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In celebration of National Novel Writing Month, I am writing about a novel that changed my life.
I first read Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles in 2004 when I was nearing the end of my twenties. The notorious misanthropist’s novel of big ideas had already provoked huge controversy in France; his follow-up, Platform, even more so. Houellebecq ended up in court, accused of hate crimes, of which he was eventually exonerated. So before reading him I had some notion of what to expect. Houellebecq’s major literary innovation had been to mount a sustained critique of advanced capitalism in the form of fiction, and in particular, to expose the sexual relations that arise in a society based on relentless competition and glaring inequities.
I was in France at the time of my Houellebecq revelation. One night I went to a nightclub in La Bourboule, a tiny town in the heart of the Auvergne. I was alone; I was a single man. Nightclubs are designed to frustrate the will of people like me. But no matter, there was a pleasant enough fellow, clearly learning impaired, sitting at the bar, and I had the chance to practice my French with him, while occasionally casting lascivious glances at the girls on the dance floor. An hour or so passed and a group of rugby players approached us and for a while made vicious jokes at the expense of my bar companion. When the rugby players turned their attention to me it was to ask if I was a homosexual who was sleeping with the learning-impaired man. They tittered at their own idiotic innuendo. When they left, my bar companion gave me the saddest and most defeated look I ever saw, as if this kind of thing happened to him every day, and announced he was leaving.
I thereupon started to drink heavily, and I approached a couple of girls to ask them to dance, but I was shot down unceremoniously each time. With a sense of rage building in my heart, I decided I’d have to at least do something reckless with my night, so I switched from asking for dances to asking for drugs, approaching the most gangsterish looking men I could find. After only five minutes I had “scored.” I left the club with a young guy who had driven up that night with a small posse from Marseille. He said he had cocaine for me. The cost would be eighty euro. I didn’t have that much on me, having left my wallet in my car.
“Go get the money, then,” he urged me.
I started walking toward my car.
“Run!” he yelled.
When I returned to the club with the eighty euro, people were spilling out onto the street and it was chaotic. It took me a while to find my drug dealer. When eventually I did so, he seemed agitated.
“There are police, let’s go over here,” he said. “Let’s make this quick.”
Sure enough, there was a squad car around the corner, its blue lights pulsing against the outside walls of the club. My heart racing at the prospect of closing this deal, I pressed eighty euro into the drug dealer’s hand, he pressed a white ball into mine, and then urged me, again, to “Run!”
Back at my car, I opened my clenched fist. Inside was a ball of Kleenex in cling wrap. This was an outrage! I marched directly back to the club. By this point, my drug dealer was locked in a passionate embrace with the most beautiful girl in the village. I called out, “Hey! You ripped me off!” The drug dealer glanced over his shoulder like I was a speck of dandruff, and then turned his attention back to the girl.
Of course, with police, gangsters and beautiful girls everywhere, I had no chance of winning my case. I went back to my car defeated.
So after having lived this very Houellebecquian moment, the following night I found The Elementary Particles, and suddenly saw all the most seemingly important themes in life – including my own life – laid bare in the most precise, funny, touching, poignant and daring prose. Here was a story that talked in a disarmingly frank tone about sexual frustration, about solitude, about shame, but also about the thrill in your chest of finally meeting somebody you care about – and about so, so much more.
The Elementary Particles follows the travails of two brothers, Bruno and Michel, abandoned by their hedonistic mother. Bruno grows up to be a moderate success materially but is perennially lonely. His attempt to find pleasure and meaning at a sort of hippy commune ranks among the most hilarious plot-lines of any novel ever written. Michel, meanwhile, is a molecular biologist, who is solving the sex problem in an entirely novel way, by developing ideas that will give rise to a race of post-humans – a perfectly harmonious new species whose members are of no gender but instead have erogenous zones all over their bodies.
The two brothers launch into protracted soliloquies about Aldous Huxley, the human genome project and consumer society. You get great memorable quotations, like, “If life is an illusion it’s a pretty painful one,” or “Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so hard to give up hope.”
I dispatched the entirety of The Elementary Particles within 24 hours. To me it remains the most unputdownable book. It is a novel that has most definitely changed my life, teaching me that fiction isn’t simply entertainment or self-expression but a stage for dramatizing the most important ideas in the world.
Top image: Still from the 2006 German film adaptation of The Elementary Particles
When I started trying to write longer works of fiction, I thought that I had a certain moral framework that I was operating inside that would give my work some importance. Ha! This moral framework was a fairly superficial rejection of modern consumer society and suburbia, a rejection born mostly of a feeling of being an outsider. As an antithesis to the general shallowness of everything, I would proudly declare that every-day, banal and totally unglamorous life (versus the culture of the Spectacle) was very much worth living, because it was full of unexplored meaning. A kitchen-sink drama! I would champion the cause of the common man and woman.
