Atomised (novel) by Michel Houellebecq
English Publication History: Atomised (UK), The Elementary Particles (US)
Original: French (Les particules élémentaires), 1998
Translated by Frank Wynne, 2000
Background: Some books I read for pleasure: I finger and flip through the pages while enjoying the unfolding story with its characters, plots, and subtleties. I used to take notes when reading for pleasure, but I found that it actually got in the way of the pleasure. In contrast, I read some books for analysis; oddly, these books which I analyze in different ways tend to benefit me more (akin to pleasure?) than the books I simply read for pleasure. It’s a curious juxtaposition. Analysis takes much more time than a pleasurable read-through; however, I squeeze that time for all it’s worth when analyzing it. This is a fact that I have just become aware of while reading Houellebecq’s Atomised (this is the UK-published title; the US-published title is The Elementary Particles, which is closer to the original French title Les Particules élémentaires).
I can’t recall the reason I bought the book. Perhaps it was SF-esque and French? Regardless, I bought the novel along with its reputation; that reputation is, of course, sex and sexuality (let’s be clear that there is a difference here). Speaking of sex, in the literary sense, I’ve read Charles Bukowski and John Updike; in the genre of science fiction, I’ve also read Peter F. Hamilton and Robert Silverberg. The only author to get under my skin was the latter—Silverberg—with his persistent sex upon the pages, sometimes it was as coarsely penetrated in the book to interest the reader as the actual sex itself. Case in point: Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971). I can’t find anything redeeming about this novel. It’s poorly framed amid its of-the-age stereotypes of sexual freedom, urban living, and urban angst. Throw in copious amounts of “hot slots” (nudge-nudge, wink-wink of eighth-grade maturity) and you’ve got a complete pile of rubbish.
In contrast, there’s Houellebecq’s Atomised. But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.
Synopsis: Bruno and Michel share the same mother. They lived apart most of their lives and only began to know each other when they unknowingly attended the same school. Bruno lived with his mother who casually neglected him emotionally yet overfed him with food. Michel, meanwhile, lived with his grandmother who cared greatly for him; however, the love wasn’t outwardly reciprocated as Michel preferred his inward life of study and reflection.
Their respective experience with emotional attachment soon sets their love life: Bruno faces his budding sexuality with emotionlessness and crassness whereas Michel seems impervious to any female attention, even from the most beautiful girl at school. Sexuality, for Michel, is an inconvenient passage before death.
When they grow older into the years of university and beyond, their emotional state carries them their separate ways. Bruno continues his debauchery whenever he can but it’s most confined to masturbation and flashing. In contrast to Bruno is his half-brother Michel, who is more introverted and interested in the fields of science rather than the fields of flesh.
In their later years, Bruno is unhappy with his blasé life and wishes to rekindle his sexuality as a New Age group, but everyone is either too young (not for him, but he’s too old for them), too old (time does strange things to the human body), or too batty (time, again, does strange things). But he does find Christiane who is initially just a fling, but as life moves forward, they both realize that at 40, there’s little hope of ever making a meaning relationship ever again; thus, they seem each other in order to seek happiness. However, debauchery still follows him and it turns his happiness into misery as misfortune strikes the couple’s happiness. There can only be one ending for such misery.
Michel experiences a revival of interest, too, as he sees himself at forty without a soul to care about him aside from his brother and his boss at the research institute. When he comes across Annabelle—the same girl who loved him with reciprocation—he begins to see his own faults; thus, they pursue something like a relationship. Their misery doesn’t come externally as Bruno’s had, but something internal causes a fault in their unstable unhappiness. Bruno is, again, the victim of the circumstances he created, but his spirit lives on through one endeavor: science. He has the knowledge, skills, and the right job, now all he needs is time so that he can make the world a better place… literally.
Analysis: Even though Houellebecq’s Atomised actually contains even more sex than any other novel I’ve read, it also details copulation and has more deviation from the norm, but it’s framed in a way that leads credibility to the story… frame and credibility don’t make the debauchery any more readable, but it does grant the novel a bit more respect. It’s difficult to take the book seriously, however, with its copious amounts of sexual words amid its 379 pages. Wouldn’t be handy to have a list? I made one (all numbers are estimations):
1. Male genitalia: 112 times
One perspective into the sexual revolution is through the brother Bruno. Naturally, his perspective would likely include his male identity and the most significant part of his sexuality: his penis. This category includes cock (34), penis (33), hard-on (10), prick (8), dick (8), glans (5), erection (5), genitals (3), knob (2), balls (2), erect (2), phallus (1), and dong (1).
2. Coitus: 70 times
This is as central to the human experience as, well, talking. We’re social animals so need to talk and have human contact. Some of this contact progress to the stage of procreation, which is what humans also need to do: make more humans. Though Bruno isn’t keen on kids, this doesn’t hamper him from pursuing the act. This category includes sex (29), fuck (22), make love (6), orgy (6), gang bang (3), sleep with (1), get laid (1), copulate (1), and intercourse (1).
