Atomised – Michel Houellebecq

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?

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He Who Leaves No Trace – Mikhail Yemtsev & Yeremey Parnov

“He Who Leaves No Trace” (novelette) by Mikhail Yemtsev & Yeremey Parnov

English Publication History: Russian Science Fiction 1968 (New York University press, 1968), The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970)

Original: Russian (Не оставляющий следа), 1962

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1963

Synopsis: Nibon and Andrey visit the bucolic planet of Green Pass so that they can pass time with its only resident, the widower and eccentric scientist George Korin. Calmed by the pastoral setting, they are caught unawares by the odd behavior of their colleague Korin: seemingly jumping through windows, running over grass untouched, and disappearing from a locked room. When Korin undergoes parthenogenesis, his ether-like selves engage in sport and combat. Things only become stranger as these blobs begin to coalesce and the violence increases.

Analysis: A common proverb: “Familiarity breeds contempt”—the more you know about something, the more you grow to dislike it. This goes for subjects as well as people. But this is a funny proverb as the wording has a pun of sorts. Familiarity requires a relationship of two parties: a subject and an observer. Conjugally, the two produce a frisson of contempt on part of the observer. If we change familiarity to isolationism, how would we change the transitive verb to reflect the new “relationship”:

  • Isolation parthenogenesizes eccentricity?
  • Isolation sporogenesizes eccentricity?
  • Isolation clonally fragments eccentricity?

You get the idea. People who willingly isolate themselves from all others have the tendency to develop quirks, but let’s be honest and just say they loosen and lose a few screws along the way, thereby rendering them as rickety as a turn-of-the-century circus ride. Isolated, they lose that tacit understanding of what is and what is not acceptable behavior or mannerisms. They become lost in labyrinth of themselves, deduce truth from their own warped logic, and create idiosyncratic rituals—read: they’re nuts.

George Korin, in the story, is an eccentric man living alone on a planet without observation. He has lost the ability to understand where dangers lie. No one tells him that his research is dangerous, no one is there to clean up his mess, and everyone could be put in peril because of his heedless acts of research through isolation. Without supervision from above—from a governing body such as the ethics of science or arm of a government ministry—George plunges headlong into unfamiliar and dangerous territory.

If this can be true for the individual, the same could also be said for governments, especially communist governments: Albania from 1944 to 1990, China from 1949 to the 1970s, North Korea since 1953, and, of course, the Soviet Union. I don’t think “eccentric” exactly encapsulates the result of their isolation: distrust transforms into xenophobia, non-intervention alters into non-alliance, and self-preservation becomes rigamortis.

But this whole “isolation parthenogenesizes eccentricity” can come full circle back to “familiarity breeds contempt”. Once the country is shutoff from other nations—in the USSR’s case, from the Iron Curtain—society becomes a closed system that stagnates and ferments, the building heat and pressure needing release: revolution.

In George’s case, the isolation and familiarity both rear their heads resulting in a cataclysmic battle, kind of like of civil war but actually a war amongst his cloned/ parthenogenesized/sporogenesized selves. Amid George’s unintentional self-induced war, the outsiders—Nibon and Andrey—are able to infiltrate the fragile state of George’s isolation and witness the results of his research and the results of the battle. George, however, is still able to learn from his failure for the benefit of all as he decides to open his borders and share his knowledge.

Review: This story very much unfolds like a juvenile novelette. It’s piece-by-piece full of oddity and whim, none of which actually intrigues a more mature reader. One bizarre event follows another bizarre event and so forth; in the end, some sense is made of the long 45-page mess but it tries too hard with pseudo-scientific jargon. Needless to say, it’s the weakest of the thirteen-story collection, but, adding insult to injury, it’s also the longest story. As it’s slapped like a brick onto the end of collection, its simple addition significantly detracts from its twelve predecessors.

Preliminary Research – Ilya Varshavsky

varsh   apr1

“Preliminary Research” (short story) by Ilya Varshavsky

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970)

Original: Russian (Предварительные изыскания), 1965

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1970

Synopsis: Enticed by a lucrative job offer, Dr. Rong leaves his biochemistry research position. For something entirely vague, he’ll earn three times his normal salary simply by thinking creatively by whatever means possible. His supervisor—Mr. Latianic—says he’s allowed to imbibe in alcohol or drugs such as heroin—like his female colleague Noda Storn—as long as he offers up creative scientific ideas. Prosperous ides begin to form in his head and the computer accepts each absurd one, but for what nefarious reason would this kind of program exist? 

Analysis: Function, beauty, and originality rarely converge. Take a sphere: it’s quite beautiful yet hardly original, nor is it exactly a useful form—like a panda. Next, take the first bicycle: it’s ugly and not terribly useful, but you have to admit it was original—like a platypus. Lastly, take a rubber band: it’s super useful but there are many like it in exactly the same shape—like an ant.

