The Elementary Particles is a novel in French by Michel Houellebecq, published in 1998. The English translation by Frank Wynne was published in 2000 and released in the UK as Atomised, elsewhere as The Elementary Particles, and is regarded as a brilliant literary and intellectual novel. Houellebecq was awarded the prestigious French literary award, the Prix Novembre and the 2002 Impac Dublin literary award. The reviewer for the NY Times called it “a deeply repugnant read” for its nihilism and anti-humanistic vision. Others have criticized its obsessive and graphic depiction of sexuality. It supporters praise its flamboyant deconstruction of modern beliefs about love and sexual liberation as pretensions and delusions in a culture of selfishness.
The Complete Review’s Elementary Particles page is a good resource. There is a throrough, well-informed and fair review, a list of published reviews with links to the reviews available on line, a brief biographical note and links to other resources. The Guardian Unlimited’s author page has a concise outline of his work and the Guardian published Suzie Mackenzie’s article about Houellebecq and his work in August 2002. Julian Barnes published a solid appraisal of his work, to that point, in the New Yorker in 2003.
Houellebecq presents himself as wounded in childhood, having been abandoned by both parents. He had an unsatisfying career before becoming a writer, and his personal life seems to be marked by anger, alienation and lewd and offensive behaviour. His fans regard him as a tragic wounded poet, and his critics as a boor and a poser. Even in translation, it is clear that he is a powerful writer. The characters of this novel, although they are bound to his intellectual arguments, are generally convincing – distinctive, credible voices. They are wounded, self-absorbed, people, trying to find the happiness that they think they are entitled to.
The story is told in the detached voice of a future historician and biographer, writing about the late 20th century, presented as the biography of Michel Djerzinski, a molecular biologist, and a philosopher responsible for a metaphysical mutation, which is defined as a large scale change in social values. In the biographer’s epilogue, Djerzinski is given credit for scientific and ideological breakthroughs leading to wide acceptance of genetic engineering to make people happier by removing sex and death from the genome. We don’t see this Brave New World, except in a few comments in the Prologue and Epilogue chapters. The fiction of a future society allows Houellebecq to write a cultural history of the sexually liberated young adults of the 1960’s, and their children.
Michel Djerzinski was neglected by his mother Janine, a flower child, as a baby. His father, a rather detached figure, rescues him and gives him to his grandmother to raise before, literally, disappearing. He becomes a dreamy, withdrawn child who and an emotionally sterile man, occupied with scientific and mathematical ideas. His understanding of social relations is mathematical. In one passage he attempts to understand free will as a property of Hilbert spaces. As such he is more of a symbol of rationalism than a character. His half-brother Bruno is a teacher, an aspiring writer, a literary intellectual, and a sex-crazed hound. He is a more interesting character, and a symbol of other central human interests. The early part of the novel has some deft passages of biography and family history, recitation of whimsical coincidence in the modern French style but the story isn’t that pretty. Janine, who sees herself as flower child, comes across as an officious housewife, absorbed in her hobbies – in her case sex, drugs, pleasure and spirituality. After abandoning each son, she moves to America with an Italian hippie who founds a commune that evolves into a New Age resort. The boys are raised by grandparents – older people with more traditional values that respect the needs of children but they grow up in modern France, in a culture of individualism and consumerism.
The characters are damaged people. In a European intellectual novel, they serve as symbols in a debate about culture and ideas.
Bruno is a cynical critic of hippies and Boomers – in France they identify themselves as the student rebels of 1968 – and their ideology of liberation. He draws ideological and sociological links between the hippies of the 1960’s and the New Age. He argues that these movements were popular as excuses for selfishness in the pursuit of pleasure and success in interpersonal relationships, which comes down to sexuality and business. Bruno criticizes the ideology of liberation and the spirituality of New Age. He regard the rhetoric of both movements as pretentious seductive – as a pretense for pursuing sex under the guise of personal liberation, authenticity, fulfilment, and spirituality. He vents about the influence of Aldous Huxley and the way his Utopian fantasy novel, Island, seems to have inspired 40 years of fantasy of sexual liberation and sensitivity to the nature. Bruno also says nasty things about Brazilians, French right-wing politicians and North African immigrants. Another character refers to Islam as the most stupid, false and obfuscating religion, setting the course for the controversy that erupted over some passages in Houellebecq’s next novel, Platform, and for criminal charges for inciting hatred against Muslims. Houellebecq is savage in dealing with the pretension of the New Age, regardless of whether he uses the voice of Bruno, or the viewpoint and voice of another character.
