Never underestimate the power of suggestion. Consider France’s latest literary sensation, Les particules élémentaires. We were prepared to believe, as all the advance publicity led us to believe, that the novel was an attack on what The New York Times called (in a piece published last March) “the failed dreams of the 1968 student protest movement.” Don’t believe a word of it. Advance proofs of The Elementary Particles (as Michel Houellebecq’s novel is called in English) arrived on our desk recently. Far from being an “attack on everything the 60’s generation holds dear” (as a profile of Houellebecq in the Times’s magazine of September 10 put it), the book wallows in the sex- and drug-sodden pathology of the 1960s. It is no more an attack on those excesses than was the Woodstock festival or William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.

But Mr. Houellebecq is obviously a man who specializes in misleading impressions. In the long profile in the Times, for example, it is suggested that he recently moved from Paris to Dublin the better to enjoy isolation and the oblivion he purchases daily with alcohol and sex. And what better way to assure one’s isolation than to grant an interview to a reporter from The New York Times? Never mind that Mr. Houellebecq propositioned the reporter, Emily Eakin, or that during dinner he “fell into a drunken stupor, his nodding head eventually landing on his plate next to a smear of mayonnaise.” Obviously we have here a literary genius who has gone far to commune alone with his muse.

It is difficult to say which is more repulsive: the withering profile in the Times or the book itself. Well, no: let us emend that. The Elementary Particles, at two-hundred-and-sixty-some pages, is clearly the more repulsive document. Doubtless it will be a bestseller here, as it is already in France. The book tells the story of Michel and Bruno, half-brothers abandoned by hippie parents. Bruno is an erotomaniacal psychiatric patient; much of the book is taken up with describing his grotesque sexual conquests, failures, and fantasies. Michel is a depressed biologist who, after perfecting a formula for cloning a kind of rational parody of human beings, commits suicide. In an epilogue set some decades in the future, we learn that the whole story has been told by one of these pan-sexual, post-human creatures.

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between The Elementary Particles and Huxley’s Brave New World. But whatever novelistic failings Huxley’s book suffered from, it was clearly a work of social and moral criticism. Mr. Houellebecq’s book, by contrast, exploits the pathologies he describes. The endless parade of brutal sex, madness, and self-destruction is meant to titillate not horrify—or, rather, it is meant to horrify, but only as part of its basic desire to titillate. There was a time when The Elementary Particles would have been dismissed as the worst sort of pornography. That, alas, is a term that has been emptied of content as surely as it has been legally neutralized. This much, however, is clear: The Elementary Particles graphically represents a certain type of moral degradation—one that does not challenge but rather epitomizes the nihilism we have inherited from the 1960s.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 2, on page 1
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