THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES by Michel Houellebecq (translated by Frank Wynne)

This was an extraordinary novel. I first heard of Houellebecq through his writing on one of my favorite authors, H. P. Lovecraft. Part of what intrigued me was that Houellebecq seems to not be overly captivated by the “genre” trappings of Lovecraft’s work but is more interested in the profoundly nihilistic and tragic view of life that courses through Lovecraft’s stories. I still haven’t read Houellebecq’s book on Lovecraft but just reading about it made want to seek out this controversial Frenchman. I’m glad I did!  The Elementary Particles was painful at times but really struck a chord with me. If you’re tired of being told what “everyone wants,” or are sick to death of not seeing your own sense of alienation reflected in art and literature, this book might finally do it for you. There are scenes that made me cry out in pain from recognition. The heavy sense of being disconnected from your fellow human beings has rarely been better described, in my reading experience anyway. At times, Houellebecq can be offensive to various ethnic/religious/sexual groups. I did not enjoy this aspect of the book. However, I felt (and I could be wrong) that this was meant to reflect the blind anger and rage felt by some of the characters, one in particular, rather than any authorial bigotry. Case in point: as a gay man, what seemed like the book’s casual homophobia REALLY bothered me. Then, near the end, a very sympathetic character turns out to be gay. It’s not a major plot point but it made me reevaluate some of Houellebecq’s uglier comments. I think he sees all of humanity, not any group in particular, as on the brink or worthlessness but still worthy of pity. The only thing I really disliked was the constant description of sexual activity. Some of it was fine but at times it just gets out of hand and is kind of distracting. Still, a great book. If you like Lovecraft for reasons unrelated to cool monsters, you may really get into this novel. On the surface, it couldn’t be more different from Lovecraft’s work (although it does contain some aspects of science fiction) but the philosophy, and the sadness, are very similar.


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