It’s ironic that following one of the best books I’ve read in a while (Storm of Swords), I’d read one of the worst. The Elementary Particles, by Michel Houellebecq, tells the story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno. The former is quiet physics nerd, emotionally dead. His brother Bruno is a fat, pathetic hornball, who suffers a spate of bullying in boarding school and evolves into a full-blown hedonist pervert.
Houellebecq meanders along, touching on the extended family (including the drugged-out commune-dwelling free-love mother), Michel’s childhood friendship with Annabelle, Bruno’s bullying. However, the plotline is secondary to Houellebecq’s philosophical ponderings. In this sense, the novel resembles something by Kundera, where the characters are used as mere theoretical pawns. They speak in long uncharacteristic philosophic monologues that would give John Galt a headache.
Michel’s chapters seemed pulled from a manual of psuedo-biochemistry, Bruno’s from the pages of Penthouse (nearly half the book is pornographic). As a scientist, Michel engages in deeply theoretical research: what does the structure of DNA mean for evolution”, “what are the drawbacks of sexual reproduction”, “how does a mathematical vector field represent the human brain?” However, Michel mostly putters around his barren apartment, deep in thought, and the technical jargon comes off as filler. His chapters are a bore.
Bruno, on the other hand, pulls the reader along with explicit accounts of voyeurism, peep shows, pornography, orgies and masturbation. He attends a 70s style commune filled with lonely aging hippies shuffling around with sagging bodies and sinking libidos. It’s here the Houellebecq takes a break from criticizing the right (which is obviously the source of the worlds ills), and takes a stab at commune-style liberalism.
Eventually, both brothers have a chance at genuine love – Bruno with an aging slut he meets at the commune, Michel with his childhood friend Annabelle. Typical of lit-snob art, there can’t be a happy ending, so the majority of the characters are required to become paralyzed, commit suicide or disappear into a drug-haze. Houellebecq concludes with a bizarre science fiction epilogue, a half-assed interpretation of Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” transhumanism that can be appropriately labeled “masturbatory”.
There are some sections of interesting writing, perhaps a clever jab at pop culture. But as a whole, the novel is humorless, pretentious and pornographic. I’d even go so far as to say the philosophies are poisonous.
How could a simple ideology be dangerous? Sticks and stones can break our bones, but surely words are harmless, right? In a Bruno chapter, Houellebecq writes of the Viennese Activists, an avant-garde group that would publicly commit acts of animal cruelty in the name of art. That’s what this book is like. Houellebecq takes the highlights of human existence – reason, enlightenment, science, family, sex – morphs them into pathetic straw men and proceeds to tear them apart. (Then he’ll include an orgy scene). The Elementary Particle’s thesis is nothing short of nihilistic.
As a thought experiment, nihilism is an interesting concept, perhaps the easiest conclusion from strict materialism. It’s a big blank zero, a starting point. But it’s completely impractical as an ideology. As a nihilist, what the hell do you do, wear leather bondage gear and have a pet ferret on a chain? If that’s the case, nihilists disserve nothing better than to get punched in the face by a boisterous red-blooded John Goodman.
If you’re willing to flex your mental muscle and see how you stack up against an award winning French thinker, feel free. Warning: if you are not emotionally confident, this book may make you depressed. For the rest of us, who prefer to engage in uplifting and entertaining pieces of art, let this one sink to its proper resting place: the landfill.