by Michel Houllebecq
379 pages, Vintage
Review by Pat Black
Atomised is a novel that seeks to connect – and disconnect – matters of the groin and the cerebrum. As such, its philosophical and biological concepts can be a little hard to follow, and explaining them in any great detail could get boring.
So I may paste in some dirty bits from Michel Houllebecq’s amazing novel, to keep my own attention from wavering.
Atomised tells the story of two French half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, born to a proto-hippie mother who entertains a retinue of sexual partners, both long and short-term. There’s little room for children in this free-love ideology, and so both boys are effectively abandoned by their parents. Michel is left to the care of his grandmother, while Bruno’s lot is to suffer horribly at the hands of boarding school sadists.
Michel grows up to be a molecular biologist. In the retrospective framing of the book, we are given to understand that he is responsible for an epochal scientific discovery. The young scientist is indeed brilliant, but withdrawn. In his early adolescence, a girl the same age, Annabelle, clearly adores him. She is a great beauty, who even as a girl provokes the jealousy of Michel’s mother - who was a bit of a looker, herself.
Michel and Annabelle spend all their time together, and the girl takes his hand as they walk around, two cherubs wandering in the garden. But Michel doesn’t seem to be interested in matters of the flesh, even after the hormones kick in. We might wonder if he’s gay, but it seems he’s maybe just not wired up right. We’ve all met people like that. So Annabelle, heartbroken but still in the flush of youth, goes with another boy at a party while Michel looks on – not entirely unmoved. And that’s that, for about 20 years.
Bruno, for his part, is interested in matters of the flesh to the exclusion of just about all others. After his hellish experiences at school he goes on to study, eventually becoming a teacher, getting married and having a child. But lumpen, balding Bruno isn’t meant for love, it seems. As he gets older, the wife and child fade out of the picture. Bereft of a sense of family, Bruno embraces New Age interests in nudist colonies and hippie communes. But his thing isn’t Gestalt massage or mantra chanting or crystal healing or anything else – it’s sex, quite simply.
His erotic adventures are pretty much all on his own account as he wanders around the beaches and campsites, ogling naked women with no means of satisfying his urges apart from masturbation. But then he meets Christiane, a fellow teacher of about the same age. After they have a sexual encounter, Bruno and Christiane have a conversation. The pair begin getting along. Even as they go into swingers’ clubs, and Bruno watches his new companion having sex with other men by the half-dozen, he realises that he loves her. She reciprocates. A path to happiness seems to open, curiously divergent from any notion of sexual propriety or exclusivity.
On one level, Atomised is a satire looking at how a free-market, narcissistic, libertine society born in the 1950s and 60s has caused a great crisis in humanity, already struggling with the slow death of another overpowering belief system - religious doctrine. Houllebecq is an atheist, and this book takes a dim view of Islam in particular – something that would land the author in court, later, although he would successfully defend himself against charges of inciting hatred on the grounds of freedom of speech.
Obviously the sex – there’s a lot of it – gives the story a certain life and colour, but to read the above might lead you to believe Atomised is a very sober book. It isn’t – there are a lot of laughs, mostly relating to Bruno’s sexual disasters.
The poor man reminded me of a scene I came across in a country park. On one side of the road was a fenced section penning in some prize bulls; on the other side of the road was a paddock for the cows. One bullock was stationed tight against the fence, lowing bitterly. I stood a matter of inches away from it, but the great beast barely paid any attention to me. I fancy that even if I was dressed as a matador with a scarlet cape it wouldn’t have given me a glance. The poor bullock could only stare longingly at the indifferent cows, pressed up against the fence, and howl at the injustice of its predicament. Such is poor Bruno’s lot. Though, lord knows, it isn’t for a lack of effort. If you’re a little squeamish about sexuality in your reading material, then Atomised probably isn’t for you. Group sex, swingers, pervy teachers – there’s lots and lots of it about.
And this is brings us to Houllebecq’s point. We are driven to seek out sexual partners and seek sexual experience, but actual reproduction is rarely the aim of this behaviour – and long-term happiness rarely stems from it. So what’s it all about, then? Does nature have a plan for this wasteful pleasure-seeking, even down to the very level of cell division and DNA? Should mankind – womankind might be a better description in the context of Atomised – take matters into her own hands when it comes to the future of the species?
This is a book with enormous themes and a philosophical bent that made the veneer of life shiver in some very disturbing ways. Taboos are broken. One example of this is in the suggestion that parents – fathers in particular – don’t really have much interest in their offspring once they’re born. Some men lose interest immediately after conception, of course, but Houllebecq hints that this is a universal state for men, deep down. Only women can truly create, nurture and love, he suggests.
It’s an extreme idea, but there is some truth in it. Much like the unwired man above, we probably all know examples of disinterested parents and feckless fathers we’d like to shake.
Still, I was having a lovely time with this book – the laughs as well as the filth – until a section detailing the actions of a serial killer rather rudely interrupted me. In his descriptions of murder and mutilation, Houllebecq savages religious rites, dogma and programmed rituals in much the same way as Iain Banks did in The Wasp Factory. Here’s what happens when you put your faith in recitals and stage directions from pseudo-wizards and hypocrites, the author is saying. And New Age philosophies aren’t any better, the author argues – you’re just swapping one set of rules and rigidity for another. Even when we go against the grain, our motives are pretty simple. What people are mostly interested in at nudist camps and communes – and Satanic circles, too - is the f**king, Houllebecq argues.
One thing I didn’t like was the “millennium” epilogue to the book. It was published in 1998, so the author and the publishers possibly thought they were stealing a yard on events. This put me in mind of a similar “millennium” section in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. You can imagine these poor authors, wondering how they can possibly fit in a reference to the digits spinning round from 1999 to 2000. It seemed so important at the time. But other than flipping the page on a calendar, it meant very little, and heralded even less.
These tacked-on concerns we read in the fiction of the time serve to highlight the Millennium for what it was: one of the biggest anti-climaxes in human history.
Houllebecq has been accused of misogyny, but to me this is laughable. Even in view of the flighty, non-maternal mother who gives birth to Michel and Bruno, this is one of the most feminist books I’ve ever read. It’s stated rather nakedly in the prose – THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. Not my block capitals.
Under Houllebecq’s utopian vision, we are left to wonder what’s left in the ideal world for men – violent, venal, lustful, wasteful men. Other than sagging against the fences and bellowing, I’m not sure there’s an answer to be found in Atomised. Extinction, maybe.
I decided against the dirty bits, by the way. Reading them again, out of context, was a little deflating.