Like in the film, American Beauty, I would pretentiously ponder things like the aesthetic value of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. In fact, I even posted a short video of such a scene on YouTube almost exactly two years ago, during my extended fascination with psychogeography, during which I permitted myself to call walks, not just walks, but rather, dérives in the urban environment. Above all, I would champion individualism: freedom from the conformity of suburbia and even from the bourgeois values of one’s own family.
Prior to moving to Montreal, I found Edmonton was a useful backdrop for fiction because it is a typical North American suburban city with little that is exceptional about it apart from its relative isolation and dire climate. My thinking went, “If I can create a story that is interesting, the setting of Edmonton will be different enough to mark me out from my fiction competitors, yet Edmonton will also be universal enough to invite a connection with readers from everywhere.”
Edmonton would be my equivalent of Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg! Cold, bureaucratic (home of cat bylaws!), impersonal; replete with squalor, alcoholism and sudden violence.
I pitched Blind Spot – my only book that is sort of complete – while in New York in 2007, and was first reluctant to mention the setting. But it wasn’t long before I became proud of the setting because I realized that, in the literary scene at any rate, difference had some cultural capital. A few jokes about “the Mall” and Wayne Gretzky and I was off on a good footing with editors from some major publishing houses, all of whom looked at Canada with a certain fondness. One editor said, a bit enviously, “’You guys give grants to publishers up there!”
But my preoccupation with marketability was premature. Meanwhile, the publishing scene was changing rapidly before my eyes. Publishing was teetering in 2007; the recession has now killed the chances of most new writers of getting a hearing.
So it is time to forget about publishing and get back to the more important job of actually writing. Of course, somebody as self-important and navel-gazing as me is bound to occasionally feel paralysed about the question of writing – especially when one gives up on the immediacy of publishing a novel , and you know, mad cash – because the question of “What is the point?” returns with ever-greater urgency. It would be totally boring to summarise all the ways in which the world has turned out to be a disappointment to me – the final nail in the coffin of my “practical idealism” being the failure of the eloquent but morally bankrupt Barack Obama – nevertheless, times as desperate as these are bound to give pause to anyone doing something as ostensibly pointless as writing a book.
But there is a point. At least a very personal one.
2009 was the year I became convinced that there was no other viable critique of all those things I had disdained (fast food, strip malls, vinyl-sided houses, car culture, etc etc etc) besides Marxism. Any other critique was founded on… well… what exactly? I should hate suburbia because it was dull? I should reject car culture because… uh… individuals were cut off from one another and thus living hollow lives? I should reject accumulation of wealth because it was crass and ugly, and it was cooler and more bohemian to live on less? All this put me ever more nauseatingly in the camp of a European-style elitist pining for the 1920s Left Bank or something. And, of course, because I was that way, I often hated myself. But still I persisted in this vein, even in Montreal, because being a nauseating person has its artistic merits: you can plumb the depths of your own awfulness à la Notes from Underground and perhaps make a point (and even if nobody is listening, it both validates your own awfulness, but also, in a perversely affirming way, the awfulness of society itself)…
A while ago, I wrote to friends of mine “the Left must own things, must do things [in order to make a difference]” perhaps because I was so frustrated with the seeming impotence of the left. But, of course, it only took a few more years of reading to realize that the left had been well aware of its own impotence all along. Moreover, talking about the necessity of “owning” things doesn’t always sit well with lefties. For good reason.
But the current impotence of the left in no way diminishes the relevancy and urgency of Marxist thought. Starting with the election of Obama, and following through to the current day, the combination of my own lived experience and events in general have compelled me to abandon my previous “practical” worldview.
Previously I would have said that Canada’s Liberal party, since Trudeau, had a proud tradition of promoting social justice and respect for diversity and redistributive economic practices that held this country together and made it a better place. Now I would say that the Liberal party, like all modern political parties, is held hostage by the corporate elite and by the seemingly inescapable “logic” of capitalism: we depend on it to live, hence we must surrender to it almost everything of value.
Previously I decried the shrillness of leftist agitators who seemed to move in predictable patterns: pro-labour, anti-capital, pro-environment, anti-comforts of consumer life. Because, you know, I claimed to want to champion the “common man and woman” – and, of course, the common man and woman adore their consumer goods.
Previously I thought the academy was a bastion of interesting yet impractical thought.
What I have slowly and very painfully come to realize over the course of the last year is that there is really no compromising with capitalism. Or more simply put, capitalism is not a compromising system. There is no internal failsafe to it that says, “Whoa, we’ll stop there for the sake of human decency!” If there were cash to be made from spitting or pissing on a human being, you can be sure that someone would do it. Why am I using the conditional tense? Much of modern pornography depends on such scenes of ritual degradation.
