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THE SUICIDE OF THE WEST:
The Novels Of Michel Houellebecq

Alan Dent

 

Major writers provoke controversy. Not everything controversial is major, but everything major is controversial. Literature, to paraphrase Pound, is controversy that stays controversial. Michel Houellebecq has internalised the condition of modern Europe more fully and sensitively than any other writer. His capacity to recreate that condition through fiction has the quality of apparent ease characteristic of genius. Houellebecq's shorthand for our plight is, the suicide of the West. The following passage from his latest novel Plateforme (not yet available in English) might be taken as an indication of what that shorthand means: 

My European ancestors had worked hard for several centuries; they had undertaken to dominate and then to transform the world, and to a certain extent they had succeeded. They had done so out of economic interest, a taste for work, but also because they believed in the superiority of their civilization: they had invented the dream , progress, Utopia, the future. This consciousness of a civilizing mission had evaporated during the course of the twentieth century. Europeans, at least some of them, went on working, and sometimes working hard, but they did so for gain or out of a neurotic attachment to their task; the innocent consciousness of their natural right to dominate the world, and to direct its future, had disappeared. Due to accumulated effort Europe remained a rich continent; those qualities of intelligence and relentlessness that my ancestors had shown, I had clearly lost A well-heeled European, I could obtain at trifling cost, jn other countries, food, services and women; a decadent European conscious of my approaching death and having subscribed utterly to egocentrism, I saw no reason to do without them. I was aware, however, that such a situation was hardly tenable, that people like me were incapable of ensuring the survival of a society, or were even unworthy to live. Changes would come, were already coming, but I couldn't feel myself genuinely concerned; my only genuine motivation was to get myself out of this shitheap as quickly as possible.

      It's worth taking a bit of time to examine this declaration. It comes from the narrator, inevitably called Michel, and reflects his sense of being trapped in a history which prevents him expressing his humanity through anything but personal intimacy and indulgence. Above all, it is a recognition of the power of history. Houellebecq rejects individualism. He treats the proposition that individuals can find a way to live which does not need to take account of their historical situation as vacuous. History is real. Clearly human life is composed of the lives of individuals on the one hand and collective, historical life on the other. The two can't be separated. It is this conviction of the force of history in shaping individual lives and the absolute inability of individuals to live outside historical circumstance which powers Houellebecq's fiction. In this extract he tries to focus on the loss of the values which formed modern Europe and the sensibility of Europeans. The twentieth century, in its elevation of the values of entertainment and consumerism, has destroyed the more astringent codes which built prosperity, democracy and the mission to civilize. In so doing it engendered a particular type of personality. Well documented, especially in the work of Christopher Lasch, this is the narcissistic personality which dominates modern Europe . Such a personality, emerging at the end of a long period of hard effort to build civilization, is inadequate to the task of sustaining what sterner characters brought about. Regressive, indulgent, lacking that sense of the impersonal without which a public realm shrinks, this character-type is perfect for consumerism, routine compulsive work, mindless entertainment but tragically incapable of the self-transcendence needed to sustain the very values which made its emergence possible. Seeking easy and instant gratification, people of this kind will turn to nations where thrills are cheap and plentiful. The consequent sense of decline leaves only the residual desire for escape.

              Such, according to Houellebecq, is the trap modern Europe has become. The evocation of European ancestors may appear sentimental. After all, they weren't sparing of brutality in building civilization. Such, however, are the cruel ironies of history, A belief in the intrinsic superiority of your civilization may be deleterious, but at least it creates the possibility of values and actions which will hold society together. Without some unifying principle, with all its disadvantages, society becomes atomised. Atomised individuals are ostensibly hedonistic, in fact narcissistic. They pursue pleasure compulsively. Pleasure becomes a form of escape. The desire to escape the shitheap is festering in every mind. Escape, however, is illusory. There is no exit from history. Humanity can't cease to be its own problem. Escape becomes its own trap. Behind Houellebecq's fiction is the implication of an historical task shunned through lack of courage and imagination. The price we pay is to be haunted by the demons of our cowardice and benightedness. We don't escape. Our benightedness comes back at us in the forms of a debased rationality, useless because it serves no truly human ends, and of alien fundamentalism: a grotesque parody of the stern character we have surrendered.

