18 oktober 2010

The Elementary Particles - Michel Houellebecq

Man 2.0
Man is doomed to extinction. Around the end of the twenty-first century, a new species will inhabit planet Earth. Man will be replaced by his better self. Better, because immortal and, more importantly, non-individualistic.

Very briefly, this is what French author Michel Houellebecq arrives at in his novel The Elementary Particles. The novel follows two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, during roughly the last forty years of the twentieth century. Bruno and Michel are raised separately. Both are products of the sexual revolution that the Western world saw during the sixties and seventies of the last century. They are sons of the same mother, a mother who was particularly, or rather exclusively, interested in maximizing her own pleasure. For Bruno and Michel she had no attention, they were brought up by their respective paternal grandparents (like Houellebecq himself by the way). Particularly Bruno experienced a terrible childhood; he was teased by many school- and classmates. But also Michel sees the necessary misery in his early youth.

All of this has an opposite effect on each of the brothers. Bruno develops into an extreme sex addicted pleasure seeker, while Michel becomes a very serious and somewhat depressed molecular biologist, who shows little or no interest in anything that has to do with sex. Bruno, the pleasure seeker, is very ill-equipped for its continued pursuit of unlimited indulgence. He is ugly and only moderately socially gifted. His desire for what is not accessible for him makes him a regrettable and unfortunate anti-hero. He is clearly on the negative side of the divide between rich and poor as created by the sexual revolution, i.e. rich and poor in the fulfillment of desire.

Michel, the molecular biologist, is due to neglect by his mother unable to be in touch with his feelings. Emotionally numb as he is, he does not succeed as a teenager to answer the love of the prettiest girl in school. This makes Michel, just as his brother, a somewhat tragic figure who is constantly somber, but he is too distant from his emotions to end up in real depression. He has put his life in service of science and is very successful in his profession. He manages to find the formulas by which the DNA code can be calculated to make the perfect human being. The mechanism that causes aging decline can be filtered out of the DNA, allowing the creation of a superior form of immortal human beings. Eventually his publications are the basis for the first perfect human clone, but by the time that is made real, Michel himself has already mysteriously disappeared.

In order to examine something accurately, sometimes you have to put it under a microscope. That's exactly what Houellebecq does with the impact of the sexual revolution. His thought experiment draws those effects to the extreme, it magnifies them. His conclusion is that humanity as it currently is, has no sustainable future.

Man 2.0 is sponsored by Bruno and Michel. Bruno and Michel are well painted examples of individualistic human beings, but you can hardly lay the blame on them. The sociological changes of the second half of the twentieth century have modeled them into who they are. A positive feature that Houellebecq provides his characters with is perseverance. Bruno realizes only too well that he is not an appealing individual, but he is not in despair. He does not lapse into passivity, but faces his problem actively. He works out in the gym with discipline and chooses to have a hair transplantation. Michel is passionate about his profession and, with that property, though indirectly, creates the basis for the replacement of humanity by a better sort.

Do I recommend Elementary Particles? Yes and no. Yes because it is a thought-provoking story about the current Western society and it demonstrates that it eventually goes wrong when a society no longer tries to be a society, but a collection of millions of individuals, just caring for themselves. No because the large amount of plastic and unsavory descriptions of sex give the novel a rather raunchy overtone. Admittedly, the described sex has a function in the story, but it is just too much. And that is a shame because it limits the reach of its message. Many readers will discard the book after forty or so pages and will consider Houellebecq as a frustrated pornographer who was in an intense midlife crisis when he wrote the book.

Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles, (1998), 242 pages, ISBN 978 - 0375727016

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