The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, January 13, 2003

Reality always overtakes even the farthest absurdities of fiction. In the epilogue of his 1999 novel Les Particules Élémentaires, the title rather misleadingly being translated into the English Atomised, Michel Houllebecq pinpoints 2029 as the date when the first cloned human is produced. But the Raelians (should any proof be forthcoming) have already beaten him to it – complete with the aid of aliens. The news in itself demonstrates an unintentional (or is it intended?) humour which is entirely absent from Atomised.

Let us not be mistaken; Atomised at least attempts to be a state-of-humanity novel, such as was entirely commonplace in the 19th century and, with a very few exceptions (although the bulwark of science fiction) absent from 20th century literature. Indeed, though the story is supposedly told by an evolved humanoid – thus the apparent dispassion and meticulous itemising of the biological and sociological realities of humanity untouched by the needs for belief or worship – stylistically it is extremely 19th-century in construction and outlook. Houllebecq’s writing reads like a not altogether satisfactory cohabitation between Thomas Carlyle and Nicholson Baker. But it is clearly intended to be an epic, perhaps even a stab at prophecy; and in terms of rubbing the readers’ faces in the horrific banality of biological existence and non-existence, in terms of steadily coercing us into considering who we are and where the hell we are going, in terms of guiding us towards “the truth,” it dwarfs everything ever written by anybody on the current Granta “Young British Novelist” list, and most things written by anybody on previous Granta lists. Compare it, for instance, with the deliberately leaden and stultifying examination of the real and imagined lives of unsympathetic and eminently hittable people delineated in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. So many over-tangible sleights of hand make our minimal care for these unlovable people even more minimal. One ends up not caring who lived or died; the pre-empting technique of having “Cyril Connolly” criticise the novel’s first third as bad Virginia Woolf (specifically The Waves) doesn’t mean that it ain’t so.

Then again, possessing a big canvas doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to produce a Guernica or a Kane, let alone a Bleak House. As with Phil Spector’s productions, which simultaneously manage to contain everything and yet contain nothing, Atomised can be stared at in a vague approximation of minor awe but never entered.

The two central protagonists are stepbrothers, Michel and Bruno, both conceived by a libertine mother but with different fathers who more or less absent themselves from their sons’ lives. They are both brought up by their grandmothers. Michel early on shows little or no interest in “life” or “the outside world” apart from those details which he can pin down and analyse in test-tubes. He becomes a molecular biologist, and eventually the unwitting John the Baptist of humanity’s evolution/redundancy. In contrast, Bruno is sent to an unhappy, bullying public school, is overweight, has no confidence with the opposite sex, and proceeds thereafter (an unsatisfactory marriage and son notwithstanding, and how notwithstanding are these two characters in this book) to a series of unfulfilling “adventures” in nudist camps, one-night stands, sex clubs and so on. In truth he is a libertine far more in theory than in practice; he wishes fervently to be able to “join in” sexual abandon/life, but can never do so. He works as a teacher, but following an unfortunate loss of control whereby he flashes his five-inch cock at a no-more-than-amused 15-year-old Arab pupil in his class, he goes for psychiatric treatment and thereafter is given a desk job.

As per Strangers On A Train, Michel and Bruno are so obviously one person split into two conflicting sets of beliefs and viewpoints on how life should be lived that it’s difficult to care for them as discrete human beings. Houllebecq proceeds, determinedly matter-of-fact, to indicate how the gradual replacement of religion by the continuing onset of materialism; how in fact the Manson murders were the logical conclusion of hippiedom; without faith or true belief, humans turn to methods of instant gratification – first consumerism, then casual sex, and finally mutilation/destruction – and how all this determines the courses which their lives will take. All with a (n un) healthy dollop of biological and physical theoretics/history, with some Auguste Comte philosophy on the side (“positivism” replacing God and thus the only attribute retainable in “science”). Perhaps Houllebecq wishes to modify/revive these beliefs, though there is more than a touch of the John Henry Newman about his deliberate avoidance of the idea that humans might wish to sustain themselves on more than an animal level by things other than common belief (e.g. relationships with other human beings). But what stops Atomised from becoming even a 21st-century Apologia Pro Vita Sua - the evangelist calling out against the established high-priesthood of free market economics – is what I think as being a complete indifference on the author’s part with regard to humanity. Though the sub-Asimov (specifically the short story “Breeds There A Man…”) ending of the book states that “This book is dedicated to mankind,” no love for mankind is particularly evident; even less for love itself.

