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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Elementary Particles


Michel Houellebecq

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To purchase The Elementary Particles

Title: The Elementary Particles
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng.: 2000)
Length: 264 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Elementary Particles - US
Atomised - UK
The Elementary Particles - Canada
Les Particules élémentaires - Canada
Atomised - India
Les Particules élémentaires - France
Elementarteilchen - Deutschland
Le particelle elementari - Italia
Las partículas elementales - España

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Our Assessment:

A- : dark and mordant take on the modern world (or at least France), with lots of (gernerally unsatisfying) sex, some interesting philosophizing, and a most curious twist at the end

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Sci. Monitor B 2/11/2000 Merle Rubin
The Economist . 13/2/1999 .
Evening Standard A+ 8/5/2000 Melanie McGrath
Evening Standard A 5/3/2000 David Sexton
The Guardian B+ 13/5/2000 Alex Clark
The Guardian A 24/2/2001 Nicholas Lezard
L'Humanité . 25/9/1998 Jean-Claude Lebrun
The Independent A 6/5/2000 .
London Rev. of Books . 21/1/1999 John Sturrock
The New Republic B- 20/11/1999 Paul Berman
New Statesman . 22/5/2000 James Harkin
The NY Rev. of Books B- 30/11/1999 Mark Lilla
The NY Times D 10/11/2000 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. D 19/11/2000 Anthony Quinn
The Observer A- 21/5/2000 Andrew Marr
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A- Spring/2001 James Sallis
Salon A 23/10/2000 Lorin Stein
Sunday Telegraph A- 30/4/2000 Paul Gent
Tages-Anzeiger A 21/9/1999 Adam Olschewski
TLS A+ 15/1/1999 Adrian Tahourdin
TLS A 23/6/2000 Chase Madar
The Village Voice . 14/11/2000 J. Hoberman
Wall St. Journal A- 15/11/2000 Christopher Caldwell
The Washington Post A- 21/1/2001 Steven Moore
Wiener Zeitung . 10/12/1999 Gisela Steinlechner
World Lit. Today . Summer/1999 Frederique Leichter

Note that the reviews from The Economist, the London Review of Books, World Literature Today, and Adrian Tahourdin's review in the Times Literary Supplement refer to the French edition, not Frank Wynne's English translation.

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. A fair amount of enthusiasm, though almost all are put off by some aspects of the book (the sex, the darkness, the writing, the characters). Many like what Houellebecq is trying to do, fewer how he goes about it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Elementary Particles is an odd mixture of penetrating insight and old-fashioned ineptitude." - Merle Rubin, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Apart from its pervasive, outrageous humour, the novel is hard to summarise. (...) It is certainly a novel of opinions, whether murmured, whined or roared." - The Economist

  • "Shot through with bleak aphoristic turns and splenetic intellectual asides and written in stabbing prose (translated with great finesse by Frank Wynne) Houellebecq has created a crash-course in metaphysics, molecular biology, history, ethics and popular culture from New Age rituals to women's magazines. Atomised is also very, very funny. (...) Literature with a sure and unapologetic confidence in its own ability -- its duty, even -- to make a difference." - Melanie McGrath, Evening Standard

  • "(A) nihilistic classic, in direct line of descent from La Rochefoucauld and Chamfort. You might hate it and wish you could forget it but you will know you won't have wasted your time in reading it." - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "To describe Michel Houellebecq's extraordinary novel as nihilistic would be a grave understatement. (...) It allows little room for the reader to take issue with it, so defiantly pessimistic are its parameters and its conclusions." - Alex Clark, The Guardian

  • "(A)gainst it, the contemporary British novel, with a few, scattered exceptions, suddenly seems timid, bogus, and footling. Not to mention atrociously written." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Unhealthy and haunting, rich and provocative, Atomised astonishes both as a novel of ideas and as the portrait of a society -- a humanity -- that has lost its ability to connect." - The Independent

  • "(T)he big ideas and complicated structure are a lot to hang on Houellebecq's thin and saturine characters. So the novel does end up as something of a pamphlet, too ponderous in its ideas and theories to succeed fully as a novel, too cranky to take seriously as a pamphlet. The translation by Frank Wynne is fluent and natural-sounding, though I notice that Wynne has now and then clouded the clarity of the cranky ideas." - Paul Berman, The New Republic

  • "It is his knack of weaving grand themes into the most inauspicious material that gives Houellebecq his distinctive edge." - James Harkin, New Statesman

  • "Clotted with confused theoretical speculations, The Elementary Particles is not a distinguished literary work; but it is a very knowing evocation of the night thoughts disturbing the slumber of the French centrist republic today." - Mark Lilla, The New York Review of Books

