Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Elementary Particles - Michel Houellebecq

The sky is gray and the temperature has dropped a bit from where it had been hovering for the last week, and this weather is beautiful, today’s and that of the past couple of weeks. I am glad for this day of rest, for a day that is not so outrageously beautiful that I have to be out in it, sitting in the park with my fellow dwellers in this city, all so excited about this new season upon us and about the chance to linger outdoors after months spent minimizing our time outside. It is a chance for some alone time, which has been further aided by Niki’s departure this morning for China. The house to myself again for a couple of weeks and it feels so nice.

I started reading Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer yesterday and it was such a nice book to fall into, this writer’s voice that I love, his style of writing, his thoughts, always a pleasant experience for me, but yesterday even more so, coming to this book after having recently finished Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, a terrible book in so many ways. Houellebecq seems to have a certain currency in contemporary literature and it seems one arrived at so cheaply. His writing isn’t great. His storylines are labored things all in the service of his constantly shouted points, points that are conservative, elitist, xenophobic, and off-the-mark. And it is this edginess, this shock quality to it, which provides Houellebecq the recognition he currently has. A lot of criticism of his work has obviously been provoked by his nonsense and rather than dismissing it out of hand as conservative provocation masquerading as literature, it has engaged with it, detailing his arguments, allowing Houellebecq to be successful in creating the terms of the dialogue, a dialogue that even to argue against is to give the thing too much validity.

The argument in this book is that the sixties in France and its liberalism are to blame for what Houellebecq sees as the sad state of Western civilization now. The book reads like a joke, fatalistic to the extreme, depressed about the decline of the West, and without any irony whatsoever. It is really hard to read this book without constantly rolling one’s eyes at some of the doom and gloom generalizations of Houellebecq, which come far too often for something that is supposed to be a work of fiction (also known as art) and not a treatise on the failures of contemporary society. Take, for example, the opening paragraph:
This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared. The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.

And so to read an artist again yesterday, and such a great one, was such a comfort. I started the book in Sheep’s Meadow, lying shirtless on a blanket with Gabriel and Amanda, people all around us on blankets, filling the park, a life and happiness and energy.

This past week I spent a few days being terribly sick, swollen tonsils that made even swallowing water a painful action, one which required great effort. After recovering, I got back to enjoying this lovely spring weather, going out to parks and later to bars. I saw a ballet choreographed by Eliot Feld at the Joyce on Thursday. Friday, I saw the first half of Donizetti’s La Filled u Regiment at the Metropolitan Opera before dipping out at intermission to go lie on the piers and look at shirtless gay boys. Yesterday, I saw a preview of Joachim Trier’s Reprise at MoMA, which was lacking in magic, was more just a conventional movie storyline edited well, but lacking in oomph or something to touch me.

This week ahead I am going to drink lots of coffee, am going to wake up early, am going to do physical activity every day (either yoga or the gym), and am going to write every day. I am going to get into the habit of doing all these things I want to do each day before the distractions of evening and night time come calling. And then next week, I am hopefully going to be riding on a short bus to Short Mountain in Tennessee, though I am still waiting to hear for certain whether I can fit on this bus or if it is already full.

I am excited about classic rock, about weed, about the smell of suntan lotion, about greens, about shorts, about my body, about reading, and about writing. I feel really good as of late. Obviously, I am not going to enjoy Houellebecq, being a child of Whitman and so in love with this life, so happy with that rooster crowing in someone’s backyard, that old balloon caught in that still barren tree, and the days that lie ahead. The glass if half-full obviously and I just can’t see things his way, can’t even see how he can.

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