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The Elementary Particles [Paperback]

Michel Houellebecq
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 13 2001 Vintage International
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.

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Bruno and Michel are half-brothers, born to a hippie mother who believed in following her bliss. As boys they live in ignorance of each other--at one point attending the same school without knowing of their blood connection. As grown men they're not truly close, but they occasionally phone each other late at night. Bruno's a hopeless sexual obsessive, often drunk or on his way there, and Michel's a molecular biologist, distant and inaccessible.

Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles follows these brothers through the latter half of the 20th century. Bruno and Michel are buffeted by history, vessels of disappointment and desire rocked by the ocean of time. Shuttled away to a boarding school where he's sexually abused by other boys, Bruno grows up full of twisted sexual longings and a contempt for aging women so palpable that at times it's stomach-churning. At a commune in the country, Bruno takes stock:

The women were intolerable at breakfast, but by cocktail hour the mystical tarts were hopelessly vying with younger women once again. Death is the great leveler. On Wednesday afternoon he met Catherine, a fifty-year-old who had been a feminist of the old school. She was tanned, with dark curly hair; she must have been very attractive when she was twenty. Her breasts were still in good shape, he thought when he saw her by the pool, but she had a fat ass.
Michel doesn't hate women; he doesn't even notice them. Instead of leering at bodies by the pool, he stares at particles in microscopes. He wins prizes for his experiments, but never experiences the rush of life. For both men, the damage has been done by history, by mother, before the story begins. What interests Houellebecq are the permutations and recapitulations of damage--the way the particles of the self can never be completely reconstituted. --Emily White --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers 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, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
The first of July 1998 fell on a Wednesday, so although it was a little unusual, Djerzinski organized his farewell party for Tuesday evening. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Hardcover
Well, not unequivocally fine. At first I wanted to launch this book across the room, like Camus chucked de Beaviour's "Second Sex," and dismiss it as rubbish. Then I wanted to proclaim it as a masterpiece, then chuck it, then laud it again. Like virtual particles adhering to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, so too were my emotions after absorbing this unbelievably sad existential tale. Borrowing heavily (probably a bit too heavily) from Camus, and totally ignoring the fact that two intellectual movements (structuralism and post-structuralism (maybe three:post-post-structuralism?)) have passed since existentialism gripped our world, Houllebecq writes eloquently about the individual's isolation, about mankind's miserable and perverted existence. Written with all the mysanthropy of a Gulliver tale, the author sees no escape for the individual except through death, no escape for mankind except extinction at the hands of an all female, genetically-enhanced, immortal, asexual, superspecies. As I said, he starts out basically replicating Camus's dismal take on mankind--the only difference being Houellebecq's baffling hang-up with basic sexuality. But I suppose that's the point. He's saying that in this day and age, after the sexual revolution, and the excessive permissiveness of the previous decades, sex is now no more than perversion for the sake of being perverse. Unlike the other reviewers who were offended by his supposed "right-wing attack on the left", I found it refreshing that he was rejecting "moral relativism" which personally I believe to be a negative force in society. His conclusion, though depressing and troubling, is logical. Read more ›
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Monsieur Houllebecq clearly understands things that most people refuses to even see; the incredible way in which he describes today's life in Europe (and most parts of Western developed societies) trapped my intellect and transported me into France, the US and the UK with mixed feelings of "no way out", "fascination", "pleasure", "pain", etc... The way he "conects" characters with exact and social sciences is superb. Treatment of death as the ultimate result no matter what, perfect. His idea of loneliness as a consequence of superficiality, shocking. Definitely, a mirror in which not always you want to take a look; a great book from a very intelligent author.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars bleak french genius Nov. 22 2000