  • "As a piece of writing, The Elementary Particles feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "What is surprising about the book is not its pessimism but the fantastically boring way it has been couched (.....) Its intention is so plainly to rile, to épater, that any objections one might raise feel like further ammunition to its entrenched misanthropy." - Anthony Quinn, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(I)t sounds, no doubt, like a book from hell (...) But Atomised is far better than that. For a start, it has integrity. Houellebecq's disgust and horror is not feigned. He is making serious points about the grimmer outcomes of the sexual revolution, the despair of the first sexual revolutionaries as their bodies age and they find they have failed to invest in companionship, family and the dense web of non-sexual connections that keep us fully alive." - Andrew Marr, The Observer

  • "Often, in fact, reviewers have seemed at a loss for what to say, and little wonder: this novel speaks the language of profundity, but speaks it poorly, tenses incorrect, articles awry, phrases misplaced. (...) It must also be remarked that the novel is compulsively readable -- readable almost in spite of itself -- not for its profundity but for all the small verisimilitudinous touches against which structure and author seem pitched in Jacob-like struggle." - James Sallis, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "American readers, accustomed to radical realism on a big scale, may be less impressed by the size of Houellebecq's canvas than by the small, sad details that animate it. The Elementary Particles is grotesque and fantastical, full of loony physics, half-baked history and sociobiology, bad verse and sputtering misanthropy. It is also very funny, and sharply observed; but what makes it great satire, I think, is its childlike capacity for disappointment." - Lorin Stein, Salon

  • "Again and again Houellebecq digs below our platitudes to expose the raw and uncomfortable feelings we are often afraid to admit to ourselves. His bitterness is that of the disappointed idealist. You may remain convinced that Houellebecq is wrong in his relentlessly bleak assessment of society and human nature. But the novel makes you re-examine your beliefs, which is the kind of bracing challenge that literature is for. This is a brave and rather magnificent book." - Paul Gent, Sunday Telegraph

  • "(T)rotz all der in Depression getauchten Wut, zeitigt das Buch einen überraschenden Effekt: ein wackeres Ja zum Leben." - Adam Olschewski, Tages-Anzeiger

  • "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" (...) But as well as being a forceful polemical tract, Les Particules is a cleverly constructed kaleidoscopic work of chronological shifts and leaps. It is also, in places, a very funny book. (...) Not since Michel Tournier's The Erl-King (1970) has French fiction produced a novel as unsettling, or as rich in ideas" - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Atomised is an ambitious novel of ideas, in which the characters casually comment on the decline of religion, the rise of consumerism and, most prominently, the corrosive effects of liberal individualism. What makes this tolerable, irresistible in fact, is the author's supreme talent for illustrating his Left-conservative message with vivid scenes from a wide range of social milieus." - Chase Madar, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Houellebecq's posthuman comedy is smart as well as smartass, but his satire is even sadder than it is Sadean." - J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

  • "Mr. Houellebecq is too nihilistic, and Bruno too insane, for politics. Rather, this is a brilliant novel of ideas -- many of them bad ones -- in which laser-sharp diagnosis jostles with repellent ideology from paragraph to paragraph. It is also a riveting novel by a deft, observant writer. (Some of the deftness disappears in this mistake-filled translation.)" - Christopher Caldwell, Wall Street Journal

  • "Despite its daft ideas, The Elementary Particles is a fascinating read, aided by an exceptionally smooth translation by Frank Wynne. (...) Houellebecq brings impressive erudition and a gutsy willingness to offend to his attempt to re-think and re-imagine the bases for civilization." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post

  • "Die Frage, was für eine Art Text es denn ist, den (...) Michel Houellebecq uns hier (fast möchte man sagen: getarnt) als Roman vorlegt, stellt sich im Laufe der Lektüre beharrlich immer wieder. Diese grundlegende, bis zuletzt nicht auflösbare Irritation, was den Status dieser literarischen Rede betrifft, zähle ich zu den besonderen Qualitäten des Romans." - Gisela Steinlechner, Wiener Zeitung

