This is school break week for my son, so we’re away on a family vacation. And because I don’t understand the concept of “beach read” I brought Michel Houellebecq’s acclaimed novel, The Elementary Particles along. (Soumission is not yet available in English; this is preparatory reading for when it is.) I will hopefully finish it today.
I have a bunch of thoughts about the book, which has struck me by turns as touchingly sharp in its portrait of one very sad character (Bruno, who feels like something of an author-surrogate) and quite dull in its sweeping indictments, which amount to the assertion that this character, in his boredom and misery, is the exemplary hero of our age. It strikes me that the need to assert this – to pontificate upon the nature of society – is an index of failure as a novelist, the inability to see the world through any lens but that of his deeply alienated protagonist. That’s not how Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or Gogol’s mad diarist – or Roth’s Portnoy – earn our empathy, and through that empathy our appreciation for their understanding of the world.
I keep feeling that what Houellebecq sees as a novel of ideas is really just a novel of punditry, a degenerate notion of an idea that really amounts to an attitude or orientation. When Tolstoy or George Eliot lecture me in the midst of a novel, I put up with it because I know I am in the presence of actual ideas worth grappling with. With Houellebecq, so far at least, all I get is the feeling that I know the type, I’ve heard this before, and if I haven’t already been convinced I’m not going to be.
Perhaps that just means he was still searching for his ideal form, and perhaps now he has found it: what Mark Lilla, in his thought-provoking review of Soumission, called a “dystopian conversion tale.” We’ll see what I think when that novel comes out in English. But color me skeptical: I don’t think that ideas, the currents of civilization, can actually be blamed for one’s own personal inability to connect with other human beings or find meaning. The Elementary Particles is best when it stares unflinchingly at that condition as embodied in a single person, and worst when it engages in the evasion of blaming the world for that condition.
There’s a lesson in that for novelists – but also for pundits.