I Just Read…

…”The Elementary Particles,” a novel by Michel Houllebecq. It had been recommended by a woman who had come to my high school in 1959 as an exchange student from Germany and who now lives in France. I can not recall ever speaking with her in high school, but over the last couple years, we have become e-mail correspondents. I don’t know how this correspondence began, but she has an inquiring, intelligent, agreeable intelligence about life in Europe and the deplorability of present day America.
I had read enough about Houllebecq to know he was controversial. I knew, for instance, some found his views on Islam “deplorable” too. My friend warned that, while she was “no prude,” she found his sexual scenes discomfiting. I thought, Well, they won’t bother me.
“Particles” is a third-person narrative about two half-brothers. Michel, a molecular biologist, is most comfortable when alone. Bruno, a high school teacher, is most comfortable when connected erotically to someone – or some two – or some three. As their lives and the lives of those around them play out, they tend to end badly: fire, dementia, stroke, bowel cancer, paralysis.
As Houllebecq expresses the views of Michel and Bruno – and, whether called for or not – those of his narrator, readers learn about matters ranging from genetics to the emergence of consciousness, the role of Krause’s corpuscles in orgasm to that of flies in the decomposition of corpses. Houllebecq’s approach allows him to express opinions on nature (“a repulsive cesspool”), the universe (“a battle zone, teeming and bestial”), masculinity (usually capable of being “assuaged… playing tennis” but occasionally requiring “revolution or war”), toddlers (“whose sense of self manifests itself in displays of megalomaniacal histrionics”), Islam (“the most stupid, false and obfuscating of all religiuons”), humanity (“a vile, unhappy race, barely different from the ape”), and life (“(It) always breaks your heart…. In the end there’s just the cold, the silence, and the loneliness. In the end there’s only death.”). (His portrait of Michel’s and Bruno’s mother so infuriated his own, she wrote a 400-page memoir justifying herself and called him “a sorry little prick.”) When asked by an interviewer how he had the nerve to write as he did, Houllebecq replied, “I pretend that I’m already dead.”
If you don’t find any of this amusing – or liberating in its outrageousness – Houllebecq may not be for you. Me, I’ve already bought his next book.