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Michel Houellebecq

Author of our Times


John McCann

Michel Houellebecq is a French author whose profile in the English-speaking world is unusually high. He is an author who has put the humour back into the Absurd, without losing any of the awareness of the bleakness of the human condition. Undoubtedly one of the most trenchant satirists of our time, he deflates the projected utopias that we imagine protect us from the ills that beset us. More than many other novelists, his work is a reflection of the social and economic reality of life in a post-industrial society. Houellebecq shows a world of violence and tension, a world where people find it hard to be at ease, so that life becomes a process of disease. This book foregrounds Houellebecq’s scrutiny of our various attempts to confront and transcend the fundamental reality of the human condition, in particular the horror of death.


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Chapter 2 Les Particules élémentaires : A Tale of Two Humanities 51


Chapter 2 Les Particules élémentaires : A Tale of Two Humanities This novel has been translated into English and given the title Atomised. According to Richard Holloway: The title of Houellebecq’s book says it all: we are atomised. Like colliding billiard balls, there is little to hold us together, no common identity that can integrate us into community and its responsibilities.1 Holloway’s comments are plausible and it would not be hard to find evi- dence in the text for his claims. Indeed, the novel even describes an incident where two cars hurtle towards each other on an open road as though they were billiard balls about to collide. Atoms stress the singularity and distinc- tiveness of elements. Iron is an essence that is quite different from gold. The names of the elements indicate marked differences. Atomisation is a belief that the universe can be broken down into its discrete components. However, if what Holloway says is true, it represents a radical departure from the kind of world depicted in Extension du domaine de la lutte. There life was a web and it was the separation of the individual from that web, which led to crippling, if not deadly, isolation. The problem with Hollo- way’s analysis is that it ignores Houellebecq’s more complicated vision of the human condition. In part it does this because of the title in English: Atomised. However, the title in French is Les Particules élémentaires. This emphasizes the fact that matter is derived from small, sub-atomic...

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