  • "An original and profoundly disturbing novel." - Frederique Leichter, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Elementary Particles was and continues to be a cause célèbre in France. Houellebecq's novel is a damning indictment of modern society (or rather: specifically modern French society). He depicts it as an empty wasteland that has been "atomised" as people have lost themselves in individuality, society itself crumbling as people seem incapable of forming meaningful bonds or ties -- or being in love. Houellebecq is relentless in his attack -- until, that is, the bizarre, uplifting (?) conclusion that suggests a brighter future (of sorts).
       Much of the novel shows how horrible and empty modern life is. It centers on two half-brothers, the prominent scientist Michel Djerzinski and hapless teacher Bruno. They are children of broken homes and a broken society, floundering about, looking for a purpose. Bruno wallows in sex: often in self abuse -- the most appropriate term -- as well as many other (generally unsatisfactory) variations. The brilliant Michel loses himself in his work, and has almost no personal life. Michel walks away from his work for a time, to take a year off to "think", but in the end turns back to it, losing himself completely in it.
       Houellebecq's novel is a curious but largely successful mix of description and philosophizing. The year of Michel's sabbatical frames most of the novel, though there are many scenes and accounts from earlier in Bruno and Michel's lives, showing how they got to where they are and who they became.
       Bruno and Michel are not really representative of the society Houellebecq attacks, though they can be seen as extreme consequences of it. Bruno's childhood and adolescence is miserable -- "his entire adolescence was a disaster" -- while Michel survives by isolating himself, his life almost entirely cerebral. School life is intolerable (beyond pure academics, into which Michel retreats) and all the boys wretches. (Teenage boys are consistently portrayed as the lowest form of life; "there's nothing more stupid, hateful or obnoxious than a teenage boy", Houellebecq insists throughout the book.) Matters are not helped by Bruno's and Michel's indifferent parents: for some time the adults don't even realize the half-brother are attending the same school.
       Bruno is consumed by sex from the time he first becomes aware of it, but there is little pleasure to go with it. His life continues to be sordid and pathetic, "a melodrama where the characters were babes and dogs, hot guys and bitches." There is lots of sex, but there is almost nothing to it. Most of the time those involved seem merely to be going through the motions, because it is the thing to. Bruno actually marries and has a child, but the marriage naturally fails and his relationship with his son also looks doomed.
       Meanwhile, Michel continues to live what is basically "a purely intellectual existence", without love and without even much friendship.
       Once he has set his bleak scene Houellebecq offers a glimmer of hope: both Bruno and Michel find what might be love. Michel meets a childhood friend, Annabelle, a girl he should have been involved with in school (something he was unable to do then). They get together in a (temporarily) happy union of sorts. Bruno also meets an appropriate mate in Christiane, though there is still quite some emptiness there as they look for fulfillment by joining other couples in group sex and the like.
       In some of the most curious scenes in this novel Houellebecq disposes of these two women. As if readers hadn't gotten the message yet that sex is generally not a good thing in modern society Houellebecq uses the two to show what it can lead to. They are not quite literally f••ked to death, but Houellebecq manages outcomes near as horrible. The simplistic ends are then predictable as they both take the inevitable (if not necessarily honourable) way out. Men take the brunt of Houellebecq's attacks as he blames them for almost everything, but in contemporary society he finds women's identities so closely tied to their role as sexual partner and mother that if they are incapable of filling these roles they see themselves as having no further purpose -- a point not handled with much finesse here.
       There's an awful lot of sex in this novel, in many variations, but Houellebecq's descriptions put it on par with bodily functions such as defecation. While sometimes pleasurable it is basically a simple necessity, often unavoidable, and often unpleasant and embarrassing. Houellebecq reinforces his point constantly with grisly, sordid, and humiliating descriptions of sex acts. From snuff films to failed attempts to masturbate, from working over flaccid penises to the most premature ejaculations conceivable, Houellebecq covers it all. Readers might want to shower after reading the book, but there will certainly be no need for a cold shower. Houellebecq's characters are grateful for a declining interest in and ability to perform sexual acts as they age, but it doesn't come soon enough for readers.
       Houellebecq agrees that sex is central to society -- that's why there is so much of it in this book -- but he certainly takes a dim view of it (or rather: what it has become in this society). Love is an ideal that still, vaguely exists, but is shown to be practically an impossibility in this society.
       Houellebecq's critique is not simpleminded, though the presentation occasionally lacks subtlety. There is analysis to go with the descriptions, and a fair amount of philosophizing on the side, much of it quite interesting. Where Michel turns to science, Bruno is a would-be poet and writer (achieving very limited success). It is too neat a separation, two sides of the author himself, divided for literary effect, but Houellebecq uses them quite effectively to make his points.
       Bruno is the greater failure in life. His outlook is Nietzschean ("pretty second-rate Nietzschean at that" he silently admits), and the end he chooses runs fairly true to form.
       It is in Michel, the brilliant biologist, that Houellebecq places his greater hopes. The book does not end in the present day, but rather looks ahead at another ten years or so of work by Michel, and then provides an epilogue which summarizes what happened in the decades after. Good things -- sort of -- happen, all based on Michel's insightful discoveries. They are also odd things. The world is remade, and it is a better place -- sort of. Houellebecq briefly presents a utopian (or dystopian) vision -- what the future might hold. It is a brave and disorienting jump -- and it is also a too-easy out in a philosophical fiction of this sort. Still, it works quite well, and he almost pulls it off. It is too easy a way of "proving" where we might be headed and what the consequences of the present are, specifically because what proof he offers is not always entirely convincing. The biology and sociology also get a bit too fuzzy at the end, with Michel's great works simply condensed to their essence (i.e. the conclusions are offered, with no substantiation or explanation).