Bruno is insecure, sex-crazed and miserable. He differentiates himself from his mother and New Agers on the basis of pretension. He thinks he is a more a honest and authentic person because he knows he is unhappy and does not posture about his spiritual peace and contentment. Bruno’s sex life is pictured graphically but clinically. Scenes of group sex at sex clubs almost read like a primate anthropologist’s notes of sex among the bonobos. Women display their genitals or start sex with one partner. Other males gather and watch, masturbating disinterestedly. They take a turn if the female lets them, or wander off and masturbate. His new girlfriend, whom he meets when she fellates him spontaneously in a hot tub at a resort, shares his need for sex. He tries to write a magazine article about free sex as the key to human connection. He is happy with her, she loves him but he he remains uncommitted and insecure, convinced that women are turning him down in group sex in the clubs because his penis is too short (at 5 inches). He abandons his girlfriend when she falls ill, and then has a complete breakdown when she commits suicide.
Bruno believes that he has transcended the faux spirituality of Huxley’s Island. He is bitter and angry at the older women that he meets at the New Age resorts who chatter about their spirituality while cruising for sex. These women deploy elaborate stories to balance a belief in their purity of spirit with their sexuality and to maintain control of their sexuality. Bruno does not accept their spiritual talk as a legitimate part of their sense of themselves, and is impatient with the indirect discouses that surround sexual transactions. He seems, ironically, to share Huxley’s idea that sexual liberation should make people happy, but he has a different idea of the way a sexually liberated society should work. Unfortunately, it does not prove to be a source of happiness and peace for Bruno. Houllebecq has stripped away the cultural conventions that allow people to imagine human sexuality to be different than animal sexuality, or different from other biological activities. It is important to the happiness of an adult to have sex regularly, but more sex does not mean more happiness, whether you fuck like god and goddesses, or fuck like monkeys.
Michel and Bruno were raised by their grandmothers, an old-fashioned self-sacrificing woman who know how to take care of children. Their mother has disappeared. When Michel is a child and teenager, a beautiful girl, Annabel is drawn to him but he is too detached to be interested in a human relationship. She reads teen magazines and develops a paradigm of adult feminity based on social models. She is anxious to have the “relationship” without knowing what that may be. Eventually she is seduced by the sexually predatory son of the New Age guru that Janine hooked up with. Her life becomes a series of unsatisfying sexual relationships. Bruno’s relations with women are purely sexual and generally alienated.
Some critics accuse Houellebecq of misogyny for the way he portrays women in this novel (and for some of his personal behaviour). In blaming Janine, the mother, for abandoning the children, he reduces women to the role of caregivers and curtailing their freedom. Houellebecq portrays men as intrinsically bad caregivers – Michel and Bruno’s fathers are both bad at it. He implies that women who have children but won’t raise them are being selfish and irresponsible. He portrays Bruno as seeing women – at least the one’s who do not immediately present themselves to him for fornication – as more pretentious and self-absorbed than men.
Michel’s involvement in the story is more detached. He observes Bruno, he observes, Annabelle and has a sexual relationship with her in middle age, but he is in a world of his own. Another character suggests that he is among a small handful of humans addicted to understanding things to the point of absolute rational certainty. His exposure to Bruno’s painful history of sexual obsession leads him to develop his scientific and philosophical ideas. The sf premise crops up again late in the book. Houellebecq posits that mortality is related to sexual differentiation in cellular division. This is apparently a wildly ignorant scientific hypothesis, but it gets to the end stage and epilogue of the book – a genetic therapy in which people become immortal and asexual (but presumably genetically female). It is a joke – we end up with a serene, female, spiritual, immortal world. It uses technology, like Huxley’s Brave New World to achieve the peace he visualized in his Utopian Island. Within the novel, Bruno argued that Huxley was misguided and that people who take either of his utopian/dystopian novels seriously are fools, Houellebecq’s fan sites say that he says that Huxley is an important and influential writer. There seems to be some irony in this presentation.
Houellebecq’s attacks on the New Age is convincing. It represents itself in a sensibility of spirituality and detachment, but it is just another way of manipulating people. His vision of happiness and moral order is more obscure. His explicit attacks on the New Age appealed, to a limited degree, to both religious and social conservatives and to liberal and modernist intellectuals. Both groups think the New Age is a frivolous, perhaps dangerous, diversion. Social conservatives are unhappy that he is not an advocate of the restoration of aristocratic and medieval values. Liberals are profoundly unhappy with his thesis that the New Age is not merely a Romantic diversion, and that it represents the full flowering of the selfishness at the heart of modernist ideology and popular culture. This has earned him the label of an anti-humanist from liberal critics. His vision is nihilist and existentialist. Like Sartre, he sees No Exit.
The Elementary Particles is a brilliant riff on Huxley’s humanism. Houellebecq seems to say that we have tried find our ideal of happy peaceful life – our essential humanity – by increasing sexual freedom. The experiment has been a failure. He illustrates the point with graphic clinical sex, and post-modern French social criticism and nihilism. It isn’t a strong work of ideology or sociology although Houellebecq does imply, convincingly, that the hippie/New Age version of Huxley’s humanism is false, sterile and unhappy. It is becoming an important book because it is a well-written, powerful, entertaining (in a bleak way) and challenging book.
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