Atomised, by French author, Michel Houellebecq, recommended by a friend and widely considered one of the most influential novels ‘of our time’, is beautiful, yet disturbing. Read it only if you have a strong sense of self and you’re not prone to French philosophy.
Atomised follows the lives of half-brothers Michel and Bruno, who lead very different lives due largely to their wildly different upbringings. Michel, the older brother, is brought up by his loving grandmother and he begins a life-long love for knowledge and science – yet it is a love that he doesn’t feel for any other human being. Bruno, who becomes an overweight teenager, horrifically bullied at a boarding school, becomes an overly sexualised adult through the strange sexual encounters he frequently sees through the influence of his wayward mother. Though both vastly different, the central theme throughout Atomised is that both Michel and Bruno essentially lead loveless lives, through their lack of connection from any other human being.
The main theme that carries through Atomised is that we cannot connect fully to anyone else; no matter how strong our love, how deep a bond we may perceive, essentially we are individual creatures who cannot be completely touched by any other person or thing. We are essentially just atoms, particles, things that can break down and fall apart. To put it more bleakly, we are alone. Forever. We are born alone, we live alone and then when we die, we die alone.
Houellebecq’s writing was wonderful; though he dealt with complex issues and frequently referred to different philosophies from the past century, the storyline remained fluid, interesting and easy to follow. Though he is clearly an incredibly intelligent person, his wrote as though he didn’t have anything to prove – resulting in a novel that most would be able to follow.
However, it was disturbing. While I did find it interesting, I also found it incredibly bleak, and also, not accurate. If Atomised were solely from the perspective of a deeply lonely or depressed individual, then I could understand Atomised. Yet, Houellebecq wrote in a vein as though every single human being is egocentric, truly incapable of love and all alone.
There are numerous passages where Houellebecq describes sexual acts in a way that is animalistic and borderline depraved. Truthfully, I found them unsettling and somewhat a turn-off. Furthermore, Houellebecq has numerous characters suicide, simply because they have reached that period in their lives where they perceive there will be too much hardship for lack of reward. Seriously, come on. I honestly don’t think that’s how the average person views their lives.
I honestly did think that Houellebecq was trying to make a valid argument, and while I believe it has some truth in it, I also though that his method of portraying it wasn’t right. Yes, as human beings we are alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are incapable of love, or feeling, or an everlasting connecting with another human being. I understand that, as an individual, we are always going to go through things essentially by ourselves; but that doesn’t negate the friendships and relationships that we have with other people. Believing so is ultimately egotistical and masochistic – the only person you’re hurting is yourself, and at the end of the day you’re only living your own life (which is largely what Houellebecq is trying to prove).
Furthermore, Houellebecq argues that human beings are the same as any other substance on earth; we’re particles and atoms that have joined to create a living thing. This is quite true. Yet a vital point that Houellebecq has forgotten is that our ability to not only recognise this, but to continue to live our lives as we do, shows that we are simply more than the sum of our parts, so to speak.
Overall, Atomised is an interesting and well-written read. Houellebecq does an excellent job of weaving philosophy through storyline. However, I believe that while he may have some interesting perspectives on the human condition, Atomised is to be taken with a grain of salt.
Have you read Atomised or anything by Michel Houellebecq? What did you think? Are you a fan? Let me know!