I had for many years understood, of course, that even in times of unrivalled prosperity, capitalism both creates and depends upon human misery and suffering – no fiction writer has captured that better than Michel Houellebecq. But this year, the understanding became far more personal and nuanced. It was a pivotal year for me in realizing that in the very city I live in, I am personally a victim of power’s refusal to concede an inch.
In Edmonton, it was easier to live in the illusion that prosperity can, as it were, raise the tide for everyone, and make all of us (who work hard!) richer. But in Montreal, which lives without the bubble of Alberta’s natural resource wealth, class struggle is more visible to the eye – and to the ear. Working-class Francophones of Hochelaga do not speak the same way as the elite of Outremont (where Mayor Tremblay lives). Alberta had Ralph Klein, the populist, who spoke the same way as any relatively intelligent trucker, welder, teacher, farmer. In Montreal, the lexicon of the rich and poor are often very different.
The old version of me – still persisting in a European sense of self – would have thought, oh, that old Montreal money, at least it’s more cultured and sophisticated. And surely that’s good for everybody (as if culture, like wealth, is the tide that lifts all boats).
But culture and sophistication can simply be an elegant way of camouflaging exploitation.
Power and wealth – whether we’re talking old money or the nouveau riche – consistently and unrelentingly relies upon exploitation. You can’t accumulate wealth without extracting value from somebody else. It’s the very definition of profit.
Well, we could be still OK with that. After all, the so-called logic of capitalism is that everyone has a shot at ascending to a level of power that affords him or her the chance to exploit and thus profit from others, and provided that this chance is available to all, then nobody has any right to complain too vehemently; to do so is to simply be a sore loser.
Did I want to be among society’s sore losers?! Hell no!
And I still don’t want to be among society’s sore losers.
So what I aim to do to be a winner in life (!) is to continue to write. Because I now believe, more strongly than ever, that writing is the only tool available to me to help further an understanding of myself and my world. But I am not continuing in the same vein as before, with a scattershot moral outlook that is born from a sense of rejection and isolation. The comforts of Marxism are history, culture, community, and an ongoing body of work to help guide my own awkward fumbling in the dark.
I am still inspired by this essay by Susan Sontag that suggests that the act of narration is the act of choosing what is of value among the infinite number of choices available to a writer, and that by making choices, by saying “this is important and not that,” we make a moral statement to the world. We say, “pay attention to this.”
Previously, I would have said, “Pay attention to the ugliness of the modern suburb!” But this was a dead end, because it was an elitist statement and also one with no conflict within it, and stories still need conflict, even in the hypertextual, hyperlinking age. I had come to a judgement about the suburbs – a judgement shared by a lot of likeminded souls – but having made the judgement, I was left with nothing viable to offer except a stupid plastic bag floating in the wind. Not exactly original. Moreover, anyone with any intelligence and aesthetic sense could admire a plastic bag. Plastic bags don’t change anything.
I would like to think that the path forward, for me anyway, lies in exploring the consequences of capitalism on our thoughts and behaviour and then finding the zones of freedom where we can escape, or where we can create a zone of resistance. The project Houellebecq began with L’extension de la domaine de la lutte and then The Elementary Particles, should not be over, even if Houellebecq himself doesn’t write nearly as well as he once did.
Of course, I cannot and should not seek to be a Houellebecq; I’ve got the particularity of my own experience to draw upon, not to mention, that of my friends. I’ve also got a new city to call home; a city I never tire of exploring and seeking to understand.
A lot of this might sound like it’s going to make for a very dry and boring project. But as my experience with Sexy béton has proved, art with serious intent – even in today’s cynical world – can still be profoundly moving. Duh!
I am often excited, feeling short of time – short of breath even – at the prospect of the many, many things about which I can still say, “Pay attention to this!” Even if I may often say “pay attention” to something that a hundred people before me have said “pay attention” to, hopefully I’ll be standing at a sufficiently different angle to the subject to bring a new light. And even if I fail, it doesn’t matter, because failures on the page are forgiving, whereas failures in life sometimes are not.
What comforts me is that now, without needing recourse to religion, which often is one night’s missed sleep away from insanity, Marxism affords the possibility of tapping into a worldview that constantly replenishes and renews one’s store of metaphors and insights every time one sips from it. It makes for a fascinating vantage point from which to, say, examine the economy of the World Wide Web, with all its scams and hacks and degrading imagery and communities of freaks and fools and friends. It makes for a robust understanding of the relations between very different people – the Hochelaga francophones and the Outrement elite.
More importantly, it means not being alone. It is both arrogant and terrifying to think one has one’s own unique worldview, especially when the worldview is founded on hallucinations, memories, repression, and fear.
Writing without publishing is the most invigourating freedom available to me.