked style or finesse or psychological insight, but that’s insignificant compared with the accuracy of the original concept.”

If only we’d gotten more of the original concept (along with Characters, Plot and Language).

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