I've never been intimidated when people ask me to name my favorite novel. Granted, I can't limit my answer to just one, but there's definitely an elite faction of novels in e.r.c's library, which includes Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Coetzee's Disgrace, Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. And then there's the upper echelon--the "top shelf"--where Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Pamuk, Roth, Bellow, Kundera, Barthelme, etc. sit, perhaps discontentedly.
I've usually tried to whittle the qualifying difference between the A and B Team down to a simple pair of values: the quality of the prose and the quality of the ideas. I read Graham Greene and I'm overwhelmed: stunned by the mastery of his prose and and inwardly moved by the ideas the works convey.
With this prose/idea rubric in mind, I've been thinking about the last two books I read, A.S. Byatt's Possession and Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles. Both belong on the upper shelf; both fail to uphold both of the characteristics I attribute to great fiction. Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 2006, tells the story of a pair of scholars who uncover a long-hidden relationship between their respective figures of study; in the arduous process of literary excavation, the male-poet-expert and the lady-poetess-expert fall in love. Academia has never looked so sort-of-sexy.
Byatt's elaborate, Tolkien-esque fabrication of the poets' verses and letters (the novel is stuffed with carefully constructed, chronologically accurate excerpts) is admirable. One can easily get lost in the lush, beautiful language, which--paired with a tolerable literary-mystery and love story--propels the plot forward at a breakneak pace. But while the back cover declares that the novel is one of "ideas," I found a surprising dearth of conceptual intrigue. Both scholars in the novel claim to be more motivated by text rather than biography, but there's not a lot of textual analysis, and a whole lot of biographical unraveling.
The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq's (am I spelling this right?) detached, ostensibly nihilistic (apparently the New York Times called the novel "repugnant", intermittently lurid tale of a pair of French brothers with antithetical social disorders has the opposite problem: it is a novel of ideas, but not a work of enchanting prose.
These ideas, though, are fascinating. Houellebecq is obsessed with the question: How does the post-materialist man handle day to day existence? Once war has been conquered by religion, and religion has been conquered by science, and science by unknowability, humanity is left floundering in a post-structuralist pool of uncertainty, where it is unable to reconcile its physical needs (sex, existence) with its metaphysical ones (love, philosophy).
But, as with Byatt, Houellebecq attempts to anchor the novel with a device that carries no real weight; this device is, per the novel's title, the scientist brother's (Michel) studies, which culminate in a post-humous retrospective on his discovery of the "elixir of life"--man's ability to reproduce asexually, rupturing the connection between sex and selfhood. The theoretical implications of this idea, when tied with the physical/metaphysical conflicts that drive the plot, are truly compelling. Claiming, however, that Michel discovered that love "was possible" (252) feels contrived and irreconciliable with the shallow scientific claims of the novel.