Houellebecq’s controversial novel, which caused an uproar in France last year, finally reaches our shores. Whether it will make similar waves here remains to be . An international literary phenomenon, The Elementary Particles is a frighteningly original novel–part Marguerite Duras and part Bret Easton Ellis-that. A review, and links to other information about and reviews of The Elementary Particles / Atomised by Michel Houellebecq.

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Houellebecq’s novel is a damning indictment of modern society or rather: He depicts it as an empty wasteland that has been “atomised” as people have lost themselves in individuality, society itself crumbling as people seem incapable of forming meaningful bonds or ties — or being in love. Houellebecq is relentless in his attack — until, that is, the bizarre, uplifting? Much houelebecq the novel shows how horrible and empty modern life is.

It centers on two half-brothers, the prominent scientist Michel Djerzinski and hapless teacher Bruno.

They are children of broken homes and a broken society, floundering about, looking for a purpose. Bruno wallows houelebecq sex: The brilliant Michel loses himself in his work, and has houdllebecq no personal life. Michel walks away from his work for a time, to take a year off to “think”, but in the end turns back to it, losing himself completely in it.

Houellebecq’s novel is a curious but largely successful mix of description and philosophizing.

The Elementary Particles

The year of Michel’s sabbatical frames most of the novel, though there are many scenes and accounts from earlier in Bruno and Michel’s lives, showing how they got to where they are and who they became. Bruno and Michel are not really representative of the society Houellebecq attacks, though they can be seen as extreme consequences of it.

Bruno’s childhood and adolescence is miserable — “his entire adolescence was a disaster” — while Michel survives by isolating himself, his life almost entirely cerebral. School life is intolerable beyond pure academics, into which Michel retreats and all the boys wretches. Teenage boys are consistently portrayed as the lowest form of life; “there’s nothing more stupid, hateful or obnoxious than a teenage boy”, Houellebecq insists throughout the book.

Matters are not helped by Bruno’s and Michel’s indifferent parents: Bruno is consumed by sex from the time he first becomes aware of it, but there is little pleasure to go with it. His life continues to be sordid and pathetic, “a melodrama where the characters were babes and dogs, hot guys and bitches. Most of the time those involved seem merely to be going through the motions, because it is the thing to. Bruno actually marries and has a child, but the marriage naturally fails and his relationship with his son also looks doomed.

Meanwhile, Michel continues to live what is basically “a houellebfcq intellectual existence”, without love and without even much friendship. Once he has set his bleak scene Houellebecq offers a glimmer of hope: Michel meets a childhood friend, Annabelle, a girl he should have been involved with in school something he was unable to do then. They get together in a temporarily happy union of sorts. Bruno also meets an appropriate mate in Christiane, particcles there is still quite some emptiness there as they look for fulfillment by joining other couples in group sex and the like.


In some of the most curious scenes in this novel Houellebecq disposes of these two women. Partocles if readers hadn’t gotten the message yet that sex is generally not a good thing in modern society Houellebecq uses the two to show what it can lead to. The simplistic ends are then predictable as they both take the inevitable if elementaty necessarily honourable way out.

The Elementary Particles (Atomised) – Michel Houellebecq

Men take the brunt of Houellebecq’s attacks as he blames them for almost everything, but in contemporary society he finds women’s identities so closely tied to their role as sexual partner and mother that if they are incapable of filling these roles they see themselves as having no further purpose — a point not handled with much finesse here. There’s an awful lot of sex in this novel, in many variations, but Houellebecq’s descriptions put it on par with bodily functions such as defecation.

While sometimes pleasurable it is basically a simple necessity, often unavoidable, and often unpleasant and embarrassing. Houellebecq reinforces his point constantly with grisly, sordid, and humiliating descriptions of sex acts. From snuff films to failed attempts to masturbate, from working over flaccid penises to the most premature ejaculations conceivable, Houellebecq covers it all. Readers might want to shower after reading the book, but there will certainly be no need for a cold shower.

Houellebecq’s characters are grateful for a declining interest in and ability to perform sexual acts as they age, but it doesn’t come soon enough for readers. Houellebecq agrees that sex is central to society — that’s why there is so much of it in this book — but he certainly takes a dim view of it or rather: Love is an ideal that still, vaguely exists, but is shown to be practically an impossibility in this society.

Houellebecq’s critique is not simpleminded, though the presentation occasionally lacks subtlety. There is analysis to go with the descriptions, and a fair amount of philosophizing on the side, much of it quite interesting.

