MATT GALLOWAYTHE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES by (), 264 pages, $38 cloth. Rating: NNNGallic goods
it's hard to overstate the brouhaha that erupted when Michel Houellebecq's novel The Elementary Particles was first published in France in 1998.The permanently dishevelled, proudly alcoholic author, who was born in France but now lives in Ireland, was simultaneously cast as the second coming of Camus and an Anti-christ second only to Marilyn Manson.
Talk shows debated the importance of his novel, the Catholic Church called it harmful and, in the process, Houellebecq became a cult star, selling more than 300,000 copies of the book before landing major contracts for non-fiction books and a soft-porn screenplay.
The uproar wasn't so much about the novel's graphic and often humiliating sex scenes -- this is France, remember -- as it was about its withering depiction of civilization at the end of the 20th century.
Half fiction, half philosophy, the book revolves around a brilliant molecular biologist named Michel who seems incapable of any real emotions. He prefers to express himself through a scientific theory that ultimately proves that humans can continue to exist without reproduction.
On the other side is his equally passionless half-brother, Bruno, who takes up anonymous sex as a full-time occupation.
Nihilism comes easy to Houellebecq; he mocks every major institution and moral standard. There are spectacular familial meltdowns, hints of incest, comments on the futility of religion and, eventually, a harsh write-off of life itself.
Not exactly holiday reading, but it's not idle bile either, and that's what really makes The Elementary Particles fly. Houellebecq writes with the biggest possible ideas in mind, in a thrilling, grandiose style. There is no whining here. So while his view of the world may be unspeakably grim, it's also remarkably entertaining.
Hype is hype, but Houellebecq's ranting is anything but empty bitterness.