Tag Archives: Michel Houellebecq

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.

My Reading Challenge – Book 46: ‘The Midnight Bell’ by Patrick Hamilton

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(For reference – this is Book 46 of the 90 I’m aiming for this year on my Goodreads Reading Challenge. That is why I start at Book 46, rather than Book 1.)

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of ready Andy Miller’s ‘A Year of Dangerous Reading’ (second mention of this book already, but he is responsible for at least my next two books that I’ve completed). Like seemingly all humans, I’m pre-disposed to enjoy lists of any sort; as a reader and writer, a list about books is nirvana-esque in nature. These were all books that had Miller had lied to people about reading, both in general and in his previous incarnation as a worker in a bookshop.

I couldn’t have timed reading this book more wrongly if I tried. Miller even warns people that this book shouldn’t be conceived as a list of books people should try and attempt, match or complete; rather, it just a cross section of books he felt like he had to read. In the week I bought this book, I had bought around ten others. Stupidly, I chose to read this first. Before I knew it, I was adding to my collection – every book that he wrote about and enjoyed, I wanted to experience the same feeling as him, so infectious was his delivery. I ended up buying:

‘Under The Volcano’ by Malcolm Lowry

‘Atomised’ by Michel Houellebecq

‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky’ by Patrick Hamilton

Unlike Miller, I had fair warning that the Hamilton novel was in fact a trilogy, semi-autobiographical in nature, about the patrons of ‘The Midnight Bell’, a pub in London. I’ve since read ‘The Siege of Pleasure’, the second book in the trilogy, but that won’t be touched upon here – it is more likely to feature along with the concluding part, ‘The Plains of Cement’.

I’m not going to pretend and act as if I am able to critically analyse every aspect of a novel I read. I could try and wax lyrical about the juxtaposition of characters, the use of the pronoun and the cyclical structure of a narrative, but that doesn’t necessarily evoke the way I read and understands books. I often feel like the pupils in my lessons; I often know that I like a book, but can’t often always pinpoint why outside of ‘…because it was good’. You are unlikely to meet New York Review of Books level evaluation here; what I do hope you get is honest interpretations of books that I have read.

One of the reasons I have so many books is the same reason I feel like I had so used to buy so many CDs: I’m forever looking for the voice that grabs me and carries me away. I found it last with Julian Barnes, though I had similar experiences with authors as diverse as John Williams (‘Stoner’), Junot Diaz (‘This is How You Lose Her’) and Atul Gawande (of a future column’s fame); diverse at least in terms of time period, themes explored, ethnicity, if not gender (something I’m working on).

Hamilton grabbed me and truly didn’t let me go.

This power admittedly waned on the second book (my one reference to it), but inside the head of Bob, one of the workers at the Midnight Bell, as he begins to embark on a dizzying relationship with a flighty ‘lady of the night’ called Jennie, the story roars along apace. It is written in the third person, but Bob is the main character, and it is his internal struggle as he is constantly let down by this lady with which he has delusions of a future that forms the backbone of the story.

I don’t really want to give spoilers for books – books are probably the most obvious medium that can’t survive the pre-emptive reveal of the twist or the ending, due to the amount of time and effort that needs to be put into it as an entertainment form. Therefore, I’m not going to take you through the narrative step by step. If it sounds good to you, buy it – you won’t be disappointed.

Hamilton’s prose style is what I would describe as ‘no wasted motion’. Everything is clear, precise and to the point, though rather than make it feel monotonous or cold, this gives it a much more lyrical air than might be expected. There’s a snap to the altercations between the oddities and the staff at The Midnight Bell, a fizz as Bob tries to reconcile his true feelings for Jennie. Almost bi-polar in nature, I’ve not personally read a better evocation of the first stages of love (or at least, love that perhaps isn’t meant to be) than you see in The Midnight Bell. With limited time wasted, Hamilton is also able to create a real sense of time and place through his use of description; we feel part of this slightly grimy local pub, connected to its cast of misfits and characters.

Without wanting to be too technical about a feature of style, I also really enjoy the use of capital letters for both concrete and abstract nouns in the book (something I never thought I’d say). It is used by both Bob and Jennie to emphasise key emotions and ideas that are explored in their conversations and thoughts – a simple technique used very effectively. It helps to shape their beliefs in the interaction between single men and women, class, the employment of Jennie, and their burgeoning emotions for each other.

For a book written in the 1920s, it doesn’t feel out of place at all. Hamilton has managed to create an engaging and pithy storyline that still feels fresh and interesting today. Go out of your way to have a look – it is available as part of the trilogy for around £6 on Amazon – and hopefully be swept along by Hamilton’s writing in the same way Bob is by Jennie’s beauty.