Me and Houellebecq go back a long way. I first picked up his breakthrough novel at my dad’s place in 2001. From the blurb, I expected some pithy, pseudo-cynical, funny-but-not-really satire on contemporary values. What I found was much deeper, much more disturbing and much more impressive.
I read long into the night and dropped the book at the point where Bruno exposes himself to a teenage girl. It’s such an awful scene that I couldn’t read on, yet the novel haunted me and I bought my own copy some months later. Not since George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had I read a book so profoundly frightening and depressing.
In his first published work, a tribute to H P Lovecraft, Houellebecq set out his lethal vision. The first line of this para could as much apply to the author as his subject:
Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’. All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact and radiant.
And yet Atomised is a utopian novel. Rather than extrapolate a future hell from worrying trends in a tolerable present, Houellebecq posits that the contemporary world is dystopia itself: a society obsessed with mindless fiscal and sexual competition, completely divorced from happiness and pleasure, where broken men and women live out lonely and bitter lives – embodied in the character of Bruno, the ‘Omega Male’. Utopia lies in the post-human paradise eventually derived from the research of Michel Djerzinski, molecular biologist and Bruno’s reclusive half-brother.
Houellebecq segues effortlessly from one man’s story to the other while overlaying the narrative with historical and cultural theory, factual detail on the lives of insects or birds, quotes, poems and observations seemingly of tangential relevance to the plot. Audaciously subjective, he does everything the fiction writer is warned against: he rants, dictates, lectures, and yet it flows. Houellebecq weaves the micro and the macro with ease and skill. ‘Balzac never hesitated to launch into his theories halfway through a book,’ he told the Guardian. ‘The great advantage of a novel is you can put in whatever comes into your head – it has the same shape as the human brain.’
What struck me about Atomised was Houellebecq’s little-noted gift for comedy. We first meet the adult Bruno when he’s trying to pull at a New Age holiday camp. The resort’s premise of junk spirituality barely conceals the last-chance pick-up joint that the place essentially is, and Houellebecq has great fun with the gulf between the ideals of the participants and their basic desires. It’s the gentle touch, a delightful understatement. Some examples:
In 1987 the first quasi-religious workshops appeared at the Lieu… Siberian shamanism made a remarkable debut when, in 1991, during the long initiation in a sweat lodge fired by sacred coals, an initiate died of heart failure.
Though Catholic, the Catholic had no time for the Pope – his medieval outlook, in her opinion, was hindering the spiritual evolution of the modern world. ‘You’re right,’ said Bruno, ‘he’s an atavist.’ The word earned him a new respect from the others.
In the centre of the circle, the instructor, a small, dark-haired man with a slight squint, gave a brief history of sensitive Gestalt-massage. Born out of Fritz-Perl’s Gestalt-massage, the method had evolved to integrate aspects of the sensual to become – in his opinion – the most complete form of massage. There were those at the Lieu, he realised, who did not share his point of view, but he did not wish to become polemical.
By the end of the first day, it was apparent that Catherine’s personality had aspects of the witch, but also aspects of the lioness, which usually pointed to a career in sales management.
The section is the first of Houellebecq’s comic codas to the sexual revolution: the ’68 generation, now old and withered, clinging to the doctrine of free love out of ideological conformity, with the result that ‘[d]edicated exclusively to sexual liberation and desire, the Lieu de Changement naturally became a place of depression and bitterness.’
The second, darker epilogue comes with the death of Michel and Bruno’s mother, a hippie pioneer who farmed the boys out to boarding schools and distant relatives. Dying in a remote village, her only companions are a few sixties stragglers plus Michel, attending purely out of formality, and Bruno, released from a psychiatric hospital for the occasion. Between swigs of whisky, he declares to his semiconscious mother: ‘I’ll put what’s left of you in a little pot and every morning when I get up, I’ll piss on your ashes.’
Does Houellebecq hate women? The character of Janine Ceccaldi is certainly based on Houellebecq’s mother who abandoned her son to a similar fate suffered by Bruno in the novel. Asked if there was an element of revenge, the author was candid: ‘Yes. Definitely.’ There is probable truth in Will Self’s celebrated observation: ‘He’s just a little guy who can’t get enough sex. That’s it, isn’t it?’
And yet. Could a misogynist have written these words?
Thirty years later he could not come to any other conclusion: women were indisputably better than men. They were gentler, more affectionate, more loving and more compassionate, they were rarely violent, selfish, cruel or self-centred. Moreover, they were more rational, more intelligent and more hard-working… A society of women would be immeasurably superior, tracing a slow, unwavering progression, with no U-turns and no chaotic insecurity, towards a general happiness.
Bruno’s fantasy island is populated entirely with young women and dogs; Houellebecq even gives his utopian movement the slogan: ‘THE FUTURE IS FEMALE’.
In this passage from The Possibility of an Island, Houellebecq combines sympathy for a female character with compassion in general:
I recognised the look she wore afterwards: it was that humble, sad look of the sick animal that steps away from the pack, puts its head on its paws and sighs softly, because it feels itself wounded and knows that it can expect no pity from its fellow creatures.
For all his misanthropy, Houellebecq genuinely cares about his characters, and he’s also one of the few novelists who can write happiness in a compelling way – the majority of Platform, after all, is a story of a loving relationship. Throughout his books there are gentle dreamscapes as well as nightmarish situations.
This is the misanthrope’s paradox: you can’t pass judgement on the world without having some investment on how it works out, not only for yourself, but for those around you. To be against the world, yet for life; for life and against the world: it’s a tension that makes Michel Houellebecq the provocative and compulsive writer he is.