             Houellebecq's first novel, Extension Du Domaine De La Lutte, appeared in 1994. Its English edition, translated by Paul Hammond, was published by Serpent's Tail in 1999 under the title of Whatever. Hammond's choice of title is understandable: the word has come to typify a widespread je m'en foutisme characteristic of the kind of drifting, disorientated creations Houellebecq writes about. But the French title is much more telling: Extension Of The Domaine Of The Struggle. Its references and overtones are obvious and entail a sense of the historical and social dimension which the English title lacks. Houellebecq uses a biblical quotation as his epigram to the first part of the book. The text from Romans is quoted without irony:

The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light

 The armour of light proves too heavy for his protagonist. The works of darkness prevail Houellebecq doesn't engage in postmodern sneering at religion. On the contrary, he evinces a tragic consciousness of the impossibility of true religion in the modern world. Unlike the glib Darwinians and evolutionary psychologists who treat this loss as a simple victory, Houellebecq understands how deeply it has injured the human heart. Religion is a unifying principle without which society tends to spin out of control, becomes a mere agglomeration of individuals seeking their own salvation, Individuals in Houellebecq's fictions are always caught in historical circumstance like flies in amber. There is no individual salvation because the individual is always inserted in the collective enterprise of history. One of Houellebecq's principal means of illustrating this is sexuality. He is acutely aware that sexual experience is sociologically mediated. His characters, by and large, have eschewed passion, commitment, loyalty in favour of a free enjoyment of the physical pleasures of seduction: Houellebecq understands what this means. People may have more orgasms, engage in more frequent fellatio or cunnilingus with a greater variety of partners, experiment with group sex and sexual tourism, but they have discarded the grief and pain and effort of love. The result is, at least, boredom; but at a deeper level an inescapable sense of emptiness which makes the pursuit of the next thrill ever more urgent. Houellebecq is no glib moralist however. Nor does he underestimate the pleasure of loose sex. He simply recognises it as a form of sexuality which exacts a huge emotional cost.

              The narrator of Whatever is a computer analyst in a successful firm. His job is well-paid. Houllebecq doesn't direct our attention to the sufferings of the poor or excluded. The sentimentality at the heart of Dickens, for example, a condescension towards the poor which, as has often been pointed out, goes hand-in-hand with a treatment of character and a superficiality of psychology which gives value to the very society he seems to be attacking, is carefully avoided by Houellebecq. It is the fatal flaw at the centre of Irvine Welsh's work: he validates the very society he seems to spike by writing about characters who are essentially marginal. By defining them as outsiders he suggests that their empty amorality is something not shared by the mainstream. Houellebecq, however, chooses to make his anti-heroes employed, well-heeled, middle-class. Their tragedy is not that they lack jobs and money but that they possess them. It isn't social marginality which makes their lives empty, it's social centrality. This is a more important shift than might at first appear. The intellectual assault on the form of modern society has always relied on at least passing reference to injustice. Society is condemned because it leaves too many poor, because it excludes, because it entrenches invidious distinctions of class, race or gender. Implicit in this is the idea that if our society could become inclusive ( a term appropriated by the most debased and opportunistic brand of contemporary politics) there would be nothing left to criticize. Ours is the good society, except it leaves some people out. If they can join the party, we'll all have a good time. Reduced and simplified though this is, it represents the commonplace intelligence of our culture. Houellebecq undermines it by showing that those who are included lead lives of heart-rending emptiness. To read Houellebecq is almost to become convinced that in a society like ours, it would be an advantage to be marginalised. Towards the end of Platforme, the narrator remarks that we have created a society in which it is impossible to live. Presumably this means that life has become a mere getting by, a survival, a keeping going in the face of all the odds, but nothing that amounts to life as it might be if lived according to a demanding ideal. This is Houellebecq's central theme: the impossibility of fulfilling the true aims of life within contemporary society.

