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In which Netty reads Houellebeq’s Atomised and wonders what’s French for “not my cup of tea” …

July 29, 2015

So when you think about France, what comes to mind? For me, it’s the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, jaunty berets, the River Seine, Champagne, cheese, the Champs D’Elysee … so basically, landmarks and the culinary. All the usual clichés.

Not necessarily someone you'd expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with ...

Not necessarily someone you’d expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with …

Andy says it was his idea to read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, but I do recall I was equally enthusiastic – the French author having been reasonably high up my to-read list for a while now. (It’s a pretty long list.) I was under the impression – not incorrect – that he was the enfant terrible of modern literature in that country; to my mind a French version of, say, Will Self. Or Chuck Palahniuk. I was sort of right – Houellebecq, to this reader, lacks the dark, sly wit and audacious verve, respectively, of the former pair.

Or maybe’s it my old bete noir – the whole “lost in translation” thing (for the record, Atomised was translated by Irishman Frank Wynne, who shared the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award with Houellebecq for this work.)

But I suspect not. Because there is something else that springs to mind when one thinks about all things Francophile – and that is Satre-styled existentialism. There’s more than a bit of that going on in these pages. But, you know, they’re French. It’s in their DNA, non?

Actually, Sartre has been tossed around by Andy and me as a possible ANRC candidate for a few years now. He usually ends up getting rejected – by me – on the grounds that it’ll be too hard. I attempted to read Nausea at high school but gave up. Perhaps it would have been easier if I’d tried to read it in English (boom! tish!)

OK, so we’ve established Andy didn’t like the book, and didn’t even hate it enough to like it. You can read his hilarious put-down here. As for me, I wouldn’t say I particularly liked it either – I found it quite dark, unremittingly bleak, incorporating an extremely pessimistic world view and devoid of hope for mankind in the future. Now, that is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me – after all, I am a HUGE fan of The Cure – but this novel left me feeling a bit depressed. For about a nanosecond – I’ve always been a glass half-full kinda gal. But if you’re not, either don’t read it, or up your Xanax prescription before you do. Which does kind of defeat the purpose.

Interestingly, Houellebeq’s mother Lucie Ceccaldi, from whom he is estranged, published her own book in 2008 (Atomised, his second novel, was published in 2001) to publicly correct perceived wrongs in the latter about the character she believes to be based on herself.

It appears she’s not off target on that assumption. Because Houellebeq has not only given one of his two main protagonists his name, he has also given the character his own back story. And in Atomised, the mother “character” (who shares Houellebeq’s mother’s surname) does not come out of things smelling like les fleurs, to put it mildly. In fact, she’s a selfish, pleasure-seeking narcissist only too keen to offload her two young sons in pursuit of her own desires. Houellebeq skewers 1960s hippie culture, its forebears and its offspring at every given opportunity throughout these pages. Some people go to a shrink to sort out the mess of their upbringing; others air their family’s dirty laundry among the pages of a book. No prizes for guessing into which camp the Ceccaldi/Houellebeqs fall …

Back to the book then. It is essentially the story of two half-brothers, Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clement, set against the backdrop of the mid-to-late 20th century, and then, in the epilogue, casting forward into the future. As the novel opens, Michel, a fortysomething molecular biologist at the forefront of his field, is having something of a mid-life crisis, so he takes a year off his position to “think”. His older half-brother Bruno (they share the same mother), a divorced ex-schoolteacher, is also in the throes of a mid-life crisis, one which he is handling in the more traditional way.

The brothers, both of whom were brought up by their respective grandmothers – Michel by his paternal grandmother, Bruno by his maternal grandmother – do not meet until it is engineered by their parents when the boys are in their mid-teens. Extremely different in personality, theirs is an uneasy, yet consistent brotherly relationship.

Neither man has a successful personal life. Michel is essentially asexual, not having lost his virginity until his 30s, despite having had a great, largely one-sided, unconsummated teenage love affair with Annabelle, who reappears in his adult life. Bruno, meanwhile, is a sex-obsessed libertine who rarely has his interest reciprocated, despite the number of new-age sex camps he attends – until he meets his match in Christiane. But by this advanced stage of the book, the reader can guess – correctly, and I don’t think that’s a spoiler – that there can be no happy endings for these characters.

Late in the novel one character tells Michel: “In the end, life breaks your heart. Doesn’t matter how brave you are, or how reserved, or how much you’ve developed a sense of humour … there’s just the cold, the silence and the loneliness. You might say, after that, there’s only death”. And therein lies the raison d’etre of this novel: essentially, that life is fucked, people are fucked, and we’re all going to die. That’s it – it’s a joke without a punchline.

I don’t know – call me a perpetual optimist, but I prefer at least a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Then, as Andy points out, Atomised gets all weird and meta and futuristic and science fiction-ey, and the reader learns the truth about Michel’s life’s work in molecular biology and where science may eventually lead the human race.

Look, I’m sure this book is someone’s idea of fun, to quote the aforementioned Will Self, but it wasn’t mine. But, you know, whateves. Books can be a crap shoot sometimes. C’est la vie.

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