Michel Houellebecq

the elementary articles

   summer of '75
They will not frame their doings to turn unto their God: for the spirit of whoredoms is in the midst of them, and they have not known the LORD


The man who met them at the bus station at Carpentras seemed weak and ill. The son of an Italian anarchist who immigrated to America in the 1920s, Francesco di Meola's life was a success story--at least in the financial sense. Like Serge Clément, the young Italian realized that the society emerging at the end of the Second World War would be radically different, and that many pursuits once considered marginal or elitist would become economically important. While Bruno's father was investing in plastic surgery, di Meola was becoming involved in the music business. He did not make as much money as many in the industry, but he made his fair share. At forty, like many people in California, he sensed a new movement, something deeper than simply a passing fad, calling for the sweeping away of Western civilization in its entirety. It was this insight which brought luminaries like Alan Watts, Paul Tillich, Carlos Castaneda, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers to his villa at Big Sur. A little later, he had the privilege of meeting Aldous Huxley, the spiritual father of the movement. By then old and almost blind, Huxley paid him scant attention, but the meeting was to leave a profound impression on di Meola.

He himself was unclear as to the reason why he left California in 1970 and bought a property in Haute-Provence. Later, close to the end, he came to think that he had wanted, for some obscure reason, to die in Europe, though at the time, he was aware only of the most superficial reasons. The events of May '68 had impressed him, and as the hippie movement began to ebb in California, he turned his attention to the youth of Europe. Jane encouraged him in this. Young people in France were particularly repressed, a time bomb of resentment under the legacy of Gaullist patriarchy, which, according to Jane, a single spark would be enough to detonate. For some years now, Francesco's sole pleasure had been to smoke marijuana cigarettes with very young girls attracted by the spiritual aura of the movement and then fuck them among the mandalas and the smell of incense. The girls who arrived at Big Sur were, for the most part, stupid little WASP bitches, at least half of whom were virgins. Toward the end of the sixties the flow began to dwindle and he thought that perhaps it was time to go back to Europe. He found it strange that he thought of it as "going back," since he had left Italy when he was no more than five years old. If his father had been a militant revolutionary, he was also a cultivated man, an aesthete who loved his mother tongue. This had undoubtedly left its mark on Francesco. In truth, he had always thought of Americans as idiots.

He was still a handsome man, with a tanned, chiseled face and long, thick, wavy hair, but his cells had begun to reproduce in a haphazard fashion, damaging the DNA of neighboring cells and secreting toxins into the body. The specialists he consulted differed on most points, but on one they were agreed: he was dying. The cancer was inoperable and would continue inexorably to metastasize. Overall his consultants were of the opinion that he would die peacefully and, with medication, probably would not suffer any physical pain; and to date he had experienced only a general tiredness. However, he refused to accept the diagnosis; he could not even imagine accepting it. In contemporary Western soiety, death is like white noise to a man in good health; it fills his mind when his dreams and plans fade. With age, the noise becomes increasingly insistent, like a dull roar with the occasional clang. In another age it was the expectant sound of the kingdom of God, it is now an anticipation of death. Such is life.

Huxley, he would always remember, had seemed detached about the prospect of his own death, though perhaps he was simply numbed or drugged. Di Meola had read Plato, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Tao Te Ching, but none of them had brought him the slightest comfort. He was barely sixty, but he was dying; the signs were there, there could be no doubt about it. He had even begun to be less interested in sex, and it was with a certain detachment that he noticed how beautiful Annabelle was. He did not notice the boys at all. He had lived around young people for a long time, and it was probably habit which made him curious to meet Jane's sons, though fundamentally he couldn't have cared less. He dropped them off in the middle of the estate and told them they could pitch their tent anywhere. He wanted to go to bed, preferably without meeting anyone. Physically, he was still the epitome of a sensual man, a man of the world; his eyes twinkled with irony and perception, a look certain exceptionally stupid girls thought of as radiant and benevolent. He did not feel in the least benevolent, and moreover thought of himself as a mediocre actor. How could they all be so easily taken in? Decidedly, he thought sometimes, a little sadly, these young people searching for spiritual values were really idiots.

