(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

This second novel by Houellebecq (pronounced WELL-beck), a native of France who now lives in Ireland, is by its very nature a challenge for readers and reviewers alike. Perhaps the chief difficulty is in separating the double identity of The Elementary Particles as a work of fiction and as a social phenomenon that has generated much controversy, first in France, the United Kingdom, and Europe, and more recently in United States literary circles.

Some reviewers ecstatically compare the novel to the work and traditions of major European literary figures of the past two centuries, including such “writers of ideas” as Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Honoré de Balzac. Others have called it “a book-shaped battering ram, bullying and brilliant” (London Evening Standard), “a novel which sets out to provoke and upset” (Times Literary Supplement), “an endless parade of brutal sex, madness, and self-destruction . . . meant to titillate, not horrify” (The New Criterion), and “fantastically boring . . . a bilious, hysterical, and oddly juvenile book” (The Independent).

On its surface, The Elementary Particles traces the separate but parallel life stories of two half-brothers living in France during the second half of the twentieth century. Michel is a reclusive, maverick scientist whose all-consuming career in molecular biology apparently takes the place in his life of friendships and romantic involvements. Bruno, by contrast, is a frustrated political columnist and sexually addicted misogynist whose personal life is an endless round of urban sex clubs and New Age nudist resorts. As might be expected, neither man is particularly happy, but both seem resigned to their lifestyles. They occasionally commiserate, by telephone or over dinner, in rambling diatribes that sound more like philosophical debates than familial chit-chat. At one point, the topic of discussion is the writings of real-life brothers Aldous Huxley (best known for his book Brave New World) and Sir Julian Huxley from the 1930’s:

“Julian Huxley gives over the second part of What Dare I Think? to discussing religion,” retorted Michel, clearly contemptuous. “He’s well aware that science and materialism have completely undermined traditional spirituality, but he also realizes that society cannot survive without religion. He spends about a hundred pages trying to set out the principles of a religion which could dovetail with science. The results aren’t terribly convincing, and certainly society hasn’t followed the route he suggested. In fact, any attempt at fusing science and religion is doomed by the knowledge of physical mortality, so cruelty and egotism cannot fail to spread. In compensation,” he concluded bizarrely, “the same is true of love.”

Similarly, Michel’s and Bruno’s own life stories are narrated throughout in a strangely flat and academic tone, more like a sociological treatise than a work of storytelling—a device whose meaning does not become fully apparent until the book’s end. In any event, the narrator makes very clear where the blame lies for both men’s sad, bleak lives.

Not surprisingly, it is their parents who are at fault, in particular their free-spirit hippie mother, Janine, who placed each son in the care of a different grandmother before setting out for a California commune in the heyday of the Woodstock era. Bruno is eventually shipped off to a boys’ boarding school where the older students sexually abuse him, and Michel as a teenager is so summarily rejected by the first girl with whom he attempts petting that, late in life, he still asserts in all seriousness that “Caroline Yessayan’s miniskirt was to blame for everything.” The historical timing of the two youngsters’ abandonment becomes clear as the story proceeds, and Houellebecq’s narrative develops into a bitter and undisguised denunciation of France’s “Generation of 1968”—the equivalent of America’s “baby boomers”—who eventually put aside their idealism and radical student protest days for positions of affluence and power in the very establishment they had once so vilified. The author depicts this supposed betrayal as the crucial death knell of everything that is good and right and pleasurable in modern life: All progress since has been of the dystopian variety, and as a result, contemporary society has become both a “totalitarian nightmare” and a wasteland of emotional isolation.

Needless to say, in the broader history of the tumultuous twentieth century with its two World Wars, this singularly fierce polemic against French 1968-ers is a heavy burden for a single generation of sometimes well-meaning people to fully bear. A number of critics have said that Houellebecq’s novel becomes “lopsided” at this juncture; they argue that while the introverted Michel is the ostensible focus of the story—for his revolutionary work in human genetic engineering which foreshadows the book’s grim conclusion—it is Bruno who takes center stage in an extended and broad satire of everything from New Age ideas to Eastern religions to consumerism and the contemporary cults of youth and beautiful bodies. The reader watches as Bruno, “on retreat,” wanders through various metaphysical bazaars of astrology, chakras, tarot, sensual massage, and poetry therapy, all the while critically and cruelly...

(The entire section is 2218 words.)