The Elementary Particles

By Michel Houellebecq

In The Elementary Particles Michel Houellebecq has tried to write a novel of Big Ideas, and set off a firestorm of controversy in the process. Already both wildly acclaimed and condemned in Europe, its North American debut has been met with accusations of misogyny, racism, and other kinds of political incorrectness.

But most of this criticism misses the novel’s point. The Elementary Particles is an atom bomb of nihilism, and if it is offensive then it should offend us all.

The story deals with a pair of half-brothers: Bruno and Michel. Their mother, Janine, is a Bohemian floozy who parties her way through the ’60s and ’70s. Eventually both brothers are abandoned by their selfish and egotistical parents. Bruno has the worst of it, being shuffled off to a boarding school where he is physically and sexually abused. In mid-life he is overwhelmed by loneliness and ends up in an asylum. Michel, incapable of feeling any emotional attachment, becomes a famous scientist who redesigns the human race through his groundbreaking work in genetics.

Of all the novel’s Big Ideas, the most controversial are the least interesting. “All the great writers were reactionaries” an editor tells Bruno, meaning that all great writers look back to a past when society had its act together, before some historical crisis occurred that ruined everything. For Houellebecq there have been three such turning points in human history: the advent of Christianity, the rise of science and materialism (exactly when this happened isn’t clear), and the “metaphysical mutation” of the cultural revolution.

Houellebecq’s political argument is that the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s – drugs, free love, Aldous Huxley – was more than just an orgy of selfish individualism. It was a movement “calling for the sweeping away of Western civilization in its entirety.” That may seems a little over the top, but Big Ideas often come in the form of absolute pronouncements. Houellebecq’s writing is full of such breezily assured generalizations. You can understand why he offends so many people from offhand editorial passages like this:

The terrible predicament of a beautiful girl is that only an experienced womanizer, someone cynical and without scruple, feels up to the challenge. More often than not, she will lose her virginity to some filthy lowlife in what proves to be the first step in an irrevocable decline.

But we shouldn’t pity the beautiful girl. We are all involved in a process of irrevocable decline. The best evidence the novel presents for the “suicide of the west” is the breakdown of the family unit, our last true human community. Janine is only the most monstrous of the many selfish and irresponsible parents we meet. Even the nice characters admit to hating their children, and are usually just looking for a place to park them while they head for the nearest orgy.

There is, of course, nothing new about any of this. It is the kind of novel we might imagine David Frum writing, if he could write a novel. The really interesting part of The Elementary Particles is what it shares with a lot of the best science-fiction writing of the last decade – a concern for the future evolution of the human race.

As it turns out, The Elementary Particles is a kind of SF novel, supposedly being written sometime near the end of the 21st century. In its future Michel’s experiments, which have something to do with cloning, create a master race that is “asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality, separation and evolution.”

Is this a horrifying vision of the future? Far from it. According to Michel, Brave New World wasn’t a dystopic vision of the future but a description of the ideal state. All of the hedonism of the counterculture was only the result of our profound self-loathing, a disgust with our degraded human nature. But now, finally, science has found a cure.

Which is important, because the real enemy in The Elementary Particles is nature. Houellebecq despises nature in no uncertain terms. Michel is possessed by the conviction that “nature, as a whole, was a repulsive cesspit. All in all, nature deserved to be wiped out in a holocaust – and man’s mission on earth was probably to do just that.” Bruno is even more emphatic:

“Nature? I wouldn’t piss on it if it was on fire . . . I’d shit on its face. Fucking nature . . . nature my ass!”

Such an attitude both vilifies and finally endorses Nietzsche: Humankind is something to be surpassed.

Hating nature as much as he does, Houellebecq likes to dwell on how the human body is degraded through disease, old age, physical desire, and death. If only we could transcend this miserable natural state, Schopenhauer’s world as will, and adopt the cool metaphysical purity of Kant and the Buddha. Now that would be a future worth dying for!

The pessimism and self-disgust inherent in such a world-view have been bubbling to the surface in a lot of recent SF writing. We are such vile, unhappy creatures, extinction may be counted as a blessing. With the mapping of the human genome and advances in reproductive sciences we are nearing a point where “conscious evolution” will become a practical fact. People in the future will be stronger, swifter, smarter, healthier, and better-looking. According to Houellebecq they will be happier too.

It is an interesting twist on the idea of progress: If the future is going to be so much better, how can we stand living in the present? The Elementary Particles forces us to consider what the value of being human is.

Review first published December 23, 2000.


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