The female characters in this book (and no one here advances beyond the level of “character”), as tends to be the case in Houllebecq’s work, get a raw deal. Both Michel and Bruno end up briefly in a simulacrum of “living” with their respective Others, but so roughly sketched are Annabelle and Christiane (the attendant irony in the latter name is heavily emphasised), so clearly foredoomed are they, that the reader is left with little doubt that Michel and Bruno are in fact in love with each other (i.e. with the view in their mirror). Annabelle wants Michel from childhood, but Michel isn’t interested, and anyway the dumb problem pages of teenage magazines dictate that she should not make the first move. They vanish from each other’s life for 25 years; she returns, they conceive without much enthusiasm on Michel’s part, but of course it’s too late – she is found to have ovarian cancer which hysterectomy cannot prevent from spreading, and accordingly commits suicide. Similarly, Bruno meets Christiane at a nudist camp-cum-New Age shyster palace; they get it on, decide to cohabit, but one night at a sex club she collapses and then becomes wheelchair-bound. She too has cancer, and returns to her slum flat. She throws herself downstairs to exit the world. Bruno immediately realises his uselessness and obligingly returns to the psychiatric clinic, this time for good, ensuring a contented, loveless existence. What’s left for Michel to do but help lay the groundwork for getting rid of humanity? And when that work is eventually done, in 2009, he vanishes off the coast of Ireland, to become another particle in the final paragraph of Joyce’s “The Dead” or perhaps to disappear to Tibet, as his father had done 45 years previously.

The fact that Houllebecq talks in detail about the Stones but can’t spell Snoop Doggy Dogg’s name correctly might lead you to be dubious about everything else he delineates in this book; if he can’t even get that right, how can we trust him on anything else? – although this may be the consequence of Frank Wynne’s unsatisfactory translation, which persists with solecisms such as “in general, without exception…”

The outlook of this book is bleak and gives me the creeps, though for all the wrong reasons. It is made unambiguously clear that if we strip ourselves of religious beliefs, if we refuse to countenance or at least incorporate ideas such as the afterlife – in short, if we face up to what we really are as human beings – we are left with base, banal biology; mothers and lovers becoming nothing more than steadily decaying piles of bones. Christiane, in her younger days, observes the cult leader of the nudist camp, having just died, being given a funeral pyre, and is in fact forced to stare close-up at the skeleton which he had become. 20 years later she will suffer the same fate, albeit in a crematorium; and Bruno cannot resist having a sidelong peek at the red flashes in the grille at the side of the furnace. Without religion we are also stripped of art, music and love. But there’s something about Houllebecq – a “quality” beyond even fatalism – which leads me to think that that’s kind of how he prefers things to be. There is the vaguest suspicion that he ejaculates excitedly at the prospect of death and decay. Peter Greenaway approached the same territory in his 1985 film A Zed And Two Noughts, and like Greenaway, and decidedly unlike Vermeer, there is an almost supernatural fascination with the processes of decay which may well count as being anti-human. One concurs entirely with Geoffrey Palmer’s anguished roar of “What good do all these decaying bodies do?”

So, while this is a book which does need to be read, if only once, it cannot inspire me to reject what Houllebecq is rejecting. It’s the obvious ultimate consequence of Baudrillardism of course – everything’s a mirror, a fake, a simulacrum – and if taken in itself as gospel as a life belief it will lead to the loss of home, job, money, lovers, friends, ultimately life. It is a terrible burden to understand that nothing means anything. Harder to come to terms with the possibility that there must be more than this, that there must be a “soul,” that people must survive in some way or another, even after they biologically die; and maybe that’s what Houllebecq intends to say. Lazily dismissed by most British critics as a right-wing anti-permissive society tract masquerading as a novel, Atomised seems to me much more like a lament by a disgruntled man of the Left; he noticeably soft pedals on Communism and is violently (if not coherently) against unregulated capitalism. The 19th-century roots of this increased doubt in religion and renewed belief in science and reason, and its consequences upon Western society, are usefully and exhaustively described in A N Wilson’s book God’s Funeral; one imagines that Houllebecq would have been perfectly content sweeping up the heads of unbelievers from beneath the guillotine in 1794.

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