Reading Round The World: F is for France

The Elementary Particles (Les Particules élémentaires) ~ Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq’s controversial novel (published in 1998, translated into English in 2000) won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2002. In this dark, perverse, and mordant french novel Houellebecq tells the story of two half-brothers, products of the excesses of the sixties. Both of their lives, although in different ways, are a reaction to their upbringing.

Michel Djerzinski is a molecular biologist, who in July of 1998 is about to take a sabbatical from his position at a research facility in France. For both Michel and his half-brother Bruno, the narrative switches between the present and the past, and ultimately into the future. Michel, raised by his grandmother is doomed to a life lived without love or emotion, a lonely existence. Bruno, now a teacher and would be writer, shelved in a boarding school by his hippie parents, bullied (he’s described as the Omega Male) unmercifully there, grows up to be a sexually frustrated and bitter young man, addicted to porn and sex clubs – where he gets no sex.

When both men are offered redemption, it works out for neither of them for reasons I won’t detail here. It’s all very ironic and obsessive, yet not without humor. Houellebecq’s writing style leans to the clinical and antiseptic, yet when he makes his observations about nature, it’s anything but. Here’s Michel’s (the biologist’s) view of nature (from his time spent watching the tv show, The Animal Kingdom):

Graceful animals like gazelles and antelopes spent their days in abject terror while lions and panthers lived out their lives in listless imbecility punctuated by explosive bursts of cruelty. They slaughtered weaker animals, dismembered and devoured the sick and the old before falling back into a brutish sleep where the only activity was that of the parasites feeding on them from within. Some of these parasites were hosts to smaller parasites, which in turn were a breeding ground for viruses…Michel trembled with indignation, but as he watched, the unshakeable conviction grew that nature, taken as a whole, was a corrosive 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.

Further, this jaundiced view of nature, of life and death, extends to humans. Bruno describes the death of his grandfather:

In temperate climates, the body of a…mammal first attracts specific species of flies (Musca, Curtoneura), but once decomposition sets in, these are joined by other, particularly Calliphora and Lucilia. Under the combined action of bacteria and the digestive juices disgorged by the larvae, the corpse begins to liquefy and becomes a ferment of butyric and ammoniac reactions. In three short months, the flies will have completed their work. They are succeeded by hordes of coleoptera, specifically Dermestes, andlepidoptera like Aglossa pinguinalis, which feed on fatty tissue. Larvae of the Piophilia pitasionis feed on the fermenting proteins with other coleoptera called Corynetes.

The now-decomposed cadaver becomes host to Arcaridae, which absorb the last traces of residual moisture. Desiccated and mummified, the corpse still harbors parasites, the larvae of beetles, Aglossa cuprealis and Tineola biselliella maggots, which complete the cycle.

Hmmm, cremation reaffirmed!

Michel formed his value system from the simple tales in comics.

…perfect morality is unique and universal. Nothing is added to it and nothing changes over time. It is not dependent on history, economics, sociology, or culture; it is not dependent on anything. Not determined, it determines; not conditioned, it conditions. It is, in other words, absolute.

Everyday morality is always a blend, variously proportioned, of perfect morality and other more ambiguous ideas, for the most part religious. The greater the proportion of pure morality in a particular system, the happier and more enduring the society. Ultimately, a society governed by the pure principles of universal morality could last until the end of the world.

Comes Man to interfere with this perfection, though.

Sex and the “sexual revolution” are fodder for MH’s acerbic and clinical eye. When Bruno has a sexual encounter with Christiane, which he describes as having “something pure about it”, Christiane agrees – pure biology:

“It all depends on Krause’s corpuscles…the shaft of the clitoris and the glans and ridge of the penis are covered in Krause’s corpuscles, rich in nerve endings. When touched they cause a powerful flow of endorphins to the brain. The penis and the clitoris have about the same number of Krause’s  corpuscles – sexual equality goes that far….”

Later MH brings the sexual pleasure principle to its logical conclusion in an age of genetic possibilities. It’s possible to modify the epidermis to be covered in Krause’s corpuscles.

We’ve often heard he argument that if the female of the species could govern, there would be less war, less destruction. Michel seems to come to the same conclusion in that “women are indisputably better than men.”

They were gentler more affectionate, loving and compassionate; they were less prone to violence, selfishness, cruelty or self-centerdness. Moreover, they were more rational intelligent and hardworking.
What on earth were men for…in earlier times, when bears were more common, perhaps masculinity served a particular and irreplaceable function, but for centuries now men clearly served no useful purpose. For the most part they assuaged their boredom playing tennis, which was a lesser evil; but from time to time they felt the need to change history – which basically meant inciting revolutions or wars. Aside from the senseless suffering they caused, revolutions and wars destroyed the best of the past, forcing societies to rebuild from scratch [currently known as nation building]. Without regular and continuous progress, human evolution, random, irregular and violent turns for which men – with their predilection for risk and danger, their repulsive egotism, their irresponsibility and their violent tendencies – were directly to blame. A world of women would be immeasurably superior, tracing a slower but unwavering progression, with no U-turns and no chaotic insecurity, toward a general happiness.

MH has Bruno go off (as he contemplates his son, and Proust) on what matters in modern culture, the nobility of genius? Bullshit, he thinks. The world comes down to simpler alternatives these days, and comes with this classic line

The Duchesse de Guermantes has a lot less dough than Snoop Doggy Dog; Snoop has less than Bill Gates, but he gets the girls wet.

MH’s novel is provocative and over the top – the ratio of penis’ in mouths is perhaps unprecedented in 20th Century literature. But it does have a vision of the future that is perhaps the most provocative of all: not only a world without men, but a world without humans as we’ve known them. Remember the dawn of the new millennium? the possibilities? the universal sense of a new beginning? Perhaps nothing encapsulates MH’s world view for me like Bruno’s New Year’s Eve (by now he’s living in clinic for the mentally ill, highly medicated). He’s finally left all “desire” behind, yet he’s not unhappy.

He expected nothing, now, of the progression of days, and the last night of the second millennium, was a pleasant one for him.

In cemeteries all across the world, the recently deceased continued to rot in their graves, slowly becoming skeletons.

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