             A typical product of his society, the narrator of Whatever has no true aims. The typicality is important. To lead a life of intrinsic aimlesness in contemporary society is not rare, but virtually unavoidable, The good career prospects he has before him offer not fulfilment but vacancy. As for sexual relations, the book opens with the narrator recounting a party he attended with colleagues at which a" stupid bitch" started taking off her clothes and dancing. The detail is telling. The subtleties of courtship, its delightful and intriguing moral, emotional and intellectual elements have collapsed. Instead, there is crass exhibitionism. Nor does the putative liberation of women offer any comfort: two girls twitter about how their provocative dress has nothing to do with seducing men but is merely something they do to make themselves feel good. In the face of this trite but disheartening emotional dishonesty, the narrator can only comment to himself:" the last dismaying dregs of the collpase of feminism". Faced with women who are confused, grasping, manipulative, who lack the courage and imagination to meet the subtle demands of courtship and the escape from self which loyalty in a long-term relationship implies, what chance has the narrator of finding love and of making sex, as Milan Kundera puts it, the territory love maps out for itself ? Houellebecq is not misogynistic. The forms in which sexuality expresses itself are historically mediated. What are women to do in a society of rampant sexual competition?          

It's a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women, others with none. It's what's known as " the law of the market". In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude............

Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immorality, and never two. In reality the successive sexual experiences accumulated during adolescence undermine and rapidly destroy all possibility of projection of an emotional and romantic sort; progressively, and in fact extremely quickly, one becomes as capable of love as an old slag.

 The fact that women are forced either to become more meretricious in order to attract men or to face withdrawal into loneliness leads to the deflating conclusion elaborated in Platforme that the progressive professionalization of sexual relations is inevitable.

The first part of Whatever deals, however, not with sex but with the world of work. Just as Kafka could create a byzantine, fantastic and horrifying world out of life in the office, so Houellebecq reveals the arctic emptiness behind professional relationships and the dispiriting egotism that powers careerism. The abiding emotional attitude of his narrator towards everything to do with work is boredom. In contradistinction, comes the excessive enthusiasm and self-congratulatory compulsiveness of those who see work as a form of self-expression. The latter, Houellebecq seems to be quipping, is impossible without some form of self to begin with. While people around him try to fool themselves into believing work is a kind of freedom, he has no illusions about his alienation. The manic, hysterical, inflated, deluded, soap-opera nature of work leaves him flat. Work is a form on non-existence, action in the void: 

I've lived so little that I tend to imagine I'm not going to die; it seems improbable that human existence can be reduced to so little; one imagines, in spite of oneself, that sooner or later something is bound to happen. A big mistake. A life can just as well be both empty and short. The days slip by indifferently, leaving neither trace nor memory; and then all of a sudden they stop.

    Working in the world of computers, Michel is among those who are right up to date. Information is going to transform the world. Information will make us happy. The mania for technological change doesn't produce the slightest excitement in him. To the theory that all human relationships can be reduced to an exchange of information he responds with bored disdain. What he knows is that the modem world is suffering from stasis. When his work sends him on a brief tour of the provinces, he hopes it will at least "alter my ideas". In this he expresses a desperation for inward change along with a consciousness that such change is impossible except on a level of abstraction; unless society changes in a way which allows the alteration of ideas to be realized in a new and authentic set of aims. Over and again Houellebecq's work comes back to this: our humanity is realized in historical circumstances, when those circumstances are outworn or corrupt, they must be changed. It's reminiscent of the famous line in The Marriage Of Figaro when the eponymous hero is asked if he isn't cast down by so many difficulties and he replies that solving them is the antidote. The emptiness that haunts Houellebecq's novels is that of a culture which refuses its antidote.

              This is the hell of modern society. But hell is other people. Michel has to endure the company of Tisserand on his tour. Tisserand is as typical as Michel in the emptiness of his inner life. He is just as deprived of true aims, The difference is that he fills the void with the nauseating posturing of self-conscious careerism. Reading Houellebecq makes you acutely aware of the potential superiority of disillusion. Indeed, in a society of such exorbitant manic self-congratulation to be disaffected appears sane.   

