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Michel Houellebecq: Les particules élémentaires (UK: Atomised; US: The Elementary Particles)

When first published in France, this book caused somewhat of a furore, not least because Houellebecq essentially condemned much of what France had stood for since the War. Its effect elsewhere, however, was far more muted. Houellebecq essentially has two points to make. The first is that much of what we do and who we are is purely controlled by science. The second and more controversial point is that much that has happened since the War – hippie culture, New Age, feminism, the sexual revolution – much of which came from the USA, is a bad thing.

Houellebecq tells the story of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel. Their mother, Janine (who later becomes Jane), subscribes to all the hippie/New Age stuff Houellebecq despises. She is a lousy parent, essentially abandoning her sons. That is the start of their problems. Indeed, poor parenting by pretty well all the main characters is, in Houellebecq’s opinion, one of the reasons for the decline of civilisation. Bruno’s problems start when he is sent to boarding school and brutalised by the older boys. For most of the rest of the book, his life revolves around trying to get sexual gratification. Houellebecq often treats this in a matter of fact manner, describing Bruno’s often failed attempts at getting sex, be it intercourse or oral sex. However, this can sometimes come across as rather humorous, particularly when Bruno goes to a naturist camp and tries on numerous occasions to get sex. His feeble attempts can only be described as ludicrous. However, he finally meets a divorced woman called Christine (another poor parent) and they not only have sex but start a relationship, ending when Christine is paralysed while at a sex club and is being fucked by the sixth man in a row while giving Bruno oral sex. She subsequently kills herself. Bruno had been married before but admits that he was both a poor husband and a poor father to Victor. After Christine’s death, he exposes himself to one of his Arab students. Instead of being shocked or taking his penis in her hand, she merely laughs, leading Bruno to a nervous breakdown from which he will never recover.

Michel is very different. He eschews sex, indeed is not the slightest bit interested in it. When young he does have a girlfriend – Annabel – but they do nothing but hold hands. When he goes to university, he effectively abandons her. They meet up again twenty-three years later – both still single – and resume their life together, though with sex this time. However, she contracts cancer and kills herself. However, he does have another life. He is a researcher in the field of molecular biology and, right at the end of the book, after Annabel’s death, moves to a research centre in Ireland (where Houellebecq now lives) and makes some important discoveries about the relationship between our biology and our behaviour before mysteriously disappearing. In short, says Houellebecq, science is the answer, not the family, not the church (he doesn’t seem to like religion) and certainly not individual freedom. An interesting message but one that is obviously going to be much criticised.

Publishing history

First published in French 1998 by Flammarion
First English translation 2000 Heinemann (as Atomised), Knopf (as The Elementary Particles)
Translated by Frank Wynne