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    We live in a world in which there are no more links.  We're just particles. It's a simple metaphor.
        -Michel Houellebecq

What could be sadder than someone who understands the greatest problem of modernity but has surrendered to it, rather than struggle against it ?  The novelist Michel Houellebecq is the most controversial and reviled Frenchman of the day--and just think what it must take to achieve that rare distinction :  the most hated man in France (actually, he's even fled now, to Ireland).  He was widely hailed on the publication of this novel, which was famously compared to The Stranger of Albert Camus by many, including the critic Tibor Fischer, who is blurbed on the cover of the book.  But then his next novel, published here as The Elementary Particles, attacked the French student revolutionaries of 1968, indicting them for their hedonistic individualism and the exalting of the pursuit of personal gratification, which he writes has effectively drained sex of any passion or love.  Such things simply aren't done in France; the Generation of '68, like the perpetrators of the original French Revolution, are sacrosanct, are beyond criticism.

Not content to merely rile up the intelligentsia, Houellebecq's new book, Plateforme, attacks Islam and celebrates sexual tourism, trips to Southeast Asia for the purpose of having sex with teenage prostitutes.  The advocacy of using the Third World as a brothel upsets people for all the obvious reasons.  But his comments on Islam may earn him his own fatwa.

The girlfriend of the novel's protagonist is murdered in a terrorist bombing, prompting this passage :

    Islam had shattered my life, and Islam was certainly something I could hate. In the days that
    followed, I dedicated myself to hating Islam.  Each time that I hear that a Palestinian terrorist, or a
    Palestinian child, or a pregnant Palestinian woman has been shot in the Gaza Strip, I shiver with
    enthusiasm at the thought that there is one less Muslim

Before September 11th such thoughts were truly beyond the pale, particularly in a nation, France, which in a matter of decades will be majority Muslim.

In subsequent interviews, Mr. Houellebecq, possibly quite accurately, suggested that Islam is doomed because capitalism is undermining it.  A thought which reflects greater understanding of the roots of fundamentalist terrorism than many of his more politically correct critics, but which is likewise not to be discussed in polite company.

At any rate, in Whatever, a geeky young French computer technician, the job Houellebecq held when he was writing it, who has not had sex in two years, is sent to Rouen with a partner, Tisserand, who is even nerdier and a virgin to boot.  The narrator resents a world in which he is unable to satisfy his desires because :

    In a perfectly liberal economic system, some people accumulate considerable fortunes; others
    molder in unemployment and poverty. In a perfectly liberal sexual system, some people have a
    varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

So he tries to stoke Tisserand's own resentments enough to turn him into a serial killer (the one murder of The Stranger apparently no longer sufficing).

Houellebecq's critique of modern man's isolation from his fellows is certainly accurate.  However, once you've diagnosed the pathology you can't just surrender to it.  Further cheapening sex and adding violence to it can only degrade mankind further.  Having recognized our condition, and that it is critical, it is incumbent on all of us to restore the connections that once bound us together, to rebuild community, rather than to retreat further into the self.

Here's an excerpt from a profile of the author, by Emily Eakin, that ran in the New York Times Magazine :

    Initially, Houellebecq set out to change the world. ... Houellebecq believed the book [Whatever]
    would force people to reconsider the premium we place on physical beauty. 'I was certain the
    novel would provoke social change,' he said. 'Now I think it was megalomania. When you go into a
    club today, you see the same behaviour as six years ago. A novel won't ever change the world.'

Is that really all that remains for Houellebecq, to try and get his hood waxed, and to help other unattractive men to get it on too ?  If so, isn't he part of the problem, rather than part of the solution ?  When your doctor tells you that you're developing skin cancer, he doesn't recommend that you go sit in the sun, does he ?

At one point, the narrator sees a graffito that says :

    God wanted there to be inequality, not injustice.

This smacks of the truth.  A world in which an unattractive, and by all accounts extremely unpleasant, Frenchman does not have his choice of woman, while unfortunate for him, is probably inevitable.  But a world in which we are all mere particles, colliding randomly but never connecting, is a tragedy for all of us.

The book then is most interesting as a self-portrait of a defeated victim of modernity's increasing atomization (Atomisation was actually the British title of Elementary Particles).  But, because he ends up collaborating in the process, he is too much a willing victim for us to feel any real sympathy for his plight.  The appropriate posture towards the all too real phenomena he delineates is resistance, not acquiescence.  There is too much of Vichy in Michel Houellebecq.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

See also:

French Literature
Michel Houellebecq Links:

