Book Review: Michel Houllebecq’s The Elementary Particles

The Elementary ParticlesThe Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When in France… Well, I’d heard about Houellebecq for years but never picked up anything until ‘The Elementary Particles’, much celebrated and much discussed, though I stayed away from reviews until I finished the book. It seemed like a good book to read in Paris.

Immediately, I was swept into the book: the story of two half-brothers, both emotionally crippled but one withdrawn into the world of science and intellect and the other plodding along in an unhappy life in pursuit of sexual… not satisfaction, but release and distraction.

I loved how quickly the author drew the stories of the main characters and their worlds, with drive and flair, setting them within a social, political, philosophical and economic context, with references to philosophy, physics and genetics. I loved how unafraid the author was to express opinions and to really create a story that tries to grapple with intellectual and moral questions through his characters. I read the depressed and nihilistic characters as satire, a parody, that was telling me about worlds I am unfamiliar with.

But then the book sort of stalled. As brother Bruno is hanging out at a new age enlightenment wilderness retreat, hoping to get laid, it started to feel that there was little satire and that the author in fact shared the views of his characters, anti-religion, anti-Muslim, dismissive of homosexuals; both brothers are deeply damaged by their childhoods, unhealthy in their relationship with the world and others in it.

I completely lost patience when he killed his third female character by suicide. This after a world which felt like wish fulfilment where women exist simply to offer up their bodies to men’s taking, stroking their egos, even helping initiate them into orgies and couple-swaps. I had no problem with the sexual explicitness; I disliked that the sex felt like such joyless fantasy.

He gives one woman spinal necrosis, and the next uterine cancer, and then has both of them commit suicide as a combination of the hopelessness of their condition and their abandonment by male lovers who were too damaged to really care about them fully. It’s strange enough that an author would repeat a major plot device only a few chapters after he’d used it the first time, but this plot device: really?

There is philosophical coherence, a narrative flair that one of the brother’s brilliance leads to scientific discovery and that the hope for humanity lies in cloning… and thus avoiding human relationships, sexual encounters and other messiness. Therefore, it makes sense that all the characters end in misery. But I found, in the end, that I felt a bit like a fool for have entered into this dark world, that illuminated neither my light nor dark.

Finishing the book, I read the reviews to find some ardent fans, and some prominent non-French critics who wonder what the fuss is about. ‘…bilious, hysterical and oddly juvenile,’ said Anthony Quinn in the New York Times, which made me laugh, while the grande dame of literary criticism, Michiko Kakutani, also of the NYT, called the book ‘repellent’, written by someone who ‘despairs of the human condition’.

I can imagine some friends liking the vehement anti-religiosity of the book, and finding his ferocious cynicism and grumpiness appealing… but I won’t be exploring any more of M. Houllebecq’s oeuvre.

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