Where Michel turns to science, Bruno is a would-be poet and writer achieving very limited success. It is too neat a separation, two sides of the author himself, divided for literary effect, but Houellebecq uses them quite effectively to make his points.

Bruno is the greater failure in life. His outlook is Nietzschean “pretty second-rate Nietzschean at that” he silently admitsand the end he chooses runs fairly true to form. It is in Michel, the brilliant biologist, that Houellebecq places his greater hopes. The book does not end in the present day, but rather looks ahead at another ten years or so of work by Michel, and then provides an epilogue which summarizes what happened in the decades after.

Good things — sort of — happen, all based on Michel’s insightful discoveries. They are also odd things. The world is remade, and it is a better place — sort of. Houellebecq briefly presents a utopian or dystopian vision — what the future might hold. It is a brave and disorienting jump — and it is also a too-easy out in a philosophical fiction of this sort. Still, it works quite well, and he almost pulls it off.

It is too easy a way of “proving” where we might be headed and what the consequences of the present are, specifically because what proof he offers is not always entirely convincing. The biology and sociology also get a bit too fuzzy at the end, with Michel’s great works simply condensed to their essence i. It is certainly meant tongue in cheek, as much of the criticism Bruno offers applies to author Houellebecq as well: Oh, Huxley was a terrible writer, I admit.

His writing is pretentious and clumsy, his characters are bland ciphers, but he had one vital premonition: He may have lacked style or finesse or psychological insight, but that’s insignificant compared to the brilliance of the original concept. Bruno is praising Brave New World ” Brave New World is our idea of heaven”, he convincingly suggestsand Houellebecq clearly wants his book be considered in much the same light.


Throughout The Elementary ParticlesHouellebecq is at pains to point out the scientific basis of many of his own claims, leading to odd but also oddly fascinating asides. Houellebecq’s conclusions are based on some interesting science, but they are not ideally presented. One summary of an experiment leads him to state that “random mutation seemed more efficient than natural selection”.

As soon as the genome has been decoded which would be in a matter of monthshumanity would have complete control of its evolution, and when that happened sexuality would be seen for what it really was: You don’t have to be Richard Lewontin see our review of It Ain’t Necessarily So to be annoyed by such a frivolous misstatement of scientific fact.

And one can just be glad that Houellebecq does not explain how Michel “was able, through somewhat risky interpretations of the postulates of quantum mechanics, to restore the possibility of love”. This statement is inexcusable drivel, by the way, and it says something about Houellebecq’s accomplishment that despite this the book itself hokellebecq still be considered worthwhile. Houellebecq’s dark partlcles, culminating in “the most radical of Djerzinski’s proposals” and radical it isis, on a theoretical level, a bit tough to take.

In practice, however, dressed up in this fictional form, Houellebecq offers a thoughtful entertainment. The Elementary Particles is a philosophical novel in best French tradition, though times have changed from the s and note that the generation get thoroughly hammered here. Part of the fun for American and English audiences also lies in this rather different view of France Houellebecq presents.

In the prologue Houellebecq writes that France “was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries”, a statement of such incredible stupidity that it takes ones breath away France remains one of the world’s wealthiest and best-developed countries, and at least on the development scale literacy, technology, health-care the French have never been as well off as they are now — or so far ahead of so many other nations.

Such homeland-bashing is, of course, common among writers, but Houellebecq takes on too big a target. Lots of the bashing is valid, but much else is not, and he undermines his valid points when he makes statements such as this that are so completely and obviously inaccurate. Houellebecq remains surprisingly provincial. There is some larger criticism of Western culture, the failure of religion, and questions of race, but almost nothing in the book acknowledges particlfs world outside the petty one Bruno and Michel inhabit.

Save the e-mails from academic institutions and research facilities abroad that Michel receives and some elemwntary rants there does not even seem to be much of an outside world.

Tellingly, Michel does finally flee France for Ireland, following Houellebecq’s own footstepsbut little of that world is presented.

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq sees the societal ailments transcending France — grandiosely he says of Annabelle and Michel: A wild, weird book, with much that is off-putting, The Elementary Particles nevertheless tries very hard and achieves a number of successes. It is a fascinating if often frustrating read. Recommended, though readers should be aware of what they are in for.

Note that there is a lot of sex in The Elementary Particles — generally of the gratuitous, unpleasant, and unfulfilling variety. Erotica it ain’t, and often it houellebecw downright off-putting. Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs. The Elementary Particles – US. The Elementary Particles – Canada. Le particelle elementari – Italia.

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