In the tunnels of the Parisian metro, the poster seems innocuous at first: "Stop talking about it. Read it." However, the talking point in question, a well-known novel entitled Les particules elementaires, is already three years old, and has been read by almost a million people. This is a remarkable figure for a literary novel that is not without difficulty; but its French publishers are clearly expecting an even greater yield, and have chosen a front cover depicting its author, Michel Houellebecq, in relaxed mode, a plastic shopping bag about his wrist. It is difficult to imagine anything quite like this happening to a British author. But Houellebecq's book - translated into English as Atomised (Vintage, £6.99) - is a cultural artefact all of a piece with its chain-smoking, dishevelled author, who somewhat mockingly surmises the swell of evening commuters.
Atomised is a tortured, often demented book, concerned with the fate of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel - victims, or case histories, of the sexual revolution. Abandoned by their mother, Janine, as the Sixties start to swing, the boys are raised separately, unaware of each other's existence until adolescence. In both cases, the early damage is irreparable. While Janine, even in old age, remains on a quest for personal fulfilment, the boys, now men, are social misfits. A bioengineer, Michel is a loner afflicted by perpetual numbness, while the intellectual Bruno prowls around Parisian sex clubs, brothels and New Age nudist colonies in search of sexual gratification. In their forties, both men find soulmates, but these women are soon wrenched away from them by cancer, degenerative disease and finally suicide. Sent mad, Bruno dissolves into a never-never land in a psychiatric ward, while Michel pursues research that leads, in 2029, to the creation of the first human clone, an immortal being engineered for pleasure, incapable of violence, cruelty and despair. It is this being, we finally realise, who is our narrator. Homo sapiens, as the song goes, have outgrown their use.
For all its sci-fi fantasy, Atomised is rooted in fact. Born in 1958, in La Reunion, to a mountain-guide father and a hippy mother, Houellebecq was himself abandoned, and was brought up by his maternal grandmother in Crecy-en-Brie, an unprepossessing suburb to the east of Paris. Educated in the post-1968 period, Houellebecq was profoundly affected by the loosening of disciplinary restrictions in his school in nearby Meaux, leading as it did to a new regime where the boys were left to their own devices. This resulted in predictable and catastrophic results (a suicide every month was not uncommon). From early knocks such as these, Atomised derives its desperate sense of loss. It differs, however, from the standard accusatory novel, in that the usual villains - abusive parents or relatives - are in thrall to world historical processes, particularly extreme 1960s individualism.
Central to Atomised is the idea that sexual liberation destroyed the family - "the last unit separating the individual from the market". Thus isolated, a mere particle pitted against millions of others, the modern individual experiences life as a hopeless grind of solitude and frustration. Atomised takes graphic issue with everything the post-1968 left holds dear, from ecology to feminism. A former communist in a country where left and right are still distinct, Houellebecq has been accused of selling out to conservatism, especially after his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte - published in English with the slackerish title Whatever - was a politically on-side attack on globalisation and the consumer society.
But in Atomised, Houellebecq broke, to some extent, political ranks. An extraordinary campaign of vilification ensued, particularly in the left-wing press, with feminists, ecologists and New Age groups lining up to brand him as anything from a reactionary to a pornographer. He responded gleefully, defending and developing some of the more cranky opinions of his character Bruno. In the end, Houellebecq was arraigned before the editorial board of Perpendiculaire, a radical literary review to which he was a contributor. Called on to account for Bruno's racist opinions - towards the end of the novel, he writes increasingly barmy diatribes against "negro regression"- Houellebecq countered that racism was a non-issue, preferring instead to develop his own fantastical ideas about the future of cloning. He lauded the Pope for his perspicacious analysis of the west's decline, and declared tritely that ultra-Catholics were "nice". It remained only for his somewhat po-faced and less successful peers to banish him from the review on the grounds of "political irresponsibility", not before launching a hysterical press campaign, during which Houellebecq was mentioned in the same breath as the Vichy collaborator Robert Brasillach and, most extraordinarily, Hitler.
Reactions in the UK have been considerably more measured. Commentators from both sides of the political spectrum have been lavish in their praise. This may say something about the Francophile leanings of British intellectuals - when it comes to obscenity and universal theories, after all, the French rush in where Anglos fear to tread. The UK edition has been reprinted in hardback five times - which is remarkable for a foreign-language author - and the paperback is selling briskly. In Spain, Italy and, most strikingly, Germany, the novel is a bestseller. This is puzzling, because Atomised, as Mark Lilla wrote in the New York Review of Books, mythologises the night thoughts of the French republic - the queasy sense that, up against the forces of "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism, French identity is faced with extinction.
So what explains the novel's appeal? Astried Biershenk, a German journalist who has made a short film on Houellebecq, believes that Atomised, in its description of sexual loneliness, appeals "to a generation which is looking for love but can't face the responsibilities". Several booksellers in Paris take a darker view. "Houellebecq is a mix of shock tactics and media overkill," said one based on the Left Bank.
Narrated in a blunt, colloquial language, Atomised is fiction as diagnosis, using the results of scientific experiments on rats, dogs and chickens to account for Bruno and Michel's behavioural problems. Positing each character in terms of genetic inheritance and socio-economic background, Houellebecq creates a rigorously deterministic universe where free will is illusory. Not strictly fiction, it resembles the early novel in its deep conviction that it is speaking the truth.
That still does not explain why Houellebecq has been hailed as a prophet, and why he has risen so enthusiastically to the challenge of being such. An affable, though hesitant, interviewee, drinking whisky to steady his nerves and smoking so much that his fingers are tea-coloured, he impresses by his ability to quote chunks of philosophy by heart. In truth, he is less a prophet than an archetypal Parisian figure, imbued with l'esprit de contradiction and a set of contrary opinions designed to confound and provoke. He cultivates the status of neurotic outsider, and it is this that appeals so much to the young, for whom he is a generational figure, a rock star with a punk sensibility.
And yet Houellebecq, in his personal habits and lifestyle, embodies much of what he seeks to castigate. He may have condemned youth culture - "a world in which the young have no respect eventually devours everyone" - but he still fronts an electronic rock combo with the French artist Plastic Bertrand. Even more curious is the virulence with which Atomised satirises L'Espace du Possible (a New Age campsite renamed Lieu de Changement after an out-of-court settlement), where Houellebecq was a regular visitor for 15 years.
A less resilient writer than, say, Celine, to whom he is compared, Houellebecq expresses a similar despair, not just in the human condition, but in the failure of European humanism to alleviate it. Immersing himself in pornography, dirt and violence, he shows us a world on the brink of collapse, futile beyond repeal. Houellebecq brings out our secret wish to have done with, to self-destruct. No matter how flawed and intellectually questionable Atomised may be, its success perhaps reveals an unconscious desire to accommodate its shocks, to share its death wish - "The meekness, the resignation, perhaps even the relief of humans at their own passing away," Houellebecq writes.
Having recently remarried, Houellebecq has bought a house on an island off the Beara peninsula in fashionable County Cork, where he lives in reclusive isolation, refusing to speak English - to him, the language of globalisation. He is presently in Thailand, working on his third novel, and later this year he will tour with his band.
Conscious of his iconic status, he protests that "Sartre had an answer for everything - I don't". Whether his celebrated nihilism can survive his remarkable success remains to be seen. For the moment, he is very famous: more talked about, as the poster in the metro suggests, than read. In his Irish seclusion, however, he will undoubtedly have time to let his art breathe. Not just France, but increasingly the rest of Europe, is waiting.
Gerry Feehily is a critic living in Paris