I don't like this world. I definitely do not like it The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke. My entire work as a computer expert consists of adding to the data, the cross-referencing, the criteria of rational decision-making. It has no meaning. To tell the truth it is even negative up to a point; a useless encumbering of the neurons. This world has need of many things, bar more information.

Such absolute dismissal, people find difficult to take. But Houllebecq is intent on exploring the arena of meaninglessness. A life can be full of meaning or empty of it. What makes the difference ? The aims of life aren't obvious. It isn't even obvious that we should procreate, We must discover life's aims, Yet these aims aren't absolute. It can no longer be part of a French person's aims to overthrow the monarchy. Aims are historically defined. If not fully determined by history, aims are limited and directed by it. Society demands that Hamlet revenge his father's murder, but he has too many qualms. His life is destroyed because the aims imposed by society dash with his own. Houellebecq's subject is the way the aims of contemporary society rule out almost all possibilities except egotism, superficiality, self-indulgence, regression. Of course, people kick against the pricks, but even that is historically defined. Lacking a radical political movement, people can only lapse into the kind of disaffection and malcontentedness which haunts Houellebecq's more sensitive, thinking characters or retreat into a privacy which in its eccentricity bears all the hallmarks of defence.

              It has no meaning. Michel, like everyone, is forced to work in order to survive. But his work is meaningless. Worse, it is even negative in its effects on the world and the human mind. By making his narrator a computer expert, Houellebecq stresses again how central is this experience. For the past twenty years, at least, the information revolution has been the central source of optimism in the West: it will transform our lives; it will make us rich; it will increase our power; it is the future. To work in this arena is be at the cutting edge. But for Houellebecq, the technological and economic revolution which has dominated our lives for the past quarter of a century is a meaningless farce. The world has need of many things, bar more information. What are the things of which the world has need ? The desire for love is deep in man, it plunges its roots to astonishing depths and the multiplicity of its radicals is intercalated in the very substance of the heart. So writes Michel in one of his animal stories: Dialogues Between A Dachshund And A Poodle. But it is in this story also that he reaches the conclusion that: Sexuality is a system of social hierarchy. The profound and aching need for love on the one hand, sex as a possible source of pride and egotism on the other To a significant extent it is in the decalage between these two that Houellebecq discovers the things of which the world has need.  


THE CORRUPTING INFLUENCE OF SEX

The Novels Of Michel Houellebecq 

              Since the publication of Houellebecq's second novel, Atomised (the French title is Les Particules Elementaires which gives much better sense of the interplay between science and social values the novel tries to grasp ), his name has seldom been out of the review and comment pages. Responses to his work vary from a belief that he is forging a new form of novel to a dismissal of everything he writes as the rantings of a regressed fantasist. He is fairly castigated for the weaknesses in his books and unfairly insulted for his personal shortcomings. Are we to dismiss Rimbaud's poetry because he became a slave-trader? Should we reject Orton's plays because of what he got up to in public lavatories? Is Albert Camus a poor stylist because he had four affairs on the boil simultaneously? Is Carol Duffy a poor poet because she has a taste for gambling? Real life authors are logically outside their work. Far less than perfect men and women have produced work of genius. Maupassant ended up a syphilitic madman, but Boule de Suif is a masterpiece. Were Houellebecq not a writer, he would be a mere emotional and psychological casualty. There would be no reason, except as some kind of psychological example, for him to be a public figure. He is a public figure as a writer. The only fair way to treat him is to judge his writing.