3. Mammary glands: 62 times
Again, from Bruno’s sexual perspective, a woman’s breasts are the most easily identifiable characteristic of the female body. The come in all shapes and size so they naturally fascinate him as an adolescent and as an adult. This category includes breast (45), tit (18), and nipple (3).
4. Sexual: 62 times
As this novel spans the time of the sexual revolution and its wider effects on Western civilization, it was bound to be included heavily. I don’t find this word as connotative to the act of sex as much as to a form of identity. We have victual needs and respiratory needs just as we have sexual needs. This category includes sexual (60) and sexuality (2).
5. Female genitalia: 50 times
With Bruno’s wide eyes, the breasts are the most visible part of the female sexual body. But the mystery since his youth was what lay beneath it all. This adolescent obsession planted a seed deep inside him that started to sprout in his teens and began a weedy infestation in his later years. This category includes vagina (11), pussy (11), cunt (8), clitoris (8), vulva (4), labia (5), mons (1), crotch (1), and genitalia (1).
6. The valve of release: 45 times
Perhaps because of his precociousness as a child in regards to sexuality, the long-term effect would be his near-constant state of arousal. To alleviate this awkward state when no other means of satisfaction is around, he resorts to himself. This category includes masturbate (23), jerk (10), wank (10), and jack (2).
7. Climax: 44 times
Bruno may not be a connoisseur or fine wines, cigars, or even women, but he knows he does enjoy one thing in life: the climax. It’s not only that instant feeling of release, but sometimes the result of the release that can entertain. This category includes come (25), ejaculate (8), orgasm (6), sperm (2), and spunk (1).
8. Sexual acts upon the man: 33 times
Another very human part of us is the ego. It’s common to say that power corrupts, but at that seat of power if the ego. This affects Bruno, too. When he’s made to be the center of sexual attentions, he’s not only satisfied sexual, but his ego is also stroked. This category includes blow (11), suck (10), jerk (6), fellate (4), hand-job (2).
9. The butt: 18 times
Like the visible protrusions of the mammary glands, the butt, too, is a bodily mound that easily draw’s the attentions—his eyes and his hands—of Bruno. Is this a result of having been separated from his mother when he was young, ever wanting to the attention from the fleshly mound (the breast) or its textual companion (the butt)? This category includes arse (12) and buttocks (6).
The novel moves between the two stories of Bruno and Michel, occasionally interweaving as the brothers meet and talk. It usually reads from the perspective of the respective brother, but there are indications that this isn’t the case. There’s history laid along the narratives, the history which a casual first-person perspective wouldn’t carry as it’s hardly worth mentioning, so the narratives begin to evolve into limited third-person perspective, I think.
It’s easy to contrast Bruno and Michel in all ways, but I think the most pivotal of them is their respective motivation and manifestation. Bruno is compelled to live his lecherous life from outward sources of motivation: to copulate, to penetrate, to cunnilingue, to ejaculate, etc. The only manifestation of these acts is internal for him as it appeases his ego or libido, or something his ego-libido. Michel is reflective by nature, so his motivations are to learn and to study everything in his field, of result of which is to affect outwardly to humans and their shared future.
Though they were both products of the same time, their forms were cast differently under moulds. The results are high-brow with Michel yet low-brow with Bruno. As for the signs of the times and the path of their respective lives, Michel almost seems immobile, stationary, solid against he flow of time and its social effects on Western civilization; for him, the progress of science and those small revolutions are the impetus for him to continue to study and make his own big revolution. Though he went through life barely noticed from those without, he was unique from within.
Then there’s Bruno:
Was it possible to think of Bruno as an individual? The decay of his organs was particular to him, and he would suffer his decline and death as an individual. On the other hand, his hedonistic worldview and the forces that shaped his consciousness and desires were common to an entire generation. Just as determining the apparatus for an experiment and choosing a method of observation made it possible to assign a specific behavior to an atomic system — now particle, now wave — so could Bruno be seen as an individual or as passively caught up in the sweep of history. His motives, values and desires did not distinguish him from his contemporaries in any way. (212)
How is this science fiction? Well, the novel is concluded with a framing device that it is science fictional. This frame is expected from the reader, so the application of the frame twists the reader’s perspective on the preceding story.
Review: Well, it’s very heavy on sex. It’d be a difficult book to read for enjoyment as the first 280 pages or so are full of lustful lulls and climatic peaks in Bruno’s life. It’s definitely distracting regardless of whether you’re reading this piece of literature for pleasure or for analysis. Also interspersed through the book, though to a more palatable degree than the sex, is Michel’s scientific meanderings, some of which are within grasp of the reader while some are too distant. The conclusion offers a satisfying frame for the novel and almost 100% legitimizes the use of such copious sex… keyword: almost. It could have been halved and it still would have been too much. Perhaps this is caused by too much of Houellebecq’s self-interest interrupting the novel’s story?