Review of Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

Read my review of this book over several posts

I couldn’t face the desperate last minute search for Christmas presents this year. The trying to find something for people who want for nothing material, squeezed in amongst a throng of other shoppers driven by the rampant seasonal imperative to consume. So I decided to just go to a bookshop I like. I could face that. And I should be able to find a book for everyone.

As often happens when buying presents though, I also picked up a couple for myself. Holiday reading really. Something to take my mind off work, Christmas, and to cheer myself up. One book I randomly bought for myself was Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised. Well, in a way I chose badly, because this is certainly not a cheerful tome (although there is some dark humour). And although it contains a great deal of sex, it did not make me forget my work, because it happens to be largely about my current research themes.

Atomised offers an extremely negative view of contemporary society. The breakdown of traditional family bonds is a major theme. The two half-brothers who are the main characters of the novel are both left with relatives or at boarding school at a young age by their parents. This happened to Houellebecq himself and this perhaps explains much of his venom. The brothers in the book live lonely and dysfunctional lives. One, Michel, has a potential school sweetheart but lacks the emotional functionality to reach out to her. He works as a research scientist  and lives a life mostly devoid of love an sex. His brother Bruno, by contrast, is obsessed with sex and manages to put himself in the way of a certain amount, but his relationships are strange and short-lived.

The idea of individualisation in the negative sense of isolation, inability to connect, and a lack of love, loyalty and support is generalised to Western post-sixties society. There are musings about religion and death, suggesting that without the former, all we have is the latter, only briefly obscured by the shallow cult of youth and beauty. There  is an undertow of scientific reasoning and language in the book, which serves to emphasise the detached coldness of the rationality which rules our world.

To be continued…