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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

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The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
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Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
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Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Les Particules élémentaires - Michel Houellebecq You can interpret this book in several different ways. A lot of people view it as a depressing, hate-filled rant, filled with a really startling amount of unpleasant sex. I'm not saying that that's necessarily incorrect. In fact, my immediate association was with the fictitious books that Moreland invents in one of the Anthony Powell novels: "Seated One Day at my Organ", by the author of "One Hundred Disagreeable Sexual Experiences". But I think there are more interesting ways of reading Les Particules, which show that it's not as pointless as it first appears.

So, after considering it a while, I'd say that this is basically a book about sexual frustration. Bruno, the main character, has an extremely active libido, but is unfortunately not at all attractive; he's fat, ugly and lacks charm. He spends his days in a constant agony of unfulfilled desire. I recently read Hamsun's Hunger; the poor guy in Hamsun is broke and hungry, and no matter what he tries to think about he always comes back to money and food within a few minutes. Hamsun's very brave about showing how degrading this is for him. Bruno's plight is similar. He's not getting any sex, and that's all HE can think about. And in fact it's not unreasonable to argue that Houellebecq is being brave too in describing just how humiliating that is for him. The author could put it in general terms, or he could indirectly suggest it, but a detailed description of how Bruno masturbates over his algebra notes while watching girls on the train drives it home far more effectively:
Il prenait l'autorail de Crécy-la-Chapelle. Chaque fois que c'était possible (et c'était presque toujours possible), il s'installait en face d'une jeune fille seule. La plupart avaient les jambes croisées, une chemisier transparent, ou autre chose. Il ne s'installait vraiment en face, plûtot en diagonale, mais souvent sur la même banquette, à moins de deux mètres. Il bandait déjà en apercevant les longs cheveux, blonds ou bruns; en choisissant une place, en circulant entre les rangées, la douleur s'avivait dans son slip. Au moment de s'asseoir, il avait déjà sortit un mouchoir de sa poche. Il suffisait d'ouvrir un classeur, de le poser sur ses cuisses; en quelques coups c'était fait. Parfois, quand la fille décroissait les jambes au moment où il sortait sa bite, il n'avait même pas besoin de se toucher; il se libérait d'un jet en apercevant la petite culotte. La mouchoir était une sécurité, en général il éjaculait sur les pages du classeur: sur les équations de second degré, sur les schémas d'insectes, sur la production de charbon de l'URSS. La fille poursuivait la lecture de son magazine.
But why does Bruno feel this terrible, and what does it say about our society? Houellebecq has some interesting observations about how free-market economics have entered into people's personal lives; having also read Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine in the near past, this resonated rather well. In the economic sphere, Klein argues persuasively that the logical long-term result is a world where Dick Cheney and his immediate circle of friends own almost everything, and a good 40% of the world owns nothing. In the sexual sphere, the corresponding long-term result is a world where no one really wants to fuck anybody except Scarlett Johansson or Megan Fox (depending on whether they prefer blondes or brunettes), and will not even consider fucking anyone who isn't young and thin.

Bruno exemplifies this horrible state of being; thwarted sexual desire has turned his life into a living hell, and Houellebecq is psychologically credible in showing how it progressively destroys him, making him hate everyone and everything. One interesting angle is that the book contrasts the materialistic world-view that has him in its jaws against the traditional Christian world-view. It's probably not an accident that, when Bruno does in the end meet a woman who truly loves him, she's called Christiane. Here's another example of how the graphic descriptions of sex are not as gratuitous as they first appear. Bruno has just spent a very happy week with Christiane, but must leave:
Bruno avait déjà plié sa tente et rangé ses affaires dans la voiture; il passa sa dernière nuit dans la caravane. Au matin, il essaya de pénétrer Christiane, mais cette fois il echoua, il se sentit ému et nerveux. "Joue sur moi" dit-elle. Elle étala le sperme sur son visage et sur ses seins. "Viens me voir" dit-elle encore une fois au moment où il passait la porte. Il promit de venir.
In a Brigade Mondaine novel, this would just be pornographic. Here, it comes across as a rather moving scene. I felt very sorry for poor Christiane; it was already clear that things couldn't possibly work out well.

The part of the novel I found least engaging was the thread that followed Michel, Bruno's half-brother. Instead of experiencing life as one long torment of desire, Michel hardly feels desire at all. He becomes a biophysicist, and eventually finds a way to create an immortal race of asexual beings, which duly replace humanity. I wasn't very convinced by any of this, partly because Houellebecq seems to be unaware that biologists have spent a lot of time wondering about why it is that sexual reproduction is a good idea. It's an interesting story, and deserves to be treated with more respect. I don't think, however, that we need to discuss whether Michel's idea makes scientific sense; I don't believe Houellbecq is seriously saying that we should find a way to evolve away from sex, any more than Brecht in The Tutor is seriously suggesting autocastration as a solution. He's just saying that the pain that sex and love cause people is such that you're willing to consider an extreme solution in order to escape from it.

Unfortunately, Houellebecq has loaded up with scientific buzzwords, but doesn't seem to have any deep understanding, and I found the quantum mechanics much more irritating than the pornography. For example, I suppose that all the references to the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen gedankenexperiment are intended to suggest that Bruno and Michel are inextricably bound together, quantum-entangled in fact; their mother is the source, Bruno and Michel are the two electrons. But if you insist on a quantum-mechanical metaphor, a particle/anti-particle pair seems both more obvious and easier to understand; invoking EPR is basically just too fucking clever. Which is a reasonable criticism of the whole book in fact.


I discovered yesterday evening that Les Particules is listed in 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. Well... I suppose I agree. Though I'm also warning you that it could significantly advance the date of your demise.