What are the weaknesses of his writing? First of all, is he a great stylist? No. His prose is, for the most part, competent. There are occasional passages of first-rate writing but often the prose gives off a utilitarian feel: he seems to aim for the language that will suffice. Some of the writing is plain bad. The sex scenes, for example, are often written in a spatchcock way which belies an underlying boredom and even contempt. The explicit sex scenes are always the weakest part of his writing and it is hard not to feel that without them the books would lose little and possibly gain much. Secondly, is his plotting good? No. There is little in the plotting of his novels in and of itself to hold interest. His novels lack narrative drive. At their centre is a kind of stasis ( to be complimentary, it is somewhat akin to that of Madame Bovary). Is he a great comic writer? No. Houellebecq isn't a new Rabelais. He can write funny but he does so infrequently. The comic moments tend to be deflationary. He doesn't use comedy as the meat on the hook as many of the best comic writers do. Rather, his comedy tends to emerge from an essentially depressive perspective into which it quickly retreats. Is he schematic? Yes. It has been rightly pointed out, for example, that the opposition between Bruno and Michel in Atomised is far too neat and convenient to be credible. Schematic oppositions are common in his work. So, does his work have an unpleasant side? Yes, without question. Debased sexuality, brutal killing, paedophilia: the novels rehearse some of the most stomach-turning aspects of human behaviour. Are the books soaked in depression of a clinical kind? Yes. Clinical depression oozes through the novels. That inability to distinguish the subjective from the objective, the important from the trivial which is characteristic of clinical depression is almost the abiding tone of Houellebecq's novels. Only almost, for they are combined with a lucidity which probably has something manic about it but which is all the same, vivid.

              Given all this, what reason could there be to see his work as important? The question betrays a certain literary naivety. The shortcomings in Dickens are manifold. Some of his novels are a mess. Yet, as John Lucas argues in his seminal study The Melancholy Man, in spite of all his failures if Dickens is great it's for what lies at the core of his work. Also, Dickens isn't great for the same reasons as Joyce. Joyce is a master stylist and a linguistic magician but could anyone claim that his work is primarily concerned to show great understanding of the social movements of his time? Feydeau is a great dramatist, but not for the same reasons as Arthur Miller. Apollinaire is a great poet, but not for the same reasons as Emily Dickinson. If there is a case that Houellebecq's work deserves to be taken seriously, what is it? How can we weigh what might be positive in his novels against their obvious weaknesses?

              If Dickens is a great novelist, despite all his failures, isn't it because he found a way to write novelistically about the social movements of his age? He may even be the best novelist in English in that respect. Certainly, he penetrated to the essence of the social conflicts of his time, to the values that underpinned them, to the false ideas, the real hopes. If John Lucas is right though, Martin Chuzzlewit is a teenager's bedroom of a novel. Yet with greatness at its heart. Can we find something in Houellebecq which rescues his reputation from the accusation that he is nothing but a perverted mess of a writer?

              If Houellebecq is a writer worth reading might it not be because he may have spotted what is happening in our culture earlier than most and found a way to realize it in novels? What has he spotted? If he's right, the values of our culture have imploded. We are in a cultural and historical black hole. This doesn't amount to originality of course. It has been pointed out in many places that the maps on which we relied to find a path through history no longer show us our terrain. Yet has anyone else written novels in which, in addition to the characters suffering from this radial disorientation, the very form of narration emerges from it? It has been said of Houellebecq that he is back from the dead and telling us what it's like. Is he just a literary slob, a moron, a vandal, a glib fantasist who toys with his readers? Might it not be that he's found a means to render in fiction how it feels to be part of a culture that is systematically destroying itself in pursuit of its manic dreams? Cultures have destroyed themselves before. Yet they have never had science to help quite like today. There have never before existed such powerful means with such apparent confusion about how to put them to use.

                     If mind is a product of culture, what happens to the mind when culture renounces all its subtler needs? When Flaubert tried to answer this, he was thrown back onto impassibilite. His angle of narration is as dispassionate as he can make it. Even his pity is stern. Houellebecq's angle is similar. He is disturbingly unable to find much that redeems most of his characters. There is a moment in Atomised when Cohen, the Housemaster asserts his authority as an adult to face down the bullies who torment Bruno. The narration assumes a tone of admiration. In the same way, when Serge Clement for once shows himself capable of adult authority, the narration implicitly praises him. An adult willing to stand against a child's blind narcissism stands alone. Appeal to anything but one's own principle makes a transparent coward. No child will respond with respect to that. Adult authority exacts a terrible price: separation from what you have brought into the world and what you love most. If Houellebecq perceptibly rises in tone when he writes of this, isn't it because he loathes the cowardly narcissism of the adult world in contemporary society? These brief moments in which adults accept the awful loneliness of responsible parenthood are displaced in his novels by the infantilism of minds which struggle violently against the fact of separation.

