This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared. The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.
At the time of his disappearance, Michel Djerzinski was unanimously considered to be a first-rate biologist and a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. His true significance, however, would not become apparent for some time.
In Djerzinski's time, philosophy was generally considered to be of no practical significance, to have been stripped of its purpose. Nevertheless, the values to which a majority subscribe at any given time determine society's economic and political structures and social mores.
Metaphysical mutations--that is to say radical, global transformations in the values to which the majority subscribe--are rare in the history of humanity. The rise of Christianity might be cited as an example.
Once a metaphysical mutation has arisen, it tends to move inexorably toward its logical conclusion. Heedlessly, it sweeps away economic and political systems, aesthetic judgments and social hierarchies. No human agency can halt its progress--nothing except another metaphysical mutation.
It is a fallacy that such metaphysical mutations gain ground only in weakened or declining societies. When Christianity appeared, the Roman Empire was at the height of its powers: supremely organized, it dominated the known world; its technical and military prowess had no rival. Nonetheless, it had no chance. When modern science appeared, medieval Christianity was a complete, comprehensive system which explained both man and the universe; it was the basis for government, the inspiration for knowledge and art, the arbiter of war as of peace and the power behind the production and distribution of wealth--none of which was sufficient to prevent its downfall.
Michel Djerzinski was not the first nor even the principal architect of the third--and in many respects the most radical--paradigm shift, which opened up a new era in world history. But, as a result of certain extraordinary circmstances in his life, he was one of its most clear-sighted and deliberate engineers.PART ONE
The Lost Kingdom
The first of July 1998 fell on a Wednesday, so although it was a little unusual, Djerzinski organized his farewell party for Tuesday evening. Bottles of champagne nestled among containers of frozen embryos in the large Brandt refrigerator usually filled with chemicals.
Four bottles for fifteen people was a little miserly, but the whole party was a sham. The motivations that brought them together were superficial; one careless word, one false glance, would break it up and send his colleagues scurrying for their cars. They stood around drinking in the white-tiled basement decorated only with a poster of the Lakes of Germany. Nobody had offered to take photos. A research student who had arrived earlier that year--a young man with a beard and a vapid expression--left after a few minutes, explaining that he had to pick up his car from the garage. A palpable sense of unease spread through the group. Soon the term would be over; some of them were going home to visit family, others on vacation. The sound of their voices snapped like twigs in the air. Shortly afterward, the party broke up.
By seven-thirty it was all over. Djerzinski walked across the parking lot with one of his colleagues. She had long black hair, very white skin and large breasts. Older than he was, she would inevitably take his position as head of the department. Most of her published papers were on the DAF3 gene in the fruit fly. She was unmarried.
When they reached his Toyota he offered his hand, smiling. (He had been preparing himself mentally for this for several seconds, remembering to smile.) Their palms brushed and they shook hands gently. Later, he decided the handshake lacked warmth; under the circumstances, they could have kissed each other on both cheeks like visiting dignitaries or people in show business.
After they said their goodbyes, he sat in his car for what seemed to him an unusually long five minutes. Why had she not driven off? Was she masturbating while listening to Brahms? Perhaps she was thinking about her career, her new responsibilities: if so, was she happy? At last her Golf pulled out of the lot; he was alone again. The weather had been magnificent all day, and it was still warm now. In the early weeks of summer everything seemed fixed, motionless, radiant, though already the days were getting shorter.
He felt privileged to have worked here, he thought as he pulled out into the street. When asked "Do you feel privileged to live in an area like Palaiseau?" sixty-three percent of respondents answered "Yes." This was hardly surprising: the buildings were low, interspersed with lawns. Several supermarkets were conveniently nearby. The phrase "quality of life" hardly seemed excessive for such a place.
The expressway back into Paris was deserted, and Djerzinski felt like a character in a science fiction film he'd seen at the university: the last man on earth after every other living thing had been wiped out. Something in the air evoked a dry apocalypse.
Djerzinski had lived on the rue Fr?micourt for ten years, during which he had grown accustomed to the quiet. In 1993 he had felt the need for a companion, something to welcome him home in the evening. He settled on a white canary. A fearful animal, it sang in the mornings though it never seemed happy. Could a canary be happy? Happiness is an intense, all-consuming feeling of joyous fulfillment akin to inebriation, rapture or ecstasy. The first time he took the canary out of its cage, the frightened creature shit on the sofa before flying back to the bars, desperate to find a way back in. He tried again a month later. This time the poor bird fell from an open window. Barely remembering to flutter its wings, it landed on a balcony five floors below on the building opposite. All Michel could do was wait for the woman who lived there to come home, and fervently hope that she didn't have a cat. It turned out that she was an editor at Vingt Ans and worked late; she lived alone. She didn't have a cat.
Michel recovered the bird after dark; it was trembling with cold and fear, huddled against the concrete wall. He occasionally saw the woman again when he took out the garbage. She would nod in greeting, and he would nod back. Something good had come of the accident--he had met one of his neighbors.
From his window he could see a dozen buildings--some three hundred apartments. When he came home in the evening, the canary would whistle and chirp for five or ten minutes. Michel would feed the bird and change the gravel in its cage. Tonight, however, silence greeted him. He crossed the room to the cage. The canary was dead, its cold white body lying on the gravel.
He ate a Monoprix TV dinner--monkfish in parsley sauce, from their Gourmet line--washed down with a mediocre Valdepe?as. After some hesitation, he put the bird's body into a plastic bag, which he topped off with a beer bottle, and dumped in the trash chute. What was he supposed to do--say mass?
He didn't know what was at the end of the chute. The opening was narrow (though large enough to take the canary). He dreamed that the chute opened onto vast garbage cans filled with old coffee filters, ravioli in tomato sauce and mangled genitalia. Huge worms, as big as the canary and armed with terrible beaks, would attack the body, tear off its feet, rip out its intestines, burst its eyeballs. He woke up trembling; it was only one o'clock. He swallowed three Xanax. So ended his first night of freedom.
Excerpted from The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq. Copyright © 2001 by Michel Houellebecq. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.