On Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles

I love Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles — it's smart and hilarious and downright nasty. And I love the way Houellebecq deploys a vision throughout all his writing, a vision of the contemporary moment, how we got here and where we're going.

But what's so impressive to me about The Elementary Particles is the way Houellebecq moves so readily between the historical, the cultural, the biological, the chemical, the species, and the absolutely singular way of a character. Houellebecq's vision is vast and complex and sure. To wit:

"Bruno, however, found himself in a less auspicious position. While dominance and brutality are commonplace in the animal kingdom, among higher primates, notably the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), weaker animals suffer acts of gratuitous cruelty."

And then:

"From a moral standpoint, 1970 was marked by a substantial increase in the consumption of the erotic, despite the intervention of vigilant censors....Bare breasts spread quickly across the beaches of the Riviera. In a few short months, the number of sex shops in Paris leapt from three to forty-five.// In September, Michel started the quatrieme and took German as his second language. It was in German class that he met Annabelle."

This is not a pyramid, a hierarchy. It's not as though the characters are stand-ins for the forces of nature or history; the characters are not examples per se. Rather, it's that we can't possibly separate the historical, the biologic, and the human: they are what make up this life. Humans are neither the realization of these forces nor agents capable of resistance. They go as they go, amidst the great teem of history and nature which itself is made up of an infinity of singular moments.

Hence, the elementary particles of the title.


@PierreDDN said...


I have read long time ago the book in French. (i'm French).

Don't share your enthusism, I must say.

The language is poor. I used to read english books and even if I understand only 20%/30% of the words, I enjoy the colors of the unknown words and the dynamic of grammar. Most of the time classics of english spoken litterature. Houellebecq has a repetitive rythm.

A very ironical document may give you ideas about Houellebecq (in French, I must say):


I enjoy very much your teching of rhetoric 10 on itunes. Thanks to have shared it!

Daniel Coffeen said...

I will admit that, at least in English, his prose doesn't always sparkle. Indeed, at times it is downright terrible.

But The Elementary Particles is brilliant — his rhythm, his vision, the way he connects the personal, the species, and the historical.

I love the way he deploys such a thorough, and usually fresh, vision. He has taught me much and I remain thankful.

@PierreDDN said...

his prose in French is not so much better...

Yes, there is an universe, and better than all, an universe which speaks to the today man.

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