EPS Review #134 - Atomised

Atomised, AKA The Elementary Particles, by Michel Houellebecq, Vintage 2001, 379 pp., tr. Frank Wynne

I was surprised that my friends liked this nasty and suicidal book (see their comments below). Still, it does have a woman in her underpants on the cover.

Michel (Djerzinski not Houellebecq, though if you read H's biography link above you will see similarities) is a biologist incapable of love, even with the beautiful Annabelle. His half-brother Bruno jerks off under his schoolbooks while looking at girls on the train, though eventually he hooks up with Christiane, who enjoys group sex on the beach. The blame is on the hippie mother who abandoned both boys. The mother dies later, with the uncaring sons looking on. Both men's women commit suicide, as does Western civilisation. In fact, literally everyone dies at the end, thanks to a spot of Science Fiction. The blame is on Science for (validly) destroying religion and leaving only hedonism and fake spirituality in its wake.

The writing is fun in a grim way.

It was here, on a July night in 1974, that Annabelle accepted the painful but unequivocal truth that she was an individual. An animal's sense of self emerges through physical pain, but individuality in human society only attains true self-consciousness by the intermediary of mendacity, with which it is sometimes confused. At the age of 16, Annabelle had kept no secrets from her parents, nor had she -- and she now realised that this was a rare and precious thing -- from Michel. In a few short hours that evening, Annabelle had come to realise that life was an unrelenting succession of lies. It was then, too, that she became aware of her beauty.

Shocking statements are fun, too:

Charles Manson was not some monstrous aberration in the hippie movement, but its logical conclusion.

Mathematical proofs and experimental methods are the highest expressions of human consciousness. I realise that the facts seem to contradict me, I know that Islam -- by far the most stupid, false and obscure of all religions -- seems to be gaining ground; but it's a transitory phenomenon: in the long term, Islam is doomed just as surely as Christianity.

The science is never jarringly wrong. But it does not make a huge amount of sense either.

Many years later Michel proposed a theory of human freedom using the flow of superfluid helium as an analogy. In principle, the subtle transfer of electrons between neurons and synapses in the brain is governed by quantum uncertainty. The sheer number of neurons, however, statistically cancels out such differences, ensuring that human behaviour is as rigorously determined -- in broad terms and in the smallest detail -- as any other natural system. In rare cases, however -- Christians refer to them as acts of grace -- a different harmonic waveform causes changes in the brain which modify behaviour, temporarily or permanently. It is this new harmonic resonance which gives rise to what is commonly called free will...

I was struck by the comparison of abortion (a collection of unwanted cells) to suicide to avoid old age (there are a lot of sagging penises and labia in the book). Michel chemically proves that death is the inevitable consort of sex. Shouldn't there be something more redeeming here?

I toted this book around at my Harvard 25th reunion (until I realised I wasn't going to have any dull moments to read). It really interested me to see a few of my classmates from Math 55, the math-whiz class, and how they fared in life. Better than Michel Djerzinski, I reckon.

Paul wrote: I just read "Atomised" by Michel Houellebecq, and rather enjoyed that. Have you read it? It's pretty glum but rather engaging. Seems very french though.

Jeff wrote: I read Houellebecq's book, and enjoyed it more than I thought I would (it is somehow visible at every bookstore in the UK). It left several strong impressions on life's lonely journey - and how sexual desire and fulfilment plays its role. I will recommend it.

I'm starting Middlesex, which comes highly recommended:

I replied to Paul: Anyone who likes H.P.Lovecraft can't be all bad. Haven't read it yet, though Jeff [ above ] did, at your referred recommendation, and liked it.

Paul replied: yeah [Jeff's summary is] pretty accurate. Lonely and sad but kinda good looking in that dejected way.

Did you read the other frenchies bio of Phil Dick (I Am Alive and You Are Dead)? That was pretty good. And in other book news, I just finished the third book in the Baroque Cycle by stephenson. I tell you, I don't understand why you don't read them. It defines retirement!