White Swan LBC
Date: Sunday 13th May 2012
Address: Swan Street, Leeds
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@Wanadapops the Magnificent very kindly stepped up to the plate for me (wow – a sports metaphor – where did that come from?) and hosted this book club. She’s produced a hilarious and thought provoking write up! Thanks very much oh wonderful one!
THE BLURB (from GoodReads)
Half-brothers Michel and Bruno have a mother in common but little else. Michel is a molecular biologist, a thinker and idealist, a man with no erotic life to speak of and little in the way of human society. Bruno, by contrast, is a libertine, though more in theory than in practice, his endless lust being all too rarely reciprocated. Both are symptomatic members of our atomised society, where religion has given way to shallow ‘new age’ philosophies and love to meaningless sexual connections.
Atomised tells the stories of the two brothers, but the real subject of the novel is the dismantling of contemporary society and its assumptions, its political incorrectness, and its caustic and penetrating asides on everything from anthropology to the problem pages of girls’ magazines.
So Avid Reader took a well earned rest from one of the four hundred book clubs she runs and went to a SF convention in London. I stepped in to gather the comments from the #WSwanLBC gang, and tried my best to pose all the questions she normally would, but in much, much more of a low brow way. And no, despite requests, I didn’t do it in an Irish accent.LBC – I’M GLAD TO HEAR IT
Atomised was Stuart’s choice. He hadn’t read it before but had heard a great deal about it. He said he wasn’t expecting people to like it, but thought it would make a good discussion.
And that it did!
‘The Elementary Particles’ – known in the UK as Atomised – is a French book which was published in 1998 and translated in 2000. The philosophical debate it raises showed it to be more classically European than English. I felt incredibly French during our discussions and probably should have smoked for full effect, but I don’t, so wine had to do.
We kicked off our chat by talking about the metaphysical ages which have changed our society, as the book discusses the effect of Christianity and the Sexual Revolution on the way we live our lives. We noted that had the book been written just a little later, and taken into account the impact of the internet, it may have been very different, or viewed very different at least.
I think the book feels older than it is, but that will be down to the way the story is told. It is narrated from the point of view of a post human species, looking back in time. This future historian casts an eye over the late 20th Century and how one of the main characters Michel changed society with his scientific and ideological breakthroughs. We are only introduced to the ‘new world’ during the book’s prologue and epilogue. If you didn’t read the prologue, the epilogue appears as quite a twist. Actually, even if you did read the prologue it probably would, as in the mean time you become brainwashed by the themes in the main part of the book – sex, death, race, ageing, family and rejection. Sounds like fun, no?
The main characters are two half brothers Michel and Bruno. They are complete opposites with extreme personalities, connected only by their fractured childhoods and have adjusted poorly to adult life. Their free-spirited ‘hippy’ mother Janine went travelling and left both sons to be brought up by their paternal Grandmother (Michel) and sent to boarding school (Bruno) as she lived a bohemian life travelling. This situation relates to Houellebecq’s own strained relationship with his mother – who fell out over this book in a very public way, even resulting in her publishing a book in response to the way she was portrayed in this book, albeit in the guise of fiction. Scandal – brilliant!
Michel is a respected scientist, thinker and incredibly cold and distant. He is described at one point as “the saddest man I have ever met”. He is almost inhuman with his emotionless state. On the flip side, Bruno – grubby, grubby Bruno – a seedy, pathetic and creative but shamed teacher, is almost inhumane with his crass and soulless pursuit of sexual gratification and total lack of empathy for others. Where Michel appears to have virtually no sex drive at all, Bruno is obsessed, but most of the time he’s sexually frustrated. It is ironic and unfortunate that Michel attracts girls he is not interested in and Bruno repels the ones he is.
The story follows them going through their lives having awkward relationships and sad experiences with death. Bruno self destructs in a very public way whereas Michel’s breakdown is on a much more private level.
Because of their personality traits, Bruno comes across as a much more rounded character – he has been brought to life, warts and all, leaving Michel left looking entirely humourless and comparatively dead on the inside. Some of the group found Bruno to be funny and honest when dealing with taboo subject matter. His attempts at pulling at the nudist camp, his meltdown at his mother’s deathbed and his ridiculous random spouting about South America made for a few moments of light relief amongst the highly anatomical descriptions of everyone’s genitalia, and repetitive paragraphs of pretentious science and philosophy.
Yes, really. We learn early on in the book that Bruno suffered abuse at Boarding school and this along with the rejection both siblings felt as they were growing up did evoke sympathy.
I understood why they were angry against society… but it didn’t make them likeable characters in my eyes. Looking back you can see that they are portrayed as examples of what is wrong with the world, building the case for the book’s conclusion.
The nihilism appeared to wane slightly as Bruno and Michel grow older and we sense a glimpse of hope for love as they seem to settle with partners Christiane and Annabelle – the girl who Michel rejected in his youth. The hope doesn’t last for long however.
The female characters in the book were disappointingly portrayed and just as tragic at the brothers, with everyone from their Grandmothers, mother Janine, and Christiane and Annabelle ending up meeting a sad demise, with very little joy entering their lives at all.
Modern women like the ‘too beautiful’ Annabelle are criticised with wanting a romantic life instead of having realistic expectations. It felt like if the female characters were unable to fulfil the roles of sexual partner or mother, then they were of no value. Men did get some blame in the book for the way society was evolving, but it was also suggested that men are more hard done by as they get older.
The cover blurb says: “Very moving, glorious extravagantly filthy and very funny.” So it sounded like my kind of book! Oh but it wasn’t. It’s a cult and controversial novel. The story rages against the ‘emptiness of modern life’ as Houellebecq sees it. The picture he paints is bleak and I’m glad I don’t have this loveless outlook on life.
It was a fairly easy read and about the right length – perhaps because I glazed over during the paragraphs on philosophy dispersed randomly throughout. I found it hard to warm to the characters at all, and the grimly mechanical, saggy sex scenes combined with the message that ‘society is doomed’ really brought me down. It’s full of sex, but it makes you think of it in terms of a humiliating bodily function rather than an erotic way *sad face*.
I didn’t predict the sci-fi ending – it’s one of those that makes you want to look back over the book and view it all in a new light. Except I didn’t want to look at the book any more so just went “Whaaaat? Oh” and moved on. The creation of an asexual race with cloning replacing reproduction seemed like a very sad future to me. I’d much rather the reckless free love please, if I had to make the choice. Others found the ending and promise of a brighter future quite uplifting, and thought that it showed an understanding of suicide – fitting really as everyone seemed to be doing it.
I know this book appealed to a lot of people, and I can appreciate why it did, but I couldn’t say that I ‘liked’ it. I wouldn’t tell people not to read it, but I definitely won’t be reading it again. I like the fact that it won the Prix Décembre Book Prize and the founder of this prize resigned because of this decision!
If I was to summarise it in 3 words, they would be: Pretentious, Depressing, and Misogynistic. Alternatively a ‘Load Of Wank’.
Score – 6/10