Agitated Neurons

John Sturrock

  • Whatever by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Paul Hammond
    Serpent’s Tail, 160 pp, £8.99, January 1999, ISBN 1 85242 584 9
  • Les Particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq
    Flammarion, 394 pp, frs 105.00, September 1998, ISBN 2 08 067472 2

The writer in France is having a good winter, whose autumn novel is no sooner out than it is being roundly abused on all sides for its dubious attitudes, and is then passed over by the jurors of the Prix Goncourt, who would rather argument turned, as by custom it does, on the forgettability of the novel they have picked, not on any bad smell given off by its contents. Les Particules élémentaires is only the second novel that Michel Houellebecq has written, but a book as boldly out of tune with the times as this will have no trouble outliving the flush of suspect publicity that might have led to its swift eclipse. It is aggressive in thought, often enough tacky in deed, and driven by a radical intolerance of the ways and means of a society that the novelist sees as terminally degenerate. He is likely to enjoy a lonely celebrity, with few from the left, right and certainly not the peace-loving centre anxious to risk association with his broadly misanthropic views. On the evidence of this novel, and of some of the sour answers he’s reported as giving when interviewed, Houellebecq has been accused of occupying several shunnable political or intellectual positions, Fascism, nihilism, Stalinism and eugenicism among them. How seriously he occupies any one position at all is open to question, but he has clearly stirred things up to promising effect among the dozing adherents of what I’ve lately seen referred to in France as ‘la pensée unique’, which makes it sound as though that once heroically fissile community can no longer raise the intellectual energy to dispute the premisses of the liberal consensus.

Impressively bleak though it was, Houellebecq’s first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994), was not of a size or reach to give one to think that he might next go on to write something with the philosophical ambitions of Les Particules élémentaires. The earlier book – now translated under the sadly throwaway title of Whatever – is a short but arresting testimonial to the pervasive blankness of contemporary life in a soi-disant ‘information’ society, a society likened in the novel by one of its mouth-pieces to a human brain, with the individuals who form it functioning as so many agitated neurons. On this view, the future we can look ahead to is one founded on the installing of more and more neural interconnections, until the day when a ‘perfectly informed’ society realises the old Sartrian fantasy of harbouring human lives of complete transparency. Except, and this is Houellebecq’s big theme, which he carries over from this novel to the second one, the society prescribed by any such crass algorithm will be all interconnections and no unity, a hyperactive brain void of the purposeful self-consciousness that might alone make it a bearable human habitat.

Whatever has for a narrator a 30-year-old software analyst who finds vacuity everywhere that he looks or goes, and his own life to be very nearly as pointless as everyone else’s. Only very nearly because, as a cynical registrar of the surrounding futility he is able to rise precariously above it. What gives him the edge by which to survive is the ‘objectivity’ that authorises him to write people and places off, his colleagues at work, his clients, his few acquaintances and the grim townscapes of Paris or Rouen, with their alien buildings, their brutish youth and their cultural degradation. Things are bad in this morbidly atomised world and they are going to get worse, as ‘human relations become progressively impossible ... and gradually the face of death appears, in all its splendour.’

This is the ‘domaine de la lutte’, the brownfield site of struggle as it might have been marked out by some hard-line neo-Darwinian, in which, once expelled from childhood, a stage of life that Houellebecq looks sentimentally on (as he does on grandparents, virtuous folk whose sons and daughters have somehow gone terribly wrong), we’re asked to spend the rest of our lives locked into a society in which men are in the business of wholesale domination and women that of seduction. It’s tempting to take Houellebecq’s own struggler at something like his own valuation, as a metaphysical Outsider, but what he has is more a case of localised spleen than of cosmic angst. He is far from being party to the old, exalted humanism that saw our species as being trapped in godless immanence, but potentially admirable for the lucidity with which it embraces its predicament. ‘I associate little with human beings,’ Houellebecq’s lone ranger declares, and in a formal act of dissociation from them he writes ‘animal fiction’, or sardonic fables of feral behaviour that constitute his ‘ethical meditations’ – in the new novel, the Aesopian mode makes way for the Attenboroughesque, and natural history on TV serves as a red-in-tooth-and-claw reminder that the animal world is no place to look for ethical improvements on the human one.

