The work of Michel Houellebecq is calculated to inspire ambivalence. In his native France, critics are still divided, six years after the publication of his first novel, over whether this ‘Camus for the info generation’ (as one critic has predictably put it) is radical or reactionary, the fearless voice of contemporary alienation or the rancorous spokesman for a kind of cynical moralism best expressed elsewhere in European letters by that prolific cultural critic, Pope John Paul II. Houellebecq has fuelled this putative ‘debate’ with a series of interviews in which he blames the ‘suicide of the West’ variously on global capitalism, new age flummery, contraception, gays, blacks and women over forty. In the light of this scattergun approach to contemporary cultural politics, the author’s efforts to distance himself from the all-encompassing sourness of his characters has merely added to the confusion.
Perhaps, then, the first thing to say about Atomised (originally published as Les Particules élémentaires) is that — in its ambition at least — it immediately rises above the fog of critical chatter that surrounds its author. Houellebecq’s first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (its title regrettably and oddly Englished as Whatever) essayed a modern Anatomy of Melancholy, a study of psychotic depression as a perversely logical response to the vicious exigencies of contemporay technocratic society. Atomised is an effort to sound the depths of perversity itself. Perversion, as Houellebecq’s narrator acknowledges, is humanity’s bitter response to an intolerable condition of its own technological devising: the separation of need and desire. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has identified in the serial erotic torpor of the writings of the Marquis de Sade, a desperate effort to bring together these radically divided categories, to make of sexual desire the habitual essence of quotidian existence. This is the fate of Houellebecq’s characters: trapped in a world in which their desires (fruitlessly exaggerated or fatally debilitated) fail to match up to their need for society, for relationships with other, equally crippled, individuals.
Houellebecq’s narrative concerns two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, born into the ostensible liberation of a post-sixties, Americanised, sexual universe. While Michel withdraws from this freedom into a successful scientific career accompanied by a sclerotic emotional life, Bruno is condemned to seek fulfillment in the only way that society offers him: through sex, a route for which, given the frailties of his body and personality, he is singularly ill equipped.
It’s here that the larger structural and metaphorical reach of Houellebecq’s vision becomes clear: the novel is built around the notion of the ‘metaphysical mutations’ that regularly convulse and reconfigure human existence. For much of the novel the promise of sexual licence in the last decades of the twentieth century looks like one such mutation: the separation of sex and reproduction leading Houellebecq’s characters into a liberation for which they’re clearly unready. They find themselves mired, as their bodies fail in middle age, in the frantic displacements of fantasy, pornography, plastic surgery, therapy and the pervading and grotesque parody of traditional religion that is contemporary ‘spirituality’. All of this frenzied novelty turns out, though, to be merely a rehearsal for the true metaphysical mutation. The grand transformation for which Michel’s research has been preparing is nothing less than humanity’s final, definitive and suicidal act: having killed off God in the scientific revolution and having done away with society in the sexual revolution, man now cedes his domination of the world to his replacement, a new and infinitely happier species.
At the end of Les mots et les choses, his reflection on the rise of the modern concept of Man, Michel Foucault posits the eventual disappearance of this enigmatic and fragile figure: one day, Foucault tells us, the image of Man will fade from the shore of history, like a face drawn in the sand. The conclusion of Atomised offers a parody of Foucault’s metaphor, as humanity willingly gives itself up to its serene successor. Bruno, the exemplar here of humanity’s thwarted desires, is consigned to an aslyum. Having lived a furiously retarded version of the Sadean project, he’s left, like the Marquis, to his writing and such pronouncements as ‘nature? I wouldn’t piss on it if it was on fire’. Michel retires to the West coast of Ireland — sentimentally rendered by Houellebecq as some kind of spiritual idyll — and eventual suicide (it’s worth pointing out that in contrast to the significant fates of Bruno and Michel, the women in this novel die cruelly meaningless deaths).
Atomised is the kind of novel that many of its liberal defenders will grit their teeth and declare ‘profoundly moral’ (why can’t one be lightly, flippantly, blithely moral?). In fact, it’s precisely in the struggle between profundity and morality, between truth and ethics, that its real value and ambiguity lie. Bruno tells Michel: ‘I’d like to believe that the self is an illusion … but if it is, it’s a pretty painful one.’ Houellebecq is sometimes frighteningly adept at capturing the depressive lucidity with which his characters see their predicament and can find no ethical means of sharing that insight with others, only the abstractions of scientific reason and physical desire. The author’s own pronouncements regarding his diagnosis of the decadence of Western society suggest a sickly longing for the pure air of spiritual and moral health that looks to this reader suspiciously like the ravings of the decrepit pontiff Bruno affects to admire. Thankfully, Houellebecq’s violently comic novel remains resolutely undecided as his characters and their unfortunate race fade from view.
Reviewed by Brian Dillon