Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Veggie Books: Atomised

Shall we do a veggie book? Yeah, let's go for it.

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq is a very French novel. Is there such a thing as a French novel? I'm thinking there is, but my description might differ from yours. I find a lot of French novels to be clinical. There's something cold and objectifying about the gaze of a French novel. Camus and Sartre and Houellebecq make me feel detached as their characters commit suicide, fall passionately in love, or murder a few family members.

So in Atomised, half-brothers Michel and Bruno share a severely selfish mother. They grow up to be very different people, but neither of them can achieve any level of intimacy. Michel shuns human contact. He becomes a molecular biologist and an idealist. Bruno becomes a sex pest. Or he would be, given the chance, but he never quite seems to get his way.

Both Michel and Bruno have had horrible childhoods. For instance, Bruno is raised mainly by his grandmother, who feeds him up constantly, turning him into a 'fat, fearful child':

One morning in March 1967, while she was making deep-fried courgettes, the old woman knocked over a pan of boiling oil. She managed to drag herself into the hallway where her screams alerted the neighbours. When Bruno came home from school, Madame Haouzi, who lived upstairs, met him at the door. She took him to the hospital where he was allowed to see his grandmother for a few minutes. Her burns were hidden beneath the sheets. She had been given a great deal of morphine, but she recognised Bruno and took his hand in hers. Some minutes later the child was led away. Her heart gave out later that night.

For the second time, Bruno found himself face to face with death, and for a second time, he failed to grasp its significance. Years later, when he was praised for a composition or a history essay, his first thought was to tell his grandmother.

Later, Bruno finds a free-love campsite and desperately tries to get laid by attending massage groups and creative writing workshops with lots of naked women, who steer clear of him. I couldn't help but think that an English novelist would have to work really hard not to turn Bruno into a Benny Hill clone at this point, whereas Houellebecq manages to avoid it. Sex (or lack of it) is described in such stark, biological terms that Bruno's need comes across as real. This is the form of human contact he wants, possibly the only one he can deal with. He needs sex and he's not getting it. It's funny, at times, but it's not derisory.

I enjoyed the read, and the overtly philosophical questions is raises about how self-obsession infects the world, making us all flawed - how can we be fixed? Michel, the molecular biologist, can answer that question in the astonishing final pages. If you're feeling clever and alienated right now, Atomised is your book.


Tim Stretton said...

Clever as well as alienated? May be too much of a stretch for me!

Aliya Whiteley said...

Leave it for when you're feeling Gallic, Tim. Or watch the film. Lots of people have recommended the film to me.