Naked truths at an orgy of recrimination

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq, trans Frank Wynne (Heinemann, £12.99, 379pp)
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The Independent Culture

Michel Houellebecq's first, bilious novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, was wearily translated here as Whatever. A study of despair among the computer-programming classes, set among suburban science parks and small-town disco-bars, it was distinguished not only by an unwarranted attack on the mayor of Rouen, but by theories of the free market in sex (to those that have shall be given) and a vaguely dangerous suggestion of racism.

For the first time in decades, the contemporary French landscape as it actually appeared was being captured in fiction. Only the most astute reader, however, would have anticipated the sheer audacity of its successor, Les particules élémentaires. To start with, Atomised is narrated in the distant future by a member of a fabulous super-race that has superseded humankind following a kind of paradigm shift generated by the work of the biologist Michel Djerzinski, whose story the novel purports to be. It is his story, and also that of his half-brother Bruno, set in the context of the sexual liberation of the past 50 years.

Houellebecq clearly has scores to settle, with the class of '68 in general, and perhaps closer to home. The boys' mother, Janine, has "danced to bebop at the Tabou with Jean-Paul Sartre" and enjoyed to the full the freshly-won pleasures of postwar Paris before meeting Bruno's father, a plastic surgeon. Bruno is born in 1956.

"The couple quickly realised that the burden of caring for a small child was incompatible with their personal freedom." Michel is born two years later, after his mother has taken up with a film-maker and moved to a stoned Mediterranean commune. The scene in which three-year-old Michel is discovered whimpering, smeared with his own excrement, is so wrenchingly terrible I could hardly bear to return to it.

Both boys are brought up by grandmothers, and, as sex shops and topless beaches proliferate, Bruno and Michel grow up in complementary ways. Michel, the scientist, is impassive, untroubled by libido. While he enjoys a chaste friendship with classmate Annabelle, Bruno, desperate for love and a loser in the sexual free market, becomes a seasoned masturbator, leering over schoolgirls on public transport. With a certain inevitability, he becomes a schoolteacher.

The early chapters have a stoic melancholy that is very moving. In the second part the mood changes abruptly. Bruno has decided to try his luck at a New Age campsite, a place of rebirthing, Gestalt therapy and abundant nudity: "two women to every man, he was in with a chance". Some hope.

Atomised now becomes gloriously, extravagantly filthy, and often very funny. Bruno produces confident and alarming sideswipes at, among others, homosexuals (all pederasts), black people (in inverted commas, sort of), the Brazilian nation, people with paunches, Salman Rushdie and German Rosicrucians. Indeed, he receives encouragement from the (real-life) author Philippe Sollers: '"It's obvious you're a real racist. That's good, it really carries the piece. Well done!"' Women, "indisputably better than men", are let off the hook.

We are deftly guided through various manifestations of the French orgy, from a study of group-sex etiquette on the beaches of Languedoc to a gruelling account of the notorious échangiste clubs of Paris. Much of this could have sprung from the overheated imagination of a 13-year-old. But through an ingenious sleight-of-hand, Houellebecq introduces tender narratives that convincingly suggest the possibility of love. Bruno will end up losing his job and consigning himself to a mental hospital. But Michel will spark the intellectual achievement that leads to the transcendence of humankind.

Unhealthy and haunting, rich and provocative, Atomised astonishes both as a novel of ideas and as the portrait of a society - a humanity -that has lost its ability to connect. Frank Wynne's translation is sharp and lively, vividly capturing both the novel's patient dejection and its gleeful obscenity.

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