Moments after they climbed down from the Jeep, Bruno realized he had made a mistake. The estate sloped gently toward the south, scattered with shrubs and flowers. A waterfall tumbled into a clear green pool; nearby, a woman lay naked, sunning herself on a flat rock while another soaped herself before diving in. Closer to them, on a rug, a bearded man was meditating or sleeping; against his tanned skin, his long blond hair was striking--he looked a little like Kris Kristofferson. Bruno felt depressed. But then, what had he expected? Perhaps he could still leave, as long as he did so immediately. He glanced across at his friends. Annabelle was calmly unfolding her tent; sitting on a tree stump, toying with the straps on his backpack, Michel seemed miles away.

Water follows the path of least resistance. Human behavior is predetermined in principle in almost all of its actions and offers few choices, of which fewer still are taken. In 1950 Francesco di Meola had a son by an Italian starlet, a second-rate actress who would never rise above playing Egyptian slaves; eventually, in the crowning achievement of her career, she had two lines in Quo Vadis. They called the boy David. At fifteen, David dreamed of being a rock star. He was not the only one. Though richer than bankers and company presidents, rock stars still managed to retain their rebel image. Young, good-looking, famous, desired by women and envied by men, rock stars had risen to the summit of the social order. Nothing since the deification of the pharaohs could compare to the devotion European and American youth bestowed upon their heroes. Physically, David had everything he needed to achieve his ends: he had an animal, almost diabolical beauty; his eyes were a deep blue; his face masculine but refined; his long hair thick and black.

With the help of his father's contacts, David recorded his first single at seventeen; it was a complete flop. It was released, it must be said, in the same year as Sgt. Pepper and Days of Future Passed, to name only two. Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and the Doors were at the height of their powers; Neil Young had just begun recording and great things were still expected of Brian Wilson. There was little room then for a bassist who was good but not gifted. David persisted. He played in four different groups, changed musical styles, and three years after his father, he too decided to try his luck in Europe. He got a regular gig in a club on the Riviera; that was no problem. Every night girls waited for him in his dressing room; that was no problem either. However, no one from any of the record companies so much as listened to his demos.

When David met Annabelle he had already slept with more than five hundred women; nevertheless, he could not remember ever seeing such Supple perfection. For her part, Annabelle found herself attracted to him just like all the rest. For days she resisted, finally giving in to him a week after they arrived. There were about thirty of them dancing outside at the rear of the house; the night was warm and starry. Annabelle was wearing a white skirt and a T-shirt with a sun drawn on it. David danced beside her sometimes twirling her in rock-and-roll fashion. They danced tirelessly for more than an hour to the beat of a tambourine--sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Bruno leaned against a tree, alert, vigilant, his heart in his mouth. At times Michel appeared at the edge of the bright circle, at others he disappeared into the darkness. Suddenly there he was, barely five yards away. Bruno watched Annabelle break away from the dancers and go over to him, and distinctly heard her ask, "Are you not dancing?" Her face as she said it was terribly sad. Michel declined, his gesture immeasurably slow, like some prehistoric animal recently roused. Annabelle stood looking at him for five or ten seconds longer, then turned and went back to the dancers. David put his hand on her waist and pulled her to him. She placed her hands on his shoulders. Bruno looked at Michel again and thought he saw a smile play on his lips; he looked down, and when he looked up again, Michel had disappeared. Annabelle was in David's arms, their lips close together.

Lying in his tent, Michel waited for daybreak. In the early hours a fierce storm broke and he was surprised to discover that he was a little afraid. When at last the sky cleared, a steady rain began to fall. Raindrops splashed dully on the canvas; though only inches from his face, they could not touch him here. He had a sudden premonition that all his life he would feel as he did at this moment. Emotion would pass him by, sometimes tantalizingly close. Others would experience happiness and despair, but such things would be unknown to him, they would not touch him. Several times that evening Annabelle had looked over at him while she danced. Though he had wanted to, he simply could not move; he felt as though his body were slipping into icy water. Still, everything seemed strangely calm. He felt separated from the world by a vacuum molded to his body like a shell, a protective armor.

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Excerpted from The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq. Copyright © 2000 by Michel Houellebecq. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.