Friday, March 25, 2005

Elementary Houllebecq

I happen to have read Elementary Particles, so I was interested to read this essay on Michel Houllebecq. While I can't exactly say I enjoyed Elementary Particles — it's depressing as hell, and the sex is...tiresome — I'm glad to have read it.

The central premise of Elementary Particles is best expressed in a passage from the book that followed it, Platform:

It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry within them an irreplaceable individuality. As far as I was concerned, at any rate, I could not distinguish any trace of such an individuality. As often as not, it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalities. When all's said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than pompous absurdity. We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than we do a novel we once read. That's about right: a little, no more.

The hero is a molecular biologist who, at the end of the book, retires complete, between the years 2000 and 2009, his magnum opus, an eighty-page distillation of a life's work devoted to the proposition "that mankind must disappear and give way to a new species which was asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality, separation and evolution." . . . Djerzinski's conviction is that any genetic code, however complex, can be noted in a standard, structurally stable form, isolated from disturbances or mutations. This meant that every cell contained within it the possibility of being infinitely copied. Every animal species, however highly evolved, could be transformed into a similar species, reproduced by cloning, and immortal.

At the close of the book, the twenty-first century is half-done and humanity as we know it has all but disappeared, its place taken by a new species of Djerzinskian immortals. "There remain some humans of the old species, particularly in areas long dominated by religious doctrine. Their reproductive levels fall year by year, however, and at present their extinction seems inevitable." It is a strangely compelling, strangely moving conceit, this peaceful making way by the old order for a new.


Yet Elementary Particles is genuinely affecting in its vision of the end of the "brave and unfortunate species" that we as human beings have been, and of our replacement by the brave-new-worlders, made possible by Djerzinski's "risky interpretations of the postulates of quantum mechanics." For all the ferocity of his vision, Houellebecq does have a heart, and although he would probably not care to be told so, it is the palpable beating of that organ which lifts his work to heights that the dementedly fastidious Lovecraft could not have scaled in his wildest and weirdest dreams.

Houellebecq, if we are to take him at his word and not think ourselves mocked by his fanciful flights, achieves a profound insight into the nature of our collective death wish, as well as our wistful hope for something to survive, even if that something is not ourselves. The omniscient narrator of The Elementary Particles, dedicating his book "to mankind," meditates on what is past and passing and to come:

History exists; it is elemental, it dominates, its rule is inexorable. Yet outside the strict confines of history, the ultimate ambition of this book is to salute the brave and unfortunate species which created us. This vile, unhappy race, barely different from the apes, which nevertheless carried within it such noble aspirations. Tortured, contradictory, individualistic, quarrelsome . . . it was sometimes capable of extraordinary explosions of violence, but never quite abandoned its belief in love. This species which, for the first time in history, was able to envision the possibility of its succession and, some years later, proved capable of bringing it about. As the last members of this race are extinguished, we think it just to render this last tribute to humanity, an homage which itself will one day disappear, buried beneath the sands of time.

I read this book almost two years ago, just after, or maybe just before reading Atwood's Oryx and Crake. They formed a perfect juxtaposition. The reading was enhanced by the coincidental viewing of a couple dystopian films, the names of which are now forgotten. I wrote a profound and detailed missive to a friend (was it you?) comparing them — the key factors thought to be the problem with today's society, the lens through which they are viewed (and the problematic relationships with women), the means by which to rid society of this problem, through science, and the idyllic results.

(Michel Basilères posited that Elementary Particles is science fiction, but I think that goes too far. Certainly science, while it underlies all the behaviours in the book, doesn't appear as an active force till the very end. There is much less science, though possibly more technical and powerful, than in Oryx and Crake, and I wouldn't slap a sci-fi label on that one. The word you people are looking for is dystopian, a grand tradition unto itself.)

Here's a succinct report of the book.
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