Joy is But the Shadow Pain Casts: The Elementary Particles

A friend had told me the last few pages of Houellebecq’s “The Elementary Particles” really flips everything and changes how you feel about the book and it’s true, if I’d skipped the Epilogue, I’m not sure where I might fall on this book. For much of the length of it, I was mixed; sometimes engaged, sometimes repelled, often bored. It took me three months to read it and I read at least three books in that time, putting down the Houellebecq again and again. It is ostensibly the story of two half-brothers and what’s difficult to take for long periods of time is that peculiar brand of French misanthropy on display, rendered in such detail here that the mood lingers for a time after reading a section, until you re-gain your bearings. It’s always a nice moment when you realize, hey, I don’t actually think like that, though I’m susceptible to the argument that if there was nothing about the world view on display that I related to, I wouldn’t be so affected.

I think one reason it took me so long to read is I didn’t find much of the human interaction particularly involving or convincing, though to Houellebecq’s credit, he never posits the whole world as this place of pure hopeless Gallic melancholia, we see characters who don’t feel the way the brothers do, it’s not a one note tone. And I don’t mean to suggest the two brothers are miserable in the same way, though they share a deep existential emptiness. This becomes fully clear with the revelation in the Epilogue** wherein we understand why we were given such detailed descriptions of the lives and minds of Bruno and Michel Djerzinski.

And even this is a bit unfair to Houellebecq, he paints two lives empty of any kind of joy, but late in their lives, gives both brothers women who love them and who they, in their own ways, love back. There’s warmth of a sort here, in context of the bleak landscape surrounding them, though there’s always an edge of doubt and disgust lurking and nothing really works out other than Michel’s ideas and theories.

I’m hesitant to say too much about the writing itself, having read it in a translation, but there are some beautiful moments here, both descriptively and in terms of integrating complex scientific and philosophic material into the narrative. This isn’t always successful, it often seems arbitrary and self-conscious, but these sections are almost always fun to read. And what to make of a line like this one, late in the story: “In cemeteries all across the world, the recently deceased continued to rot in their graves, slowly becoming skeletons.” It’s ridiculous of course, almost a parody of a certain kind of mindset, and that’s the key; I think he understands how funny this line is, I think he knows how funny in a very dark way the adventures of Bruno and Michel are. I didn’t end the book feeling like Houellebecq was some raging misanthrope with enough genius to turn his neuroses into art but not enough control to keep his obsessions fully in check, it seems to me there’s more there’s more calculation here than that, more novelist’s skill.

**I’ll remain coy about the revelation because I liked coming on it cold, not knowing about it, though normally I don’t believe knowing what happens in a book lessons the pleasure of reading that book.


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