             The culprit is sex. Intimacy demands, at the very least, a recognition of the other as other. The polymorphous perversity Houellebecq depicts requires only physically post-pubertal bodies. " Sex", wrote Kundera, " is the territory love maps out for itself." It doesn’t hold in reverse. Love is not the territory sex maps out for itself. The prod of sexual desire persists whether or not you're in love. The fantasy of sex set free of intimacy results in the depersonalised body-using of the partouse.           

" The use of sex in marketing and the resulting breakdown of the traditional couple....." 

This shorthand is one aspect of Houellebecq's style some readers rebel against. This example comes early in Atomised, when Bruno Clement's opportunistic foray into cosmetic surgery is being outlined. The statement falls outside fiction. It's too sweeping. It's one of Houellebeqc's infuriating and dangerous strategies. Deliberately provocative, it takes an idea that needs book-length elaboration and states it almost as fact. Even if Houellebecq is wildly wrong, there is no doubt about the two facts he conjoins: sex is used in marketing and the traditional couple can no longer be taken for granted. 

" Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared......"

This from the prologue to Atomised, diagnosing the malaise of the late twentieth century. Can it be so? Can such feelings disappear? Behind Houellebecq's narration is a conception of human nature drawn, partly, from his compulsive reading of science. To put it reductively: there is no intelligent intention behind the universe; human beings are a product of natural selection; natural selection is an imperfect and blind process; we are bom with consciousness but mind is product of history; we are endowed with a multiplicity of often conflicting instincts; which instincts prevail depends on the historical choices we make; contemporary western culture exploits and in so doing elevates the basest impulses of human nature and in consequence systematically destroys restrained, civilized values.

              In Atomised, the collapse of these values is explored through the lives of the half-brothers Bruno and Michel. They are both products of atrociously bad parenting. Bad parenting is nothing new, but it was given a boost by the superficial values of the sixties in which self-indulgence was mistaken for personal freedom. Houellebecq is often said to be neo-reac (a new reactionary ) because of his criticism of the putative radicalism of the sixties. This is akin to reading Le Misanthrope as an attack on genuine religious faith. The half-brothers' mother, Janine, is highly intelligent but emotionally shallow. She goes through with her first pregnancy because: maternity was something every woman should experience. Janine, in other words, treats life as a hippy party. Everything exists to be experimented with. Nothing must make demands which go beyond the needs of a childish ego. Parenting, of course, is the highest expression of the sexual instinct. That Janine can think of it as nothing more than another experience speaks of her alienation from the facts of being human. Inevitably, she abandons her children.

             The degraded, regressed, glib sex of Atomised is the reverse of this coin of refusal of demands. Contrary to the critical view that Houellebecq plies his perverse fantasies , within the structure of Atomised, it's dear that self-indulgent sex is criticised and, implicitly, responsible parenthood advanced as an inherent value . We have children or human life ends. Children are bom dependent and mature slowly. Parents have to make significant sacrifices in order to bring up their children. These are the facts, the commercialization of sex and the hippy pursuit of personal freedom notwithstanding.

           The observation that, When you think about it, sex has to be a corrupting influence, comes during's Bruno's confession to his half-brother. It isn't elaborated . Within the structure of the book, both that of its narrative and its ideas (some English readers may find the book off-putting because of its philosophical asides - commonplace for French readers, Bourget having made a habit of exploring ideas through fiction, the late nineteenth century French novel being partly characterised by the practice and, of course, Sartre making philosophical speculation central to his fiction ) sex is portrayed as a corrupting influence because commercialised and divorced from tenderness. There is a narratorial intervention relating to Bruno's adolescent experience of rejection by Caroline Yessayan: Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so difficult to give up hope. Annoying it may be. Somewhat sententious too. Yet it grants the need for love a deeper source in human nature than the need for sexual satisfaction: It was the simple desire to reach out and touch someone. It's hard to reject as mere indulgent pornography a book which gives greater value to tenderness than to seduction.

