Review: ‘Atomised’ by Michel Houellebecq

When I started reading the book, I thought I was delving into a lesser work of this author, but turns out that this is an alternative title for Houellebecq’s possibly most famous novel, ‘The Elementary Particles’.

An uneven novel. I’d rate the first four-fifths of it three and a half stars, and the remainder four and a half stars except for the epilogue, which I found completely unnecessary. There are flashes of brilliance throughout.

I hadn’t read anything of Houellebecq’s, although I harbored the uncomfortable suspicion that I would identify with plenty of his stuff, mainly because my own works involve sexual matters. And for the most part, it has been the case. This was one of the bleakest, most horrifyingly truthful novels that I’ve ever read.

The narrative follows two half-brothers. Michel is asexual, anhedonic, incapable of connecting with human beings, and eager to lose himself in scientific research, which he does in a dispassionate way. Bruno is controlled by his need to fuck as many 14-to-25-year-old girls/women as possible, which he mostly fails to do because he’s plain-looking, generally powerless, and has a small dick. The author suggests at some points that Bruno is something of a symbol for modern European men.

We’ve barely understood anything about the protagonists’ current life in their forties when we are provided with the history of their whole lives up to that point. Such info dump of backstory annoyed me, and I nearly ditched the novel; I have very little patience left these days. Their parents were dissolute morons wholly incapable of raising children, and who later on fell into the whole New Age nonsense, lived in communes, etc. At least their mother did; I don’t recall much about their fathers except that they frequented whorehouses. Bruno himself was sent to a boarding school, where he was not only bullied but also raped regularly.

We meet Michel’s childhood sweetheart, Annabelle, a gorgeous blonde girl who loved Michel in an innocent way, but unfortunately the guy’s brain was incapable of forming proper connections with human beings. In their teen years, she eventually gave in to the attentions of older guys who only wanted to fuck her. For many years, she continued on the common doomed course of seeking wholesome love from men who intended to pump and dump her.

Bruno failed to fuck the teens he lusted after at the same age, and in general was ignored by everyone. He studied to become a teacher, possibly because he still lusted after teenage girls, but he didn’t last long at the job. The author goes in depth about how Bruno jerked off under his desk while ogling his female students, and almost came to blows with a black student because he was dating the white, blonde girl he lusted after the most. Witnessing that relationship also convinced Bruno to write a few pamphlets that went on about how black people are inferior, which he failed to publish, but in truth he just resented that the girls he liked went for stronger guys with likely bigger dicks. In his last day as a teacher, he tried to get an arab student to jerk him off, but she just laughed and left the classroom. He checked himself into a mental institution. Once he walked out of it willingly, he spent most of his free time trying to figure out what kind of groups that he could snake his way into would allow him to fuck as many holes as possible.

We follow one of those outings in depth. Somewhere in the backwoods of France, a group of aged New Agey types spend their days gathering for spiritual workshops and shit like that, which Bruno spends his time mocking internally as he attempts to figure out who would open her legs for him. There we meet Christiane, who ends up becoming his romantic interest. In contrast with Annabelle, the only parts of Christiane I believed were the beginning and the last we know of her. Bruno meets her in a swimming pool, where she’s fucking some other guy. When the other guy leaves, Christiane swims over to Bruno and gives him a blowjob. Although Bruno would prefer a teen, he’s happy to start an extended sexual relationship with this forty-something-year-old who wants to have sex with him and is inordinately understanding and accommodating. That’s for me what I couldn’t buy about her character: Bruno opens up about his crusade to fuck as many underage girls as possible, as well as his antics as a teacher, but Christiane just rolls with it. This reeked of wish fulfillment on the part of the author.

For the first four-fifths of the tale, we barely follow Michel, the other protagonist; most of the times that the narrative focuses on him, we get into abstract digressions that attempt to connect the narrative to the zeitgeist at the time. My brain has a hard time handling abstractions; unless a text produces sensorial impressions, it mostly goes over my head. In any case, Michel lamented that at this point of scientific progress huge breakthroughs seemed almost impossible, and most of his research, related to improving the genetics of cows, involved routine computer work.

What this review doesn’t represent very well is the atmosphere of the novel, which is permeated with the lack of hope and meaning very familiar to many citizens of Coudenhove-Kalergi’s empire (the so-called European Union), a despair that has been steadily growing for as long as I can remember. Christiane, Bruno’s sexual partner, resents that her small town somewhat close to Paris has become a dangerous place due to mass immigration from Africa and the Middle East; she can’t take leisure walks around town, and she mostly hurries home because she presumes she’ll be safe there. As many have attested, including myself in my city, that’s one of the first stages; later on come the rapes at the entrance of the apartment buildings, and the break-ins. This novel was published at the tail end of the 20th century; living in this continent has only gotten worse since.