The field of science is where the three do tend to converge, however; to name a few: buckminsterfullerene, supernovae, and the human eye. Regardless of the rare trifecta of design, the field of science also leans towards functionality rather than design; therefore, a scientist’s logic is held in much higher regard than their aesthetic balance or overall originality. If either of the latter follow suit, it’d merely be a consequential bonus.

Q: Take the logic out of scientists and what would you have left?

A: Idling minds bent on finding order where none is to be found.

As Dr. Rong idles without his demanding work, his mind begins to stray with such thoughts as, “[P]erhaps all this abracadabra [of cabalistic symbols in White and black Magic] was only a coded expression of certain logical concepts” (191), a thought of which the computer quickly gobbled up. Another from his heroin-addicted colleague: “[I]f blood contained chlorophyll in addition to hemoglobin, then, given a transparent skin, metabolism within the organism could take place in a closed cycle” (195), another idea of which the computer consumed greedily.

Who could possibly want to harvest such modes of thought? What wicked motivation could they be following? The answer is closer to your nose than it may seem.

Review: What begins as a mystery and a bit of a thriller turns, abruptly, at the end into a much more whimsical story, an ending of which would better match a 4- or 5-page short, short story rather than the 18-page length here. It cleverly takes you along page for page, leaving morsels of hints for you to follow, teasing and enticing you, only to have it remove its glove and slap you in the face, thus provoking a profound “aha!” It’s clever and fun with a unique ending that’ll get the best of you, leaving a smile on your face while nodding your head in satisfaction. Akin to R.A. Lafferty; not very Soviet at all!

“‘We Played Under Your Window’” – Vladimir Shcherbakov

ginsburg   apr1

“‘We Played Under Your Window’” (short story) by Vladimir Shcherbakov

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970)

Original: Russian (Мы играли под твоим окном …), 1966

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1966

Synopsis: Prior to Sergey’s twenty-year-long trip out of the solar system to investigate stellar fields, his wife left with their son. The only thing he really wanted upon his return was to see his son, but time has been unkind to the hero and he knows not of their whereabouts. Now, having returned, Sergey goes back to his neighborhood with fond memories of the children, whom he used to spoil, much to the annoyance of his neighbors. Two things surprise him: one old neighborhood child meets him at him home, and a cosmodrome representative informs him that they have no record of his landing.

Analysis: Sergey had just realized his life-long destiny of touring a star; this is regardless of the fact that his wife had left him with their son. Upon completion of his mission and his subsequent return to earth, Sergey is filled with pride yet only borders on the enlightenment of self-actualization (as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). With his wife and only child missing, he only needs the bolster of respect to support him in his own self-actualization; meanwhile, he can stand proud of achievements.

Much like in the workplace where respect can be garnered from three directions—below: subordinates; on-level: peers; and above: superiors—Sergey finds himself in an awkward position upon his return to earth. He holds fond his memories of having treated the neighborhood’s children well and, in return, they reflect their attention to him as he returns, albeit older; thus, he has won respect from the younger generation (akin to subordinates). As for his peers, he’s widely known to be the foremost explorer of the State as his accomplishments are unsurpassed; thus, his admiration and/or respect from peers is so high that it’s at a tacit level. From his superiors, however, respect is, upon his return, withheld due to his incredulous story.

Even after returned from a solo mission to and from the stars, his superiors don’t even grant him the respect he deserves; that small division between respect-giving and respect-withheld is the gossamer-thin fact that his return was never documented. He left, did his duty, and returned as an aged man, yet his superiors refuse to believe, against all other indicators, that he completed his State-given mission. The children, on the other hand, openly receive the once warm man even though they, too, have no tangible evidence of his mission: to treat his subordinates (read: the younger generation) with respect.

Thus, Sergey will be held in limbo between the levels of Esteem and Self-actualization merely because of tangible proof, a facet of modern so-called logic that is intangible according to the minds of the very people who consider the “proof” as valid.

High-level organizational chivalry is dead; long live the warm pleasures of proof.

Review: The analysis of the story is much more involved than the actual delivery of the story, a warning label of which I should fix upon most of my short story analyses. In essence, Sergey remembers his return to the village but not the actual landing, an event that mystifies him and the scientists in the field. The actual cause of the discretion is predictable. Thereafter, another predictable element comes into play that further dilutes the story.

