August 25, 2023

When I was younger and going through some particularly unhappy break-up or other, I’d relieve my tumultuous feelings by rewatching The World At War on telly. Sometimes it feels good to have confirmation that things really are as bad as they seem. Michel Houellebecq’s breakthrough novel Atomised, published 25 years ago this week, has provided a similarly cathartic service for a generation of disaffected men.

Originally entitled Les Particules Élementaires, the book’s first appearance sent the French literary scene into a frenzy; selling thousands of copies, sparking many an op-ed, and causing the owner of a literary prize awarded to the book to withdraw his patronage. International publishers scented a transferable succès de scandale. The designer of the UK translation put a skeletal nymphet on the cover, insolently facing the camera dressed only in her knickers.

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The implication to the reader was that he was purchasing a combination of hot sex and cool Gallic hipsterism in literary form. No greater joke has ever been played on the British novel-buying male. In fact, Atomised presents a sexual wasteland full of neurotics, narcissists, and malformed losers. And, much like its anorak-wearing author, no character in the book possesses any cool whatsoever.

Atomised is the story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno. Michel is a robotic rationalist, constitutionally unable to form meaningful human relationships. In his professional life as a biologist, he searches for a way to eliminate the mess of concupiscence from the human condition. Bruno, on the other hand, is a monomaniacal sexual obsessive, restlessly questing through brothels, orgies and naturist colonies for a degree of satiation he never finds.

For Bruno, there are only two kinds of women: the enticing unavailable ones that make him feel inadequate and tormented; or the ones he can have, that make him feel bored and detached. For both brothers, moments of tender love and compassion from women are fleeting, and each is psychologically unfit to receive them. The immediate cause of all this is their monstrous hippy mother who — “believing that maternity was something every woman should experience” — decides to keep the accidental human by-products of her trysts, but leaves the nurture of them to inadequate others. The distal cause, meanwhile, is the fall of Western civilisation.

The book is replete with failed parenting relationships, failed marriages and failed erections. Humans are animals upon whom nature has played a cruel trick, bestowing them with socially malleable cravings that endlessly distress them and which capitalism exploits. Suffering is everywhere and, in the absence of the Judeo-Christian framework, has no meaning. Death is feared pathologically. Sexual promiscuity is the only permissible way left for males to engage in competition with peers, but the prizes are ultimately terrible. Pneumatic young women gain tenuous social capital from acting like sex objects. Ageing female bodies literally have no point anymore, and their owners know it.

Since the book’s publication in 1998, patterns of critical evaluation have had plenty of time to settle. And many of these have tended to treat it, along with the wider oeuvre within which it sits, as containing a serious political message, or as otherwise having something to teach readers.

Understandably, conservative and “post-liberal” thinkers often relate enthusiastically to the Houellebecquian universe as one that tests post-1968 liberal values to complete destruction. In this reading, Houellebecq is primarily demonstrating the awful downsides of the intrusion of the capitalist market into the realm of sexual reproduction. It’s certainly true that some passages — describing the advent of abortion and the pill, the rise of individualism, and the collapse of the family against the predations of the market — might have come straight from the pen of a post-liberal polemicist (at least, if he was a bit drunk).

But still, Houellebecq is not proselytising for a return to the values of the past. He doesn’t want us to go back to some prelapsarian age — partly because he thinks it is too late anyway, but also because it all sounds absolutely terrible. In Atomised, he lampoons the alternative:

“You are at one with nature, have plenty of fresh air and a couple of fields to plough (the number and size of which are strictly fixed by hereditary principle). Now and then you kill a boar; you fuck occasionally, mostly with your wife, whose role is to give birth to children; said children grow up to take their place in the same ecosystem. Eventually, you catch something serious and you’re history.”

The extent to which Houellebecq is personally invested in the hyper-liberalised society he describes in his novels was illustrated recently by the revelation that he inadvertently participated in a Dutch porn film (his stated excuse being that he was “depressed at the time of signing the agreement and had drunk several glasses of wine”). This version of Houellebecq is no austere conservative reactionary, but rather a sad-eyed, impulse-driven Mr Bean figure — drunkenly importuning female interviewers, making extravagant public shrines to his dead corgi, and starring as himself in a comic film about his own fictional kidnap. Liberalism, like love, makes fools of us all eventually.

