Sunday, February 24

The Elementary Particles

The Elementary Particles is a tale of two French half brothers who have only a glancing relationship with one another. Bruno Clément is a sometimes schoolteacher and full-time sex addict, Michel Djerzinski is a hermitic molecular biologist who changes the course of human existence. Somewhat less successfully, The Elementary Particles is an indictment of human society, probing topics such as the decay of civilization, the decline of religion, and the rise of consumerism and materialism. The novel packs quite a punch but is ultimately frustrating and uneven. I reject much of what Houellebecq espouses but I can understand why many find him brilliant.

Michiko Kakutani did not enjoy this book. In fact, it sounds like she hated it, "As a piece of writing, The Elementary Particles feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read."

I can’t really disagree with that. Nor, however, can I disagree with Paul Gent's assessment in the Sunday Telegraph, "Again and again Houellebecq digs below our platitudes to expose the raw and uncomfortable feelings we are often afraid to admit to ourselves. His bitterness is that of the disappointed idealist. You may remain convinced that Houellebecq is wrong in his relentlessly bleak assessment of society and human nature. But the novel makes you re-examine your beliefs, which is the kind of bracing challenge that literature is for. This is a brave and rather magnificent book."

It is a repugnant read. Houellebecq's nihilism is unpleasant, his characters are miserable human beings, and the multitude of pornographic passages can be off-putting. But there's a boldness here that is to be admired to go along with pleasing rations of humor. Houellebecq is not someone I would like to have tea with but sharing 264 pages with him was more than tolerable. The epilogue, detailing the extreme step taken to save humanity from its downfall, is bleak yet oddly beautiful. So, too, is the rest of the novel.

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