‘One Less’ – Igor Rosokhovatsky

ginsburg   apr1

“’One Less’” (short story) by Igor Rosokhovatsky

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970)

Original: Russian (“Одним меньше”), 1966

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1966

Synopsis: One nameless man careens through the city in his truck with disregard for safety as he’s more focused on his cigarette. Another man—named Victor Nikolayevich—is lost in thought as he dodders on the sidewalks of the same city mulling the mystery of the brain’s “group K”, which allows humans to display untapped powers of strength and self-healing by will alone; with his thoughts cascading, he abruptly finds the answer, just abruptly as his collision with the first man. A third man—a nameless witness—views the aftermath and plods away.

Analysis: Strangers are other people. They are formless shapes devoid of personality, character, and mannerisms. We have the tendency to depersonalize them as if they were shaped from a common mold, like one of the six million rivets that make up the Sydney Harbour Bridge—lose one and the structure still stands. The loss of that one rivet, however, creates further stress for the rest of the rivets, which could have a chain effect if more were removed.

Apply this back to the rivets of society we call strangers. Generally, all rivets have the same features: a head, a body, and a tail. Not all rivets, however, have the same dimensions—some are big, some are small. But when glancing at a rivet for the first time, perspective can diminish a rivet’s dimensions yet still keep its proportions; a small rivet could look just that, but a big, load-bearing rivet could look the same—if you shrug at the importance of the latter and you happen to lose or remove it… you had better be prepared for the consequences be they near or far.

In the story, the driver and the witness are of those people who see all rivets as one-in-six-million—a numerical inconsequence. Little did either of them realize, the one rivet that they would both cross paths with—Victor—could have relived them from what ailed them. Unbeknownst to them, the most central rivet just collapsed before their eyes and they didn’t even bat an eyelash. How could they have, though? Victor was just another one of the six million, an inconsequence, a numerical insignificance… there is very little significance in the number of one among the millions.

Review: Another tight, little story that ends as abruptly as it had begun. The five pages of the story coarsely weave in the first two threads: the driver of the truck and the scientist, who are destined to meet, as the reader can clearly predict. But toward the end, the third man—the witness—twists the perspective of the story ever so little, yet the torque is just enough to offset the predictability. The resulting effect completes the vision the author had intended and leaves the reader with a sense of guilt, almost.

When You Return – Igor Rosokhovatsky

ginsburg   apr1

“When You Return” (short story) by Igor Rosokhovatsky

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970)

Original: Russian (Каким ты вернёшься?), 1966

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1967

Synopsis: Out of the blue, little Vita is helped by the avuncular figure of a man—Valery Pavlovich. The man says he’s on vacation and would like to take the girl to Prague. Visiting her mother, Valery declines food while Ksana eyes the man with familiarity—has she seen him in a painting with her husband prior to being widowed? It soon becomes clear that Valery is actually a synhom (synthehomo) who can fly with its own jets and read other’s minds. His history, however, is not so superhuman—he only wants the most human of things.

Analysis: In a capitalist society, as opposed to a communist one, subjective and intangible gulfs separate us all, be it gender, age, class, or occupation. We don’t dig them chasms by ourselves, rather, our society deems these classifications—among others—important, so we situate ourselves where we are and see other as who they are not: us. It’s this mindset that acts on a variety of levels itself: passively (I am me and you are you and that’s OK) and actively (I am me who is better than you and that’s a fact). Regardless, the gulf exists; sometimes it’s a calm channel of acceptance and other times it’s the turbulent ocean of racism, sexism, etc.

Let’s say that the modern era of communism actually achieved equality for all genders, ages, classes, and occupation—they are created equally and live as equals. What would be the next step of possible discrimination? The answer: perhaps those who are actually created unequally, such as Valery Pavlovich.

Aside from the young girl’s perspective through her innocent eyes, Pavlovich’s welcoming into Vita’s home is tepid at best. Her mother remains steeled against whatever the man-cum-machine has to say. Behind his back, Vita’s grandmother is even harsher against his nature, thereby supplying the read with three generations of perspective: the young and open innocent child, the steeled and experienced mother, and the wizened yet discriminate grandmother.

Their discrimination rests only in the fact that he is not equal to themselves: he can fly and he can read minds. Regardless of his given talents, however superior, the mother and godmother initially refuse to accept the walking and talking person as just that—as person. Only when the truth is revealed does one of them take an about-face becoming so readily to accept what she had once shunned.

Review: At first, this story is a little creepy: A young girl takes an older man’s kindness in hand then takes him to her family’s home. He tells her that he wishes to fly her to Europe so that they could visit a toy factory together, Compound this with the fact that the man—nay, a synthetic human—can fly on his own means, and this story has a dull, creepy feeling to it. When it becomes certain that the man’s feelings for the girl are actually more paternal than predatory, the story takes on an emotional aura that carries on through the end. There are a few heart-strings to tug, for sure, but it’s a nice story.