Michel Houellebecq is one of those authors who inspire hugely conflicting reactions. Some hail him as a literary giant in the European tradition, deftly weaving philosophy, history, and science into his bleak, challenging narratives, asking those questions that other more commercially-minded authors shy away from.
Others think him hollow, pretentious, showily didactic and deeply disturbed – not to mention highly overrated.
And controversial. Very controversial. In 2001, he gave an interview to the French literary magazine, Lire, in which he said “Islam is a dangerous religion, as has been since its beginnings […] I totally reject all monotheistic religions.” In September 2002 he appeared before a tribunal in Paris on charges of inciting religious hatred, and was asked to explain himself. “All I said is that their religion is stupid,” he said in his defence. “And that’s what you call promoting a book?” said the president of the tribunal. “Yes, that’s right,” answered Houellebecq, with his customary insouciance.
Atomised (published in the US as The Elementary Particles) is the story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno (Houellebecq denies that his namesake is based on himself, but the parallels are striking). Sharing the same mother, they have both been abandoned by different fathers and brought up by relatives. Michel is a scientific researcher at the CNRS in Paris, a cold, unsympathetic and unhappy character. Bruno is equally unappealing, a misfit former teacher and part-time writer, divorced and sex-obsessed.
Houellebecq has a rather disquieting habit of including large chunks of economic and social history as we plough through the decades of their childhood: the événements of 1968, the legalisation of abortion, the succès de scandale in the 70s of the film Emmanuelle and so on.
But he doesn’t stop there: we are also treated to long disquisitions on science and philosophy, not to mention particle physics and DNA. Many chapters begin with long – and sometimes mystifyingly irrelevant – quotes.
Houellebecq is undoubtedly very widely read. The trouble is, he wants us to know that he is. In an effort to demonstrate just what a polymath he is, he crosses the line into what the French call étalage– literally, a spreading out of one’s wares; figuratively, just plain showing off. And he sometimes resorts to some very clumsy mechanisms to show the extent of his knowledge: at one point, Michel and Bruno have an in-depth conversation about Aldous Huxley, displaying a highly unlikely command of historical and biographical details.
Perhaps it’s a sign of insecurity. Maybe he has more in common with his namesake than he would admit. The result of the name- and fact-dropping is a patchy story, where the narrative flow is repeatedly interrupted.
The early part of the book follows the boys through their deeply unhappy childhood. These are unexceptional, rather dull and very mundane lives, and the characters fail to engage any real emotion on the reader’s part. The book swings wildly from lofty philosophical thoughts to very basic instincts.
Later, large tracts of the book are taken up with Bruno’s sexual adventures. At a holiday camp – one of whose main activities seems to be cruising for casual sex – he encounters Christiane, a libertine who introduces him to the joys of the orgy circuit. And this points up a key distinction between the uptight Anglo-Saxon and relaxed French views towards sex (at the last count, there were over 400 sex clubs in France, catering for both échangistes – wife swappers – and the more adventurous mélangistes – orgy-goers).
Sex sells, of course, which is why the UK version of Atomised features a naked woman on the cover, together with the promise from The Independent that it is “very moving, gloriously, extravagantly filthy, and very funny.”
Tellingly, the French edition features a sepia photograph of a bored-looking Houellebecq smoking a roll-up held between his third an fourth fingers (a trademark eccentricity) and a carrier bag draped over his left arm.
In the end, though, the book fails to weave a compelling story. There are too many undigested chunks of science and politics, too many swerves from highbrow philosophy to lowbrow oral sex. And far too much étalage.
But perhaps one of the most unnerving things about Houellebecq’s books is his propensity to kill off his female characters. And Atomised has a high body count: the brothers’ mother (of natural causes), and both their girlfriends (suicides). Which has, inevitably, led to accusations of misogyny – to add to the anti-Muslim, anti-Semite and anti-black charges that Houellebecq has clocked up during his turbulent career.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Houellebecq has chosen to retreat to an island off the coast of West Cork, from which he rarely emerges. He did venture forth to Dublin earlier this year, when Atomised won the Impac Literary Prize, the latest in a string of awards he’s bagged. And to Paris, to run rings round the tribunal.
But then he’s very good a running rings round people. Perhaps too good.