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.’

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