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Oh that sweet ennui

A novelist's anti-'60s rant

by Adam Kirsch

THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES. By Michel Houellebecq. Translated by Frank Wynne. Alfred A. Knopf, 264 pages, $25.

[Michel Houellebecq] Halfway through The Elementary Particles, Bruno and Michel, its anti-hero half-brothers, engage in a long discussion of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. "Oh, Huxley was a terrible writer, I admit," Bruno says. "His writing is pretentious and clumsy, his characters are bland ciphers, but he had one vital premonition: he understood that for centuries the evolution of human society had been linked to scientific progress and would continue to be. He may have lacked style or finesse or psychological insight, but that's insignificant compared to the brilliance of the original concept."

Here, as so often in The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq's own voice is heard out of the mouths of his characters. And what he says about Huxley is a defense of his own method: his novel, an old-fashioned succès de scandale when published in France last year, is also pretentious and clumsy, not to say childishly crude. What redeems it from these obvious flaws is its central idea, and the passion with which the author expounds it.

Houellebecq's "original concept" is that the 1960s were the beginning of the end for Western civilization. His main characters are the sons, by different fathers, of a proto-hippie whose utter selfishness and disregard for her offspring has permanently scarred them; as such, they are emblematic of a generation. (The scene in which the abandoned infant Michel is discovered in a pile of his own excrement bespeaks both Houellebecq's view of hippies and his unremitting scabrousness.) The search for sexual pleasure and individual fulfillment has destroyed any possibility of self-sacrifice, devotion, or love; the children of '68, as Houellebecq shows them, grow up to be neglected, withdrawn, and miserable, if not actually murderous. Far from being a communal or utopian revolution, sexual liberation has turned the spirit of capitalism loose in the most private of realms: just as there are millionaires and beggars, some men sleep with hundreds of women while others are reduced to furtive masturbation.

Bruno is in the latter group, a fat, bullied child who becomes a sordid, unloved adult. The book's seeming misogyny is largely his; he sees women as a collection of sex organs, and the more he's rejected, the greater his loathing for women and himself grows. The many passages in which Bruno spies on young girls in the shower, masturbates in front of them on the bus, or exposes himself to a student are graphically disturbing. But in fact Houellebecq has a deeply sentimental view of women -- perhaps that's the inevitable flipside of his cynicism. The few heroes of The Elementary Particles are all heroines: Michel's selfless grandmother and his childhood sweetheart, Bruno's polymorphically perverse girlfriend. They all come to bad ends, like everyone good in Houellebecq's moral universe.

What's more, the apparent misogyny is enveloped in a severe and comprehensive critique of men and masculinity. Male sexuality, untethered from the family (Bruno barely knows his father and neglects his son), is seen as hideously sterile, self-consuming. Michel, a biochemist, becomes obsessed with the idea that a perfect future for humanity will require the elimination of sexual reproduction, and thus of males; as he reads in a women's magazine, "THE FUTURE IS FEMALE." The elaboration of his theories is the least convincing part of the novel, even though "elementary particles" is a scientific metaphor (the book's unliteral but fitting British title is Atomized). When Houellebecq tries to link Michel's personal experiences and the cultural decline of the West with quantum physics and molecular biology, he becomes imprecise and grandiose. The technical descriptions of biological processes that are strewn through the novel -- cutaways from the action reminiscent of New Wave film -- have a ham-fisted irony.

And in his explicit theoretical statements about culture and society -- his attempts to make direct and abstract what is implied throughout -- Houellebecq betrays an autodidact's insistent crudity, cobbling together grand theories based on sweeping generalizations, pop sociology, women's-magazine articles, rock songs, and bits of Kant and Nietzsche. When Michel's scientific quest carries him to the remote west of Ireland, you wonder whether Houellebecq hasn't brought him there just so he can end up at the extreme geographic limit of Europe -- a none-too-subtle metaphor. And the book's framing device -- a communication from the 22nd century in which the results of Michel's discoveries are gradually revealed -- is crankily didactic. What keeps the novel afloat and makes it provocative is not its ideas but its emotion, its maddened morality, its loathing and self-loathing. Like Swift, like Celine, Michel Houellebecq holds up to society a distorted mirror, in which we can see something like the truth.

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