    -REVIEW: of Platform by Michel Houellebecq (Geoff Dyer, LA Weekly)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Elementary Particles (French Culture)
    -EXCERPT First Chapter of Elementary Particles
    -EXCERPT : Summer of '75 from Elementary Particles
    -ARTICLE : France's Shock Novelist Strikes Again (Alan Riding, September 2001, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE : Houellebecq in hot water over  Islam comments (Gwladys Fouché, September 6, 2001, The Guardian)
    -ARTICLE : French author seeking a fatwa, say Muslims (Stuart Jeffries,  September 8, 2001, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW : The passion killer  : Jonathan Romney meets Michel Houellebecq, the novelist who has enraged all of France (June 15, 2000, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW : with Michel Houellebecq and Philippe Harel (Artificial Eye)
    -PROFILE : Le Provocateur : Michel Houellebecq is the most controversial French novelist in decades. But what's shocking about 'The Elementary Particles' isn't all the anonymous sex -- it's his attack on everything the 60's generation holds dear.  (EMILY EAKIN, September 2000, NY Times Magazine)
    -PROFILE : Publish and be damned : He's a sexist Stalinist eugenicist. He's also a pornographer and a homophobe. So how did best-selling author Michel Houellebecq become a hero in literary France? (Emily Eakin, November 19, 2000, The Observer)
    -PROFILE : False advertising (New Criterion, October 2000)
    -PROFILE : The Michel Houellebecq phenomenon - Birth of a writer (Didier Sénécal, france.diplomatie.com)
    -PROFILE : HOUELLEBECQ NAKED :  aka. the surly moral world of michel houellebecq (Ty Wenzel, Privy Magazine)
    -PROFILE : Michel Houellebecq (Jonathan Bing, 10.17.00, Feed)
    -PROFILE : of Michel Houellebecq (Lee Smith, October 2000, Art Forum)
    -ESSAY : six faces to follow : writers to watch (Scott Steedman, September 1999, Paris Voice)
    -ESSAY : Situation abnormal :  Was the suicide of Guy Debord a revolutionary act? Andrew Hussey, researching a book on the leader of the French Situationists, is drawn into a clash of egos and conflicting ideas  (July 28, 2001, The Guardian )
    -ESSAY EXCERPT : from 'Animal Omega: the dubious moral universe of Michel Houellebecq' (Andrew Hussey in Planet 142)
    -PDF ESSAY : Michel Houellebecq (Nicholas Bourriad, Jean-Yves Jouannais and Jacques-François Marchandise, The Journal of Twentieth-Century/Contemporary French Studies)
    -Michel Houellebecq is here :  This site is dedicated to Michel Houellebecq, whose work and whose life have illuminated mine (Michellel Levy)
    -Ecrivains, Michel Houellebecq
    -ARCHIVES : "Michel Houellebecq" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Whatever by Michel Houellebecq  (complete review)
    -REVIEW : of Whatever by Michel Houellebecq  (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Whatever by Michel Houellebecq  (Amanda Craig, Times of London)
    -REVIEW : of Whatever by Michel Houellebecq  (Chris Stamper, World)
    -REVIEW : of Whatever by Michel Houellebecq  (Brendan Bernhard, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of  THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES By Michel Houellebecq (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of  THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES By Michel Houellebecq (Anthony Quinn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq  (complete review)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles (Christopher Caldwell, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Paul Berman, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Atomised by Michel Houellebecq (Paul Gent, booksunlimited)
    -REVIEW : of Atomised  (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Atomised (Andrew Marr, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Atomised (Alex Clark, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Atomised by Michel Houellebecq (Melanie McGrath, This is London)
    -REVIEW : of Atomised by Michel Houellebecq (David Sexton, This is London)
    -REVIEW : of Atomised (James Harkin, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Atomised (Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW :   of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Lorin Stein, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Adam Kirsch, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (J. Hoberman, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq  (Brendan Bernhard, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Kevin Berger, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq  (Jonathan Gibbs, Flak)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Tom LeClair, Book Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Hank Baker, City Paper)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Mark Pinkos, The Stranger)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Larry Weissman, Bold Type)
    -REVIEW : of Elementary Particles (Martha Kuhlman, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Merle Rubin, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Terry Eagan, Ink 19)
    -REVIEW : of Les particules glimentaires (Frederique Leichter, World Literature Today)
    -REVIEW : of Atomised by Michel Houellebecq (Brian Dillon, Richmond Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Good Reports)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Greenwoods)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Daniel P. McCarthy, Washington Witness)
    -REVIEW :  of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Ron Rindo, Clockwatch)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Free Times)
    -REVIEW : of Elementary Particles (Mark Lilla, New Perspectives Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq  Cloning: Central Planning of the 21st Century? (New Perspectives Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq  (Jason Chan, Willamette Week)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq  (Slavoj Zizek, Lacan.com)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq  (MATT GALLOWAY, Now Toronto)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq  (Arthur Alexander Parker, The Wag)
    -REVIEW : of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq  (Annalise Nelson, Harvard Crimson)

FILM :
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Michel Houellebecq (Imdb.com)
    -INFO :  Extension du domaine de la lutte (1999) (Imdb.com)
    -INTERVIEW : Philippe Harel interview  (Nick Walker, September 2000, 6 Degrees)
    -REVIEW : of Whatever (aka Extension du Domaine de la Lutte)  (Jonathan Romney, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : Whatever (aka Extension du Domaine de la Lutte) (Michael Thomson, BBC Online - Films)
    -REVIEW : of Whatever (aka Extension du Domaine de la Lutte)  (The Wolf, Inside Out uk)

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