              Houellebecq's exploration of degraded sex leads some readers to conclude he's its proponent. An honest reading of the novel makes such a conclusion difficult. Bruno's descent into breakdown is prefigured early. His compulsive pursuit of joyless sex is part of what destroys him. Yet Houellebecq is careful not to exaggerate. Even Bruno does get some intense pleasure from sex. The intense pleasure of sex, however, is depicted as less sustaining than intimacy. One of the book's major themes is the modem inability to accept the fact of ageing. In the second half of life, the intense pleasure of sex becomes less valued. A culture which makes a cult of the beauty and energy of youth gives people little to hold onto as old age approaches. Intimacy, with its overtones of setting store by the emotional, moral, intellectual and imaginative, endures when the physical wanes. Both Bruno and Michel have failed in intimacy. The structure of the novel proposes this as a tragic failure for which no amount of casual sex can compensate.

              Houellebecq takes pains to stress the devastating consequences of poor parenting. In one of the scientific asides which refer obliquely to Michel's excessively mechanistic world view, he notes that even rats exhibit disturbed adult behaviour, especially sexually, if deprived of contact with their mothers. Atomised is crucially about the distinction between need and desire. Children need reliable parenting. If this is incompatible with a doctrine of personal fulfilment for adults, which should give way? Bruno is a failed parent even though he loves his son: I love that kid more than anything in the whole world, but I've never been able to acknowledge him. Wherein lies the distinction between the love and the acknowledgement? Surely in Bruno's excessive egotism, his narcissistic compensation for his own appalling upbringing. The novel suggests that Brunos are legion. The unleashing of desire through post-war consumerism has diminished the sense of obligation which holds people together. Without it we become monads, atoms, bouncing into one another but never truly meeting. The demands of intimacy exceed us but casual, degraded or exploitative sex suits both our superficiality and our fear of commitment. Bruno's act of sexual predatoriness towards one of the fifteen-year-old girls in his care expresses something essential about contemporary sexuality: dirty old men preying on girls sexualised too early.

              It's often objected that Houellebecq has a negative attitude to women. This is what he has Michel reflect: women were indisputably better than men. They were gentler, more affectionate, more loving and more compassionate, they were rarely violent, selfish, cruel or self-centred. Moreover, they were more rational, more intelligent and more hard-working. Would a deeply misogynistic writer incorporate such a view into his narrative? Women are often killed in Houellebecq's fiction. They are victims, and usually of male violence.

             It might be worth making a point, finally, about style. Houellebecq is a master of style indirect libre. French readers are perhaps more at ease with this than the English. Ever since Flaubert, it has been fundamental. Madame Bovary is a turning point in the European novel. Its manner of narration raises Bathes's famous question: Qui parle? To Houellebecq, style indirect libre is second nature. The thoughts, feelings, reflections, speculations, confusions, lucidities of his characters are integrated into the narrative. Is this the narrator speaking, the character or both? Logically, of course, the author is outside the novel. The author's consciousness organizes and must be sought in the structure of the work. Perhaps some English readers, less familiar with style indirect libre than the French, at times confuse a character's thoughts and feelings with those of the narrator and, by extension, those of the author. This is a dangerous mistake. Houellebecq, like Flaubert, conceals himself in order the better to permit the novel to speak. Does Flaubert share the romantic illusions and exorbitant expectations of Emma Bovary? Or does he ironise them? Does Houellebecq share the degraded sexual fantasies of Bruno and the cold mechanistic world-view of Michel, or does he ironise them? Does Flaubert valorise or mock the society which produces Emma? Does Houellebecq valorise or spike the society which produces Bruno and Michel? These are questions worth keeping in mind.