The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

elementaryThis is a brutal and explicit entry onto the 1001 Books List. Houellebecq uses a combination of detached, documentary style narration and crude, sexual narrative voice to recount the past and present lives of two brothers, Michel and Bruno, raised separately but sharing the same mother. The alternation in styles maximises the ‘shock factor’; although in modern writing, crudity has become commonplace, the apposition of styles employed here does go some way towards attaching a sense of novelty to it. It isn’t a book for the faint-hearted.

Each individual character’s history is recounted in a formulaic, scientific manner. It is as if the narrator is setting their current actions in the context of empirical data and study. It is an interesting approach but ultimately, it leaves the reader detached from the main characters. Bruno and Michel are like matter and anti-matter. Bruno is a crude, sexually motivated unsuccessful writer whilst Michel is an almost asexual scientific genius. In the passages detailing Bruno’s life, the reader hears his literal voice and his narrative voice. For Michel, the description of his life is scientific. In Bruno, Houellebecq carries out an examination of sex – not love, not relationships but brutal, visceral sex. Ultimately we are led to believe, however, that these two brothers are equally damaged and this is exemplified in the mirroring of their final relationships with women.

It is the epilogue that really puts a new slant on the book. In the end, it leaves a question in the reader’s mind: having laid the worst of humanity to bare, should we be willing to give it up easily in the pursuit of security. What price should we pay for a santised but physically and emotionally safe existence? Houellebecq best exemplifies his approach to this book when he describes a scientific technique:

“A Griffiths history is constructed from a succession of more or less random quantum measurements taken at different moments”.

This novel is Bruno and Michel’s Griffiths history. It is a book to stimulate thoughts and ideas but not a pleasure to read. It is certainly worth reading but not one of my favourites.

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