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From Barnes & NobleBarnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In 1998, a French novel created a firestorm of controversy and provoked unheard-of sales in Europe. Written by a virtually unknown 40-year-old computer technician and former mental patient named Michel Houellebecq, Les particles élementaires made a stinging indictment of contemporary Western society through its use of explicit sex, lengthy philosophical ruminations, and corrosive black humor. Now, in its much anticipated English translation, The Elementary Particles appears on these shores.
Houellebecq's book chronicles the fates of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, whose lives intertwine with each other and with the events of the late 20th century. Withdrawn and unemotional, Michel conducts cutting-edge genetic research while coldly pondering human frailty. Bruno's compulsive sexual appetites are matched only by his stunning romantic failures, which eventually drive him into an asylum. Together, they represent polar extremes of human existence -- hyper-rationality and hyper-sensualism -- revolving about each other like the subatomic building blocks of the book's title.
For Houellebecq, the so-called liberation movements of the 1960s have led inexorably toward "the suicide of the West." In upending Judeo-Christian morality and fragmenting the traditional family, and in preaching the absolute primacy of the individual, they have created a society in which consumption and the pursuit of transient pleasures -- sexual and material -- are everything. The quest for happiness has petered out in a sea of painkillers and television screens, in dead-end relationships and loveless copulation. Houellebecq's constant references to the behavior of various other species, from insects to apes, imply that humans are really not much different from animals. Society must operate under a strict "moral law" in order to control these Hobbesian tendencies, which manifest themselves in places like Bruno's boarding school, where the merciless tormenting by the other students would scar him for life.
Still, if the author's worldview seems unrelentingly pessimistic -- provoking outrage among the French clergy, humanists, and veterans of the 1968 student movement, among others -- Houellebecq can also be very funny, no more so than when poking fun at the cherished convictions of the New Age hippies with whom Michel and Bruno interact. Their attempts to live "closer to nature" are lampooned mercilessly; Houellebecq clearly believes that nature is something we should want to escape: It is arbitrary and violent, not fuzzy and warm.
Though world-weary to the core, The Elementary Particles concludes on a note of grudging admiration for the human animal, "this vile, unhappy race...tortured, contradictory, individualistic, quarrelsome, and infinitely selfish, it was capable of extraordinary violence, but never quite abandoned its belief in love." Houellebecq's unflinching examination of the millennial West should interest Americans, toward whom many of the book's observations might equally be directed.