That Trendy French Novel

It would be hard to invent a book more likely to provoke disdain from Americans than Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles (Knopf; $25). Let me just say at the outset, in case any more such reviews are lying around in galleys, that I believe this reaction to be both understandable and shortsighted. The 42-year-old author of the newly translated French best seller–his second novel–has enjoyed maddening bursts of reputation inflation in his native land. He has been compared to the existentialist novelist Albert Camus and the mad philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Houellebecq’s stylistic preferences have been elevated to an ism: deprimisme–depressivism. In person, he’s a leering, slovenly, chain-smoking artiste fond of outrageous pronouncements to the effect that liberty is overrated and Americans are stupid. The book itself is a neoconservative rant against the moral turpitude supposedly foisted upon us by the American-inspired apostles of permissiveness in the 1960s. In the middle of the novel, Houellebecq interrupts his high dudgeon to regale us with detailed descriptions of orgies in Parisian swingers’ clubs and coastal nudist colonies, as if he had decided to stop channeling William Bennett and was trying out the Marquis de Sade instead. His prose feels tossed off and inelegant, in Frank Wynne’s translation anyway. The narration is cursory and lapses periodically into portentous rants on history, sociology, zoology, physical anthropology, physics, and molecular biology.

This is an insufferable book, no doubt about it, by a preening and pretentious author. It has no right to be any good. It is, though. The Elementary Particles is darkly funny and surprisingly touching. The main story is the cautionary tale of two half brothers born in the 1950s to a promiscuous and flaky mother who abandons them both to grandparents so as to pursue her bohemian dreams. Before giving up the younger, Michel, she manages to inflict permanent emotional damage on him, leaving him to wallow for months in his own excrement. As an adult, he has become an epically glum and unfeeling science geek, specializing in molecular biology. Bruno, the elder, would have made out OK if his grandparents hadn’t died and his father hadn’t enrolled him in a boarding school where he was raped and tortured by the older boys. Bruno grows up to be a lonely and sexually insatiable secondary-school teacher, his dissatisfaction stemming mainly from the fact that he’s too creepy to get laid, even by impressionable students. His misadventures, many of them ending with him flashing his penis at or masturbating to the image of some amused or disdainful girl, form the heart of the novel. We couldn’t make it through this relentless book without Bruno. He’s an oddly bouyant presence, despite his self-loathing and egotism, perhaps because his struggles with his weight and hair and general haplessness make him seem sweet and genuine, even when he dabbles in racism.

Michel, on the other hand, is the book’s brain. He’s also the object of an unconvincing science-fictiony frame narrative in which he is regarded by scholars in a future generation as the genius responsible for humanity’s next “metaphysical mutation”–the rise of Christianity and the emergence of scientific rationalism having been the last two. He spends a lot of his half of the book staring at the ceiling, though he does hook up with a childhood lover before she dies, half from uterine cancer and half from despair at his coldheartedness. (Houellebecq kills off every woman in this book in an equally brutal fashion, including the girlfriend Bruno finally finds solace with. Her back breaks while she’s bending over to fellate Bruno and to allow herself be penetrated from behind by a stranger in a swingers’ bar. She winds up killing herself.) At the end of the book Michel does  pioneering work in the physics of DNA and advances the science of human reproduction to such a degree that the species no longer has to endure the humiliation of natural selection, mutation, disease, decay, death, and sex as a means of producing offspring rather than as pure pleasure. All these are miraculously–if implausibly–eliminated. (It is left to the imagination to figure out how this new breed of human deals with planetary overcrowding.)

Many reviewers have criticized the ending as a cheaply utopian solution to the malaise Houellebecq outlines in the book, but that seems like a misreading of what is clearly meant to be satire. By the time humanity takes its great leap, Michel has been revealed to be a hopelessly tragic figure, mired in solipsism. Any evolution originating in his personal alienation from the flesh is bound to be a vision of hell, not of heaven. Anyway, the real point of the sci-fi conceit is to give Houellebecq an excuse to pontificate on the present in the pseudo-scholarly language of the future. This he does hilariously. Hardly a page of the book goes by without some sudden interpolation from a weirdly abstracted scientific point of view, and the alternations in tone gives his fictional world an absurdist coloration, the chilly feel of a dehumanized universe.

Houellebecq is always going off on biological digressions about the bacteria and insects and animals that cross paths with his protagonists, as if these creatures were just as important to his story as the people–and in a world where people don’t matter much, creatures presumably do matter more. He wields the terminology of physical anthropology like a blunt instrument, highlighting the sadism underneath its supposed objectivity. That’s the effect of this switch, for instance, from a tender and nostalgic description of Michel’s girlfriend’s adolescent body as seen in a photograph taken during an Easter egg hunt, her sweater being tugged at by swelling breasts, to the sort of impersonal voice-over you might hear in a documentary of The Naked Ape: “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.” Blam! But before we can digest this bit of verbal rape, Houellebecq goes back to his reverie: “Like her mother at that age, Annabelle had a beautiful body.”

Despite Houellebecq’s obsession with scientific concepts and knack for finding suggestive metaphors in them, he is not in science’s thrall. If there’s a villain in this book, in fact, it’s the empiricist worldview and the way it has transmogrified our understanding of what it means to be human. The triumph of biology, he writes, has led to a “determinist anthropology.” Man is nothing more than the result of material processes rather than a being with a soul. In the wake of that paradigm shift comes moral relativism, “the commercial muscle of ‘youth culture,’” “the cult of the body beautiful,” and laxness on divorce and abortion. It somehow seems appropriate that, after a disquisition on the 1970s in which the aforementioned developments are deplored, Bruno confesses to his psychiatrist that as a teen-ager during that decade, he eyeballed his mother’s vagina, brained a cat, and had an orgasm as a result of rubbing his penis against a girl’s breasts, all in the space of a few days. Everything is permitted; nothing means much anymore; God is on hiatus, and not even our most frenzied transgressions can bring him back.

Houellebecq is working within a venerable French tradition here–that of the lapsed Catholic who can’t see a way out of moral confusion other than the church but can’t believe in it either. The philosophizing, quasi-pornographic novelist  Georges Bataille is probably the author closest to Houellebecq, with his  love of blasphemy and surrealism, but you can see aspects of the dilemma throughout the 20th-century French literary landscape. Houellebecq’s religious longings probably won’t resonate in America, where a tradition of Protestant dissent make the French hankering for the absolute authority of the church seem self-flagellating, to say nothing of fascistic. But Houellebecq’s disgust with modern life is too palpable and real to be dismissed; so is the misery of Bruno and Michel. Americans, even after many years of economic prosperity, or perhaps especially after them, are not immune to revulsion against the excesses of materialism and social Darwinism. Check out, if you don’t believe me, Alan Wolfe’s recent New Republic  overview of books on the subject: It could be the essayistic equivalent of this novel. Houellebecq’s ferocious comedy pertains to us, whether we want it to or not.