       There is a lengthy jab at Aldous Huxley at one point in The Elementary Particles. It is certainly meant tongue in cheek, as much of the criticism Bruno offers applies to author Houellebecq as well:

Oh, Huxley was a terrible writer, I admit. His writing is pretentious and clumsy, his characters are bland ciphers, but he had one vital premonition: he understood that for centuries the evolution of human society had been linked to scientific progress and would continue to be. He may have lacked style or finesse or psychological insight, but that's insignificant compared to the brilliance of the original concept.
       Bruno is praising Brave New World ("Brave New World is our idea of heaven", he convincingly suggests), and Houellebecq clearly wants his book be considered in much the same light. He also has Michel point out to Bruno that Aldous Huxley took all his ideas from Julian Huxley's 1931 book, What Dare I Think ?, grounding it more solidly in scientific reality. Throughout The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq is at pains to point out the scientific basis of many of his own claims, leading to odd (but also oddly fascinating) asides.
       Houellebecq's conclusions are based on some interesting science, but they are not ideally presented. One summary of an experiment leads him to state that "random mutation seemed more efficient than natural selection". Random mutation is, in fact, an integral part of natural selection; a scientist might understand what Houellebecq means here (given the description of the experiment), but the conclusion, as stated, is both false and misleading (unfortunately so, because there is a valid and interesting point to the experiment in question)
       Similarly, he offers other sweeping statements that are simply not true:
As soon as the genome has been decoded (which would be in a matter of months), humanity would have complete control of its evolution, and when that happened sexuality would be seen for what it really was: a useless, dangerous and regressive function.
       You don't have to be Richard Lewontin (see our review of It Ain't Necessarily So) to be annoyed by such a frivolous misstatement of scientific fact. And one can just be glad that Houellebecq does not explain how Michel "was able, through somewhat risky interpretations of the postulates of quantum mechanics, to restore the possibility of love". (This statement is inexcusable drivel, by the way, and it says something about Houellebecq's accomplishment that despite this the book itself can still be considered worthwhile.)
       Houellebecq's dark philosophy, culminating in "the most radical of Djerzinski's proposals" (and radical it is), is, on a theoretical level, a bit tough to take. In practice, however, dressed up in this fictional form, Houellebecq offers a thoughtful entertainment. Much (most ? all ?) of what he says and tries to prove borders on the ridiculous, but a few ideas give pause.
       The Elementary Particles is a philosophical novel in best French tradition, though times have changed from the 1960s (and note that the 68-generation get thoroughly hammered here). Part of the fun for American and English audiences also lies in this rather different view of France Houellebecq presents. In the prologue Houellebecq writes that France "was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries", a statement of such incredible stupidity that it takes ones breath away (France remains one of the world's wealthiest and best-developed countries, and at least on the development scale (literacy, technology, health-care) the French have never been as well off as they are now -- or so far ahead of so many other nations.) Such homeland-bashing is, of course, common among writers, but Houellebecq takes on too big a target. Lots of the bashing is valid, but much else is not, and he undermines his valid points when he makes statements such as this that are so completely and obviously inaccurate.
       Houellebecq remains surprisingly provincial. There is some larger criticism of Western culture, the failure of religion, and questions of race, but almost nothing in the book acknowledges a world outside the petty one Bruno and Michel inhabit. Save the e-mails from academic institutions and research facilities abroad that Michel receives and some xenophobic rants there does not even seem to be much of an outside world. Tellingly, Michel does finally flee France (for Ireland, following Houellebecq's own footsteps), but little of that world is presented. Houellebecq sees the societal ailments transcending France -- grandiosely he says of Annabelle and Michel: "In the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear they had no chance." This suicide is not wholly convincingly presented, and readers from other Western countries (and probably from France itself) may wonder what Houellebecq is going on about.

       A wild, weird book, with much that is off-putting, The Elementary Particles nevertheless tries very hard and achieves a number of successes. It is a fascinating if often frustrating read. Recommended, though readers should be aware of what they are in for.

       Note that there is a lot of sex in The Elementary Particles -- generally of the gratuitous, unpleasant, and unfulfilling variety. Erotica it ain't, and often it is downright off-putting.

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The Elementary Particles: Reviews: Michel Houellebecq: Other books by Michel Houellebecq under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Richard Lewontin considering many of the genetic issues Houellebecq raises, in It Ain't Necessarily So
  • See also the Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.

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© 2000-2021 the complete review

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