French author Michel Houellebecq is - for some reason - a very controversial writer. Any author who explores big ideas tends to be controversial, I suppose, but Houellebecq has been accused of everything from being a nihilist to a misogynist, to racist, to reactionary and just about everything else in between. Personally, I can’t say whether or not Houellebecq holds the views his characters hold or not - he just might; but there is a tendency these days for people to read too much of the author into his or her work, forgetting that the work is fiction and/or a social satire, of which “The Elementary Particles” most definitely is, though this is not to say the novel isn’t packed with big, controversial ideas, nonetheless.
This novel caused quite a stir in France in the early 2000s and it caused some critics to compare him to Camus, Celine and Beckett and caused others to claim he was nothing more than a clever mix of Camus and Bret Easton Ellis due to his graphic depiction of sexuality and other transgressive themes. Either way, no matter what you think, Houellebecq is a very original and unique novelist and once again I am wildly impressed with the work he has done here.
I first became aware of Houellebecq’s work through a novel called “The Possibility of an Island”, a strange, Sci-Fi-esque novel which also explored big themes and ideas - and highly original to boot.
“The Elementary Particles”, written before “Island”, concerns itself with love, death, sex and the collapse of Western civilization; the futile search for meaning, happiness, and the absolute failure of the 60s generation to achieve anything other than self-absorption, narcissism, and half-baked quasi-religious theory and philosophy which ultimately came to nothing. Although these themes can be universally understood and explored, it is France - and Europe in general - that is the target of this book. The main characters, two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, live very hard, uneventful lives, their mother being a 60s hedonist who abandons them to pursue her hippie lifestyle. Each grows up under completely different circumstances. Bruno, in and out of boarding schools, where he is mercilessly bullied and Michel, who was left to be raised by his grandmother. Bruno, like his mother, is a hedonist, drifting through life and obsessed with sex and hedonistic pleasure, unable to find love, meaning or happiness. Michel, an accomplished molecular biologist, completely turned inward and forgone love in order to immerse himself in his work. The two brothers meet later in life and the novel follows each of their trajectories, telling them separately, although the two characters meet now and again to pontificate on the meaningless of existence and the complete and utter failure of humanity to have achieved anything of consequence. It is a brutal examination of the legacy of the 60s and the postmodern philosophy which had dominated the late twentieth century. It is bleak, nihilistic - Nietzschean on steroids.
But what is a Houellebecq novel without its bizarre elements and interesting twists, something this novel most certainly has by its epilogue, which puts the whole that came before it in enormous perspective. This novel is less a bleak, nihilistic assessment of late twentieth century man than it is a warning shot across the bow. No matter what your view of life is, this is a book that must be read and digested, although taken for the social satire that is clearly is. Nevertheless, it does not take away from some of the more controversial ideas within. To me, Houellebecq is one of the more original novelists out there today, judging from the two novels I’ve now read. This is a highly recommended read but be forewarned it is not for the meek.