Ups and Downs in Houellebecq's Strange, Charmed Particle World

He's middle-aged, balding and his angst is monumental. But novelist Michel Houellebecq just might become your newest hero. Although Americans are just beginning the struggle to pronounce his phonetics-defying name ("Wellbeck"), the French have been engaged for the last two years in an intense debate over the significance of his scandalously right-wing and pornographic weltenshaung. But if you haven't heard of Houellebecq, never fear; in the course of the next year, you will probably be unable to avoid him. To many French, he has already been christened the new Camus, a potential leading figure for a whole new generation of writers who will bring the grand French tradition of unmitigated anomie to dizzying new depths. And now, with the recent English translation of The Elementary Particles, his newest and most hotly debated novel, Houellebecq is determined to impress his genius upon the American literary scene.

One would do well, however, to be somewhat wary of this bloated hype. For all the talk of the scandal, indignation and adoration that this world-weary little man has produced, there has been a curious lack of commentary upon the quality of his prose and his philosophy. This is indeed to Houellebecq's advantage, as his novel gives the avant-gardes a bad name. Beneath its glossy veneer of scandal, The Elementary Particles is an amazingly shallow and silly read. Filled with poorly realized characters, indifferent writing and ludicrous leaps of logic, the novel will not leave you pondering the inescapability of nihilism. It will only leave you looking for a way to annihilate the book itself.

To Houellebecq's credit, his artistic failures are not due to a lack of effort. In fact, to a large extent they can be attributed to an excess of ambition, to a preoccupation with analyzing "the big picture." Ostensibly, The Elementary Particles tells the story of half-brothers Bruno and Michel as they struggle to cope with a world torn apart and debased by the sexual revolution of the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, from the historical tone of the prologue to the modest conclusion of the novel ("This book is dedicated to humanity"), Houellebecq constantly reminds his reader that he has bigger fish to fry than individual characters. Set in the more enlightened near future, The Elementary Particles aims for no less than a complete mapping-out of Western society's downward trajectory in the second half of the 20th century.

Bruno and Michel are members of that awkward generation too young to be considered baby-boomers and too old to fit in with the Generation-Xers. They are, rather, the product of the hippie free love that was just beginning to flourish on both sides of Atlantic forty-odd years ago. Born to a loveless woman who leaves both sons with their respective grandparents in order to join a commune in California, Bruno and Michel become, essentially, the direct descendants of their age. Both dracins endure lonely and occasionally brutal childhoods that leave them unlovable and incapable of loving by the time they reach adulthood. Michel, a brilliant molecular biologist, gradually withdraws from human contact. Unable to experience emotion, he finds solace instead in his work, which culminates in no less than a Kuhnian shift in paradigm. Bruno, who is neither particularly dashing nor particularly well-endowed (the latter being of even more importance in this new age of increasing debauche), eases his pain by masturbating in public, exposing himself to students, and when lucky, participating in orgies.

In this summary form, The Elementary Particles does seem to promise a fairly interesting read. But it is the actual prose of the novel which contributes to its generally unbearable nature. Houellebecq simply refuses to let his characters be real human beings. They can exist only as generational archetypes or the embodiments of philosophical speculations. "Was it possible to think of Bruno as an individual?" muses Houellebecq's narrator. "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." While it is of course legitimate to view a character in relation to his or her society, 264 pages of unambiguous tell-rather-than-show is not only devastatingly boring, it is, paradoxically, not very enlightening.

Houellebecq further evades adequate characterizations of the two men by assigning them pat philosophical summaries of everything from Kant to Huxley in lieu of giving them actual thoughts. It is not rare that one encounters such grand generalities as, "He was surprised at how miserable he felt. Far removed from Christian notions of grace and redemption, unfamiliar with the concepts of freedom and compassion, Michel's worldview had grown pitiless and mechanical." Such a statement flounders in the context of a work of fiction, and unfortunately is not redeemed by any breathtaking originality.

As the novel progresses, its claims regarding the degeneration of society become increasingly ludicrous. For Houellebecq's narrator, it is only logical that a free-love commune should turn into a Satanic cult capable of appalling masochistic sexual rituals. As for his individual characters, there is of course no action for them to take other than to wander off into oblivion. Bruno checks into a mental institution where he spends the rest of his pathetic days numbing his libido with cocktail medications. Michel, after discovering a way to clone perfectly rational non-egotistical human beings that will in a few years time subsume flawed humanity, simply disappears. Such episodes could, under different circumstances, be viewed as truly funny and truly scandalous satire. But posed as the outcomes of or even the solutions to a very earnestly destructive nihilism, they are only ludicrous and inept.

Without a doubt, The Elementary Particles belies the grand hullabaloo that has been made in France over its very publication. While Houellebecq enthusiasts may claim that the unique cultural situation of France makes it difficult for readers of the translation to understand the novel's importance, such a justification has its limits. After reading its last insipid page, one is left with nothing so much as the sense that the fuss made over The Elementary Particles represents the biggest blunder in French taste since they bolted that millennium count-down clock to the Eiffel Tower.