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  • Strolling with Houellebecq:The Textual Terrain of Postmodern Flânerie
  • Katherine Gantz (bio)

Among followers of contemporary French literature, few works have inspired inspired as much discussion and discord as Les particules élémentaires (The Elementary Particles1 ), Michel Houellebecq's 1998 notorious bestseller. Despite the provocative political and sexual content of his 2001 follow-up, Plateforme2 , it is Particules which remains the defining work of Houellebecqian controversy, variously branded as fascistic, poetic, Stalinist, daring and dangerous. Although there was little agreement following its publication on the genre and style of the novel (suggestions have included neo-nihilism, post-naturalism, and science fiction), critics then seemed to concur that Particules' disruptive presence would forge an uncharted path into literature of the twenty-first century. In the French press, one oft-repeated reaction to the novel's release speculated that Houellebecqian post-naturalism would expose and eradicate the thirty-year trend of decadent fiction grounded in weary notions of post-1968 humanism (Gopnik 64).

Les particules élémentaires contests the curious terrain of the postmodern in external ways as well. After it was awarded the Prix novembre (but not the more prestigious Prix Goncourt), the novel generated a distinctive brand of controversy questioning the explicit and implicit motives of both the text and its author. With notable overlap between his own life story and those of his characters, it is admittedly often difficult to distinguish where Houellebecq's fiction leaves off and his personal commentary begins; numerous colorful interviews between 1998–2001 suggest that this is precisely how the author prefers it.3 The widespread conflation of Houellebecq with his protagonist/narrators (all named "Michel" in his recent works) has entangled pop culture with high culture, consumers with critics, the Right with the Left. With the release [End Page 149] of Plateforme, the line dividing fiction and essay was again blurred, both in Houellebecq's writing and in his public persona. This curious sense of entitlement to issue forth such prolific social commentary on his literary travels—both as Michel the character and Michel the author—is powerfully evocative of one of Houellebecq's heroes, Charles Baudelaire. Indeed, there is ample discursive evidence (both textual and cultural) against the claim that Houellebecq's recent writing has rendered le décadentisme extinct. My thesis is twofold: first, I wish to argue that his trademark blend of le reportage and la poétique—the observational with the esthetic—connects him most significantly to the staid literary tradition of turn-of-the-century French Decadence by reviving the act of flânerie, a favorite device in Baudelaire's work as well. A worldly urban stroller, the flâneur moves among the crowds, watching, participating, but never entirely assimilating; ultimately, his exploits become the stuff of his writing, destined for a more refined and less venturesome readership. La flânerie necessitates a careful straddling of class divisions in which the working class most often serves as spectacle and, by way of the flâneur's narrative, the more affluent classes become their spectators. Houellebecq, I will contend in the second part of my argument, has redefined the nature of such divisions, effectively reconstituting the elements of turn-of-the-century flânerie in a postmodern configuration.

The debate about this novel's significance (or more specifically, that of its startling dénouement) has been featured numerous times in French newspapers—not just in the arts section, but indeed on the front page.4 When The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik reviewed Les particules élémentaires from the frontlines in Paris shortly after its publication, he astutely noted that the book is less a contemporary novel as we understand them than an updated iteration of les contes moraux, the extended parables written by les philosophes of the eighteenth century. Gopnik told his American readership that the book is "obscene, hateful, pretentious, half educated, funny, ambitious, and oddly moving" (Gopnik 64). I agree with all these attributions, and will ultimately assert that the word "familiar" should be added to this list. Contrary to those arguments which insist that Les particules élémentaires has signaled a rupture in the continuum of French fiction, I will contend that...