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Since that novel about grey things, it seems it is no longer taboo to be seen with a rude book in public but I still wouldn't want to be seen on a train holding a book with a young girl pictured in her pants! I did however read this book in the confidence of my own home.
I swapped this book on a reading website and stumbled upon it without much research, finding the idea of two half brothers reunited quite fascinating. To be fair, I was warned of the graphic content in the synopsis but having read most of Irvine Welsh's works I was prepared to put up with a bit of smut in the storyline.
A bit about
The book covers the relationship between half brothers Bruno and Michel whose lives seem intertwined at various points and their twisted relationships with women which may be partially due to being abandoned by their mother at a very young age. In the book, the brothers visit a liberal sixties commune with mixed views as they come of age and as an adult, unable to meet his sexual urges Bruno visits a swinging campsite but finds little sucess there as a single man. Fortunately he hooks up with a like minded woman who opens the doors to lots of group 'gang bangs' for him. Michel is a molecular biologist on the verge of a massive science break through and Bruno is mainly seeking the solution to his endless lust.
This book was first published in 2000 in Great Britain and I have to say I really struggled with the book which had lots of philosophy and high level thinking within. Some would place it high on the art scene but I really felt like giving up after a few pages. I thought it a bit weird that the author named one of the characters after his own name although he was the nicer out of the two characters to be fair! The brothers are like chalk and cheese and it was interesting to see how their lives went with both realising they had become 'sad old men' before their time. Bruno's lusting after teen girls made me quite uncomfortable and I didn't really enjoy reading his masochistic persuits and general disdain for women.
Perhaps I was reading this on a simplistic level but it was one of those books that I couldn't wait to finish so I could start something more suited to my tastes. The new age content of the book seemed dated and certainly not something I could relate to, and whilst it was graphic, it didn't really read as a voyeristic trashy read, nor was it simplistic in its content. There was a definite fascination with death as well with a disturbing description of the decay process and almost a gleeful interest in the end of life for a number of the people in the book. That there are so many high recommendations for this book I can only assume I have totally missed the art side of this book and whilst I can't endorse the reading of it perhaps another reviewer will represent perspective of the book in another review.
'Atomised' came to me highly recommended. Someone at work whose opinion I trust was extremely enthusiastic about the book, and Julian Barnes listed it among the books of the year 2000 in the Times Literary Supplement. The author, Michel Houellebecq, has previously won the Grand prix national des lettres, and received the Prix novembre for this novel. However, I found the book to be one of the most uninspired and misconceived pieces of fiction that I've had the misfortune to stumble across. THE PLOT Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clément are half-brothers. Their mother, Janine Ceccaldi, first married Serge Clément, a plastic surgeon working in the south of France in the mid-1950s, by whom she had Bruno. The two soon realised that they couldn't cope with the responsibility of looking after a child, and pursuing their own careers, so they sent Bruno off to live with his maternal grandmother in Algeria. In the late 1950s, she divorced Serge, and married Marc Djerzinski, a television journalist, by whom she had her second child, Michel. In 1961, Marc went off to China to investigate the new communist society emerging out there. Upon his return, he discovered their house apparently deserted, with Michel left abandoned in the bathroom surrounded by his own urine and excrement. Marc immediately took Michel away, to bring him up himself. However, in 1964, while investigating the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Marc disappears, leaving Michel to be brought up by his paternal grandmother. The book charts the brothers' development, and looks at their lives in the late 1990s. Michel has grown up to be a successful molecular biologist, and Bruno is a writer. Michel's development is relatively easy, as he grows up in a small town, with a beautiful girlfriend, Annabelle. Bruno's upbringing, by contrast, is rough, involving horrific bullying at boarding schools, and frequent rejection. The differences in their adolescences ha
ve shaped their personalities – Michel is virtually sexless; a thinker and an idealist, and Bruno is a libertine; desperately desirous of sex. The two are radically different, but still keep in touch with each other, and have a surprising amount in common. The book is supposedly written in the near future, around 2030, examining the life of Michel retrospectively, and examining how he was able to envision a new metaphysical plan for the structure of society. THE WRITING Houellebecq's writing, and indeed, the translation by Frank Wynne, is absolutely first rate throughout. I certainly can't fault the book for the standard of the writing. Although some of Houellebecq's sentences are overlong and cumbersome, the book is very easy to read and flows well. It really doesn't take that long to read. Although the book is seemingly about the relationship between the brothers, and how they grew up, it is far more effective in examining the deterioration of modern society, and this is almost certainly why the book has received so much praise. Houellebecq skilfully examines the modern New Age movement, the phenomenon of the nuclear family, the trivialisation and devaluation of emotions such as love and human fellowship, the effect of the internet (or rather, Minitel, as this is a French book) on society, and so on. This examination of modern society is extremely damning, Houellebecq clearly isn't happy with late Twentieth century society – even on the first page of the book he describes the age as "miserable and troubled", and comments that men of the time live out "lonely, bitter lives". I can't help thinking that Houellebecq is excessively, and unnecessarily, bleak in his observations about contemporary society, and I honestly don't think that Michel Djerzinski's radical reform of society would be welcomed as enthusiastically or with the ease that the book claims that i
t was. Nonetheless, the book is so impressively well written, that you begin to accept Houellebecq's cynicism, even if you don't agree with it. My main problems with the book, however, are two-fold. Firstly, Houellebecq, and in turn, all of the characters in 'Atomised' are spectacularly misogynistic. Houellebecq's treatment of the thoughts of female characters in the book is spectacularly brief, and unbelievably shallow. Where a male character's thoughts might typically fill several paragraphs, a female character is lucky to be able to think a whole sentence. Likewise, when we are introduced to a new male character, we get several pages of background history on that character, and their heritage, however, a new female character rarely gets more than a page and a half. Nonetheless, Houellebecq's observations about the male psyche are very well made. Bruno, for example, rationalises his sexual insecurity by tracing it back to a rejection early in his adolescence, when he attempted to put his hand on Caroline Yassayan's thigh in a movie theatre. My second problem with the book is a fundamental fallacy in Michel Djerzinski's assumptions for his new society. This is the sort of problem that only someone with a reasonable knowledge of biology would be able to spot, which explains to a degree, why so many critics might have been tolerant of it. Michel observes that random mutation rate in strands of DNA is vastly greater than the rate of established mutation in evolutionary lines, and fallaciously concludes that random mutation is therefore a superior method for evolution. This particular issue was examined as early as 1950 in the field of evolutionary genetics – the high random mutation rate is tolerable because the vast majority of mutations are neutral, i.e. have no effect on the individuals that bear them. Houellebecq's errors in biology don't affect the quality of his writing when he
's attacking contemporary society; however, they do have major ramifications for his ideas about its reformation, so as to render them essentially meaningless. These errors are not ones that anyone with a grounding in evolutionary genetics would have accepted, and this strongly implies that Houellebecq merely had a brief chat about evolution over dinner with a biologist. CONCLUSIONS 'Atomised' does make some interesting, if spectacularly pessimistic, observations about contemporary society. It's well written, even if some of the sentences are too long winded, and the author's depiction of the male psyche is first-rate. However, the problems with the book are too major to be easily overlooked – the misogyny, not just of the book's male characters, but also of the author, is far too obvious; and the biology upon which the author founds his ideas for reformation of society is fundamentally flawed.
This is the story of two very different half-brothers, but the subject of the novel is in its dismantling of society and its assumptions, a dissection of modern lives and loves.