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Book Review

A Look at Causes of Human Unhappiness

THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES, A Novel; by Michel Houellebecq, Translated from the Frenchby Frank Wynne, Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 320 pages

October 31, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Elementary Particles" has reportedly stirred up fierce debate in France--so fierce that the author, Michel Houellebecq, has found it expedient to move to Ireland. No wonder. It is not only a graphically sexual novel, it's also a frontal assault on the values he attributes to the generation of the 1960s: hedonism, consumerism, feminism, environmentalism, the decline of Christianity and the rise of the individual, responsible to nothing and no one, except himself.

A somewhat different debate is likely in America, where Christianity is stronger and the political left weaker. Still, the counterculture started here--Houellebecq has unkind things to say about the Esalen Institute, Abraham Maslow, Aldous Huxley and other distillers of California dreams--and a hullabaloo can be expected in this hemisphere as well. Houellebecq offers insights into the causes of some kinds of human unhappiness in the late 20th century that can't easily be brushed aside.

"The Elementary Particles" is the story of half brothers, Bruno Clement and Michel Djerzinski, whose mother, a rich French hippie, had them by different fathers. They were raised separately, by old-fashioned grandparents. They had little contact with their parents and didn't meet each other until they were nearly adults. Though equally damaged, they adapted to their psychological crippling in different ways.

Bruno, a fat, timid youth, bullied at boarding school, might have gotten by in a society that restricted sex to marriage. But he grows up at a time when unlimited sex suddenly seems available to all--a cruel illusion, Houellebecq says, because just as unregulated markets worsen the inequality of incomes, sexual liberation gives everything to the young and beautiful and nothing to the unattractive, like Bruno, and the aging, who are all of us sooner or later.

Desire--not only his own desire, but that of the era--whips Bruno on mercilessly. A teacher, he neglects his job, stunts his literary ambitions, spoils his brief marriage and alienates his son. He frequents prostitutes, swap clubs, nude beaches and the Internet, finally succumbing to obsession and madness.

Michel, on the other hand, escapes into a cool rationality, eschewing sex altogether and excelling as a molecular biologist. But his solitary life is, in its way, as symptomatic as Bruno's messy one. Perhaps because he lacked a mother's nurturing, he feels incapable of love, even for his childhood sweetheart, Annabelle, a stunning girl who leaves him regretfully to take her place in a world that views her, for a limited time, as a valuable commodity.

Houellebecq, by his own admission, is a depressive. He has the European weakness for all-embracing theories. He generalizes recklessly from his own case to that of society at large. He's repetitive, one-sided, subtle as a jackhammer. But he's also fearless, vivid and astringently honest. He can be poignant and, now and then, surprisingly funny. A look through his eyes--their narrow but acute field of focus--can permanently change how we view things that happened in our own lives. Not many novels can do that.

Michel, after seeing much tragedy, invents a way to clone a new, immortal species that will replace humans. A cover-narrative from the 2080s reports that these sexless beings have rediscovered love, community and religious meaning. This utopia needn't be taken too seriously--Houellebecq is suggesting such a radical cure just to indicate the severity of the disease. "The Elementary Particles" is strongest in its quieter moments--moments when members of the old, flawed species make futile efforts to connect, start down passageways to love that have been blocked by rubble, try to say a tender word that can be heard above the noise around and within them.

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