The Elementary Particles
by Michel Houellebecq
At its most basic, art springs from two ideas. You’re born, and you die. Both good and bad artists use this framework to explore and define the purpose or nonsense that governs our lives, and in the process, they attempt to wrest meaning out from the chaos of life. In this, his second novel, Michel Houellebecq follows in the fine French tradition of questioning the fundamental themes that polite, civilized society uses to define and circumscribe individuals. He follows in the tradition of Celine and Camus, both of whom questioned the petty sentimentality of modern life. Unlike those two authors, Houellebecq does not have the slaughter of war to serve as a backdrop to explore modern life; instead, in Houellebecq’s work, the senselessness of life is encountered in the bedroom and barren spirituality that rules our lives.
The story centers around two principal characters: Bruno and Michel, half-brothers who were separated at birth and who only in adolescence meet and develop an awkward and estranged relationship. The course of the novel chronicles their development and ultimate demise. Bruno is the ugly and repulsive, highly sexual teacher who loses his job and ultimately his sanity due to years of thwarted sexual tension and unrequited love. Michel, on the other hand, remains an asexual molecular biologist who, unable to feel any emotional solidarity with any living thing besides his mother, dreams of perfecting a genetic sequence to eliminate the desire to procreate entirely. He ultimately succeeds in liberating mankind from the shackles of sexuality and its corresponding requirements on human emotion. As the book concludes, an unknown author writing from the vantage point of an editor in the future states:
“There remains some humans of the old species, particularly in areas long dominated by religious doctrine. Their reproductive levels fall year by year, however, and at present their extinction seems inevitable. Contrary to the doomsayers, this extinction is taking place peaceably, despite occasional acts of violence, which also continue to decline (263).”
Yet the power of this book stems from the author’s slow and careful development of several interesting ideas. By the time the book concludes, not only does Michel’s goal seem likely, but it also seems downright admirable.
First, with the death of God, or at least his complete marginalization in the affairs of our lives, individuals are at a loss for meaning. The old habits, customs, and traditions that were used to order and provide our lives with meaning are no longer effective. This is the sentiment expressed by Emile Durkheim and his infamous statement, “The old gods are dead and the new ones have yet to arise.” While this is not a new sentiment, what is unique is his application to the second idea.
Coupled with this loss of order, the development of the late sixties and early seventies of free love and casual sex has taken a role on love and relationships. A predominant theme of this novel is the manner in which meaningful relationships have been trivialized in order to maintain a cult of youth. Youth and beauty become the highest ideal to strive towards and the ugly, old or hideous have no place. Throughout the novel, this theme is reiterated primarily by exploring the travails and perils Bruno suffers. At times he suffers at his own hand but more often than not, he suffers at the hands of other people. Bruno, repulsive and unloved throughout his life, finally encounters a woman, Christiane, who loves him. During one of their encounters at an orgy, Christiane’s back, weakened and degenerating from a genetic illness, is broken by a man who is taking her from behind. Later, unable to face a life in a wheelchair, she steers herself into oncoming traffic, ending her life and ending a very brief moment of happiness in Bruno’s otherwise horrible life. As the novel states:
“•suicides provoked neither surprise nor comment; generally, the suicide of elderly people • by far the most commonplace — seems to us perfectly rational. It is perhaps also useful to cite public reaction to the prospect of a terrorist attack as symptomatic: the overwhelming majority of people would prefer to be killed outright rather than being tortured, maimed or disfigured. In part, this is because they are somewhat tired of life; but the principal reason is that nothing • even death • seems worse than the prospect of living in a broken body (205).”
If physical satisfaction is the highest goal and if beauty is the only currency that can be used to enter this realm, than what happens to those who have aged or no longer possess this currency? The last element is the idea that Houellebecq uses to tie these disparate strands together.
Concurrent with the rise of “free love” was the growing popularity of new age spiritualism. If old traditions were no longer valid, then what recourse does one have when the allure of beauty is stolen by time? What does one hold onto when youth, beauty, relationships, and even God have all passed away? Into this mixture, various permutations of new age spiritualism were embraced to find some form of relief. Yet relief never arises, and instead, the individuals merely try harder and harder to accept something that they know does not make sense. When Christiane and Bruno first meet at a sexual liberation/new age camp, their initial encounter reveals the truth of this situation.
“The whole spiritual thing makes the pickup lines less brutal• Men who grow old have it easier than older women. They drink cheap booze and fall asleep, their breath stinks, then they wake up and start all over again; they tend to die young. Women take tranquilizers, go to yoga classes, see a shrink; they live a lot longer and suffer more. They try to trade on their looks, even when they know their bodies are sad and ugly. They get hurt but they do it anyway, because they can’t give up the need to be loved (117).”
As the novel concludes, the truth of this statement is revealed in the encounters of several other individuals. Ultimately, death is the only leveler.
While not necessarily a light-hearted summer read, The Elementary Particles is a novel of ideas that is genuinely thought provoking. Houellebecq raises ideas that are rarely considered if they are questioned at all. Moreover, the logic and reasoning behind his storytelling is quite effective and leads the reader to solemnly reflect on his or her own shortcomings and jaded beliefs.