Book Review: The Elementary Particles, by Michel Houellebecq

I honestly don’t know much about Michel Houellebecq. I typically don’t take a lot of interest in the lives of authors (or musicians, artists, etc.). The only reason I came across his name – and thus this book – was browsing the shelves of a local independent bookstore, killing time. I saw his name, which I thought was odd/familiar, and glancing through the several tomes on the shelf I realised that I’d found a rather curious writer: controversial, philosophical, with a tinge of “speculative fiction” about him.

So, with his name in my head, I did some research later and decided to start with an earlier (1998) but well-considered novel, The Elementary Particles, tempted though I was by another book of his, on H.P. Lovecraft no less.

Not one for believing the publicity machine, yet knowing next to nothing about the man as a writer, the blurb on the back cover of Particles compares him to Huxley, Beckett, and Camus. If I may take the liberty of rearranging this, having read the book, I would say – if anything – it’s Huxley via Camus. However, to make direct comparisons, though tempting, would be an insult to all involved. Houellebecq is Houellebecq – he’s not channelling anyone in his prose. Hark: a unique voice.

The Elementary Particles is a study of the moral murk of modern society, a result, Houellebecq’s omniscient narrative posits, of a world that has moved well-past the relevance and supremacy of religion, and in the middle of a phase of rational/scientific investigation. Without the guidance of a supreme set of rules, society embraced a virulent individuality and in doing so eventually begot a generation of spiritual and sexual materialists, beginning in the late 50’s. It is the aftermath of this wave which Particles concerns itself.

Meet Michel and Bruno. Michel is an accomplished molecular biologist. Bruno is a civil servant. They are half-brothers, mutually and separately abandoned by their common mother, a libertine and prototype of everything wrong with the “me” generation. Despite his success, Michel is emotionally dead, and at the beginning of the book decides to step away from his position at a prestigious university research department. He remains in his apartment, contemplating his life and inability to feel anything. Bruno on the other hand, is a self-destructive hedonist with no aims or aspirations, aside from pleasuring himself in any way he sees fit.

I know what you’re saying: Matt, where can I find this book! It sounds riveting!

Okay. Sarcasm aside, it may seem repellent to some on the surface. I found it repellent at first. And yet, the more I read, the more I wanted to keep reading. Not because it was misanthropic, but because of its philosophical undertow. Houellebecq is making a statement – it’s unapologetic, citric, and compelling. Whereas it may seem he paints society with a thick brush, underneath it all – in the structure of the book, and certainly in its eye-raising epilogue – there are layers of fascinating subtlety and important questions which rise in well-crafted crescendos.

To be honest with you, I’ve been thinking a lot about The Elementary Particles. After I completed it, I wanted to dislike it. I wanted to find faults – and there are faults. There are moments where Houellebecq’s prose is extremely dry and clinical (nay acetic), and while it can be justified by certain plot elements, these unnecessarily antithetical flourishes simply didn’t make it easier to care about the characters, or the point of the book for that matter. That said, if anything, I have a greater regard for it now than when I read it almost a month ago – it is a book with the power to haunt.

What was particularly difficult for me was that I began reading this book right after Eugene Zamiatin’s We. In other words, from a dystopian anti-collective polemic to a dystopian anti-individualist polemic. My head hurts, but I’ve decided it’s a good hurt.

The Elementary Particles, by Michel Houellebecq (ISBN: 978-0375727016) is available at an independent bookstore near you, or online at various retailers. Note: this review is based upon the English translation by Frank Wynne.


2 Replies to “Book Review: The Elementary Particles, by Michel Houellebecq”

  1. This sounds like a book I’ll have to put on my to-read list. It sounds as if Houellebecq, like so many speculative fiction writers, is prophetic, as far as society goes.

  2. I think he’s a writer to take notice of. His newest book, The Possibility of an Island, is apparently more of a straight-on speculative fiction piece. Reviews are a little more mixed, but I’ll probably pick it up some day (or his H.P. Lovecraft book, which intrigues me).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.