The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

This is a character study of the mid-twentieth century.  It is as much an intimate portrait of the lives of two half-brothers as it is a commentary on the state of the wider society’s approach towards sex and mortality and the male psyche.  Through Michael and Bruno, the half-brothers central to this story, the reader is exposed to two sides of the masculine coin.

On one side is Michael.  He is the scientist.  He is detached from nearly all emotions.  His vague connection to others only bubbles up in momentary fizzles and spits.  He loses himself in his work at the expense of his humanity.  Michael’s career involves genetic manipulation to free the mind of it’s urges, including the sexual ones.  On his connection to Annabelle, the female whom Michael has been associated with since childhood, Houellebecq writes:

He felt compassion for her, to the boundless reserve of love simmering inside her, which the world had wasted; it was perhaps the only human emotion which could still touch him.  As to the rest, a glacial reticence had taken over his body.  He simply could no longer love.

Michael, devotee to his job, remains too detached to feel anything for anyone.  His work consumes him, physically and emotionally.

On the other side is Bruno.  He is brutish, sex-crazed, unlikable, desperate, self-loathing.  It’s these character traits, however, that give his character credibility.  All the dirty details of Bruno’s life, from his blatant use of prostitutes, to exposing himself to children, to actively seeking sex partners with total disregard to their feelings and emotions, Bruno is a representation of the moral underbelly that is a fully accepted part of the twentieth century.  He is in constant search of satiation.  His seemingly limitless sexual cravings are in direct opposition to the feelings of his half-brother, who seeks nothing but the total removal of emotion from his life.

Houellebecq paints a wider portrait of Bruno when he brings Bruno’s son into the picture.  “I love that kid ore than anything, but I’ve never been able to accept his existence (155).”  Here, Bruno is talking to Michael and lamenting how disconnected his son is from himself, but at the same time making a statement about the state of parenthood as he knows it.  He’s willing to produce a son, but not willing to give up the life of irresponsibility he leads in order to raise his son with himself taking an active role.

Along with this detachment from the responsibility of fatherhood, Bruno is also fighting against the effects of aging, but refuses to take his health seriously.  He gets hair transplants, but gorges himself on fried food and junk as he walks down a street in Paris.  Bruno himself comments on the uselessness of the twentieth century male on page 168:

I’m useless,” he said resignedly. “I couldn’t breed pigs, I don’t have the faintest idea how to make sausages or forks or mobile phones…In fact, outside the industrialized world, I couldn’t even survive; I wouldn’t know how to feed or clothe myself, or protect myself from the weather.

With each of these comments and thoughts out of Bruno’s mouth, Houellebecq paints a more intimate portrait of Bruno, and by extension, his take on the modern male.

Houellebecq is unafraid to approach the the masculine human on every level.  Through these two main male characters, he issues a decree about how he sees the role of men in the western world, and draws his readers into making judgements about each man, while at the same time drawing lines of recognition between themselves and the characters on the page.  Each of the men, however, points to the same general direction of thought.  Disconnect, disassociation, dysfunction seem to be the hallmarks of these characters that Houellebecq is pointing out time and time again.  He refrains from pointed judgement, but allows his readers to come to their own conclusions.

This piece is influential in my own work because of how characters are created and presented.  Houellebecq simply lets the actions of his characters, and the dialogue between them, create the impressions on the reader.  He doesn’t tell, he shows.  This is a technique that is both simple and powerful, and good to remember when it comes time for me to present my own readers with a character, either from my past, or in a piece of fiction.

Leave a Reply