The Elementary Particles

The Elementary Particles

3.9 13
by Michel Houellebecq

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An international literary phenomenon, The Elementary Particles is a frighteningly original novel–part Marguerite Duras and part Bret Easton Ellis-that leaps headlong into the malaise of contemporary existence.

Bruno and Michel are half-brothers abandoned by their mother, an unabashed devotee of the drugged-out free-love world of the sixties. Bruno,

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An international literary phenomenon, The Elementary Particles is a frighteningly original novel–part Marguerite Duras and part Bret Easton Ellis-that leaps headlong into the malaise of contemporary existence.

Bruno and Michel are half-brothers abandoned by their mother, an unabashed devotee of the drugged-out free-love world of the sixties. Bruno, the older, has become a raucously promiscuous hedonist himself, while Michel is an emotionally dead molecular biologist wholly immersed in the solitude of his work. Each is ultimately offered a final chance at genuine love, and what unfolds is a brilliantly caustic and unpredictable tale.

Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An original work of art–ironic, intelligent and as airtight and elegant as a geometry proof."
The New York Times Magazine

"[A] brilliant novel of ideas... [A] riveting novel by a deft, observant writer."
The Wall Street Journal

"Fearless, vivid and astringently honest…surprisingly funny... [C]an permanently change how we view things that happened in our own lives. Not many novels can do that."
Los Angeles Times

This remarkable bestseller is France's biggest literary sensation since Francoise Sagan, people are saying, since Albert Camus . . . The passing to a new generation of the literary flame—albeit, in this case, a blowtorch.
Times Literary Supplement
Les Particules Elementaires is a novel on the grand scale. It is almost Balzacian in its attention to detail, and dauntingly ambitious in its determination to tackle 'big themes': the descent of the West into an orgy of consumerism, the decline of Christianity, the potential of human cloning and the destructive nature of the liberal values and sexual permissiveness of the 1960's, which have, in the author's view, atomized society. But as well as being a forcefull polemical tract, Les Particules is a cleverly constructed kaleidescopic work of chronological shifts and leaps. It is also, in places, a very funny book. For more than one reason, the author Houellebecq most brings to mind is Celine; as in Journey to the End of the Night, Houellebecq here interleaves pasages of despair and self-loathing with episodes of tenderness and pathos . . . Unsettling, rich in ideas, Les Particules elementaires is a novel which sets out to provoke and upset, and yet does not try to outsmart its readers. Written in a strightforward style, it has a confident, reassuring narrative sweep . . . Demands to be read.
(French) Elle
The great novel of the end of the millenium.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Houellebecq's controversial novel, which caused an uproar in France last year, finally reaches our shores. Whether it will make similar waves here remains to be seen, but its coolly didactic themes and schematic characterizations keep it from transcending faddish success. The story follows two half brothers, Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Cl ment. They have in common a minor Messalina of a mother, Janine Ceccaldi, who contributed most effectively to their upbringing by abandoning them--Bruno to his maternal grandmother, and Michel to Janine's second husband's mother. Bruno's is the harder life. Abused by fellow students at a boarding school, he grows into a perpetually horny adolescence, his sexual advances always rebuffed because he is ugly and devoid of personal charm. He spends the '70s and '80s exposing himself to young girls or masturbating. After his first marriage fails, he meets Christiane at an "alternative" vacation compound with a reputation for free love, and together they embark on a tawdry swingers' odyssey. Meanwhile, Michel (whose story is told in counterpoint) is so emotionally remote that he is unable to kiss his first girlfriend, the astonishingly beautiful Annabelle. In college, he loses sight of her and devotes himself to science, finally becoming a molecular biologist. Then, at 40, he meets Annabelle again. However, as Houellebecq puts it, "In the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear that they had no chance." Once death cheats both Bruno and Michel of happiness, Michel develops the basis for eliminating sex by cloning humans. The novel is burdened throughout with Houellebecq's message, which equates sex with consumerism and ever darker fates. The writer also upholds the madonna-whore polarization, pigeonholing his female characters with tiresome predictability. Still, it isn't the ideology that hampers the narrative--it is Houellebecq's touted scientific theorizing, which, far from covering fresh ground, resorts to the shibboleths of popular science. Houellebecq is disgusted with liberal society, but his self-importance and humorlessness overwhelm his characters and finally will tax readers' patience. 40,000 first printing. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Houellebecq's second work of fiction (after Whatever) arrives with great fanfare, proclaimed as a great novel by critics abroad; the author even rated a feature in the New York Times Magazine. Indeed, the book is grand in its ambitions. At its heart are two half-brothers, Bruno Cl ment, an oversexed, sexist slob of a failed writer, and Michel Djerzinski, a brilliant but affectless scientist. Their mother, who has roots in Algeria, had the two boys in quick succession and then spun off into hippie heaven (this is the Sixties), the self-involved fathers aren't on the scene, and the boys, raised separately by different grandparents, have miserable childhoods. Houellebecq's condemnation of the consequences of Sixties-style liberation is acidulous and ferocious, and one can only nod agreement while reading; if these boys are any evidence, tie-dye was a catastrophe. Tough and direct, the documentary-like writing is complemented by brief scientific and philosophical passages that are fascinating in themselves but aren't well integrated and don't shed as much light as they might. Reading this work is thus not quite the intellectual feast it should have been. Important for literary collections but more problematic than the advance publicity would suggest. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/00.]--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Lee Smith
The book's intelligence is certainly critical, but it is also comprehensive and precise, which, together with its narrative force, is what makes The Elementary Particles a major achievement in contemporary fiction.
Tom LeClair
Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is tedious up close and ugly from a distance. Why the novel was an enormous success in France and has been translated into twenty languages is a quantum mystery to me, because the book is soddenly lugubrious and utterly French in its circumstances. Houellebecq follows the lives of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, from birth to middle age. Shunted around by their hippie mother and absentee fathers, the boys grow up to be a frustrated libertine-writer who ends up in a mental institution and a frustrated ascetic-scientist who emigrates to Ireland and kills himself after several genetic breakthroughs. Though separated as youths, Bruno and Michel share as adults navel-gazing, vagina-peeping and frequent masturbation, all described with a technical writer's distant objectivity. In fact, the novel pretends to be a biography of Michel, as well as a primer of twentieth-century science, written by a scientist in 2079. Unlike Mitchell, who wants Ghostwritten to be a quantum experiment, Houellebecq knows from the beginning how his book comes out and uses his science to "prove" a sociological thesis: that the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s in France are responsible for every contemporary malaise Houellebecq can observe. He may well be right, but Bruno and Michel seem invented to demonstrate the author's point. Houellebecq's fictional system is Newtonian, closed and determined by its creator's conservative politics or, perhaps, personal misanthropy. From Pascal to Celine and Sartre's Nausea, the French have a long tradition of disgust. To this, Houellebecq grafts Aldous Huxley futurism. At novel's end, Michel has discovered how to make all humans have the same genetic code and do away with the uniqueness that was "precisely the source of so much human unhappiness." I don't suggest that Houellebecq proposes Michel's solution to what Sartre called "dreadful" human freedom, but Michel's extreme measure indicates the author's degree of disgust with the conditions of present life or, perhaps, all human life. In Ghostwritten, Mitchell's quantum scientist says "human consciousness collapses one lucky universe into being from all of the possible ones." The Elementary Particles is an unlucky universe. Fortunately, readers still have some freedom, can enter the consciousness of both authors. But still--despite quantum physics--only one at a time.
Kirkus Reviews
Houellebecq, who writes in French and lives in Dublin, offers a second try (after Whatever, 1999) that's said to be a hit abroad. Often pretentious—or flatfooted—it nevertheless holds the reader solidly with its guess about mankind's biological future.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.15(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.60(d)

