Saturday, 8 July 2006

Review: Atomised, Michel Houellebecq (2000)

It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Cruelty and indifference, moderated by historical processes, characterise Houellebecq’s world vision. Bruno and Michel are half-brothers whose mother refuses to attend to them. They are brought up by their grandparents. They interact with their parents in sporadic fashion. They are strange and impure.

Every Thursday afternoon Bruno would go to see Michel, taking the train from Crécy-la-Chapelle. If it was possible — and it almost always was — he would find a girl on her own and sit near her. Most of them wore see-through blouses or something similar and crossed their legs. He would not sit directly opposite, but at an angle, sometimes sharing the same seat a couple of feet away. He would get a hard-on the moment he saw the sweep of long blonde or dark hair. By the time he sat down, the throb in his underpants would be unbearable. He would take a handkerchief out of his pocket as he sat down and open a folder across his lap. In one or two tugs it was over. Sometimes, if the girl uncrossed her legs just as he was taking his cock out, he didn’t even need to touch himself; he came the moment he saw her knickers. The handkerchief was a back-up; he did not really need it. Usually he ejaculated across the folder, over pages of second degree equations, diagrams of insects or a graph of coal production in the USSR. The girl would carry on reading her magazine.

But it’s not all bad:

In the midst of nature’s savagery, human beings sometimes (rarely) succeeded in creating small oases warmed by love. Small, exclusive, enclosed spaces governed only by love and shared subjectivity.

While recharging his batteries at the New-Age Lieu du Changement, Bruno meets Christiane in the jacuzzi. She gives him a blow-job and they repair to her caravan, where he gives her oral pleasure. While Houellebecq’s prose is crisp, technical, lucid, intellectual, and his world-view is quite dark, when one of his protagonists meets someone they can like (and lick) it is a benediction of sorts. The same thing happens in his other novel, Platform.

One of the most surprising things about physical love is the sense of intimacy it creates the moment there is a trace of mutual affection. Suddenly — even if you met the night before — you can confide things to your lover that you would not tell another living soul. And so, that night, Bruno told Christiane things that he had never told anyone — not even Michel — much less his therapist. He talked to her about his childhood, his grandmother’s death, how he was bullied at boarding school. He told her about his adolescence, about masturbating on the train with a girl only a few feet away; he told her about the summers he spent at his father’s house. Christiane stroked his hair and listened.

While Bruno finds love with Christiane, Michel, his half-brother, meets up with an old flame, Annabelle.

For dinner, she grilled a sea bass; the society in which they lived accorded them a surplus above and beyond their basic needs, so they could live a little, but the fact was, they no longer wanted to. He had an immense compassion for her, for the boundless reserve of love he could feel simmering inside her, which the world had wasted; he felt compassion and, to be honest, it was perhaps the only emotion which could still touch him. As to the rest, a glacial reticence had taken over his body; he simply could not love.

Houellebecq takes us on a moral journey through the twentieth century and beyond. What he depicts is disquieting and sometimes profound. His protagonists chart trajectories that demonstrate the difficulty of finding happiness in this world.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century the reading classes have been historically aware. The well-spring of Western culture has been examined in tremendous detail, and history has been altered by this awareness. The very notion of ‘history’ is now understood to be complex, multifaceted, and difficult to grasp. The history of Bruno and Michel is similarly hard to understand and their utterances deserve to be taken with a grain of salt. But given their histories, the author’s dénouement has a tight, rigorous aptness to it.

We may be on the verge of a new world order, there may even be more just and righteous forms of life on the horizon. Whatever our destiny, we can only hope that other such works of art continue to be produced.


kimbofo said...

I read this book several years ago and loved it. Today I found out it has been made into a film, which opens here in London next week. I don't think I will be going to see it though: I can't quite imagine how you could turn such a philosophical/intellectual story into a movie...

Dean said...

Well, I hadn't heard about this release. Have to keep my eyes peeled for it in the independents here in Sydney.

Marrickvillia said...

Thanks Dean, for a review so good I feel I don't have to read the book!

Dean said...

You're most welcome! I really enjoyed your look at Marrickville's federterranean tiling...

But I do recommend this book to read. Houellebecq is quite different from most Anglophone writers. It must be that Gallic logic at work...