Here are some quotes from the novel, Atomised, by Michel Houellebecq:

• Once she’s past a certain age, a woman…has no chance of being loved (p.167*).

• Sexual desire is preoccupied with youth, and the tendency to regard ever-younger girls as fair game was simply a return to the norm; a return to the true nature of desire (p.125)

• If people were honest, they don’t give a toss about their kids, they don’t really love them. In fact, I’d say men aren’t capable of love, the emotion is completely alien to them. The only emotions they know are desire – in the form of pure animal lust – and male rivalry (p.200).

• Boys are monsters, and stupid with it (p.199).

• In a couple of years his son would want to go out with girls his own age; the same fifteen-year-old girls that Bruno lusted after. They would come to be rivals – which was the natural relationship between men (p.198).

• The metaphysical mutation brought about by modern science [displacing medieval Christianity] depends on individuation, narcissism, malice and desire (p.191).

• He knew at once that this slow-motion world, riddled with shame, where people passed each other in an unearthly void in which no human contact seemed possible, precisely mirrored his mental world. The universe was cold and sluggish. There was however one source of warmth – between a woman’s thighs; but there seemed no way for him to reach it (p. 70).

• Even the occasional, sporadic interest which New Age devotees took in this or that belief or ‘ancient spiritual tradition’ was no more than proof of a profound, almost schizophrenic despair (p.377).

• Far removed from Christian notions of grace and redemption, and hostile to the concepts of freedom and compassion, Michel’s world view had grown pitiless and mechanical (p. 104).

In this state-of-the-Western-world-novel the narrator’s view is that all humans are pitiless and mechanical. I have selected the above quotes at random: any reader can choose plenty of other bleak and troubled lines. The novel examines the lives of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, born in France in the mid-1950s, whose parents are inadequate, unloving and neglectful. It follows their separate and isolated childhoods, emotionally deprived adolescence and immature early adult years. Michel studies physics and becomes a professional scientist; Bruno becomes an eroticist and studies women. Through the brothers’ experience of school, work place, women and New Age communities for post-hippies, the novel purports to portray the latter half of the twentieth century. Bruno and Michel are presented as typical of all men in the Western world, living lonely bitter life of isolated misery.

It is as if the narrator is holding up a mirror hoping that the male reader sighs and recognises his own life and fate. However for my part I saw the mirror without glass and it revealed the narrator staring back at me. He does not speak for me, nor does he speak for the other men I know, he certainly does not speak for women. The novel claims for itself a universalism, but is unconvincing in providing it. It has the grand sweep of a full explanation of all modern human beings and their evils, and promotes a meta-narrative to explain everything. But that explanation rests on the evidence of the lives of two emotionally inadequate middle aged French men, which is a very small sample, and the text merely becomes a conservative philosophy of despair. Whilst ostensibly a novel of ideas it is saturated with the-end-is-nigh pessimism. It is silent on viable human alternatives: love, communication, empathy, joy, contemplation, hope, understanding.

A science fiction epilogue provides a fantasy solution to the human problem the novel wrongly diagnoses. The solution is via molecular biology: humanity will give way to a new species, which is asexual and immortal, propagated by cloning. The novel ends in an orgy of genocidal ecstacy and presents the solution to the problem of being human as: we all, lemming-like, die and leave the world free for a different species. Preferably ones who don’t write novels like this.

*Vintage, 2001; translated by Frank Wynne.


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