by Michel Houellebecq

(Knopf) $25

"THIS BOOK IS dedicated to mankind" isn't how French novelist Michel Houellebecq's novel, The Elementary Particles, opens up, but how it closes. Normally, a statement like this would signal a literary celebration of mankind's finer points, but in Houellebecq's context it takes on the pallor of a headstone's epigram. The breadth of the novel is such that it won't settle for anything less than a complete reinvention of humanity, and with an ending that gives a nod to Huxley's Brave New World, that's exactly what happens.

The Elementary Particles is a deeply unsettling read, mainly because it undermines almost every dearly held belief that Western society has created for itself. Houellebecq lays waste to notions of religion, sexual identity, New Age eco-romanticism, and shameless materialism, just to name a few. This book caused controversy in France in 1998 on a level not seen since the days of such cultural acupuncturists as Céline and Sartre. Uncoincidentally, these French novelists are probably the closest in spirit and voice to Houellebecq's book, and his novel has come to be seen as somewhat of a thematic continuation of their work. With the English translation, a new round of controversy can be expected from the country that has earned its keep exporting the ideals that Houellebecq skewers in his book.

The novel tells the story of two half brothers, Michel and Bruno, who are ostensibly the "elementary particles" implied by the title. They suffer through awkward childhoods and adolescences, rarely seeing their mother, who prefers extended sojourns in sexual communes to the business of raising children. Upon adulthood, Michel secures a position as a respected genetic researcher, and Bruno becomes a boarding-school teacher. For each, though, happiness is elusive. They fail to understand the nuances of relationships or society at large, and like many people unable to cope with the burden of living, ultimately fall to suicide and alcoholism. Michel and Bruno exist mainly to give Houellebecq a place to insert quotation marks in order to disguise his running diatribe as dialogue. The Elementary Particles is an allegorical novel of big themes, not sturdy characters.

The fulfillment of desire, particularly sexual desire, as mapped against the limitations of mortality is a major theme in The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq claims that the rule of reproduction, Darwinian evolution, has become an outmoded and inefficient model for the human species, ensuring fulfillment only for a few while condemning others to a dubious existence of TV dinners and peep shows. After many romantic missteps, Michel and Bruno both manage to fall in love, only to have their partners succumb to suicide and paralysis respectively. Strangely enough, love is about the only thing Houellebecq seems to champion in this melancholy narrative. Maybe it's because love is above reproach and represents hope; and hope, as they say, springs eternal.

The Elementary Particles is also about physics and genetics. These, of course, cross paths in the realm of the very small, the "elementary." Houellebecq predictably draws parallels between religion and science, claiming that science is eclipsing religion in its ability to provide people with hope, and that people simply don't trust religious leaders anymore with important metaphysical stumpers like salvation and immortality.

If the book ended here, it would still be a memorable read, but Houellebecq takes things far into left field with his surprise ending. At the risk of giving it away, let's just say that the book is ultimately about Michel and his final, pioneering work with genetics. After his wife's death, he completes his experiments in the field of DNA replication, and, ironically, becomes inspired by the Book of Kells. This illuminated manuscript was crafted by Christian monks in the seventh century, and thus through its influence does religion have the last word in Michel's scientific breakthrough--a concept that paves the way for a "brave new world."

In this literary age of memoirs, true adventure, and post-everything reshuffling, it's unique to come across a novel that tackles such a diverse spectrum of topics with such intelligence. The resonance of The Elementary Particles isn't that Houellebecq's vision is so brave or so new, but so well executed, so believable, and so close.