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Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Elementary Particles (1998) by Michel Houellebecq


Book Review
The Elementary Particles (1998)
 by Michel Houellebecq

   French author Michel Houellebecq is the reigning bad boy of French literature.  His most recent novel, Submission, was an exercise in speculative fiction which imagined a France that has willingly capitulated to a vocal Muslim minority.  It led to howls of protest from certain quarters of the literary establishment, but such howls are par for the course for Houellebecq, a pattern he established with the success of The Elementary Particles (called Atomised in the UK edition), his second novel, and the work that established him as one of the only writers from France in the 1990's who got his books translated into English, and read by audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

   It is easier to describe The Elementary Particles than to say what, exactly it is about.   Two half brothers are essentially abandoned by their mother, a pleasure seeking 1960's era hippie type, with money, who is only interested in herself (after this book was published, Houellebecq's actual mother made a huge stink about how she was nothing like the mother in The Elementary Particles.  One son, Bruno, becomes a pleasure obsessed sybarite, with the whole of his being focused on obtaining sexual pleasure.  Michel, the other son, becomes a scientist, whose research leads to the extinction of the human race in favor of a sexless successor race.
 
  The ending makes the rest of the book sound super science fictiony, but that is not the case.  Rather, The Elementary Particles reads like a depiction of the anomie of contemporary existence among the educated classes of France, with a science fiction ending tacked on to the back.   The Elementary Particles was controversial in France for the frank depiction of sex.  That said, the sex is so empty and ultimately meaningless that it makes The Elementary Particles the opposite of pornography.

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