Friday, January 06, 2012

[Books] Book Look: The Elementary Particles

Book Look: The Elementary Particles, by Michel Houellebecq: This is the second Houellebecq novel I've read and, like the previous, it made me want to shower afterword. Houellebecq's primary theme is that contemporary culture hammers into us the commoditization of sex resulting in the complete denigration of any sort of real emotional intimacy. This is essentially an elevation of the crudest instincts of humanity. It began with moral relativism that ascended in the 1960s and was fueled primarily by feminism and consumerism. The result is a broken and hopeless existence where a handful of beautiful people satisfy themselves with empty thrills while the majority are resigned to frustration and failure.

In The Elementary Particles we see these played out by two half-brothers. Born into the self-obsessed hedonism of the ‘60s, they become symbols of two sides of the societal malaise. As children, one lucks into the care of a somewhat neglectful, but caring aunt of a previous generation, and becomes a successful scientist, though anhedonic; uninterested in sex and unable to pursue love. The other is an ugly awkward child who suffers at the hands of bullies and from adolescence through adulthood, lives in a miasma of prurient sexual frustration. Late in their lives they both have fleeting opportunities at true love, but death takes their mates rather quickly (that's romance for you). In the end the nihilist goes insane and the scientist, well, he cures the world of its malaise, but not as you might think. No love-conquers-all ending here. He fixes things by enabling humanity to evolve into a new species, a species without ego or individuality.

Well. I am not unsympathetic to his ideas. It's certainly hard to argue with the notion that empty thrills are what we are sold from day one (e.g. anything Kardashian). And if you of the mind that feminism's ultimate triumph is Sex and The City then it's hard not to point a finger at it. On the other hand it is easy to mistake a fashion or trend line for the inevitable future. While there is validity to Holuellebecq's cultural critiques, sometimes a problem is just a problem to be solved, not a death sentence. And it's especially easy to mistake personal disappointments for societal evils. While it's undeniable that the form and function of personal relationships has changed we can't reliably state that emotional fulfillment was greater in the past, can we? If so, how?

Whatever you may think about his ideas, you cannot deny they are far outside the progressive (small p) mainstream that permeates virtually every breath we take. That alone makes The Elementary Particles a worthwhile creation. We like to think we are open minded and always pushing the boundaries of our beliefs. Becasue of that, we tend to think anything that we approve of must must have that quality, when in fact, it's thoughts that run coun ter to our dogma that push boundries. We praise as daring those who push the presentation of sex and violence to extreme limits without consequence (I'm looking at you HBO). We call dramatists courageous when they elevate characters who share our values of cultural sensitivity and compassion while damning those who don't (I'm looking at you Aaron Sorkin). Wouldn't it take more courage to think the opposite? Critics and pundits have accused Houellebecq of every societal sin in the book -- misogyny, racism, homophobia…hell, just call it a comprehensive misanthropy. He is anti-democratic, anti-capitalist, even anti-individual to some extent. It seems to me there is a huge social risk in airing such opinions and being generally reviled, and that it takes more courage to go through life like that than it does collecting Emmys.

Also, Houellebecq takes love more seriously than any other artist I know of.

So should you read The Elementary Particles? Probably not. It is beautifully written. The clarity and confidence of the prose is striking even in translation (from the original French) despite Houellebecq's occasional bouts of exposition. Then there are long stretches of nothing but descriptions of (intentionally) joyless non-erotic sex. Top that with the repellent ideas. So no, I can't really recommend it for most people. For serious and committed readers only.