There are some novelists who can’t be avoided in the charged instability of their prose. We find this in the literature of extremes, and one such recent case is Michel Houellebecq. In Atomised (1998) Houellebecq portrays a vision of late capitalist society as in the thrall of its own decay. The chaos of the market society and its depredations has blown away the traditional order of morality. Sexual liberalism has prevailed to the extent that the very act has become a commodity in a marketplace, but this has left winners and losers. Elsewhere Houellebecq calls for a ‘sexual communism’ and a ‘sexual social democracy’ where the unattractive are not excluded from the exchange centres of pleasure. The cultural revolution of the late 20th Century did not leave us all unscathed to enter into a new sexual utopia. Even though Houellebecq seems to accept a conservative thesis on culture he is pessimistic at the possibility of any kind of deliverance from this process. The collapse of the old order is irreversible. It may be better to take what pleasure can be procured from its final twitches than to try and turn the clock back as Evelyn Waugh had wanted so dearly. It may be that the analysis has been prompted by the conditions demanding a response of some kind. No wonder then it has been said that Houellebecq uses the language of the Left to launch a right-wing attack on the soixante-huitards, the Hippies and New Age spirituality.
In his nihilism Houellebecq identifies more so with the decay of culture which he seems to disdain. Even as he identifies the descent into hedonism Houellebecq does not call for a return to the conventions of monogamy. He seems to prefer the idea of turning the sexual marketplace into a more democratic mechanism which everyone can enjoy. The pages of Atomised (1998) are littered with philosophical conundrums, scientific theory and the historical pre-conditions for modern society. He focuses a great deal on the emergence of sexual freedom in the 1960s, its origins in the Hippie scene and the spread of the Commune movement around Europe and America. His protagonists Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clément endure the explosion of new possibilities before even reaching pubescence: abandoned by their Hippie mother, only to drift through the years reared by their grandmothers and then through numerous encounters and non-encounters with members of the opposite sex. It is a deeply tragic tale, but not one without any hint of sentimentality. In the same way that Houellebecq gives the middle finger to a whole host of liberal assumptions and beliefs he cannot get away from this plain of thought. It could’ve been an even more despairing work in some respects.
The love story between Michel and Annabelle stands as evidence of Houellebecq’s sentimentality in that he couldn’t just have them never come together in the first place. Some of the saddest pages tell of Michel and Annabelle growing up, failing to get together as teenagers and ultimately depart on the cusp of adulthood in the middle 70s. Funnily enough, Michel lost Annabelle (not that he had had her yet) to a wannabe rock-star in a communal setting and partly with the help of Bruno. Take from that what you will. Many years later, Michel bumps into Annabelle by chance and falls limply into a relationship with her. She too had been failed by the world in which she was born to. Throughout the relationship Michel remains indifferent even to her affections, only taking enjoyment in their embraces in the most intellectualised way. Even still, this was as close as it came to the two of them making a ‘go of it’ as they should have as twenty-somethings. In a fit of desperation Annabelle had bluntly asked him to procreate with her – for fear that he was going to Ireland to leave her for his research project – and characteristically the good scientist agreed with a murmur. During the sexual act Michel remains distant and envisions a cell splitting, before describing the brink of orgasm as ‘a little suicide’. Afterwards Annabelle finds not only can she not have the child but she has uterine cancer and has to have a hysterectomy. Not too many pages later Annabelle commits suicide and Michel moves on with his research in Ireland only to disappear himself. We might say Houellebecq takes love deadly seriously, just not the prospects of finding and holding onto it in a world like this one.
