Le Misérable


In France, per The New York Times, Michel Houellebecq is considered the first novelist since Balzac to capture contemporary “social realities.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to call Houellebecq a novelist who, by projecting his social reality, became an instant Balzac. “It is part of the French character to become suddenly excited or enthusiastic or angry over any brief meteor of the moment.” So the man himself noted 150 years ago and so Houellebecq’s bestselling second novel, The Elementary Particles, demonstrated.

The Elementary Particles, published in France in 1998, concerns two half brothers—a monastic molecular biologist and a horny high school teacher—both deserted in childhood by their self-indulgent mother. The scientist, Michel Djerzinski, and his half sib, Bruno Clément, are clumsy, if sensitive, souls whose isolation is rendered all the more pitiful by their respective, late-in-the-novel discovery and repudiation of love.

The title The Elementary Particles refers both to Michel’s scientific worldview and Houellebecq’s sense of an atomized society. But the book is not entirely despairing. While Bruno’s sourly comic adventures among France’s New Age seekers and middle-aged swingers culminate in a state of benign self-medication, Michel posthumously contributes to eliminating the human condition altogether by providing the theoretical groundwork to clone the species.

Eclipsing the 30th anniversary of 1968, “l’affaire Houellebecq” polarized the French literary world. The Elementary Particles was hailed chef d’oeuvre of the movement labeled déprimisme (“depressionism”) while the author himself was characterized as a racist, misogynist, homophobic, Stalinoid, fascist, Green-bashing pornographer. In short, the novel itself was part of a larger performance and the meteor of The Elementary Particles taken as a direct hit on the soixante-huitards, the aging Generation of ’68, whom Houellebecq not only burlesques but blames for promoting a society based on individual gratification. More specifically, Houellebecq (who was 10 in 1968) writes as a soixante-huitard victim—a funnier, more profane confrere of those neocon crybabies who bemoan the decline of Western civilization in The New Criterion.

Homo Houellebecqus made his initial appearance in the writer’s laconic first novel, a small classic of disaffection that—published here as Whatever—was compared by some to The Stranger. The narrator, a misanthropic 30-year-old computer programmer who hasn’t had sex in two years, is sent on the road with a physically repellent, still virginal colleague whom he tries to persuade to become a serial killer.

Whatever‘s narrator is acutely aware of life’s inequities:

In a perfectly liberal economic system, some people accumulate considerable fortunes; others molder in unemployment and poverty. In a perfectly liberal sexual system, some people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

It is against this law that the protagonists of The Elementary Particles rebel—one by eliminating the biological necessity for sex, the other by fighting for his right to erotic excitement. Not surprisingly, Houellebecq’s account of Michel’s solitary genius is less compelling than his account of Bruno’s carnal misadventures. Compulsively surfing the net for porn, Bruno wrecks his marriage on the reef of a 14,000-franc phone bill and compromises his career by propositioning a 15-year-old student.

Ridicule alternates with pathos. The long account of Bruno’s stay at a New Age camp is funny—if not quite hilarious. Ogling teenage girls and looking for sex at all the wrong orgies, he is compelled to dine on tofu ragout, hang out with losers more egregious than he, and, as a prelude to some failed seduction, listen to the sentimental idealization of third world cultures. “What was so great about Brazil? As far as he knew, Brazil was a shithole full of morons obsessed with soccer and Formula One.” He reiterates the racial paranoia that has fitfully infected Western Europe from the mid 19th century on—even as he roots it in the loam of sexual frustration.

At one point, Bruno manages to meet Philippe Sollers, the “sharp and spiteful” litcrit king of the soixante-huitards. Sollers reads Bruno’s sexual-jealousy-fueled diatribe and, having approvingly dubbed him a “real racist,” laughs in Bruno’s face at the idea of publishing it. The same might be said of Houellebecq, but, actually, The Elementary Particles aspires to the philosophical—with a fluid temporal structure affording the author ample opportunity to signpost France’s decline.

It was already apparent by the summer of 1976, Bruno muses, that after years of topless beaches, sex shops, plastic surgery, legal abortion, and American influences like Elvis Presley and the musical Hair, everything would end badly. Bruno approvingly cites a book by an American district attorney arguing that the destruction of moral values would inevitably climax in a regime of affectless murder.

It is Houellebecq’s contention that the sexual revolution he burlesques has weakened Christian dogma and destroyed the family to place supreme focus on the individual. Houellebecq finds nothing emancipatory here. Indeed, the search for personal gratification is a crippling burden, contributing to the guilty conscience and free-floating masochism that characterize the last years of Western civilization. This is the end. Houellebecq’s graphic descriptions of sex, death, and tired, middle-aged genitalia are underscored by a sort of melancholy disgust. (“She was forty-five years old and her vulva was scrawny and sagged slightly.”) The Elementary Particles is mucky with decay: France is inexorably sliding into underdevelopment and Europe is committing suicide, while “in cemeteries all across the world, the recently deceased continued to rot in their graves, slowly becoming skeletons.”

Taking the long, long view of human history, while making the argument that human value is now measured solely in terms of an individual’s economic and erotic potential, Houellebecq privileges Darwin over Marx and Freud. None of the big guys are ever mentioned, although Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a crucial referent as The Elementary Particles veers into science fiction. Houellebecq’s posthuman comedy is smart as well as smartass, but his satire is even sadder than it is Sadean.