Novel of the week

Atomised

Michel Houellebecq translated by Frank Wynne <em>Heinemann, 320pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 04

Released to a fanfare of outraged publicity in Paris nearly two years ago, Les Particules Elementaires quickly became a bestseller and made a minor celebrity of its author, Michel Houellebecq. Already translated into 22 languages, it is at last available in English under the title Atomised.

It is not hard to see why Paris was so offended. Atomised is a hugely ambitious novel of ideas - or, more accurately, a novel about the lack of ideas and morale in contemporary French society. It interweaves the disparate biographies of two half-brothers as they face up to their respective mid-life crises.

Bruno is a teacher whose hopes of becoming a writer have turned sour, and whose opportunistic enthusiasm for free love is never quite matched by his success with the opposite sex. Michel, on the other hand, is an other-worldly scientist who has devoted his life to a lonely programme of research into molecular biology, but who is now on leave and reconsidering his vocation. Both their predicaments, it is implied, can be traced in part to the influence of their hippy mother, Janine, now in a hospice, whose faddish experiments in counterculture led her to neglect her children.

Houellebecq uses these three characters to take a pop at just about everyone: New Agers, feminists, the French literary and scientific establishments and the values of a "consumer society". The mother, in particular, functions as a cipher for Houellebecq's disgust with the pitiful trajectory taken by Sixties radicalism since its heyday in 1968. In Atomised, Houellebecq moves towards a much more general novelistic expression of social disintegration. In his account, economic inequalities converge with sexual and biological inequalities to create an overarching mood of gloom and fatalism.

All of this might be a bore if the book were not put together so stylishly; and it is often very funny. Despite an austere prose style and little in the way of plot development, Houellebecq sustains our interest by conveying a mounting sense of foreboding, the feeling that something of world-historical importance is about to be disclosed. The philosophical disquisitions of his characters, too, are punctuated by a mordant and irreverent humour. It is his knack of weaving grand themes into the most inauspicious material that gives Houellebecq his distinctive edge.

Atomised upset the French left because of its harsh judgement of the consequences of a "permissive society", and its apparent endorsement of eugenics and the case against abortion. While the sometimes hysterical response to his book cannot have done Houellebecq any harm, much of it seems misplaced.

Houellebecq is no reactionary, and we need not take the ideas of his characters at face value. Rather, Atomised showcases the kind of virulent cynicism that can have come only from the pen of a disillusioned leftist, and the novel is best understood as the detritus of the manifesto for sexual liberation presented by the soixante-huitards themselves.

The French newspaper Le Figaro astutely placed Houellebecq within a new wave of French writers identified by their deprimisme, or depressionism. Just as in Catherine Breillat's recent film, Romance, there is plenty of in-your-face sexual experimentation in Atomised; but, instead of liberating its subjects, it degrades them. Sex becomes a powerful metaphor for decadence and perdition, and the reader watches as Bruno loses himself in an orgy of self-abasement.

The only character who emerges with any integrity is the sexless Michel, who finds redemption in a lunatic scheme to iron out base human desires through genetic manipulation. But even this, it seems, is no more than Houellebecq's final, sick joke at the expense of his contemporaries.