My Reading Challenge – Book 49: ‘Atomised’ by Michel Houellebecq

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For reference, the second of the Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky was book 47, The Checklist Manifesto book 48 (and referenced in my column http://thatdifficultfirstnovel.co.uk/my-world-in-books/my-world-in-books-medical-non-fiction/)

‘Atomised’ (or as it is called in some place ‘The Elementary Particles’) is about as difficult a book to write about as I could imagine. On one hand, I fully enjoyed my time spent reading Michel Houellebecq’s story of two brothers, their lives and loves. On the other hand, it is a difficult book to wholeheartedly recommend. It is deep, difficult and depressing in equal measure, and is certainly not for the faint hearted.

As with any challenging book, whether in theme or in general content, ‘Atomised’ is difficult to effectively summarise, especially in a forum that works best without spoilers giving away key parts of the novel. At heart, it is a story of two brothers; two brothers who are vastly different in their attitudes towards life and in terms of their personalities. Bruno is a pervert, a sexual deviant who seeks out any opportunity to indulge in what could be perceived as increasingly depraved sexual activity. Michel, on the other hand, is a man who drifts through life, never quite seeming to find solace in relationships, preferring to drift around the periphery no matter how much those in his life try to engage him, even love him.

Andy Miller described Michel Houellebecq as a ‘nihilist’, and I can now see how he came to that decision: in the book, nothing good happens to anyone. Sure, there are fleeting moments where things seems to improve, for sunshine to peek through clouds of existence, yet all too soon, this illumination is extinguished, replaced a darker, more tragic hue. This makes ‘Atomised’ a difficult read, almost as if you are being bludgeoned with every conceivable perversity of life itself, with no real happiness or salvation outside of death. Suicide and death are central themes, and are almost seen by characters as a viable outlet to escape the crushing and numbing inevitability of living.

There is also a lot of sex, and I mean a lot of sex. I’m not a prude, but even I was surprised by casual way that sex and masturbation were dropped into the story, mainly through the eyes of Bruno. His lust and desire seem to intensify as his opportunity to satiate these cravings becomes less due to the creeping spectre of age. Even he finds solace for a short while, only for his perverse house of cards to inevitably also topple down. Michel, on the other hand, seems to veer away from sex and society in general, a shell of a man who doesn’t really find his place until the end of the novel, yet uniquely so.

This is also one of the books that would have initially driven me away from the idea of reviewing books. When I read, I often tend to read solely for pleasure, often not really spending time analysing message, motive, themes, etc. As I’ve begun to read more, I’ve started to try and take these types of ideas on board more, though actually finding the belief in your own thoughts about a piece of creative media is difficult. What if I’ve read it wrong? What if people laugh at the concepts I’ve discussed? What if I’ve missed some obvious symbolism that would be the key to truly helping me understand? It is almost as if we are putting our very ability to read and understand on show, a concept that is oft unchallenged.

So, here goes.

Again, without wanting to spoil it for those who have yet to read, I believe the book is exploring the nature of our interactions with the people around us, and the damage they inevitably cause, even when they are relationships that should, in theory, be there to support us and make us better people. By involving ourselves in social interactions, we are only really causing ourselves bigger difficulties, whereas a life of solitude may cause less hurt, but is as equally unfulfilling. Both men arguably represent the social poles, and maybe Houellebecq is trying to imply that neither way of living is preferential, and that only be working within those parameters can things truly work out. Although, having now read the book, Houellebecq might just be suggesting that life sucks no matter what, and then you die.

Do I recommend it? Yes, but I was primed to know what to expect coming in by my reading of reviews for the book. I can see why people love this book; I can just as easily see why people would want to run a mile from it. All I do know is that I think I need to move onto something a bit more…optimistic for my next read.

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