review: the elementary particles

25 May 2016

book info:
on sale: now
copy from: public library
pages: 263
review written: 23.5.16
originally published: 1998 ("Les particules élémentaires")
edition read: Knopf, 2000, translation by Frank Wynne

title: The Elementary Particles
author: Michel Houellebecq

The Elementary Particles part-story part-metaphysical-rants in an interesting narration from two characters, half-brothers borne of a hippie and absentee mother in the 60s: Michel and Bruno. Michel is an asexual scientist who "expresses his disgust with society by engineering one that frees mankind at last from its uncontrollable, destructive urges" and Bruno is a crass brute driven by sexual desires that lusts after his lost youth. This book follows their stories from childhood to their middle age, spinning around the past and present and major and minor characters in an intriguing narrative that had me reading every single word for fear of missing anything crucial.
(quote from book summary)

When I first began to read, I imagined this would be a monotonous French novel describing the dull, mundane world with distaste and mild appreciation. I was shocked by the blatant narration of Bruno, who's such a brute that I'd recommend mature audiences read this book. Not only that, the metaphysical analyses offered by both the characters took some time for me to digest and full comprehend. While at first it seemed to me that the verbose paragraphs of metaphysics interrupted the story and that the story seemed only to be a canvas for Houllebecq to write a non-essay of his thoughts and opinions, only when I finished the book did I understand that what I'd thought was pretentiousness was actually a carefully orchestrated performance that I was too impatient to hear in the beginning.

I think a crucial peak in the storyline was a conversation between the adults Bruno and Michel in an affordable Chinese restaurant. They were both immensely interested in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and took upon talking not only about Huxley's own life, but his message and his purpose for writing arguably his most famous work.

"The metaphysical mutation that gave rise to materialism and modern science in turn spawned two great trends: rationalism and individualism. Huxley's mistake was in having poorly evaluated the balance of power between these two. Specifically, he underestimated the growth of individualism brought about by an increased consciousness of death. Individualism gives rise to freedom, the self of self, the need to distinguish onseelf and to be superior to others. A rational society like the one he describes in Brave New World can defuse the struggle. Economic rivalry--a metaphor for mastery over space--has no more reason to exist in a society of plenty, where the economy is strictly regulated. Sexual rivalry--a metaphor for mastery over time through reproduction--has no more reason to exist in a society where the connection between sex and procreation has broken. But Huzley forgets about individualism. He doesn't understand that sex....still a form of narcissistic differentiation.... For society to function, for competition to continue, people have to want more and mor, until desire fills their lives and finally devours them."
- page 133, Michel narrating

Bruno and Michel represent two polar ends of a vaguely similar topic: sex. Bruno is devoured by it, obsessed with it, and indulges himself with it. Michel is an onlooker to the desire for sex, as an asexual being, and instead uses his deep understanding of science to analyse the metaphysics behind sex and, towards the end of the book, discovers an eye-opening research possibility and moves on to pursue it.

This book gave me mixed feelings and emotions. The blatant and crude narration of Bruno made me feel dirtied and depressed, much like the character (pardon me). Michel's narration made me feel depressed as well but his lengthy and often challenging-to-comprehend explanations of scientific concepts proved too interesting to let go. Metaphysics, as defined by Wikipedia, is "concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it." I believe Michel combined philosophy with science with maybe too lofty a voice for my liking. It was still expertly written. I feel that if I read this book over and over again, I'd come to a better understanding of the story.

Therefore, at least for now, I give this book 5 umbrellas. This is because it's been a long time since I've read a book that forced me to read every word, that kept me itching to read more, and that made me think and question not only about the literature but the world.

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