Europeans have been systematically humiliated, forced into a submissive mindset, by obscure authorities that have decided to replace us and that bankroll our extinction with the money they steal from our paychecks; just a few days ago the local newspaper in my province published that the welfare checks of those “in risk of poverty” have been raised. They earn almost the same as I do by working my ass off. Not only you can enter Europe illegally and have access to that paycheck, but those people are prioritized, and the more children they have, the more money they receive. All of that fosters the sense in many Europeans that there’s little point in doing anything, because we won’t have a future. The media is generally publicly funded, so they support this situation; even in private newspapers or stations, it’s well-known that you almost need to be a card-carrying supporter of certain political parties to be able to be employed there. The citizens that complain are routinely censored if they speak publically. Elon Musk got in some trouble with European authorities recently because he supports free speech for his Twitter (that’s his image anyway), and European politicians said the equivalent of, “We don’t do that stuff here.”

The author comments through Bruno that Western men feel the need to buy into the whole “liberal humanism” stuff merely so women will fuck them, therefore failing a civilization-wide shit-test, because those same women more often than not consider such men weak. I’ve never pretended so, even when some groups I found myself in cheerfully demanded to buy into their ideology just to be there. The media dictates what constitutes a “good person” and most human beings want to align with that, because they are terrified of social suicide. In general, human beings make my skin crawl, so I’ll happily remain alone.

All the parents in this novel are unable to connect with their kids; as the children grow up, they fall prey to the political influences hammered into them in the schools and the media, and some of them also hang out with shady groups, so they quickly turn into strangers. The parents are acutely aware that they’ve forced their kids to exist in a world that is progressively worsening. The kids were also produced out of a biological urge; one of the sentences in the book, that for me summarizes not only this story but modernity in general, says, “It’s a curious idea to reproduce when you don’t even like life.”

The author also goes on about the current role of religion in Europe. Most are unable to believe in any of it (in fact, growing up I knew a single christian in school; she was epileptic and believed she saw God during her seizures. These days, however, I know that my former philosophy teacher had to change his curriculum due to the influx of muslim students), and there’s the sense that the religion we’ve been left with is unsuitable in general. In the novel, when one of the protagonists, I can’t recall which, goes to a catholic wedding, the preacher goes on about how the couple will serve the god of Israel. The protagonist does a double take and says something to the effect of, “the god of Israel? Are they jews?” The author doesn’t follow that thought for long, but yes; thanks to Constantine of the Roman Empire we abandoned our own stories (and lost many of them; the christian mobs destroyed most libraries and even burned private collections. This is a good book on the subject), and for the last 1,700 years or so we’ve been dedicated to perpetuating the heritage and in-group priorities of a whole different set of people. Of course many are still brought into it from birth, so they never escape that cage.

The last one-fifth of the story gets brutally real, and I don’t want to spoil it too much. Annabelle is a salient point; Michel’s former childhood sweetheart meets him again after decades. She’s now in her forties and utterly miserable. The poor girl had only wished to love, but found out the hard way that no matter how intimate you get with someone, that doesn’t mean that they love you or ever will. For some time she had refused to get into personal relationships, afraid that her fragile heart would get hurt to the point that she wouldn’t want to continue living. Now that she has met the anhedonic, asexual Michel again, she considers that maybe she’ll have her last shot at a real, long-lasting relationship, and possibly even start a family.

As an overarching theme there’s the sense that aging is possibly the worst curse of mankind as sentient creatures, that in a blink you’ll find yourself too old to love, too old to even reproduce, that beyond the distractions you’ll find as you fumble in search of meaning, you’ll have little else to do but wait until your body inevitably betrays you sooner or later. You fear that death won’t come quick, but instead will present itself as some lingering illness that will torture you with constant pain until you cease to exist. One of the dialogues near the end of the book says it well:

“Humor won’t save you; it doesn’t really do anything at all. You can look at life ironically for years, maybe decades; there are people who seem to go through most of their lives seeing the funny side, but in the end, life always breaks your heart. Doesn’t matter how brave you are, how reserved, or how much you’ve developed a sense of humor, you still end up with your heart broken. That’s when you stop laughing. In the end there’s just the cold, the silence and the loneliness.”

I like this novel, but I suggest that you shouldn’t read it if you are very sensitive and already depressed, because you’ll find yourself feeling much worse.

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