Book Review – ‘Atomised’ by Michel Houellebecq

With Atomised, Michel Houellebecq positions himself as the proud torchbearer for the French intellectual tradition of being pessimistic about almost everything. But he also lives up to another proud tradition of being very funny about it. His characters bump into one another, half dazed and in a grey light of of self deception and pity. But no-one is completely unhappy. Each has a glimmer of hope and it is this glimmer that he doles out to us, like an existential bedtime story told by a lackadaisical parent to prevent their maudlin child from letting go of their grip on life during the night. Michel (the character, not the author) is a molecular biologist who at the tender age of forty decides to retire from his enviable job in a research faculty in Paris and spend the rest of his days thinking. Bruno, his disaffected half brother, scours naturist camps in search of young bodies and speedy, if not completely successful enactment of his pathetic sexual desire. Occasionally the two men find each other sprawled on a sofa, discussing aforementioned French existentialism. It is through these ciphers that Houellebecq unleashes his prodigious ire on everything from girls magazines to Zen workshops. The men are powerless to help themselves, let alone each other, and their relationships with women never survived their mother’s flippant attitude toward affection.

Houellebecq’s status as the enfant terrible of the French literary community was cemented by this impressive second novel. His storytelling accepts no limits. He doesn’t take no for an answer as he delves deep into contemporary consciousness and lays most of the blame at those most maligned and innocent creatures, the children of ’68. What is often an onslaught of complex historical facts magically turns into a deft and startling narrative about the end of humanism, and what this means for us mere mortals.

Reading Atomised sometimes feels as if you have stumbled into a lecture where something very important is being discussed in front of you. Houellebecq knows more than you, and often grows impatient letting you catch up. His characters float on top of his impressive breadth of knowledge and occasionally this wears thin. You often feel like the writer is standing over your shoulder admiring his own work through your curiosity and acquiescence to yet another tangent that you assume must be relevant.

It is often the harmless, misguided Bruno that lets us back into the story. His plight for connection and romance is adrift in a sea of obscure science and history references that have some apparent affect on our lives, even if we are not in a position to appreciate why.

The beauty of the novel is that eventually we are. The great trick of this novel comes in the last ten pages. What has been a relentless analysis of modern life and humanity’s incapacity for transcendence suddenly completes its own framing device and, well, transcends. It is a thrilling conclusion to a muscular and idiosyncratic novel.

Atomised goes beyond characterisation. It is an exercise in anthropology, looking at the kaleidoscopic events that impact Michel and Bruno’s lives and how they never had a hope at happiness. The seeds for their collective malaise were sown in the sexual revolution, the enlightenment, perhaps even in their genes. Like all exercise, Atomised can exhaust you, but the rewards are many and surprising.

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