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The Elementary Particles Paperback – November 13, 2001

3.7 out of 5 stars 137 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New title edition (November 13, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375727019
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375727016
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (137 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #44,672 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
When I read the shrill reviews from the uptight liberals at the New York Times, I knew this book had to be good. I was right. The Elementary Particles is the story of two half-brothers in post-1960s France. When their hippy mother runs off to a New Age community in California, the two boys are sent to live with different sets of grandparents. The boys grow up in a world infected by the ideas of the 1960s revolution. The highest values are American ones: radical individualism, sexual liberation, and self-expression. The bonds holding people together have been eroded as France is mercilessly (and tragically) Americanized. Every facet of life has been reduced to crude, radical competition. The law of the jungle prevails. The two brothers react to this sad new world in interesting ways. Bruno -- a teacher, failed writer, and chronic masturbator -- embarks on a life of endless searching for love but becomes obsessed with pornography, sex clubs, cyber sex, and nudist holiday camps; he molests one of his female students. Michel, a scientist, withdraws from the world, unable to love; he devotes all his time to biology and genetics research. Their superficially different reactions bely the fact that they suffer from the same modern disease which manifests itself in an inability to love, self-absorption, and an absence of meaningful social interactions. There is no larger community in this world; just a bunch of atomized human beings -- elementary particles -- that occasionally bump into one another for sex. They are adrift in a decadent West unaware of its own rapid decline. Bruno and Michel ultimately choose similar ways to deal with their sad fate. This book is a timely indictment of the social, sexual, economic, and technological upheavals in the West since the 1960s.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
First, a quote from Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy," the spirit of which I'd swear animates this novel...
"...An old legend has it that King Midas hunted a long time in the woods for the wise Silenus, companion of Dionysos, without being able to catch him. When he had finally caught him the king asked him what he considered man's greatest good. The daemon remained sullen and uncommunicative until finally, forced by the king, he broke into a shrill laugh and spoke: "Ephemeral wretch, begotten by accident and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it would be your greatest boon not to hear? What would be best for you is quite beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best is to die soon."
Ok- here's the deal. Either you go in for the bleak, unredemptive, unflinching view of humanity and existence, or you don't. I loved this book. It cut me to the bone and I was glad for it. Houellebecq takes apart our desires, our dreams, our age, all our petty cultural trappings- and exposes them for the broken props that they are. Even The sci-fi bookends of the novel didn't grate too badly, though it ended abruptly.
Houellebecq presents a worldview that only a scabrous, self-hating continental intellectual could craft so well. And thank Doug for that! This is a nihilistic work of highest caliber, a descendant of Celine (though H's misanthropy and nihilism aren't the same strain of gleeful, musical hate as Celine's), Hamsun and Huysmans. So be warned, all is not roses and puppy dogs. Humanity, nature, the world in which we live are reviled in a variety of insights, characters and plotlines, none of which end happily.
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By A Customer on November 22, 2000
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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Format: Paperback
I started reading this book almost a year ago and got through the first 2/3 very quickly; then something strange happened: I was so depressed by the contents of it, the constant pointless sex, the graphic descriptions, the callousness and emptiness of the characters and the emptiness of their shallow lives that--despite knowing that all this was deliberate by Houllebecq, that it was his razor-sharp deconstruction and commentary on the modern Western lifestyle--I was just not able to continue, until two days ago, when, with nothing else to do, I picked it up off my bookshelf and started from where I'd left off. The hiatus worked wonders and I whizzed through the remainder of the book, enthralled and riveted, although at times disgusted too, and full of admiration.

This is a difficult book but a necessary one and, I have no hesitation in now saying, a brilliant one. The book is full of some extraordinary ideas and incisive commentary on humanity in the late 20th century, especially that of European society. The ending--it goes into (very plausible) hard science fiction territory--the erudition of the writer, his eye for detail, and his twin obsessions of sex and violence, and his ability to be brave enough to write what he sees without any thought for political correctness or any of the other sops of the liberal left, is breathtaking and--despite the ocassional Islamophobia, nay contempt he portrays for organised religion but Islam in particular, his racism, makes this book essential reading especially after the tragic events of 9/11 and those in London on 7/7 and after. This book has more important and accurate things to say about the human condition of contemporary European man than any number of the dry academic essays on sociology and anthroplogy you can care to read.
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