Michel Houellebecq: Atomised

ImageThis is one of those front covers I feel like I’ve seen a lot of. For some reason it just always seems to be around. And I’ve never liked it – it never made me want to read the book; if anything it put me off. I really dislike books with big flashy covers. It makes me think of it as packaging, which it is in a sense, but a book cover should be sympathetic to the content, not overpower the reader before he/she has even begun. It makes me think that the content can’t be up to much if a cover has to shout that loudly. But I was willing to overlook my assumptions and prejudices just this once (for reasons I can’t remember). Perhaps the cover of Atomised is designed to put off readers like me. I really didn’t enjoy it. I have certainly been cured of my desire to test that particular theory, at least for the time being.

The novel unfolds by following the lives and families of two very different men in tandem. One is a scientist, with an unnatural emotional detachment. One is a sex-obsessed writer/teacher/psychiatric patient, who also seems to find relationships rather difficult. Neither is particularly likeable, and nor are any of the other characters – the women are whores or saints, and either way end up dead. The two men are half brothers, and much is made of the fact that their mother was absent throughout their lives. Their respective fathers were also absent, but this point is less laboured – presumably the mother’s depravity is the important factor here. Depravity is something that features a lot.

Now, before I go any further I would like to point out that I am fully aware of the ‘point’ that is being made by all the sex and violence and generally disastrous human behaviour that goes on in this novel. The ending offers us a twist: the novel is being written by a super-race of humans immune to death and violence and all that inconvenience. The novel is a tribute to the imperfect race that brought them into being. OK. I get it. It’s a nice little twist, I’ll give it that. It makes you sit up and realise that every time a character said or thought something sexist or your face was rubbed artlessly in suffering and death, often marred by insensitivity and crass behaviour.. every time you wanted to put the book down and give it up as a bad job, it was because Houellebecq was making a point about how vile humans are/were. Great.

Am I glad I persisted with it and read to the end? Yes – there are a few good bits. I liked a lot of the philosophy; I have no trouble subscribing to the ‘we’re all going to hell in a handbasket’ school of thought. But overall, I think this novel lacks subtlety, and it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

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