This is a bold and unsettling portrait of a society falling apart: the rage that both left and right, the piously religious as well as the humanists, have expressed towards Houellebecq is pretty much the rage of Caliban seeing his face in the glass. There is not too much doubt that Houellebecq is an unpleasant person. (We're no slouches in this regard, but France has a gift for producing nasty writers.) One does not want to examine his ideas on race too deeply, just yet. I would get this and read it before that particular time bomb explodes.
The reader of the newly translated English version can only conclude that controversy — over the book's right-wing politics and willfully pornographic passages — accounts for the novel's high profile. 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 … The women who try to connect with Michel and Bruno are mercilessly killed off by Mr. Houellebecq to underscore the futility of all human relationships … This is the vision not only of someone who despairs of the human condition, but also, the reader of this repellent book is reminded, of someone who wants us to believe that the psychotic Bruno is a ‘pretty typical’ human being.
The bulk of the book — and its strength — lies in its scathing jeremiad against contemporary society. The culmination of the so-called sexual liberation of the 1960s, Houellebecq argues, is a society without moral values of any kind … The story, filled with graphic portrayals of sexual excess, is not for the squeamish. But unlike some writers, Houellebecq succeeds in making it seem repellent, chilly, and sad rather than titillating. The dialogue, however, is almost comically awkward: When the brothers get together to talk, they sound as if they are reading aloud from polemical articles. In many ways more manifesto than novel, The Elementary Particles is full of provocative ideas, powerfully expressed. But a great work of literature? Not likely. A book that people should read? Yes.
Clearly we should brace ourselves for something on the grand scale, and from its earliest metaphysical musings to its closing sentence there seems no danger of Houellebecq taking anything other than a long view of the human condition … The novel is divided into three sections, the first of which is marked by a near-academic neutrality of tone. (Frank Wynne's stolid translation is presumably faithful.) Houellebecq reveals his characters in the manner of a sociologist rather than a storyteller … In the second and third parts, the tone lurches unpleasantly between the salacious and the psychotic as Bruno goes to a New Age resort where absurd self-help courses are the order of the day. Bruno, as if we couldn't guess, has chosen the place with the express purpose of bedding women. Houellebecq pokes fun at the pretension on display, though he doesn't seem to notice his own … One can only assume that France's literary scene must have been suffering a profound torpor if it responded with such outrage to this bilious, hysterical and oddly juvenile book.
It is a broadside against Enlightenment individualism and all its works, which are seen to lead only to hedonism and despair, not the utopia of the philosophes' dreams … Mr. Houellebecq limns the post-'68 world through a mock-historical biography of two half-brothers — Bruno Clement and Michel Djerzinski, both born in the late 1950s. Their mother is a drugged-out, New Age hippie orgiast who ditched both her children in infancy. (Mr. Houellebecq himself had such parents.) Each son holds her responsible for his own failings, and her generation for the wreckage of society … It is also a riveting novel by a deft, observant writer. (Some of the deftness disappears in this mistake-filled translation.) Those who can make it past the sexual grossness will find a touching narrative that makes a new point: that not everyone using sex as a consolation for lost moral certitudes is blissfully ignorant that he's being taken for a ride.
The Elementary Particles has the added disadvantage of being so extreme in its views that it will be repugnant to most readers … Instead of regarding the '60s as a time of liberation, of the rejection of hypocrisy, repression and conformity, Houellebecq — like many reactionaries here as well as in France — considers the '60s a disaster, when community was rejected in favor of rampant individualism and morality thrown out the window along with constricting ties and bras. The legacy of the French student revolt of 1968 and hippies dancing in the mud at Woodstock is the soulless, immoral, consumer society we now live in — a thesis so ludicrous that Houellebecq needs to go to extremes to defend it … Despite its daft ideas, The Elementary Particles is a fascinating read, aided by an exceptionally smooth translation by Frank Wynne.
To describe Michel Houellebecq's extraordinary novel as nihilistic would be a grave understatement. On its publication in France as Les Particules Elémentaires, it shot up the bestseller charts while provoking outrage for its strands of homophobia, racism and misogyny, not to mention explicit and frequently voyeuristic sex and violence … This is an anti-novel in the sense that it consistently diminishes any sense of its own possibilities. It lurches from misanthropic farce to dissociated tragedy, from philosophical speculation to sarcastic sideswipes at the luminaries of recent French thought … Much of Houellebecq's barely concealed rage is directed towards the incapacity of those in the ivory towers to deal with the big questions: religion, sex and death.
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 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 … Houellebecq is disgusted with liberal society, but his self-importance and humorlessness overwhelm his characters and finally will tax readers' patience.