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Book Review November 13, 2002
 
Belated Praise: The Elementary Particles
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 4
 
Michel Houllebecq is an intuitive French intellectual male. So he has, as they say, "issues." And unlike most recent French intellectuals, who settled for dazzling pretentious American academics with gibberish, he's found a way to hit back against the world and tell a good story at the same time. The Elementary Particles is very uneven, with a brilliant beginning and a silly, slow middle. But it works, keeps you reading while the author runs through his world shooting wildly and hitting most of his targets. It's a novel of pure hate, a literary version of those video games where you take the perspective of a gunman running through a labyrinth of tunnels trying to shoot down anyone who pops up in your way.

And it's time to give the French some credit, damn it. You show me any English-speaking writers who've been as bitterly honest as Sade, Rousseau, Celine, Genet -- and Houllebecq. The French intellectuals can be among the most annoying people in the world, God knows; but they also manage, by their relentless compulsion to be brilliant, a really savage individualism that no American or Englishman has ever matched. Rousseau was writing about masochistic childhood fantasies and his first experience of homosexual rape while Dr Johnson was collecting his pension and huffing out government cant. Genet was recounting his equally masochistic fantasies about being raped from the air by gorgeous Luftwaffe pilots while even the most would-be brave American writers were enrolling with the Stalinists or signing up for the Army.

And as those examples imply, it's through talking about sex that the best French intellectuals reach their best moments. In this, as in so many features of his writing, Houllebecq keeps to the French tradition. Some of his best scenes focus on the miseries of middle-aged ex-hippie sex. Bruno, the sex-obsessed brother, starts out as sex-slave of the older boys at his boarding school and spends most of his life masturbating or paying whores to give him head. When he finally finds a woman who wants him and whom he wants, they grind through increasingly exhausting orgies and group-sex weekend camping trips until she is paralyzed by necrosis of the coccyx while being fucked doggie-style by two men, while Bruno strokes her. Bruno would like to be a good man here, stay with her, push her wheelchair around...but in the end he just doesn't want to. She commits suicide. So does Michel's beautiful, unloved admirer Annabelle. So does Bruno's early lover Annick. In fact, the only woman who gets to live to a decent age in this novel is Jane, the brothers' selfish, stupid American New-Age mother. Her relatively long life, compared to the bitter and brief existence of the brothers' far more worthy love interests, is inevitable, given Houllebecq's conviction that Nature is not neutral but downright evil and deserving of eradication -- a conviction Michel forms while watching Nature documentaries in childhood, and which is confirmed at every turn in the novel.

The scene in which the brothers arrive at her deathbed is one of the funniest in the novel. They find her attended by her hippie friends, who dare to prate to Bruno about "Nature":

"'The doctor came around,' explained the Rasta-hippie. 'She can't be moved. Anyway, there's nothing more they can do for her. 'It's nature's way,' he said gravely.

"'Did you hear that,' yelled Bruno. 'Did you hear that clown? going on about nature -- that's all they talk about. Now that she's sick, they can't wait for her to snuff it, she's like an animal in its hole. That's my mother you're talking about, Twat!' he said haughtily."

Bruno's reverence for his dying mother diminishes somewhat at her bedside:

"Bruno collapsed heavily into a chair beside her bed. 'You're just an old whore,' he said in a pedantic tone. 'You deserve to croak.'...'Do you want to be cremated? Well, when the time comes, I'll make sure they incinerate you. I'll put what's left of you in a little pot and every morning when I get up, I'll piss on your ashes.' He nodded contentedly; Jane let out a throaty howl."


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