Even so, there is clearly something right about the conservative critical approach. Progressive responses to Houellebecq are much less convincing. The most predictable of these would diminish the work simply on the grounds that it doesn’t sufficiently distance itself from the misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia it often represents. On this view, the reader can still perhaps learn something from Atomised, but only as a cautionary tale — showing us the origins and outlook of the much-reviled incel mindset, for instance. In the same vein we are told that Houellebecq’s subsequent works act as prophylactics against Right-populism and Islamophobia, since they understand these things from the inside, and are thus useful to the Left-liberal who wishes to know how his enemy thinks.

Atomised is indeed often misogynistic, though much of the time it seems to stem from a more general misanthropy than from any specially targeted animus against women. In any case, with a mother as poisonous as Houellebecq’s — on whom the character in Atomised is loosely based — surely the man should be let off the hook a bit. In 2008, aged 83, she gave a gloriously disinhibited interview describing her son as an “evil, stupid little bastard”, “a liar, an imposter, a parasite” and “a petit arriviste ready to do absolutely anything for money and fame”. (She also offered future biographers an epigraph laconically summing up Houellebecq’s output as a whole: “What’s all this stuff about an old chemist who wonders if his secretary is having a wank?”)

A more charitable — in fact, quite hilariously optimistic — approach, also coming from progressive critics has been to try and recuperate Houellebecq as a previously unrecognised ally to Left-liberal causes. For instance, it has been speculated that he is actually offering a useful critique of hegemonic masculinity or even “queering” heterosexuality outright. Touching as it is to see the keenness of the academic to reconcile the demands of his two perennial masters — a love of edgy transgression, and the desire to write only what a Guardian reader might approve of — this strategy is doomed. The same writer who describes a commune dedicated to personal development as full of “deranged old lefties who were probably all HIV positive” is no secret friend of Judith Butler.

There are always things to learn from as multifaceted a novelist as this, whether or not he intends to teach you anything. Still, I prefer to treat a book like Atomised, not (only) as a rich seam of information to be mined about the zeitgeist, but more as an enveloping mood. And Christ, that mood is bleak.

Houellebecq invites you to wallow in despair at the state of society; to sink to the depths with no hope of air. He is in the tradition of great pessimistic writers: Beckett, Baudelaire, Sartre. He may have a diagnosis for social malaise but there is no hint of a cure here. All you can do is face the darkness, laugh occasionally at the absurdity of it all, and distract yourself by having appalling sex with people who vaguely revolt you.

Some censorious types worry that incels might be reading Houellebecq, but I tend to think he is exactly who incels should be reading. For when you suspect that your life is sapped of all prospects of success, sexual or otherwise, it can be reassuring to read a book that confirms your experience. As Schopenhauer — another pessimist with a terrible relationship with his mother, and a stated inspiration for Houellebecq — once wrote: “Life is a business which does not cover the costs.” For those men who have found that the sexual revolution did not cover their costs, reading Atomised must come as a relatively harmless salve to the anguished mind.

The term “hopeless” covers two possible emotional states: one where specific hopes suddenly die, to your great disappointment, or one where you haven’t experienced anything as proactive as hope for a long time. The first involves mental turmoil; the second can feel grimly peaceful and reassuring. As another great philosopher, Michael Frayn, makes his headmaster character say in the film Clockwise: “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” Pessimist writers such as Houellebecq can take us to this second place. Depending on how churned up you originally felt, the trip can sometimes feel like a holiday.

But there’s another more positive function that pessimistic writing also serves. In ordinary life, it’s easy to confuse a temporary mood with a fact about the world, and vice versa. Feelings of hopelessness tend to settle like dust on social landscapes, seeming as if they have always lived there, and infusing present and future with heaviness and gloom. Trying to avoid this impression by denying it or distracting oneself doesn’t necessarily make it go away.

There’s a lot of doomsaying in the air at the moment, and it seems to be catching. But sometimes, with despair, you have to go down to come up. Sometimes, as if in a Buddhist death meditation, you have to imaginatively inhabit your miserable vision to its utmost, without deviation. For me, this is primarily what Atomised does. It confronts you with the purest synthesis of a despairing take on liberal society, and make you live there for a while, drinking it in. And after a while, the feelings of despair start to lose their power, and you start to realise that hopelessness is only a mood after all. It’s not the world — it’s you.