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The Elementary Particles

A book by Michel Houellebecq

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Better read for its hopeful ideas, not its naughty bits

  • Jun 16, 2003
I read this six months ago, and over this period I've kept thinking about this book. One reviewer suggests that you read not Camus but Cordwainer Smith instead--an apt comparison perhaps lost on the existentialist coffeehouse denizens. Like pseudonymous Smith, MH provides stimulating critiques of the status quo via rather overly complicated stories. While in science fiction, where Smith's relegated, such an exchange of thought for sometimes less assured fictional skill is an expected tradeoff for readers, it seems many who bristle at MH's rants against the "new boss same as the old boss" fall into an easy trap set up by an author all too eager to goad and provoke.

I liked the novel of ideas underneath the posturing surface of sex, drugs, rock n'roll. I barely noticed any explicitness in the content--but as I'm the same age as MH, maybe we're unshockable--part of the author's point, no? Again, the distance of translation must be acknowledged--in French perhaps his prose slaps you harder? (3 1/2 stars in English, therefore...)

What leaves an impression with me months later is the longing for transcendence that the novel conveys. In fact, the conclusion moved me greatly, and I'm about as sentimental as MH (or at least as he claims to be in his press kit). MH captures a contemporary yearning for fulfillment that many readers might flinch from--the lonely keyboardist being a figure all too familiar to online bibliophiles. I would have liked 90% of the novel to have focused upon the reformation of the world rather than only in the end chapter within which such interesting visions are locked. (Parts of the conclusion reminded me of the Fritjof Capra talkathon film "Mindwalk"--for all the pluses and minuses that brings--the philosophical dia/trialogue borrowed from Galileo for our New Age, and another French setting!) True, there'd be less lucrative raunch, but more nourishing content. The manifesto quality of this chapter shows in fact that MH's true skill might lie more in social criticism than fiction, but that's a genre that sells even worse, and is less likely to grab profiles in the NY Times Magazine--which is how I first heard of MH, after all!

I'm adding to this, although it's chronologically buried for all but the most assiduous scourer of back reviews, that this novel, despite its flaws, is the one to start with; Platform's take on sexual tourism and the travel industry and The Possibility of an Island's return to the cloning scenario that ends The Elementary Particles both extend intriguingly (if no less clumsily as fiction rather than essays--perhaps where Houllebecq's true calling lies, but you cannot in that format play with the imaginative possibilities so teasingly!) elements first raised in TEP.

MH has lamented the effort put into his first novel, Whatever, when it failed to arouse the lumpenintellectualariat against the consumer cyber age all we amazonians admittedly enjoy. But I'd counter that the debates raised on this website show how much his critique rouses exactly the debate he'd earlier hoped for...

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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #48
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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About this book


Bruno and Michel are half-brothers, born to a hippie mother who believed in following her bliss. As boys they live in ignorance of each other--at one point attending the same school without knowing of their blood connection. As grown men they're not truly close, but they occasionally phone each other late at night. Bruno's a hopeless sexual obsessive, often drunk or on his way there, and Michel's a molecular biologist, distant and inaccessible.

Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles follows these brothers through the latter half of the 20th century. Bruno and Michel are buffeted by history, vessels of disappointment and desire rocked by the ocean of time. Shuttled away to a boarding school where he's sexually abused by other boys, Bruno grows up full of twisted sexual longings and a contempt for aging women so palpable that at times it's stomach-churning. At a commune in the country, Bruno takes stock:

The women were intolerable at breakfast, but by cocktail hour the mystical tarts were hopelessly vying with younger women once again. Death is the great leveler. On Wednesday afternoon he met Catherine, a fifty-year-old who had been a feminist of the old school. She was tanned, with dark curly hair; she must have been very attractive when she was twenty. Her breasts were still in good shape, he thought when he saw her by the pool, but she had a fat ass.
Michel doesn't hate women; he doesn't even notice them. Instead of leering at bodies by the pool, he stares at particles...
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ISBN-10: 0375727019
ISBN-13: 978-0375727016
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Publisher: Vintage

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