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I agree with the reviewer who said that reading this book was sort of like taking a particularly bitter pill. I sacrificed any chances of a good mood for the week I spent reading this book. I was haunted by the images of physical decay, moral corruption, and sexual perversity that Houellebecq so starkly portrays. The more I read, the clearer it became to me that most writers publishing in America don't dare to tackle big ideas. However flawed The Elementary Particles might be, the fact that Houellebecq confronts not only scientific progress and philosophical schools of thought, but also death, sickness, gender and sex in the most universal sense, shows such courage and vision that I can't help thinking this novel is genius. The glimmer of hope offered by the cryptic last pages ("the future is feminine") actually does lift away some of the bleakness, without taking away from the overall seriousness. Houellebecq also has a grim sense of humor that I enjoyed. I'm not surprised this hasn't received more attention in the U.S. I wish that weren't true. Maybe then American writers (or more precisely, American publishers) might find the courage to compete with this guy. The bar has been raised.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Houellebecq's is a unique and courageous voice Oct. 25 2009
Format:Paperback
Houellebecq approaches our malaise from the standpoints of philosophy, biology, physics, cultural critique, personal history and sexual pathology. No one could doubt that he is an expert in all these areas. Through his craft, he gives us a synthesis of these fields which states ideas that seem new, often right--and sometimes even exhilarating. At the same time, Houellebecq delves into the darkest aspects of obsession, insanity, rape, sadomasochism, pedophilia, and religious and racial intolerance. I feel that some of his dramatizations of these themes are gratuitous. But on the whole, I was OK with trading a distasteful scene or two for pages and pages of great insights. The Epilogue is brilliant and provides an extremely elegant justification for the strange way the book is narrated. This is a book which rewards the intellectually curious.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Un revolution sexualle... May 9 2004
Format:Paperback
Consider classical french prose, from Corneille, Proust, Camus, Sartre, Racine...consider then clasical political thought of French, from Rousseau to Derrida and Lacan... and you'll began to immerse yourself into a world that Houellbecq presents his deconstruction.
Humankind is disorted, humankind is dark and majestic, humankind doesen't have the natural right nor does it have its elementary justice for mere sake of being humane.... huminkind is filth, or so would you read between lines in this book... the saddest thing of all is, that those thought are true...
This is indeed a wonderfull book, one that can stand for modernism (ot as some would call it post-modernism), this book deconstructs every cultural thought, playing with stupidity and obscenity, creating paradoxes, and forcing you to believe that only they can be true...
You'll have a giant hole in your education if you skip this one...marvelous
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Fantasy shrouded in fiction
This work caught my attention for numerous reasons. It is a contemporary novel addressing the various malaises of modernity, and at first glance seemed like an interesting... Read more
Published on July 30 2005 by Anthropology Professor
2.0 out of 5 stars Malaise
While I enjoyed reading this book, I am, in retrospect, a bit unimpressed. The book has some fine ideas and the occasionally raucous observation that will cause the reader to... Read more
Published on May 5 2004 by JOHN J. MCGRAW
4.0 out of 5 stars Fiction at the Edge
Every now and then, a novel comes along that reminds us that the novel does not have to be the genteel commodity that dominates bookstore shelves--sold like Martha Steward's towels... Read more
Published on April 27 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Not only a misanthrope's wet-dream-
but also an engrossing, deft, (and most-importantly) WELL-WRITTEN book! The way Michel can slide so easily from character description to his sundry ruminations on humanity- he... Read more
Published on April 10 2004 by mandy knowles
5.0 out of 5 stars Not for the faint of heart or fans of escapist literature
In this anything but escapist post-modern novel a dark view of the human condition reigns supreme (and is often supremely funny). Read more
Published on March 6 2004 by "owlorchard"
5.0 out of 5 stars Woah. not for everyone. FOR ME.
First, a quote from Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy," the spirit of which I'd swear animates this novel...
"... Read more
Published on Jan. 28 2004 by Campbell Roark
5.0 out of 5 stars One truly spectacular book
This is truly a spectacular book. As with some other reviewer, I found the book "un-put-down-able". Read more
Published on Jan. 10 2004 by V. Nagaswamy
5.0 out of 5 stars Touches deep nerves
This is a five star book IMO because:
1) it is tremendously engaging, and even it's 'flaws' and uneven flow just made it better. Read more
Published on Jan. 9 2004 by urileo
1.0 out of 5 stars Mental Masturbation
Michel Houellebeqc's highly-praised novel "The Elementary Particles" was a big disappointment to me. Pardon moi, but I have never understood the typical French author. Read more
Published on Oct. 5 2003 by Richard Huhtanen
1.0 out of 5 stars Amateurish Philosophy, Science Insights for 10-year olds...?
The book has it all. Did you miss reading lots of pseudo-philosophical rant straight out of really, really bad sci-fi? Do not worry. The author will give you a good introduction. Read more
Published on July 4 2003 by Krzysztof Wolyniec
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