The libido that Western societies work so hard to keep topped up, with a daily provision of suggestive words and pictures, is more answerable than any other fact of life today for the bitterness characteristic of the skin-deep dealings between one character and another in Whatever, as it is for the strongly polarised twin courses that events take in Les Particules élémentaires. Houellebecq, who was born in 1957, has either turned against, or never in the first place took to, the sexual liberalism in which his post-’68 generation grew up. In Whatever he conflates that liberalism in a cursory but effective way with the economic kind, to establish a harsh continuity between the ideology of laisser-faire which operates to ensure the existence of a social underclass, and the like practice of a sexual laisser-faire which ensures that, as we sometimes say, some people have all the luck and others all the frustration. The social hierarchy is duplicated by an erotic one: ‘In a perfectly liberal economic system, some people accumulate considerable fortunes; others moulder 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.’ Houellebecq chooses to give his attention to those who lose out in this crucial extension of the ‘domaine de la lutte’, hence the frequent resort of characters in both his novels to masturbation, as the form of sexual pleasure most obviously complicit with the fatal separateness from which the solitary are never going to escape. They are the ones who don’t have the looks to score in company. Whatever is full of lustful young men and women doomed to celibacy by their offputting faces and bodies. The novel starts with a girl – ‘a stupid bitch ... who isn’t sleeping with anyone’ – doing a clumsy and unproductive striptease at an office party, and goes on from there, until Houellebecq finally introduces one especially ill-favoured and embittered young woman whose sex-life has been an experience of chronic humiliation. He has given her the name of Brigitte Bardot, so wonder you must whether he’s really taking up the cause of the sexually disadvantaged, which would have been nice, or sending them morally packing, along with the rest, if this time with an ironic smile.

The same kind of ambiguity marks the end of Les Particules élémentaires, when one fork of its divergent narrative goes off on its own into a beyond of genetic speculation. This is a more hopeful book than the earlier one for at least conceiving of a transcendental escape route for the posterity of the elementary particles who must pay with their distress for being alive today. The only difficulty is in deciding whether Houellebecq believes that the remarkable salvation through science that he finally imagines is desirable, even were it feasible. It comes at a price sufficiently extreme in terms of human deprivation to seem perverse, or else a provocative joke of a Shavian sort.

Late on in Whatever, the narrator undergoes a predictably brief and fruitless session of psychoanalysis. He’s told by the analyst, whom he’s just tried to make a pass at, that he’s not even a very interesting patient because he’s too much of a generalist, he prefers reporting on other people’s behaviour to elucidating his own, and that ‘by going on about society you are establishing a barrier behind which you protect yourself.’ This could well be the novelist having things out with himself, as he likes to do in Whatever, and preparing the way for Les Particules élémentaires, a novel in which the sociology is the better directed for being made to serve the biographical needs of the two characters who matter, both of whom are in bad psychological shape for reasons having to do, in one case with what he has incorporated of the moral and social history of France over the past thirty years, and in the other with the metaphysical impasse into which biological science has been led. This is a novel of the longue durée that attempts to trace the process by which contemporary mores became so unshakably self-centred and – Michel Houellebecq having caught the millennium bug that is going around – comes to a prophetic conclusion set thirty years into the future.

