Notes Reading Notes


By Michel Houellebecq, 1998

Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

On the surface, this is a novel about the breakdown of group ties in modern society—atomisation and anomie. The unifying theme is that sexual competition leads to human misery and loneliness. Sex and death. The vast, sweeping scope of the novel towards a vision of post-humanism and immortality is really a bookend structure, outlined in the prologue and epilogue.

Everything else is a chronicle of the bored and frustrated existence of two brothers, Michel and Bruno, whose experience of existence in the late 20th century is used by Houellebecq to form a larger critique of society. Houellebecq’s first novel Whatever was a confessional type journey into the bleak psychology of an individual akin to Notes from Underground. This, his second novel, takes the lives of these individuals and uses them to represent the whole of Western Society. Houellebecq lets his characters bob like jellyfish floating in the flotsam and jetsam of late 20th century social trends, then performs a bleak examination of their reality, looking for the possibility of free will. Comte, the founder of sociology, who argued that society was a real object but the individual was a fiction is referenced multiple times. So is Aldous Huxley, who, the characters argue, in Brave New World was the first to understand that society is driven by biology not just physics.

The novel is famous for being a bleak, pessimistic takedown of Western society, but it’s difficult not to notice a kind of weird, satirical delight in the bleakness. Despite the completeness of despair, loneliness and general failure of humanity outlined here, looking at it as pessimism presupposes taking Houellebecq wholly seriously.

Although he’s known for his factual deadpan scientism and characters who deliver infodumping rants that tell rather than show, Houellebecq’s style works really well when it finds a balance between misanthropy and hopefulness, with the narrative flow of hilarious situations and perspectives interspersed with powerful denunciations of society. It doesn’t work so well when he’s quite obviously lining up targets that he wants to dismantle, because he doesn’t take pot shots, he goes at his obsessions with a dreary relentlessness, folding and folding a basic theme and squeezing it out to the point of exhaustion.

One noticeable characteristic is the deliberate slippage of perspectives, moving in and out of the minds of minor characters in a way that sometimes feels somewhat lazy, and only really works because this is a novel of ideas.

People rarely read Atomised as an attack on patriarchal society, but I think it can quite easily be seen in this light regardless of whether or not Houellebecq meant it. The circumscribed existence and token destruction of all the main female characters, as well as the childish fixation with their body parts indicates a misogynistic tendency that permeates Houellebecq’s vision (whether unconscious or deliberately intended) but this doesn’t really seem all that different from the well known and widely published perspectives of many other men of his generation. It certainly doesn’t set him apart. But one potential conclusion of Atomised is that men are a pointless and violent evolutionary dead-end; that the world would be better off without them.

There’s nothing here that’s really new here, but there’s a lot that’s said in a new way. Atomised has a unique honesty and depth of perspective on science, society, fear and death that few authors would attempt. Despite the banal and dull life of the characters who have frustrated desires rather than goals and conflicts, there is a surprising level of emotiveness in how they exist in the world and this feels genuine. Without this passionate streak, the book probably wouldn’t work at all.

The Lost Kingdom

Bruno’s earliest memory was one of humiliation.

Page 31.