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This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared. The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.
At the time of his disappearance, Michel Djerzinski was unanimously considered to be a first-rate biologist and a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. His true significance, however, would not become apparent for some time.
In Djerzinski's time, philosophy was generally considered to be of no practical significance, to have been stripped of its purpose. Nevertheless, the values to which a majority subscribe at any given time determine society's economic and political structures and social mores.
Metaphysical mutations—that is to say radical, global transformations in the values to which the majority subscribe—are rare in the history of humanity. The rise of Christianity might be cited as an example.
Once a metaphysical mutation has arisen, it tends to move inexorably toward its logical conclusion. Heedlessly, it sweeps away economic and political systems, aesthetic judgments and social hierarchies. No human agency can halt its progress—nothing except another metaphysical mutation.
It is a fallacy that such metaphysical mutations gain ground only in weakened or declining societies. When Christianity appeared, the Roman Empire was at the height of its powers: supremely organized, it dominated the known world; its technical and military prowess had no rival. Nonetheless, it had no chance. When modern science appeared, medieval Christianity was a complete, comprehensive system which explained both man and the universe; it was the basis for government, the inspiration for knowledge and art, the arbiter of war as of peace and the power behind the production and distribution of wealth—none of which was sufficient to prevent its downfall.
Michel Djerzinski was not the first nor even the principal architect of the third—and in many respects the most radical—paradigm shift, which opened up a new era in world history. But, as a result of certain extraordinary circmstances in his life, he was one of its most clear-sighted and deliberate engineers.

