The Elementary Particles - by Michel Houllebecq, Vintage International, 2000
The Elementary Particles isn't really eligible for review here, since it came out two years ago. Unfortunately, I was otherwise engaged at the time--I'm much better now, thanks -- and didn't review it. But it just won't go away. This is the only recent novel which seems to've meant anything to eXile readers. We've had dozens of emails from eXholes asking us to review it. So here, two years late, is my official verdict on The Elementary Particles, delivered ex cathedra from the eXile offices behind Rasputin's:
I like it.
I really do; quite a bit. But I don't read it the way most critics seem to have done. It's usually described as a searing, personal cry of defiance. It's not that at all. On the contrary -- what's most amazing about this brave, ridiculous book is that it manages to transplant the two-century old fears and hatreds of the French Right to the 21st-c. world intact-and yet convincing. Houllebecq has done this by encasing a polemical, topical novel-plot in a science-fiction frame. Thanks to this frame, his work seems fresh and exciting, even though his plot is a story about the divergent lives of two half-brothers -- a very, very old plot-device. Even the characters Houllebecq assigns these half-brothers are ancient and schematic: the purely animal one, fat Bruno ("Bear"), whose only interests are eating and fucking; and Michel (named after the Archangel), a gaunt Buddhist intellectual devoid of any human emotion.
Houllebecq's science-fiction frame is not just packaging. It's the most exciting part of the book. He wisely leaves the SF details sketchy, hinting to the reader that his narrator is a being from the far future, a post-human being looking back compassionately at our "miserable, lonely" lives. The key "novum" of Houllebecq's imagined future would seem almost clich? to SF fans, but it's sufficient to propel the plot. (Without giving away too much of the plot, I'll just say, for the benefit of those who've read Haldeman's The Forever War, that the end Haldeman imagined for our species is roughly the same one Houllebecq hints at in this novel.)
The SF frame, though brief, is what keeps you plowing on through long, detailed Balzacian accounts of bourgeois wretchednes. In the frame, Houllebecq's narrator, speaking from a blissful post-human future, hints that Michel, the cerebral half-brother, is now a revered figure whose work somehow aided in the transformation of our species. This alters the tone of the novel profoundly, because the reader knows that this isn't just another accumulation of wretched personal details; there is, in fact, something like a happy ending.
Houllebecq borrows a tone, as well as a plot-device, from SF: the feeling of bitter disappointment at being born both too soon and too late.
We were born at a very awkward age. You SF fans know what I mean. We were born too soon because everyone reading this will die -- but unlike past generations, who could comfort themselves with the certainty that "All men are mortal," we know all too well that immortality will be available to our lucky descendants, whether through digitally downloaded personality or biological modification. It hardly matters whether this gift is five, ten or twenty generations away; the point is that it will come to some lucky generation -- not us. They, the lucky, undeserving brats, will be the first real aristocrats; we will be just another stratum of dirt. Indeed, we are, as Severian's Green Man says, "walking dust."
But we're not just too soon; we're too late as well. Too late for everything. It's too late to be a man -- technology and feminism have ruined that. Too late to be a European man in particular -- the fall of the empires left European men with nothing to do but work on their tans. Too late to be a French man in particular -- because France has been declining in real wealth and power, even compared to the other European states, since the 17th c. And far too late to be an intuitive intellectual -- because the French tradition of intuitive leaps has been losing out to Anglo-American empiricism for generations.