Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book #54: The Other Side of My Bookshelf

"Darwinians, with their unconscious teleology, as usual put forward hypotheses about the possible selective advantages of the emergence of consciousness, but, as usual, these didn't explain anything; they were just so-so stories, no more.  Then again, the anthropogenic model was hardly more convincing: life had thrown up something which could contemplate itself, a mind capable of understanding it, but so what?  That in itself didn't make understanding human consciousness any easier."                                                           -Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles

A couple weeks ago, my agent Sam had a bunch of us over, and upon opening the second bottle of wine, one of the other writers there put forth the question: if you had to recommend just one book to the group, what would it be?  We went around the room, and people waxed lyrical about Flannery O'Connor, Marguerite Duras and Toni Morrison . . . all beloved friends on my bookshelf.  But Sam's choice caught my attention: The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq.  I was struck by this title because I have it on my bookshelf - or to be more precise, I should say we have it on our bookshelf.  When my boyfriend Chris and I moved in together a little over a year ago, we combined our two book collections into an encyclopedic wall of books, and I often find myself, late at night, if I can't sleep, venturing over to the shelves dominated by Camus, Sartre and Musil - all those existentialist Continental authors whom I've never really gotten into.  The Elementary Particles was tucked alongside this set.  I'd observed Chris flipping through it and rereading sections a few times; he'd mentioned that the novel had stayed with him.  So in picking up this book, I had high hopes indeed: I was hoping to gain insight into both my agent's and boyfriend's unique minds (and the male mind more generally, if such an abstraction can be said to exist).

I was not disappointed.  The Elementary Particles puts under the microscope the strange, symbiotic relationship between two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, who on the surface appear polar opposites.  Michel is an almost asexual, brilliantly gifted molecular biologist whose only sense of connection to humanity is through his beloved body of research into the origins of human consciousness and individuality from the primal muck of animal life.  Bruno, on the other hand, is animal man incarnate.  The novel traces the vicissitudes in their love lives, as Michel is granted a second chance with Annabelle, his childhood sweetheart, a girl of extraordinary delicate beauty, and Bruno find love in the most unlikely of places: at a beachside orgy, where he meets Christiane, a cynical older woman whose taste for orgies proves not at all incompatible with a sensitive, wonderfully generous soul.  Fleeting moments of connection and lyrical beauty are possible in such relationships, the author seems to suggest, but in the end both Michel's and Bruno's affections are exposed as elusive and unstable.  Perhaps the most moving scene occurs just after Christiane has been paralyzed - depriving her of the carnal pleasure so core to her being.  Bruno steps forward for a glimmering moment:  "He kissed her on both cheeks, then on the lips. 'Now you can come to Paris and move in with me,' he said.  'Are you sure that's what you want?'  He didn't answer, or at least he hesitated."

Ultimately, Bruno's disappointment with his own inability to overcome the bounds of his own selfishness and believe in a form of love that transcends the fragile, ruined body seems to be at the heart of the author's disenchantment with the human race.  Yet I was surprised to discover that some reviewers - most notably, The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani - have dismissed this novel as nothing more than an unsparing case study of humanity's vileness.  For me, Michel's and Bruno's search for something more - whatever that "more" might be (a new mode of existence? a new mode of writing? a new way of inhabiting the world and our bodies?) - is a pay-off unto itself.  Reading about their search and its tragic limits filled me with melancholy awe and moments of piercing awareness that few authors are capable of provoking.

Photo from: here  


No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails

About Me

My photo
Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.