The two characters in question are near opposites but siblings, half-brothers born to the same mother. They are not close, to each other, to their parents or, bar one anomalous because prolonged sexual liaison, to anyone else. Half-brother Bruno has joined the novel more or less straight from the pages of Whatever, as a paragon of anomie who lives only for sexual pleasure. The girls, however, don’t go for him, so that he’s forever wanting, all too seldom getting. Houellebecq returns more often than he needed to to the mucky dialectic between the sex-urge and its satisfaction, as if he were anxious to have us share as voyeuristically as possible in Bruno’s own sense of exclusion from the priapic wonderland. He is a young man conditioned by the zeitgeist to live by the body, but he hasn’t been given the admirable body that success in a world of sexual competition requires. For full measure, his parents, too, have lived in variously sleazy ways by the body. His father is a cosmetic surgeon grown rich from the silicone implant business, his mother a narcissistic hippy who may as a girl have danced with Jean-Paul Sartre but has been going downhill ever since, to end as her looks fade amid the fatuities of the New Age. Bruno has begun as a boy in cruel neglect; he can only, as a defeated, no longer erectile sensualist, end in care.

His half-brother, Michel, has a better time of it, if still not exacdy a good one. He is a scientist, trained in physics but working in a molecular biology lab. Because he’s a physicist, looking back in admiration at the great theoretical fraternisings of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg earlier in the century, he has larger, more metaphysical ideas than the biologists he works with, whose daily fiddling around with fruit-flies is to him no better than bricolage. Michel is the thinker who suffers from the lack of a religion but who may supply in its place the unity of meaningfulness that the neuronal society projected in Whatever lacks.

When it comes to sex, and it very soon does with Houellebecq, Michel is at the other extreme from Bruno: he has no erotic life to speak of and he doesn’t miss it. That’s partly because he’s done a great deal better for a father. Marc Djerzinski was a Polish immigrant, a taciturn man with inclinations to Buddhism and a maker of documentaries, who has vanished while filming in occupied Tibet, presumed killed by the Chinese. At much the same time as Marc was going East, the mother that Michel shares with Bruno went West, to Aldous Huxley’s California and the dopey-gropeys of the Essalen community. Michel thus has good mysticism on the father’s side and bad on the mother’s: he is a man born to crave transcendence.

I wouldn’t want to make Les Particules élémentaires sound like a portentous book. It isn’t: for all the soterial dimension into which it finally takes off, it stays close to the ground – too close when detailing Bruno’s quest for sexual gratification. Houellebecq writes with humour, too, when feeding in his bits and pieces of recent cultural history. Apart from the small dance-on part allotted to Sartre, Philippe Sollers also makes an appearance in a guise he’s unlikely to find flattering, first encouraging Bruno to write ranting, even racist articles and then refusing to publish them, the best of the joke being that Bruno first of all confuses the name Sollers with that of a make of mattress. Again, some time after an episode set on the nudist beaches of Agde, where the sand-dunes are the scene of some complicated multiple couplings à la Comte de Sade, we’re told that the ecologists have managed to get the dunes closed to the tourists and listed as a nature reserve, in order to save an endangered species from extinction.

Les Particules élémentaires ends in proximate science fiction, by foreseeing the time, which will presumably arrive, when molecular biology is capable of taking full control of the human reproductive process. It’s Michel Djerzinski who, having gone to work in an Irish research lab, at the westernmost tip of the European landmass, proves the supreme theorist of this ultimate scientific advance. We know him, however, to be a man without attachments of a human kind and anxious to correct what he takes to be the fundamental defect in sexual reproduction, which is to produce in its random way mutations we’d do better without. His dream, once reproduction can be programmed and the possibility of genetic regression removed, is to generate a race of sexless immortals. This is the warped vision of a warped individual, although, if the charges of eugenicism are anything to go by, some French readers of Les Particules élémentaires appear to believe that Houellebecq approves of it. He just might, if we take this ending to be an expression of his incurable disgust with humanity as we know it. Alternatively, he just might not, but rather be extrapolating from the arrogance that a few practising molecular biologists have been known to exhibit and warning us as to where it might one day land us.

Either way, and whether or not he proves to be an ideological opportunist, Houellebecq has written a strong, interestingly opinionated second novel that’s an impressive advance on his first. Provided French society continues to get him going, he could well become a writer out of the ordinary.