Night Thoughts

Whatever

by Michel Houellebecq, Translated from the Frenchby Paul Hammond
London: Serpent’s Tail, 155 pp., $14.99 (paper)

Bruno and Michel—the main characters of The Elementary Particles—are half-brothers but did not meet until their teens. Their mother, Janine, abandoned them when they were infants, dropping them into the laps of aging grandparents. A beautiful French girl, she was too busy living her own life to be bothered with husband or children. In the late Fifties she could be seen on the Riviera running with the crowd made famous by the films of Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot. In the early Sixties she was still in the avant-garde, having abandoned St. Tropez to follow a guru to California, where she changed her name to Jane. Between their abandonment and her death the sons hardly saw her.

When we meet them in their forties Bruno and Michel are still suffering from this trauma. Bruno, the elder one, was packed off at an early age to a French boarding school where he suffered all the humiliations of Young Törless—beatings, torture, rape—at the hands of older students; this being the Sixties, order and discipline had completely evaporated. Bruno became a sexual obsessive, overwhelmed by feelings of physical inadequacy that were only intensified in the promiscuous atmosphere of the Seventies: masturbation, prostitutes, pornography, marriage, divorce, nudist colonies, swingers’ clubs. He lives in a state of sexual frenzy that fails to mask an insatiable need for love. He finally finds it one night while being fellated in a jacuzzi under the stars by a woman whose face he cannot see. They become a couple but their happiness is short-lived. The woman suffers from a degenerative bone condition and during an orgy her back breaks, leaving her a paraplegic. Within months she commits suicide and Bruno checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, never to emerge.

Michel, the younger brother, copes by checking out of the new sexual order and withdrawing into himself. He becomes a biologist working in the then young field of genetic engineering, and although he reaches the pinnacle of professional success in Paris he derives no real pleasure from his work and eventually abandons it. He lives alone and has no one to love; the days pass, then the seasons, but nothing happens. Then, quite by chance, he runs into a woman with whom he has had a furtive adolescent relationship. At the time she loved him but he found it impossible to respond, so she eventually left. In the Seventies she got pregnant by the son of Jane’s California guru, had an abortion, and spent the next two decades in fruitless search for a man who would stay with her. She wants to seduce Michel and succeeds, after a fashion, but it is soon clear that both of them are shell-shocked and no longer able to love. Still, she wants a child and Michel agrees to try. She does get pregnant but doctors discover she is rotten with cancer and must abort it. Unable to face the prospect of grueling radiation therapy with little hope of …

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