The Lost Kingdom

The first of July 1998 fell on a Wednesday, so although it was a little unusual, Djerzinski organized his farewell party for Tuesday evening. Bottles of champagne nestled among containers of frozen embryos in the large Brandt refrigerator usually filled with chemicals.
Four bottles for fifteen people was a little miserly, but the whole party was a sham. The motivations that brought them together were superficial; one careless word, one false glance, would break it up and send his colleagues scurrying for their cars. They stood around drinking in the white-tiled basement decorated only with a poster of the Lakes of Germany. Nobody had offered to take photos. A research student who had arrived earlier that year—a young man with a beard and a vapid expression—left after a few minutes, explaining that he had to pick up his car from the garage. A palpable sense of unease spread through the group. Soon the term would be over; some of them were going home to visit family, others on vacation. The sound of their voices snapped like twigs in the air. Shortly afterward, the party broke up.
By seven-thirty it was all over. Djerzinski walked across the parking lot with one of his colleagues. She had long black hair, very white skin and large breasts. Older than he was, she would inevitably take his position as head of the department. Most of her published papers were on the DAF3 gene in the fruit fly. She was unmarried.
When they reached his Toyota he offered his hand, smiling. (He had been preparing himself mentally for this for several seconds, remembering to smile.) Their palms brushed and they shook hands gently. Later, he decided the handshake lacked warmth; under the circumstances, they could have kissed each other on both cheeks like visiting dignitaries or people in show business.
After they said their goodbyes, he sat in his car for what seemed to him an unusually long five minutes. Why had she not driven off? Was she masturbating while listening to Brahms? Perhaps she was thinking about her career, her new responsibilities: if so, was she happy? At last her Golf pulled out of the lot; he was alone again. The weather had been magnificent all day, and it was still warm now. In the early weeks of summer everything seemed fixed, motionless, radiant, though already the days were getting shorter.
He felt privileged to have worked here, he thought as he pulled out into the street. When asked "Do you feel privileged to live in an area like Palaiseau?" sixty-three percent of respondents answered "Yes." This was hardly surprising: the buildings were low, interspersed with lawns. Several supermarkets were conveniently nearby. The phrase "quality of life" hardly seemed excessive for such a place.
The expressway back into Paris was deserted, and Djerzinski felt like a character in a science fiction film he'd seen at the university: the last man on earth after every other living thing had been wiped out. Something in the air evoked a dry apocalypse.
Djerzinski had lived on the rue Frémicourt for ten years, during which he had grown accustomed to the quiet. In 1993 he had felt the need for a companion, something to welcome him home in the evening. He settled on a white canary. A fearful animal, it sang in the mornings though it never seemed happy. Could a canary be happy? Happiness is an intense, all-consuming feeling of joyous fulfillment akin to inebriation, rapture or ecstasy. The first time he took the canary out of its cage, the frightened creature shit on the sofa before flying back to the bars, desperate to find a way back in. He tried again a month later. This time the poor bird fell from an open window. Barely remembering to flutter its wings, it landed on a balcony five floors below on the building opposite. All Michel could do was wait for the woman who lived there to come home, and fervently hope that she didn't have a cat. It turned out that she was an editor at Vingt Ans and worked late; she lived alone. She didn't have a cat.
Michel recovered the bird after dark; it was trembling with cold and fear, huddled against the concrete wall. He occasionally saw the woman again when he took out the garbage. She would nod in greeting, and he would nod back. Something good had come of the accident—he had met one of his neighbors.
From his window he could see a dozen buildings—some three hundred apartments. When he came home in the evening, the canary would whistle and chirp for five or ten minutes. Michel would feed the bird and change the gravel in its cage. Tonight, however, silence greeted him. He crossed the room to the cage. The canary was dead, its cold white body lying on the gravel.
He ate a Monoprix TV dinner—monkfish in parsley sauce, from their Gourmet line—washed down with a mediocre Valdepeñas. After some hesitation, he put the bird's body into a plastic bag, which he topped off with a beer bottle, and dumped in the trash chute. What was he supposed to do—say mass?
He didn't know what was at the end of the chute. The opening was narrow (though large enough to take the canary). He dreamed that the chute opened onto vast garbage cans filled with old coffee filters, ravioli in tomato sauce and mangled genitalia. Huge worms, as big as the canary and armed with terrible beaks, would attack the body, tear off its feet, rip out its intestines, burst its eyeballs. He woke up trembling; it was only one o'clock. He swallowed three Xanax. So ended his first night of freedom.

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Julian Barnes
A novel which hunts big game while others settle for shooting rabbit.

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