It was quite something to flick from page to page, but it is revealing of the French poet who is a recovering Stalinist and former agronomist. Houellebecq could have opted for another version where Michel and Annabelle briefly meet again, only for them to never follow each other up. That would have led to the same conclusion, especially as it would still be twinned with Bruno’s doomed love affair with Christiane. Bruno goes mad after Christiane is left paralysed and chooses suicide as he had stopped seeing her. That was a much less sentimental series of events. And yet Houellebecq can’t resist the temptation of Michel and Annabelle coming together; it reminds one of the most overused lines of Tennyson “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.” Bruno represents the failed attempts at hedonism divorced from the utopianism of the '68 Generation; whereas Michel languishes in an anhedonic and rationalist distance from human relations to prioritise the life of the mind. The dichotomy is set between the unsated and the undesiring to lead us from the 1960s to the 90s. Like the society in which we live the brothers are forever shaped by the events of the 60s. Both of the siblings are heirs to unfettered freedoms. The hedonist Bruno is ensnared in a culture which he cannot extricate himself from and he wouldn’t want to if he could just get laid more. On the other hand, Michel would probably have liked to have been left alone to his scientific inquiry – which was impossible given the obligatory nature of the relations so alien to him – we shouldn’t be surprised that he may have jumped at the opportunity to finally exit this world. By the end of the book there was nothing binding him to this life, he had completed his project and heralded a biogenetic revolution to outmatch the legacy of sexual liberation in expunging its pre-conditions.
It was that legacy which Bruno found himself so entangled with. Never sated by the amount of pornography, prostitutes, masturbation, sex shows, girlfriends and orgies he could ever muster the energy to find. It brings to mind Freud’s point that satisfaction is distinctly unsatisfactory. We can’t just do it, and nor can Bruno, but not want of trying; Houellebecq seems to retain the hope in the market of sexual exchange if only it can be transformed into a more democratic space. Only then will the bulbous and desperate Bruno, with all of his emotional baggage, find a scintilla of contentment. The affair with Christiane may have been a glimpse of such a life, where Clément finds a partner willing to take the lead and indulge in his insatiable appetites in courting nude beaches in search of swingers. Retrospectively we have the incident with Adjila, an Arab student, whom Bruno finds irresistible – to the point of exposing himself to her in a lesson and subsequently being sectioned. The girl standing as the nexus between the man’s sexual voracity, his misogyny and his racial ressentiment; in later interviews Houellebecq (partly defending himself against accusations of racism) draws a distinction between Arabs and Muslims insofar as the former can be assimilated. The author is right to locate in Bruno unending lust in conjunction with an immense dissatisfaction, which lends itself to sexual jealousy and racism ultimately. The obsession with Adjila is not to be disassociated from Bruno’s loathing of a black male student in his class and interprets his behaviour as rivalling him in the capacity to regress to ‘our animal selves’. He even goes as far as penning and trying to publish a racist pamphlet and contemplates joining the Front National.
In the end Bruno gives up on the written word (unlike Houellebecq) and finds some brief fulfilment with Christiane before losing his mind. It is apt that Michel Djerzinski not only diagnoses the condition but provides a cure, not for Bruno but for the human species. The biogenetic revolution amounts to the transcendence of the human species with a new race of clones (who are free of this unceasing desire). It means the end for mankind, but the book stands as an ode to humanity written in the mid 21st Century partly looking at Djerzinski’s follower and successor Hubczejak. It is wonderfully satirical in this sense, in that the book charts the decline of Western civilisation only to cheer it on, and even welcome the end; then present the record of cultural decay as the only homage humanity deserves. It’s in this darkly amusing way that Houellebecq intends the words “This book is dedicated to mankind.” It is an appropriate frame for the events of the sad lives of Bruno and Michel, as well as the pages on scientific theory, social and cultural issues. It may be backward-looking in some respects, as well as outright reactionary in other moments and even be an extension of Houellebecq’s bitterness over the women in his life. I would contest the claim that Houellebecq should be dismissed for these reasons. As the man himself remarked in a BBC interview “Perhaps the mistake is to think of me in actual fact…” We may do better to bear in mind that we may not be able to prefigure the long-term legacy of a writer like Houellebecq. Somewhere in Atomised Houellbecq writes “Death is a great leveller.”